Beyond Default Settings

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

An important struggle for Christians in this postmodern society is striking a balance between structure and change. Structure can mean worshipping with our preferred music, theology,  or ethnic group while change can mean mixing any of these things up. This tension between structure and change exists in all aspects of life today—family, community, church, and work—which exhausts us constantly. Finding peace in the midst of this chaos is a theme in the postmodern church.

Reverting to Default Settings

In the midst of chaos and the absence of reflection, many people and churches naturally revert to their default settings, which reflect a happy period in their past. In the political realm, we see ethnically-based groups forming that resist compromise and shamelessly promote their own narrow interests at the expense of others. In the church, we see spirited food-fights—worship wars—over small changes in musical genre. These default settings are deeply ingrained aspects of our identity that, as Christians, are supposed to be in Christ, not other things. At least, three explanations can be offered for these reversions:

  1. In a period of fundamental change in life in society, we may look for structure in our Christian lives that previously may have vested elsewhere.
  2. If our faith is not centered on Christ but on other things, then the superficiality of our faith has been unmasked for all to see.
  3. It is amazing how often default settings come into play when people act out of fear or anger.

In all likelihood, all of these explanations work together to intensify the emotions driving these reversions.

The Role of Presuppositions

Default settings often operate at a subconscious or presuppositional level. In its simplest form, a presupposition is an implicit, unstated assumption about how things work.

Think about the colors, white and black. We normally associate white with day—safe time when you can see everything— and black with night—a fearful time when crooks and evil spirits are at work. White is often thought to good, as in the good cowboys wear white hats while the bad ones wear black hats. Old movies may have even reinforced these cowboy stereotypes, which may seem harmless until we start talking about race relations.

Because presuppositions operate subconsciously, they can affect our behavior without us even being conscious of it. In my own case, I volunteer working in Hispanic ministry and often practice my Spanish by listening to Spanish Christian music. One summer day several years ago when I was out driving I caught myself becoming anxious having the windows down as I played my music sitting at a traffic light. Why was I anxious? Subconsciously I was afraid that complete strangers would assume that I was Hispanic. Ouch! I instantly became ashamed of myself.

The way to overcome such presuppositions is to examine our own behaviors and ask: why am I doing this? Presuppositions stop influencing our behavior when we take the time to reflect on why we impulsively do things.

Emotional Clues

One area where reflection is likely to be fruitful in understanding our own presuppositions arises when we get emotional. What makes you mad? What touches your heart inducing sadness?

Lester (2007, 14) observes that we get angry when we feel threatened. While we could be angry because of a physical threat, most often we get angry because of psychological threats:  threats to our values, our beliefs about right and wrong, our expectations about the way good people should act. When threatened: The intensity of our response depends on the amount of personal investment we have in the values, beliefs, and means that are being threatened.  Following this “threat model” of anger, our first responsibility when we get angry is to recognize that we feel threatened and to identify the nature of the threat (Lester 2007, 28-29). Anger always has an object.

What can be mystifying is when you find yourself intensely angry or hurt without knowing exactly why, a phenomena known as an emotional hijacking. On reflection, an emotional hijacking may reveal a repressed grief or presupposition that offers rare insight into your emotional history.

During my internship at Providence Hospital, the head nurse in the emergency department asked me to speak with a young woman who miscarried that morning. I ministered to her for about ten minutes before she began ministering to me, as I recalled a un-grieved miscarriage that my wife and I experienced twenty years prior. The feelings were so intense that I broke off my meeting with the woman and spent the next half hour in tears in the chapel.

What Can Christian Leaders Do?

The more we center our lives on Christ, the less likely we are to revert impulsively to default settings. With Christ as our number one priority and consulting God in prayer when questions arise, we are more likely to reflect on our actions and less likely to act impulsively.

Centering our lives on Christ does not mean suddenly giving up our favorite music, revising our theology, or hanging out with people that make us uncomfortable. What it does mean is that we will not act impulsively when reflection is warranted. It is amazing how quickly secondary things become secondary when we take such things to God in prayer.


Lester,Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Beyond Default Settings

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Value Of Life

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