Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching
(1 Tim 5:17)
Return to Leadership
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
My term as elder began in January 2003 when Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) ordained me and I was elected as clerk of session, a leadership position. As clerk, I worked closely with the pastor to set agendas for the session and congregational meetings, and kept the official notes on all meetings.
Pastor Rob encouraged the elders to deepen their faith and to become more involved in the life of the church. He encouraged us involved dedicating the first half-hour of our meetings to study and prayer. The first book that we used in this effort was Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership, which served to make the point that elders were more than merely the board of directors of the church. Session soon became my first small group.
Pastor Rob also encouraged us was to become more involved in the life of the church through preaching and teaching. In the spring, our associate pastor resigned and Pastor Rob asked that elders to offer personal testimonies on Sunday morning to give him some time off.
At first, I avoided the question, but after thinking about it, I told him:
I am uncomfortable giving a personal testimonial, but if you want, I will preach for you. I am used to teaching college students so it should be no problem to preach.
He agreed and shared a book, Communicating for a Change, with me by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones to help me get started. Over the next year, I preached four times on the call to faith and ministry, the problem of pain, the Book of Esther, and the covenants of law and grace.
The following year, I taught my first adult Sunday school class, a video series crafted around R.C. Sproul’s book: Reason to Believe. We had more than twenty adults who attended the class and, because of the success of the class, I was encouraged to teach Bible studies, starting with the Book of Romans in 2005. After that I taught Luke, Genesis, Hebrews, Philippians, and Matthew.
After a point in teaching, I got frustrated by the poor attendance on Sunday mornings. I thought: “Where are the elders? Where are the deacons?” When I looked around the room, I realized that only one or two in a class of a dozen were even church members. My class consisted primarily of family members, colleagues from work, and active, non-members who wandered in. These were people who, like myself, struggled to understand their faith and chided at the usual pat answers.
Sanders, J. Oswald. 1994. Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. Chicago: Moody Press.
Sproul, R.C. 1982. Reason to Believe: A Response to Common Objectives to Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Stanley, Andy and Lane Jones. 2006. Communicating for a Change. Colorado Springs: Multinomah Books.
At the end of my summer in Puerto Rico, it became increasingly obvious that I had completed my work. I still lacked a thesis subject, but I had reams of statistical data which could be better analyzed at Cornell University than at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Rio Piedras where I worked during the summer. So I contemplated leaving the island earlier than planned which opened up an unexpected opportunity.
My parents had a twenty-fifth anniversary on September 13th, 1977 but because my siblings were still in school, they planned to celebrate in late August in Oskaloosa, Iowa at Central Reformed Church where they had been married. Leaving Puerto Rico early offered the opportunity for me to attend their anniversary celebration after I had earlier sent my regrets.
Because I knew that my uncle Hubert, who was actually my grandfather’s cousin, had to drive south from Clarion, Iowa through Des Moines, I wrote him and asked him to pick me up at the Des Moines airport to make my attendance at the anniversary a complete surprise. It would also mean that we could spend an hour and a half catching up on each other’s activities. Hubert was active in Iowa politics and always wanted to hear my take on events.
When we arrived in Oskaloosa, Hubert parked on the street south of the church and we walked down the steps into fellowship hall. Just by chance, my father walked up those same steps without recognizing me, because I was supposed to be in Puerto Rico. However, close behind him came my mother who immediately burst into tears when she saw me.
So often in ministry, we hear about people suffering anniversaries, which mark the death of a loved one or some other tragedy. Equally important are the joyous anniversaries where we remember to honor our relationships and celebrate the blessings of this life, even if it involves a bit of travel.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
After I confessed my faith in Christ and joined the church in 1967, I participated more actively in church youth programs, sang in the youth choir, and pledged money to the church, as was expected of young Christian men. My first attempts at evangelism and living out my faith could be described as spotty at best.
I knew a fellow by the name of Jimmy, who might today be referred to as having special needs. Jimmy only had a few friends and, when he heard that I was learning to play piano, he expressed interest in learning to play and I volunteered to teach him one day after school. Thinking that Christians should be really nice to people, helping him learn piano seemed like the right thing to do.
