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John Ortberg | Sacred Habits

Pastor John Ortberg discusses the forgotten practice of spiritual disciplines and how biological predispositions affect human character.


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Pastor John Ortberg discusses the forgotten practice of spiritual disciplines and how biological predispositions affect human character.

Description

It is all too easy to fall into the myopic assumption that our faith words are universal, that everyone has a shared understanding of what these words mean. But often this is not the case. Many times our sacred words—words like grace, mercy, wisdom—are painted with different hues on other peoples’ interpretive palates. Author Jonathan Merritt joins Jim on this episode of Language of God to discuss this decay of common meaning—and how to revive it.

  • Originally aired on August 15, 2019
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Ortberg:

Life is not fair. God’s fair, but life is not fair and very clearly when you look at human beings in all kinds of ways in terms of physical abilities and disabilities, cognitive abilities and disabilities, predispositions for addiction, for example, predispositions to have anger problems, huge amounts of this simply have to do with biology that got wired before we were ever even born. And if we do not understand that, we will be subject to frustration and judgmentalism or envy our whole life long.

My name is John Ortberg and I’m pastor at Menlo Church in Menlo Park, California.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump, the vice president at BioLogos and the host of this podcast. We’ve been on hiatus for a few months, and now we’re back with a new set of interviews. If you’re a new listener, we aim to bring you conversations with a wide range of people about topics situated somewhere at the intersection of science and Christian faith.

Today’s topic might be described broadly by the question, what does it mean to be human? On the one hand, the sciences have persuasively shown that we human beings are part of the natural order of things; on the other, it is a fundamental tenet of Christian theology that we were created to inhabit the eternal Kingdom of God. How is it that we are the kind of thing that can be citizens of both these realms, the natural and the spiritual? It doesn’t seem like it is just a sequential thing, since Jesus indicated that he had brought the Kingdom of God among us.

My guest today sees the connection between these two in the practice of spiritual formation: we are right now training to be at home in the Kingdom of God, and this kind of training must take seriously the kind of organisms we are: how habits are formed, what the exercise of the will can accomplish, what it means to have a soul.

John Ortberg is no stranger to science: he has a PhD in psychology, and Menlo Park Church, where he is pastor, has a close connection to science and engineering in the San Francisco Bay area. We talk some at the end about how to communicate the gospel to a science minded congregation. But most of our conversation is about spiritual formation. For this John unapologetically channels his friend and mentor, the late Dallas Willard, who was a very influential figure in the evangelical revival of spiritual formation practices this last generation. 

Of course not everyone will agree with Willard and Ortberg on the theology behind spiritual formation. Different perspectives and the disagreements that come with them are part of what it means to be human. If you’re interested in exercising that part of your humanity by discussing this episode with others, there is a link to our discussion Forum in the show notes. 

But now let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part 1

Stump:

So BioLogos is an organization that’s not afraid of long stretches of time. So let’s go a way back in time to your childhood. What was little Johnny Ortberg like? What kind of family did you come from?

Ortberg:

I grew up in a very Midwest background, Rockford, Illinois. The son of John Ortberg Sr. and Kathy. And I grew up in a church family. So faith was always an important part of our life. And it was also a family where we loved to read. We loved to think. My dad would use math flashcards when we were in the car to entertain us kids sometimes. So it was, you know, I think relatively typical childhood and I enjoyed growing up in Rockford a ton.

Stump:

What a branch of Christian faith did you grow up in?

Ortberg:

White Bread evangelicalism. It was a baptist church, Temple Baptist Church in Rockford, for the most part, and that was part of what was then called the Baptist General Conference. So it would have been just pretty straight forward. I went to college at Wheaton College and that would have been the kind of center of the theological target in which I grew up.

Stump:

And what was the route then to becoming a pastor? Did you always know you wanted to be a pastor growing up?