When Jimmy came over after school, my mother welcomed him in but she awkwardly asked: “Is Jimmy one of your friends?” Jimmy and I went straight to the piano where I taught him a few notes and how to play a C major scale. We spent about half an hour before he left and went home. Thinking about my mother’s question, I never invited him back.
By contrast, my mother really liked David, who lived two doors down from us. David was tall and thin and quiet and always at home. His father was a popular local pastor, who was a ham radio operator, and his mother, who was as sweet as the snacks that she offered up. David and I traded baseball cards, marbles, and stamps, but he never seemed interested in playing games with the other kids in the neighborhood and expressed little interest in chess. So, I was “nice” to David, but we were not close.
It was never exactly clear what it meant to live out Christine values at home, other than “honor your father and mother” (Exod 20:12). Because I grew the oldest among my siblings and was already more comfortable with adults, this commandment came easy, but I associated this commandment with obeying my parents, not with their later care. Sometimes in the evening I sat with my father in his study as he worked and read or did my homework. Other times I helped him with yard work, like cutting the grass, or washing the car. I also helped the neighbors with gardening or shoveling their snow, which I continued to do even in high school. When I left for college, my father traded in the old push mower for a gasoline model.
Until I was about 8 years old, my sister, Diane, was my closest friend. Growing up, we moved around a bit because my father was in still in graduate school. Diane and I played hide and seek. Diane and I learned to eat ice cream from cones. Diane and I celebrated birthdays—I will never forget Diane’s expression on viewing a pink rabbit cake that my mother baked when she was about two. When we got older, we sometimes watched television or played board games together at home and attended youth events and choir together at church. Although we were never chatty, Diane was my first friend.
Diane preferred doing girl things, like playing with dolls, while I did boy things, like collecting coins, stamps, and bugs, and building forts in the woods. Diane played more typically with Karen, while John, being still a tot when I was young, played mostly with Karen. This pattern continued uninterrupted over many years.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Our girls arrived only sixteen months apart which meant that they remained close and competitive. When Stephen Reza arrived sixteen months after Marjolijn, the pattern continued. More than siblings, our kids remained inseparable, best friends.
They all spoke Farsi making it possible to have private conversations out in front of most anyone, including dad. Maryam, who insisted that the kids call her Maryam rather than mom or mother, leaned into the development of this private world and encouraged a skeptical view of anyone outside the family. At first, I enjoyed the family intimacy, but over time I realized that this tribal closeness fostered co-dependencies within the family and often hindered healthy relationships with others outside the family.
Later, when the youth group at church grew large enough to have both a middle school and high school group, the youth group leaders insisted that Christine and Narsis needed to attend the senior high school group and Reza stay with the middles school group. The kids complained and I visited with the leaders, but they refused any accommodation to my kids’ desire to stay together. At that point, the kids rebelled refusing to attend the youth group and Maryam supported their decision. This fiasco left the kids with no meaningful attachment to the church, a situation never reversed in spite of many attempts on my part.
Here at the point of connection between a close-knit family and my community of faith, I confronted a dilemma that cut to the core of who I was. The dream that I had held since I was a child of an integrated life—a new kaffietijd, a new Sabbath—remained just out of reach because I lacked the faith and the skills to foster it. I had to learn to plant seeds and trust that God would bring the growth, but was I ready?
When Maryam and I were married in November 1984, I worked during the day at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in the evenings on my dissertation. Having limited time and a limited budget, I did not have a television and did not want one, having been a television addict as a kid. Although I enjoyed watching the evening news, I preferred to maintain the ascetic lifestyle that I had had in school. Maryam could not understand my concern about television and her brother gave us a television as a wedding gift.
While many Americans see Iranians through the eyes of Islamic asceticism, the role of Islam in Iranian culture changed dramatically with the ouster of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi , on January 16, 1979 during the Iranian Revolution. Earlier in the 1960s, the Shah promoted land reform and began a series of economic and social reforms. By the time of the Revolution, Iran had developed what some have described as a “Hollywood culture,” which reflected the strong influence on American entertainers on Iranian culture. For Iranians who grew up during in pre-revolutionary Iranian and later came to the United States to study, this “Hollywood culture” remains a strong influence and a symbol of resistance to the Islamic fundamentalism, both inside and outside the country, especially for young women.