Ortberg:

No, I did not actually. I was very frustrated because my understanding was that you just ask God to tell you what to do with your life and then he’s supposed to tell you and he never did. And so I thought either I’m praying wrong or he’s not living up to his part of the bargain. I was always interested in theology, also in psychology. Why are people the way that they are? And so I went to Fuller Seminary in California and got a Master in Divinity, but also a PhD in clinical psychology. And over a long period of time—it was really trial and error where I thought I would do therapy. But I started doing therapy and I wasn’t very good at it and people would get worse when they would see me. It’s not a good sign. And at the same time I was working at a church and started to preach and just felt deeply alive when I was doing that. And so my sense of call came over time, indirectly, trial and error. But that was a long time ago and I’m still doing it and very grateful for I am and have a deep sense of God’s guidance in it. But I think God knew that I would grow more if I had to face the anxiety and pressure of making a decision than if I just got a postcard from heaven telling me what to do.

Stump:

So you went on then to Menlo Park where you are the pastor. Tell us a little bit about your church there.

Ortberg:

Yeah. So I have been at Menlo now 15 and a half years. And our original campus and still broadcast campus is just two miles away from Stanford. And so we have other campuses down in San Jose and up as far north as South San Francisco. Stanford has always been a significant connection for the church. But to this day there continues to be a quite close connection. And so the bay area generally and then with that original campus for a long period of time, the importance of the life of the mind, science, engineering has always been a deep part of the DNA of the church.

Stump:

So you talked about going into psychology. Any other sort of sciency things in your background that might incline you toward taking these topics seriously?

Ortberg:

I have always loved to learn. When I was in college I took a class in physics that I thought was quite fascinating. We have three kids and our youngest, our son, Johnny getting a PhD in physics from a UC Santa Cruz. Actually it’s combination physics and surfing. And so we will have a lot of conversations about physics and cosmology and a lot of questions about origins and meaning and understanding and the weirdness of reality when you get down to the level of physics and quantum theory. Really interesting and it’s very fun to learn about that from Johnny. So that’s been one that’s been kind of added farther along.

Stump:

You have written a lot about the soul. What’s a soul?

Ortberg:

I found a philosopher from USC, Dallas Willard, who passed away about five years years ago, was very helpful on a lot of issues as it relates to personhood and faith. And so this came to me through Dallas, although he would have said it was just the general understanding in the ancient world, the soul is not what most people nowadays think. It’s not the immaterial wispy part of you that survives after you die. It’s not that little part of Daffy Duck where after he got killed, rises up in a vapory form over his dead body. The soul was understood, Dallas would say, by ancient folks as the capacity to integrate different separate functions into a single organism, a single creature or a single living being. And so I remember asking Dallas, because it took me a long time to understand, asking him one time, do dogs have souls? Because our dog had just died. And he said yes. And then tongue-in-cheek, cause I’m not a cat person, I asked him do cats have souls? And he said yes. And then he said trees have souls. And I thought that was really weird. And I knew Dallas well enough to know he was not a pantheist. He did not believe that trees are sentient beings who will have eternal lives.

And then he explained in the ancient world, people would look at living beings and they would notice, like a tree has different functions—it can take in nourishment, it has roots, it can grow, it can photosynthesize, it can bear fruit. It has these different functions but they form a single life, a single organism. And so thinkers would call the capacity to integrate different functions into one life, soul. Psuche is the Greek word for it. And sure enough, when I started to read people like Augustine or Aquinas they would talk about the animal’s soul and the vegetative soul and the rational or human soul. And again, of course, they were not pantheists. They didn’t think the trees were going to be having another life up in heaven. They understood the word soul to mean the capacity to integrate into a whole life.

Stump:

So if all of these other things have souls too, or if this is just a word for us to understand about this integrative focus of one single living thing, what is it that’s so special about humans then? What does it mean to be human? To have a human soul to…

Ortberg:

Yeah. A human being is a will with a mind, in a body, in a nutshell. You have a will and that’s at the core of you. And that’s what makes you unique. Your capacity to choose to say yes or no, to create, to bring into being and to be morally accountable, which no other creature on earth that we know is. And then your mind would be the flow of thoughts and feelings that are…that basically are your life. Your life is that flow of experienced thought and feeling and all of that is housed in a body that’s mostly run by habit and contains appetites. And then the soul is what binds that all together. The soul is very deep. That’s why often in the Bible, the psalmist will address the soul as if it were a separate person. “Bless the Lord O my soul. Why are you downcast O my soul?” The psalmists and other ancient writers did not do that for other parts of the person. They didn’t speak to the mind or the heart of the spirit, but they did to the soul. Because the soul is so deep. For people to recognize that they have a soul and that their soul is what binds them to God is a very important thing. We are largely losing the language of soul in our day. 