Maryam loves to watch television and once said: “when I die, I want to be buried with the television remote in my hand.” When she would say this, I would remind her: “Don’t worry. The Hiemstra burial plot sits right next to Lewinsville Presbyterian Church so you can go to church every day!” The attitude about television, which I tried to keep out of the house when we were first married, grew to become the symbol of the cultural divide in our family.
Much later, television interfered with the kid’s bedtime routines. Maryam loved to stay up late watching television and insisted that the kids watch with her. As an early riser, I insisted that the kids needed to go to bed before the adults and that it helped to have the television turned off to keep a disciplined routine. Although I normally managed the bedtime routine when the kids remained young, this routine provided impossible to maintain when the kids reached middle school and mom did not maintain a united front with dad.
But early in our marriage television played a simpler role. When her mother lived with us, we watched Iranian cable television shows in Farsi. When Iranian entertainers came on, we knew them all by name. We would both snap our fingers Iranian style with two hands to keep up with the music. Later when her mother left, Maryam gravitated to shows like Entertainment Tonight, which focus on celebrity lifestyles, Married with Children, and, later, CSI-style shows. Sometimes I sit and watch with her on Sunday evenings, but in the early days of our marriage I remained too busy evenings to watch much television.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5)
My father, which I sometimes introduce as the other Stephen Hiemstra, was born on April 17, 1931 during the Great Depression. He grew up on a small, feed-livestock farm in southern Iowa and attended college, in part, under the GI Bill.
His education followed a series of apparently serendipitous decisions, which, in fact, allowed the family to prosper during the normally traumatic move from rural to urban employment. Dad was one of the first in his extended family to attend college and our end of the family prospered more than most. God’s hand is clearly on him.
Although Dad was one of the first in the Hiemstra family to attend college, he was not the last. Dad firmly believes in education. He made sure that each of his children made it through college and two of us, John and I, have completed doctoral studies. Between Dad, his brother John, my brother John, and I, there are four of us in the extended family with doctoral degrees. We are truly blessed.
Dad worked for the federal government during a formative period, beginning in late Eisenhower Administration through the early Reagan Administration, when belief in the positive contribution that government could make was at an historical peak. President John F. Kennedy set the tone for this golden age of government service in his inaugural address when he chided Americans to: “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
Dad took up this challenge with vigor and passion. Not only did he strenuously pursue his work writing voluminous numbers of studies and professional papers, Dad was active in professional societies and often took a leadership role and won awards for his work.
Because I followed Dad into a career in agricultural economics, many of the professionals mentioned in his memoir are my own personal friends and colleagues. Early in my career, this posed something of an embarrassment as I worked to distinguish myself from my father. This was a vain effort. Everywhere I went at home and abroad, I ran into friends of my father.
During my year abroad studying in Germany, for example, I felt that I had finally escaped the shadow of my father—I was so wrong. One evening, for example, I attended a doctoral celebration party and in the middle of it the department chair walked up to me and invited me to dinner—he apparently was doctoral candidate with Dad at the University of Berkeley in California. At another point, I helped a couple of random American tourists order dinner in a restaurant only to learn that the husband was an agricultural economist from Oregon State University and a friend of my father. Another time when a colleague asked if I had authored a journal article in 1963, I joked: “didn’t you know that I was a child prodigy agricultural economist?” The article was, of course, one of my father’s publications.
Now that the need to distinguish my career from my Dad’s has subsided it is easier to appreciate the broad scope of his contribution to agricultural economics, particularly in the areas of food consumption, demand, and distribution studies.
In 1983 Dad retired from federal service and joined the faculty of what is now the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue University as associate professor on August 17, 1983. He taught classes such as marketing and strategic management, but also undertook research and consulting for numerous institutes and firms in the hotel and restaurant industries. He traveled, for example, on lengthy study trips to Liberia and Hong Kong during these years.
Dad was best known at Purdue University for starting the first doctoral program (anywhere) in the field of hospitality and tourism management in 1989. His first three students are now faculty members and the program that he started now has 30 doctoral students and is a leading program in the field.
The role of Dad’s Christian faith in his life experience has always been important, even if his memoir makes only occasional references. The church has traditionally taught personal disciple, commitment in marriage, and generosity in giving which are all evident in my father’s life. Dad was a good role model to the rest of us who benefited from his faith and devotion to Christ. He also served a number of churches as elder and in other roles.
More than his church work, however, Dad—introduced once as the “father of the WIC program”—took seriously the concept that God is the creator of all creation and all knowledge is God’s knowledge. His work as an economist was a calling, not just a career. As the Prophet Jeremiah wrote of his own calling:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5)
Dad’s call came early, even before he was aware of it himself. A prophetic call is not necessarily just to preach and teach—we only know of Jeremiah because of his writing. For Jesus’ own brother, James, wrote:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Jas 1:27)
He was most proud of his contribution to USDA’s food and nutrition programs, which provided food to needy families (primarily single moms with kids) throughout the United States and territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam, where the need was especially urgent.
Hiemstra, Stephen J. 2016. My Travel Through Life. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.
 I abstracted this reflection from a postscript that I wrote for my father’s own memoir. See: Hiemstra (2016).
 During his federal service the principal groups were the American Agricultural Economics Association, the American Economic Association, and the Society of Government Economists. During his time at Purdue University, Dad was heavily involved in the International Council of Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Educators (CHRIE).
 The USDA has a feeding program for pregnant women called: women, infants, and children (WIC).
The scientific method is a learning method that led to many discoveries about the physical world that have defined the modern period. Discoveries in agricultural production, medicine, and manufacturing have alleviated hunger and poverty, and have extended the life expectancy of the vast majority of people since the early nineteenth century. These discoveries has so dramatically improved the lives of modern and postmodern people that claims about the method have pervaded virtually all aspects of our lives. While almost no one discounts the usefulness of the method, the spillover of rational thinking into other aspects of life helped accelerate exploration of limits to its usefulness.
In its simplest exposition, the scientific method consists of series of steps in analytical thinking:
In the problem definition step, the researcher forms an hypothesis. The researcher then proceeds to collect observations about this hypothesis in the second step. In the third step, the researcher analyzes these observations in view of other discoveries. In the final step, the researcher decides whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.
The flexibility of the scientific method to be applied to many aspects of the physical world accounts for its enormous usefulness. As researchers make new discoveries, they publish their finding so that other researchers can replicate their results. Thus, over time the knowledge of the physical world grows and is decimated throughout the scientific community and applied to practical applications in agriculture, industry, and medicine.
For many years, people believed that using the scientific method did not involve philosophical prejudices, but simply revealed facts about our world. This belief, however, came increasingly under scrutiny as researchers began to apply the scientific method especially in the social sciences. Scrutiny gave way to outcry during the Second World War as people learned of German scientists performing inhuman experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, such as learning the minimum nutritional requirements to prevent starvation, cold water survival rates, and so on. It soon became more widely understood that which problems came into focus in research involved serious philosophical and theological presumptions that had previously not gotten much attention.
One particularly important presupposition in the modern period and in the scientific method had to do with the nature of truth. Arising out of the Christian worldview came the assumption that one objective truth exists which, if we take the time to research, we can discover. This assumption is reasonable in the physical sciences; it is less tenable in the realm of social science, where cultural assumptions often dictate how particular activities are judged. For example, we can all agree on the weight of a particular bucket of sand, but we may not agree on whether to eat pork or whether it is acceptable to charge interest on a loan.
The existence of objective truth may sound like a trivial issue, but it becomes important in determining the status of professionals, such as scientists, doctors, lawyer, economists, and even pastors. If one objective truth exists, then it makes sense to consult the professional responsible for that subject matter. If truth is socially defined as is often argued in the postmodern period, then it is less clear which professional is most appropriate or whether a professional is even needed. In the church, for example, who is most suitable to preach and teach the Bible in which translation and with how much training? The answer to these questions are hotly debated within the church, in part, because we have come to doubt the nature and importance of objective truth.