And unfortunately, often it’s thought that it’s not scientific. If you look at translations of scripture, there’s almost a direct correlation, the more recent the translation the fewer the times the word soul is used. But it’s actually a very important part of who we are. And when Jesus talks about being a lost soul, he’s making, I think, a profound diagnosis of the human condition. He’s not talking about people going to hell, although of course he does talk about that happening. And we believe that. Because the soul is what integrates us and makes us whole, sin is what disintegrates us. And it splinters the will so that I choose both what’s good and what’s bad. It divides the mind. I become double minded. I have all kinds of thoughts about acquiring things that would make me greedy, but I also want to have a reputation for being a generous person. I become blind to who it is that I really am. And then it divides the body so that… Dallas used to say, one of the things we love about little children as they have not learned to manage their face. You look at the face of a little child and you know what’s going on inside them in their mind.

But as we grow up, we learn how to manage our face so that I can use my body to deceive other people. And then the appetites of my body end up enslaving my will, which is addiction. So instead of the body serving the will, which is the way that God made us, we ended up with the will being captive to the body and all of that when you put it all together, that is a lost soul. Howard Hughes was a lost soul. Amy Winehouse was a lost soul. I am lost in my soul. And once you become a lost soul, you can gain the whole world and you’re not capable of satisfaction, let alone meaning. So that thought of being a lost soul is terribly important for the human condition.

Stump:

Right. Talking about Dallas Willard and I’ve read some of the other things you’ve written and his influence on you. I’ve had some of that myself as a young philosophy professor, we invited him to come to our school and I got to be like his personal chauffeur and assistant for three days. And I had a bit of interaction with him after that too. But it was, I think, similar to you, it was reading his book, Spirit of the Disciplines that really pushed me further into this territory and trying to understand it. And I remember especially, I think it was chapter seven of that book that was Saint Paul’s Psychology of Redemption [spoken simultaneously] that really brought a lot of pieces of this together for me and understanding personhood. But then also of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. Can you talk a little further about this as it relates to the good news and how perhaps our culture has sometimes framed that story versus the reality of what it is for us to dwell in the kingdom as persons?

Ortberg:

I could talk a lot further about that topic. I read that book at a time when I was a young pastor and I was frustrated and stagnant in my own sense of spiritual growth. And about the only two arrows in my quiver was, I knew you were supposed to read the Bible and pray, have a quiet time. And I was doing those things, but felt stunted and didn’t know what to do. And there’s an old saying when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And that’s when I heard about that book. And I, you know, I read it on a plane, on a trip from Chicago back to California. I can remember the seat that I was sitting in when I read that book. And that’s been very nearly 30 years now. And what struck me was there is somebody who has thought very deeply about these subjects and there is wisdom about this and about personhood that I’ve always been interested in that I didn’t know existed. And it was like opening up a door into a room that I just had not known was there. And there was clarity about what does it mean to be a person.

And I really gained clarity in reading Dallas and understanding about persons in the Gospel and that the Gospel was not, as I had kind of thought when I was growing up, the announcements of the minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven when you die, which then lead to all kinds of debates about, well, what exactly are the minimal entrance requirements? How do you set them without being legalistic on the one hand or antinomian on the other? That the good news is, in fact, that life in the Kingdom of God, which is the range of God’s effective will, that sphere in which everything meets with God’s delight and approval and joy. That life is now available through Jesus, through his person, his teaching, his death and resurrection, his presence now, and anybody who wants it can come right on in. And if you do want it, then the natural way to access it of course is by becoming his disciple. And that understanding of what the Gospel is, what discipleship is, what the connection between the Gospel and discipleship is, how to pursue discipleship, changed everything for me and I continued to be working primarily on that 30 years later.

Stump:

In the first century that seemed to mean I quit fishing and started following this guy around the Galilean wilderness and countryside. What’s it look like in America in the 21st century to be an apprentice of Jesus?

Ortberg:

Yeah. I actually think that’s the great quest for churches and church leaders in our day. I think one of the reasons that the gospel of the availability of life in the kingdom got replaced by the announcement of the minimum entrance requirements is at least that offers people a clear decision. Quit trying to get there through your own merits and just accept it as a gift. Okay. I’ve done that. When you look at the Jesus movement historically, when he was around, the decision to become a disciple was really clear. I’ll just quit fishing and go be with him every day. And then after his death, resurrection and ascension, it’s real clear cause there’s this Acts 2 community. And so people will say, I will go be a part of that. And they had a way of life and you can read about that in acts chapter two.

And then over the next couple of centuries as more and more people became a part of that community, you hit a tipping point where around Constantine, you know, it’s more than half of the people in the Roman Empire. And as a way of life, it’s just become diluted enough that there’s not much transforming power left in it. And so then you have people like Anthony going off into the desert and seeking to recapture the way of life that involves certain concrete practices around money and time and confession and fellowship and study that could bring about transformation. And I think throughout history, over time, what will happen when there’s a great movement of God is there will again be clarity on a powerful transforming way of life that communities of people enter into. And so the idea of a rule of life comes around that.

And I think the great need in our day in contemporary American society and probably lots of other places is, given the day in which we live, because we face unique spiritual challenges— technology, the speed of life, hurry, mobility—what worked for Benedict won’t work for us. But, you know, we don’t live in that time. But to find a way of life that as a matter of empirical fact is not legalistic or mechanical but is concrete and through it people can receive the power to become loving, joyful people. I think that’s the great challenge. I think everybody listening to this should work on this and get back to Jim Stump and tell him what you’re learning.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum, which you heard about at the top of this show. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part 2

Stump:

So a little while ago you mentioned habits, the role of the body. Can you unpack some of those, again, not a legalistic way to say you must do this, this and this and then this will happen. But some of those practices that the church has found useful over the centuries in developing that kind of life, particularly as it relates to us as in the flesh here and the role of habits in how our character develops and is formed.

Ortberg:

Yeah. So I’ll say a couple words about that. Often in churches when we hear habits, we think of things like, I should develop a habit of bible study or I should develop a habit of prayer. That may well be a very good thing. But I want to back up to a level more basic than that. The vast majority of our life is outsourced to habit. We were talking before about how your basic life is this flow of thoughts and feelings and experiences and mostly those run on habits. So when we describe somebody, if somebody is an angry person or an anxious person or a fearful person or joyful person, we’re describing the habitual tendencies of their mind. And those habits get embodied deep in us. And it’s a lot like, you know, for anybody listening to this, when you first learned how to drive a car, you had to be thinking every moment about now I hit the brakes, now I hit the accelerator, now I look in the rear view mirror. Eventually, all of that stuff becomes habitual and you don’t have to think at all. We see many drivers every day who have not thought about driving for years. Tying your shoes: initially you have to think very carefully. Now, I couldn’t even describe to you how I tie. I’ve just outsourced it.

So the vast majority of our life has been outsourced to habit. That’s good. Except sin has gotten deeply into our habits. And Paul’s language for this is it gets into our members, the members of our body. It gets into my hands just like the habit of tying my shoes does, into our sexuality, into our perceptions, our ability to perceive, into what we see when we look at people. My son loves to surf and I surf, but not as much or as well as he does. We can both be looking at the same wave. He will see, yep this is a good wave, you can take this one, don’t try to get this one. He sees in that wave what I don’t. That’s been formed by habit in him. And so mostly following Jesus will involve the re-formation or the transformation or a change in us at the level of habit because habit eats willpower for breakfast. But what kills many people in the church is we hear about the life of Jesus, love and joy and patience. And then what preachers say to people is, you must try harder to be more joyful or more patient. And if we don’t address the inside of the tree, that conscious but habitual flow of thoughts and feelings. If that doesn’t change, aiming at behavior through willpower is a setup for frustration and defeat.