Why do we care?
In the postmodern world that we live in, rational learning and decision making is still important, but the cynicism surrounding rationality is everywhere to be seen and it affects our attitude about anyone in authority. Prior to the modern period, authority stemmed primarily from wealth and political power in secular society and the church’s authority stemmed from reverence for God. In the modern period in America, authority still stemmed from wealth and political power, but this authority was increasingly tempered by the knowledge-based power of professionals and respect for God waned as rational thinking led many to question God’s existence. In the postmodern period, respect for both God and professionals has waned leading to the rise of authority based primarily on wealth and political power. In effect, if objective truth and God do not exist in people’s minds, then my truth and my group’s truth take center stage.
A second important result of this lack of belief in objective truth is that it undermines, not only professionals, but also respect for democratic and judicial process. On a theoretical level, if objective truth exists, then through debate and argumentation we come closer to understanding this truth, which is embodied in both our democratic and legal systems. If no objective truth is believed to exist, then debate and argumentation are simply a power play that does not enhance the credibility of the decision reached.
Therefore, the losing parties in debate or legal process have no inherent reason to accept the outcome of the process. This is why we observe so many sore losers on the evening news today that previously did not seem even to exist in popular culture. The postmodern rhetoric about the lack of debate in the modern period attributing the peace to an overwhelming majority of Americans being simply white is a half-truth, not the whole truth. Everyone believed in the American system, even when not everyone benefited equally. This why people still prefer to jump over the fence to come to America from other places. One seldom hears of people escaping to join most other, non-western destinations—it is not entirely about the differences in wealth.
While the modern period is clearly over, the challenges and risks that we face remain poorly understood without understanding the role played by the scientific method and objective truth in the world that we continue to live in.
It is common for people to say that they plan to analyze an issue, but what do they really mean? Suppose your professor asks you to analyze an author’s point of view and review his book. Typically, an analysis involves breaking a big idea into the smaller ideas that together compose the big idea.
For example, a book about the history of the United States might be composed of sections describing the period before colonization, the period of colonization, the revolutionary war period, the presidency of George Washington, and so on. The analysis focuses on American history, but the details break that history up into manageable time periods and special events. In fact, one might say that American history is a synthesis of these smaller units that help to explain what it means to be a country called the United States.
Notice that a synthesis is used to compose an aggregation of these parts while an analysis takes the whole and breaks it up into the parts. It is fair, for example, to describe the Bible as a synthesis of the historical revelation of God to humankind. The best minds of the church undertook this synthesis historically and continue even now to affirm the special character of the books chosen. This is why the Apostle Paul could write to Timothy:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV).
Another example of synthesis in our faith walk arises when we employ an ACTS prayer. The first part (A) of the prayer is adoration (or praise). We adore God for his mercy, compassion, patience, love, and truthfulness (Exod 34:6), attributes rare in the world, but which characterize God. Having praised God, in the second part (C) we confess that we are sinful and cannot enter God’s presence, except for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Confession marks us as believers in Christ—an insight gained from analysis of the three verses in Romans 10:8-10. Having praised God and confessed our sins, we then move into the third part (T) where we thank God for the many blessings of this life. Then, in the final part (S), we supplicate—an old-fashioned word for ask—God for his help in our lives. In effect, our synthesis in an ACTS prayer is a short statement of our personal theology.
It is helpful to distinguish analysis from synthesis because both are useful, but in different ways, in organizing and presenting our thoughts clearly. For example, a sermon is typically a synthesis composed by the pastor, for example, while the listener is engaged in more of an analysis of what is being said. If the pastor rambles a few observations about a particular passage of scripture without preparation, then the congregation may find the observations interesting but not be able to draw any serious conclusions, even if they take notes. By contrast, the same observations preceded by an introduction with a statement of premise, separated by restatement of premise, and followed by a conclusion repeating the premise may be understood by everyone in the room.
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons recently underscored the importance of clarity in church preaching and teaching. They write:
“Many Christians worry about secularism taking over, but secularism shouldn’t be our greatest concern. In other words, secularism’s advance is downstream from anemic Bible engagement and thin theological thinking.” (Kinnaman and Lyons 2016, 227).
Because of the Internet, original documents from the time of the Bible and the early church have never been more widely available and the number of competent researchers and pastors has likewise never been greater. So why are so many Christians having trouble applying their faith in everyday situations? Part of the answer is that we need to take ourselves more seriously as researchers and pastors, and communicate our faith clearly.
Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. 2016. Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.
Robinson, Haddon W. 2001. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Sedniew, Andreii. 2013. Magic of Impromptu Speaking: Create a Speech that Will Be Remembered for Years in Under 30 Seconds. Santa Clara: Andreii Sedniev.
 “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Rom 10:8-10 ESV)
 In an impromptu speech, you talk about one idea for a couple minutes, transition to a second idea, then transition to a series of other ideas. Transitions are hugely important to bringing your audience along with you. One way to transition is a synthesis (this idea is a part of a larger class of ideas, as in cups to dishes) or an analysis (this idea can be broken into subclasses of ideas, as in cups to tea cups), which Sedniev calls linguistic pyramids. Another way to transition is to use associations, as in a table and a donkey are similar in that they both have four legs (Sedniev 2013, 32-35).
 This is a brief overview of “big idea” preaching as articulated by Haddon Robinson (2001, 33-46).
“Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
(Rev 3:8 ESV)
Earlier in my preface, I argued that the act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Rational thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride. So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).
So what is rational thinking?
The word, rational, implies that a conclusion comports with reason or logic. Rational thinking is thinking logically while thinking has to do with the work of the mind. Using logic and experience to judge rightly. In this context, rational thinking starts with making reasonable comparisons and associations.
Rational thinking benefits directly from logic, such as mathematics and mathematical relationships. We might argue, for example, that 1+1 = 2 which simply states that adding one to one makes two. Alternatively, we might argue that 1+1+1 > 2 which says that one plus one plus one is greater than two. Simple comparisons, like these two equations, make rational thinking extremely powerful in ordering our thinking and quickly admit substantial complexity.
Rational learning, which is based on comparisons, differs from behavioral learning because we need to stand back from simple responses to stimuli. For example, suppose I am a high school student trying to decide whether to take a full-time job or to enroll in college. From a behavioral learning perspective, the job provides an immediate benefit while college enrollment requires an immediate expense for tuition and living expenses so the obvious decision is to take the job. From a rational learning perspective, the lifetime earnings in the job may be only a small fraction of the lifetime earnings after completing a college degree, even accounting for costs involved so the decision likely is to enroll in college. While both alternatives involve uncertain outcomes, the behavior learning model focuses on short-term costs and benefits, while the rational learning model employs more information than simply immediate costs and benefits.
From a faith perspective, how we learn clearly affects our attitude about our faith, especially when it comes to future events. Think about our attitude about children. When our children are young, they require a lot of expense and attention. Even if they care for you in your senior years, such benefits are far into the future. Considering only the short-term costs and benefits, the behavior learning model suggests that having children is only a present cost, while the rational learning model weighs the current costs against future benefits. The calculation applies to living out our faith today in view of our future life in Christ. The sacrifice of praise on Sunday and of living a moral life the rest of the week has both present and future benefits, but only a rational evaluation sees beyond the sacrifice. Trust in God’s goodness and provision for our needs is also required
If blind response to stimulation leaves the exclusively behavioral learner at risk of addiction and of missing out of benefits preceded by costs, the exclusively rational learner falls prey to analysis paralysis. The rational learner patiently considers all available options, comparing costs and benefits. We all know Christians who get stuck evaluating all their options in life decisions and spend more time studying their faith than living it out. Coming to closure on decisions is frequently a problem for those specialized in rational decision making.
How do we come to closure on decisions? When should options be limited and a decision made?
In my experience, this is an opportunity to pray for God’s guidance. Where the behavioral decision maker needs to focus on developing patience in decision making, the rational decision maker needs to pray for guidance to be satisfied with the doors that God has already placed in front of them.