Stump:

So if I might defend some of those pastors a little bit, don’t they take passages, say like the beginning of Second Peter, of make every effort to add to this, this and this and this. Or we go to Paul in First Corinthians chapter nine where he’s invoking that all the athletes compete in the games go into strict training. You go into strict training. Unpack a little bit further here then where we have some of that language that perhaps has been misappropriated. But what’s the correct application of those kinds of exhortations to make every effort to add to this?

Ortberg:

Yeah, the will is tremendously important, but it’s very small and very weak. Everybody that’s listening to us, it’s really good at making large life commitment decisions: getting married, going to school, taking a job, moving someplace. It’s terrible at overriding the attitudes and patterns that get embedded into our bodies. The first Corinthians nine passage as you well know, Jim, is a wonderful example of this and one of the great distinctions that I learned from Dallas comes out of that passage where Paul says, “everybody who runs goes into strict training. They do it to win a crown that will not last.” But we do it—we do what, we go into strict training. And the distinction is, as it was hugely helpful to me, there is a tremendous difference between trying to do something versus training to do something. So take physical transformation. My wife rented a video one time. Long time ago. Older listeners might remember a Sylvester Stallone movie called Cliffhanger, where it’s like on the mountains and ice and snow and everybody’s wearing parkas except for Sylvester Stallone who can’t keep his darn shirt on. Like all the time, muscles, deltoids, pecs rippling off the screen. And my wife rented this video and she looked at him and she looked over at me and back at him and back at me. And then she shook her head and said, you know, I’ve just never been attracted to well-built men.

And I searched for the compliment that I knew was lurking somewhere, but it lurked too deep and I couldn’t find it. Now just take physical transformation, thinking about running a race, running a marathon, my guess is it for folks listening to us, if we were to ask, could you go out right now and run a marathon, every step, not walk, run it. Most people would say, no. If we were to ask, could you run it right now today if you were to try really, really, really hard? Most people would say no. Eventually, if you really wanted to, would you be able to run a marathon? Most of us would say, yes. What would we have to do? I would have to train. What does it mean to train? To train means I arrange my life around those practices through which I received the power to do what I cannot now do by direct effort.

And generally, transformation in any significant sphere of human life involves training, not just trying. That’s true for music. If you want to sit down at the keyboard and play Rachmaninoff at Carnegie Hall, you can spend years practicing scales. And so that’s not the hard way to play Rachmaninoff. That’s the easy way. The hard way is never practice, wait till Carnegie Hall is full and sit down at the keyboard and try really, really hard to play Rachmaninoff. Learning a foreign language is the same way. And that dynamic is no less true when it comes to spiritual life and spiritual transformation. And that’s why Jesus says in Luke 6:40, no disciple is above the master. But every disciple when fully trained will be like the master. Or when Paul writes to Timothy, first Timothy 4:7, train yourself unto godliness.

And so this gets us into the whole issue of spiritual disciplines or spiritual practices, which are so often misunderstood. They are not things we do to earn credit with God. They’re not indicators of spirituality. The reason to practice a discipline is so that you’re able to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. The reason to practice shooting free throws is so that when the game’s on the line, you can make a free throw. If you can make a free throw, don’t bother practicing them. The reason to engage in spiritual disciplines insofar as they are disciplines is so that I will receive the power to be loving and joyful and truthful and courageous as it is called for in life. In other words, a disciplined person—disciple and discipline are closely related—a disciplined person is not somebody who does a lot of disciplines. It’s somebody who’s able to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done.

Stump:

So can we connect the dots here a little more in perhaps a practical or an illustrative sense where we’ve used these metaphors of athletes or musicians that go through these practices, develop what we might call muscle memory in certain ways, so that it becomes the natural thing for them to perform in certain ways. Connect the dots there then between some of these spiritual disciplines and that joyful abundant life, in the same way that you have for practicing free throws so that I can do that in the game. How is it that practicing say scripture memory or practicing times of solitude or this list of disciplines, how do those create that spiritual muscle memory such that it becomes the natural thing for me to be joyful in these otherwise trying circumstances?

Ortberg:

It’s a wonderful question and part of why it’s really helpful is I think a lot of people just have this random list of, well I guess I should try this discipline or that one. And the point of a discipline, again as far as it’s a discipline, is not to get good at the discipline. You could really back up and go at it this way. What is it like to live in the Kingdom of God? To be genuinely loving above all else person where I will the good for others and then joyful and truthful. What does that look like? And then secondly, what are the barriers that keep me from living that way? Me in particular, maybe it’s hurry, maybe it’s fear. And then thirdly, what are the practices through which I can receive the power to overcome those obstacles and live that life?

And I’ll try this one. If everybody could picture a little chart in their head. It’d be easier if I could actually draw it out right now. Dallas used to talk about two ways of describing spiritual disciplines or practice. You could put him in the bucket of disciplines of engagement where you do stuff that you don’t normally do—worship, celebration giving—or disciplines of abstinence, where you refrain from doing things. This actually mirrors the two kinds of standard classic ways of thinking about sins. There are sins of commission where I do stuff that I shouldn’t—I lie, I steal, I blow up. And then there are sins of omission where I do not do things that I should. In general, if folks are wondering what practices might be helpful, if I struggle with a sin of omission, where my do muscle is weak, then probably a discipline of engagement, where I strengthen that do muscle will be good.

So if I have the sin of joylessness, anybody who’s listening and you struggle with joy, don’t try harder to be joyful. One day a week, practice the discipline of celebration. One day a week wear food you love to wear, I mean wear clothes you love to wear, eat food, well you could try to wear food [laughs], eat food you love to eat, listen to music you love to listen to, hang out with people that you love to hang out with. There’ll be other people that suck joy out of you. Tell them I can’t be with you today. This is my celebration day. You look in the Bible at all of the feast days in the Old Testament. What was that about? That was training for joy. So if I wrestle with joylessness, the discipline to practice of celebration can help me train for joy. If I struggle with gossip or self promotion, the practice of silence can teach me, I can be present and survive without self-promoting or getting the last word. And over time I might even be able to thrive while doing that. So thinking about, what is it that I struggle with? And then what practice might give strength to my body for me to gain freedom from that will help folks a lot.

[musical interlude]

Stump:

So this is a BioLogos podcast, right? And we like to engage with the sciences. Is there a scientific angle on spiritual formation as we’re discussing it here or do you see other kinds of connections with science for the importance of understanding what it is to be a person and that these practices have… I don’t want to reduce them to just scientific principles of some sort, but then at least we see some consonance with a scientific look at human personhood or at our minds and our brains and how they work and why these practices are effective in bringing about the kind of life we want?

Ortberg:

Yeah. I am sure there are many. I can think of some. And I’m sure that there are many more. One of them would be, Dallas talked about a few core core concerns before he died. And one of them was that effective spiritual formation would be empirically testable and empirically verifiable. Everybody is receiving a spiritual formation. The idea with that phrase is just like you have an outer body and it’s being formed all the time. You know, what you eat, wear, better or worse, on purpose or by accident, you have an inner being, thoughts, feelings, intentions. And that’s being shaped all the time. So whether you’re a Christian or not, whether you like to read Thomas Merton or not, you are receiving a spiritual formation. And a disciple is just somebody who has turned their spiritual formation over to Jesus. And Dallas said, we ought to insist on the fact, the reality that if Jesus is doing our spiritual formation, it ought to be empirically verifiable as superior to not having Jesus in charge of our spiritual formation.

Stump:

So do you mean by empirically verifiable in this case that we should take a control group of a hundred people over here and just have them pray and read their bibles and another group and subject them to various sorts of practices and have a measurement of which ones are really living the abundant life? Can we reduce it to that?