Ortberg, John . 2015. All the Places to Go—How Will You Know? God has Placed Before You an Open Door: What Will You Do? Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
 Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).
 John Ortberg (2015, 257) sees the opened door is a fitting metaphor for how God invites us to step out in faith and service rather than having us wait for confirmation and comfort. He writes (10): “It’s an open door. To find out what’s on the other side, you’ll have to go through.” This opened door invitation always appears riskier than it really is because of who offers the invitation and for what purpose. The purpose that Ortberg sees is intensely interesting: “God’s primary will for your life is not the achievements you accrue; it’s the person you become.” (15). As God tells Abram: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3; 9, 35). In offering such blessings, God invites us to decide which doors to go through as part of our sanctification (16) and our decisions form our character and mold our identity (8).
In my earlier discussion of perceptions (click here), I argued that we learn to respond behaviorally a long time before any rational decisions are made. Behavioral learning starts with a simple idea: do more of activities that bring pleasure and do less of activities that bring pain. By contrast, rational learning starts with making comparisons: activity A brought more pleasure than activity B so let’s do more of activity A. Such comparison require pattern recognition and memory not required in behavioral learning. Success in implementing rational learning also requires patience.
This simple distinction between behavioral and rational learning lies at the heart of many ethical controversies, because behavioral learning can lead to logical traps. For example, the fish that grabs every tasty worm is likely to end up the fisherman’s dinner. In a study of such traps, Cross and Guyer (1980, 3-4) write:
“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’. Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards. Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.”
Following this line of thinking, the existence of conflicting patterns of rewards and punishments create ethical dilemmas in decisions focusing exclusively on behavioral responses.
For example, the example of short-term benefits followed by long-term costs arises in the case of smoking. The pleasure of smoking a cigarette poses no immediate health risk, while a lifetime of smoking can lead to cancer and early death. In the case of smoking, the short pleasure of cigarettes leads one into a pattern of addiction that would not be chosen, if the entire pattern came into view at the outset. Smoking therefore poses an ethical dilemma because hypothetical future costs must be compared with tangible present benefits, which poses a problem for many people.
A counter example arises when short-term costs are followed by long-term benefits. The classical example is the student who hates to study (a short-term cost) and drops out of school losing a lifetime of additional income. Investment decisions more generally have the characteristic of a short-term cost followed by a long-term benefit.
In both examples, smoking and education, conflicts in patterns of short-term and long-term costs and benefits lead those specialized in behavioral learning into ethical dilemmas that cannot be avoided without considering the entire sequence of costs and benefits. The need to study and learn patterns of costs and benefits involving ethical dilemmas provide the inherent motivation for most ethical teaching and for avoiding an exclusive reliance on behavioral learning.
While trap avoidance motivates ethical teaching, teaching self-discipline (a kind of rational learning) has its own benefits. In the early 1960s, Walter Mischel ran an experiment with pre-schoolers (4 year olds) focused on delayed gratification. The children were given a choice: eat one marshmallow now or, if you wait about twenty minutes, you can have two. Mischel then tracked the performance of the children over time, reporting:
“The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. At age 27-32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool had a lower body mass index and a better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped adaptively with frustration and stress.” (Mischel 2014, 4-5).
In other words, self-discipline is at the heart of achievement as we know it (and predictable even in preschool) and impulsive (behavioral) responses lead to under-achievement. The good news in Mischel’s research concerned how self-discipline could be taught, thereby avoiding a lifetime of under-achievement.
If self-discipline is important in worldly success, then why do so many people continue to live a hedonistic lifestyle, pursuing only happiness and pleasure? The short answer is that we become addicted to dysfunctional behaviors much like we get addicted to cigarettes—knowledge about the likelihood of cancer and an early death is normally insufficient to giving up cigarettes. Worse, industries have profited and grown from encouraging people to indulge their addictions—why else would bootleggers and drug dealers be so popular?
The Good News is that Christ died for our sins so that we don’t have to.
Cross,John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Mischel, Walter. 2014. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York: Little, Brown and Company.