Ortberg:

As you well know, part of the genius of the scientific enterprise is great scientists get better and better and better at measuring what really matters. There’s actually a guy named Rory Baumeister who’s not a believer, but his studies on the will and willpower are fascinating and in many ways they’re like looking at much of Dallas’s work, being subject to empirical verification. So anything that’s that crude would not work well because if the experimental group was simply people who did a lot of devotional activities, that’d be the pharisees. We’d want to look at what’s the best way of pursuing wisdom around disciplines or spiritually formative practices. And then what’s the best way of seeking to measure a transformed life? And it might be around generosity. It’s easier to do large scale than small scale. Very large scale it might be around things like how many marriages stay together? How much time do people spend volunteering? How often do people blow up? I think it would just depend on the creativity and the expertise of the experimenter. But that notion that genuine, Jesus initiated spiritual formation ought to be empirically verifiable. And we ought to do that. And, you know, increasingly people are looking at churches and do churches make a difference in people’s lives? Does prayer make a difference in people’s lives? And there’s a fair amount of studies to suggest that they do, but also to suggest that they could do a whole lot better than they’re currently doing right now. So that’d be one.

One other area that I’d mentioned quickly is, it’s very important to understand about us that we are embodied creatures and everybody is born pre-wired in profoundly significant ways. I have three kids and before they were born, my biggest illusion was that they would just come as blank slates and I could write about them and mold them however I wanted to. And when they came out, I realized they were pre-wired, introvert, extrovert, love to read, doesn’t like to read. So many dimensions of who they were going to be were just pre-wired and according to…you know, that’s true at the synaptic level. And part of what that means is when Jesus tells us, don’t judge lest you be judged is we never know. Everybody that we see is fighting an internal battle, and maybe in very heroic ways that we don’t know, in terms of temperament, the ways that they’ll deal with anger, the ways that they will deal with anxiety. And so never to judge somebody else’s advancement in the Kingdom. And to have both great urgency but also great grace in my own. Because I don’t know for my own self, within my body, what are those aspects of my wiring that I have to fight to overcome, to seek, to live together with God. And so to understand the role of the body and neuroscience. There are some ways in our day where I think the impact of neuroscience is way overblown. But there are things that we can learn from it in areas like anxiety that I think are very important for Christians to understand.

Stump:

That issue of brain science raises an interesting question in my mind, again, as we say, compare a spiritual formation to practices in sports or in music or something, where in sports and music we recognize the importance of practice, but there’s also this natural talent or natural ability that some people seem to have more of. I could practice every day as long as I wanted to and I’m never going to make the NBA right. Does that transfer to this area of spiritual formation? Is it easier for some people?

Ortberg:

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Absolutely

Stump:

That doesn’t seem fair does it?

Ortberg:

Well, life is not fair. God’s fair, but life is not fair. And very clearly when you look at human beings, in all kinds of ways in terms of physical abilities and disabilities, cognitive abilities and disabilities, predispositions for addiction, for example, predispositions to have anger problems. Huge amounts of this simply have to do with biology that got wired before we were ever even born. And if we do not understand that, we will be subject to frustration and judgmentalism or envy our whole lifelong. So my wife is a raving extrovert. Nancy has never had an unexpressed thought or feeling in her life. I’m much more of an introvert. It’s easy for me to experience solitude and I look forward to that. It’s much more of a challenge for Nancy. Solitude for her would be okay if she could bring a few people along with her. So if I get a distorted picture of spirituality, and I think being in solitude, rather than love, is the measure of spirituality, then I can become judgmental towards Nancy and say, why can’t you be more like me?

On the other hand, she has a capacity to be with people. If I’m going to a meeting and there’s going to be, you know, an hour of just kind of chit chat, small talk, I have to gird my loins up for that. It’s just draining for me. For her, it’s recreational. And if she looks at me and says, what’s the matter with you? Why don’t you love people? You’re a pastor for God’s sake. You’re supposed to want to be with people. It’s like, yup, that’s true. But part of the way that I am wired is, it will feel more draining of energy to me than it will to her. And she gets no credit for that. That’s just part of biology. So understanding that in terms of our attitude towards ourselves and other people to save us from both judgmentalism, superiority and envy, inferiority, is very important for folks.

Stump:

So your church is in the midst of Silicon Valley and again, down the road from Stanford. What’s it like ministering to people who are at the top of their fields in science and technology? What are the special challenges in communicating the Gospel to people for whom this scientific mindset is just second nature?

Ortberg:

Yeah. It’s exhilarating but scary. Because I always know whatever I’m talking about, there’s people in the room that know more about it than I do. And so it’s very humbling. It’s very stretching because I’ll get lots of feedback from folks. It’s very growth producing and I would say this, for people who listen to us, who might be in my line of work—in every church there’ll be people that know a lot of stuff that you don’t know. And I found if I asked them, if I’m going to talk about science, which I do at our church a fair amount, there’ll be folks that know way more than I do that I’ll ask, could you give me some help on this? Could you recommend some things to read? BioLogos is just such a helpful resource in this regard. And I have been able to avoid enormous amounts of pain just from being able to learn from people who know way more than I do. People appreciate it being talked about.

The first BioLogos conference I went to, I remember a conversation with some people who work in the scientific community and they talked about loneliness because they said, “I feel like when I’m with my science colleagues, I can’t talk about my faith. When I’m with my faith community, I can’t talk about my science.” And so periodically just simply to commend people who are in the fields of science and technology and bless them and to thank them, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do. 

For sure where I live, but I think in most places, especially with the younger generation, questions of can I be a Christian and have a robust faith in a personal God and a divinely inspired scripture and believe fully in science and study science and be open to whatever scientific discoveries are made. That’s a key question. The other one is creation care. I think for—my kids are all 30ish—for folks in their generation, any form of discipleship that is not talking about and practicing care for creation is morally bankrupt from the beginning.

Stump:

You have an interesting perspective from which to survey sort of American Christianity as you are engaged in conversations with other people around the country in different churches. Are you encouraged or discouraged with the way you see American Christianity moving with its attitudes towards science, the practice of it, the stewardship and creation care kinds of things? Do you see hopeful signs? Do you see concerns that ought to be addressed more specifically?

Ortberg:

I do see deep concerns and that’s often quite frustrating. I think that in the general population, often, there is a deep-rooted skepticism when the word evolution comes up because it’s often evolution with a capital E. And the assumption that’s often talked about, possibly in the media or possibly by some folks in the academy, is that somehow evolution or something else has demonstrated that there is no transcendent realm, that there is no supernatural reality, and of course it has not. And so I think a lot of people’s resistance to evolution is really at its core around evolution with a capital E. And if the church did a better job of talking about evolution with the lowercase E and if we did a better job at explaining the nature of the scripture and what, for example, the creation narratives are actually seeking to teach—and folks like John Walton have just addressed this I think brilliantly in our day—ironically, if we could do a better job of helping people read the Bible through ancient eyes, we would equip them to look at science through modern eyes.

I am encouraged a lot by BioLogos. I’m grateful for resources that I think are making their way out there. I think the way things often work in the broader culture is, important ideas begin in the academy and then have to trickle down. So I think the gospel of the availability of the Kingdom was less talked about 20 years ago or 30 years ago than it is now. I think an understanding of science and natural selection and the true meaning of Genesis was less talked about 20 years ago than it is now. And I hope and pray that that will increase, but I wish it was happening a lot faster than it is. And I hope everybody who’s listening to us, we’ll take that as part of their commission.

Stump:

Thanks so much for all you’ve done on behalf of BioLogos and thanks so much for talking to us here this afternoon.

Ortberg:

It’s my pleasure. You make it a joy. Thanks, Jim.

Stump:

All right, thanks.

Credits

BioLogos

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

John Ortberg

John Ortberg

John Ortberg is the senior pastor at Menlo Church (MPPC). John's teaching centers around how faith in Christ can impact our everyday lives with God. He has written books on spiritual formation including, The Life You’ve Always WantedFaith and DoubtThe Me I Want To Be, and most recently, Who is This Man?. John teaches around the world at conferences and churches. Born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, John graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in psychology. He holds a Master of Divinity and doctorate degree in clinical psychology from Fuller Seminary, and has done post-graduate work at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Prior to joining MPPC, John served as teaching pastor at Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church. John is a member of the Board of Trustees at Fuller Seminary, where he has also served as an adjunct faculty member. He is on the board for the Dallas Willard Center for Spiritual Formation, and has served on the board of Christianity Today International. John is married to Nancy Ortberg, and they have three grown children.

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