Picture a man, maybe even a strong man, sitting atop a giant, safari-sized elephant.
In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath popularized a metaphor originally created by psychologist Johnathan Haidt. He argued that humans have two sides, the emotional/irrational side (the elephant) and the rational/analytic side (the rider).
The rider tries his best to direct the elephant, but you can imagine what happens when the elephant wants something different than the rider. Here is how they describe it in Switch:
“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”
“Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on.”
I think this is incredibly spot on and fascinating, especially when applied to faith.
Much of Christian teaching and preaching has focused on whipping the rider into shape.
“Do better! Try harder! Keep that elephant in line! Pull the reins!”
But the elephant–he still does what he wants. No matter how much the rider beats and whips and cajoles.
Because he’s an elephant. And he’s hungry.
And there are profiteers lining the streets offering food for sale that’s not really food.
But he’s hungry, so he bites anyway.
“No! Don’t do that!” the rider yells.
“Stay away from that!” the preacher scolds.
“Just be strong and stop it,” the friend exhorts.
But the elephant keeps wandering away. Because, again, he’s an elephant. And how much does that elephant feel a scrawny man’s heels digging into his hide? Especially when he’s hungry…
There are countless scores of people in churches all over this wide world who feel like they’ve been trying to steer an elephant for months/years/decades, and LET ME TELL YOU they are EXHAUSTED. They are so tired, of yelling, of pulling, of scratching and clawing. So now they just hang on for dear life, weary to the bones, praying that the elephant won’t do too much damage in it’s search of comfort, approval, control or power. They’ve long given up hope of directing him in any sort of meaningful way.
Christian, if you are exhausted in your pursuit of growth, this is likely part of the reason why. Elephants are hard to steer.
The reason all of these exhausted riders exist is because of a grave misunderstanding about the gospel. You see, these riders think that the gospel message is only for the rider, not the elephant. They think the gospel is limited to making strong riders who can actually control their elephants. A list of do’s and don’ts and should’s and shouldn’ts and tactics and techniques to steering your elephant.
What these exhausted riders fail to see is that the gospel is for the elephant too. It’s not just for the mind, it’s for our desires and affections.
Jesus is not interested in training an army of capable riders who can self-righteously control the beasts they ride on.
No, Jesus holds out food–true food–for the elephant.
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
Jesus looks directly at our desires, wills and affections and says “Why are you chasing that? You think that’s going to fulfill you? Friend, you are sorely misinformed. Incline your ear and come to me instead.” He would know, because if He made us, He made our hungers too.
Jesus calls the roots of us not to be less committed to pursuing our own joy, but more committed to pursuing our own joy in Him. This is the essence of Christian Hedonism–that God takes our joy very seriously and calls us to do the same by ruthlessly seeking after the only One who truly offers it. He takes an old affection and replaces it with a new and stronger affection.
I had a friend who was going through our Recovery ministry last fall, when, upon explaining this idea of a new affection to him, asked: “So you’re telling me that Jesus is offering to take away my tangible affection for a bottle of liquor and replace that with an intangible affection for the peace and contentment I can have while sitting still and not needing a bottle of liquor?”
And I said, “Yes–exactly.” He thought that was crazy, but by the end of the cycle he said “I get it now.”
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
The tragic part of all this is that so many of our pulpits and writers and would-be-disciples are focused on producing riders who can control their elephants through gripped white knuckles. They are doling out bondage and exhaustion instead of standing with Jesus and pleading, “Why?”
Why do you chase after that which is not food?
Why do you spend your money for that which does not satisfy?
Come to Me, all you hungry elephants, and I will give you food that satisfies your hunger.
Come to Me, all you exhausted riders, and I will give you rest.
That’s the good news of the gospel. As silly as it may sound, “You are an elephant and Jesus has all the peanuts” is so much more freeing than “Keep that elephant in line, rider!”
Churches and preachers and disciples, let’s put down our guides for how to be a more effective rider and stand with Jesus while He rings the dinner bell for our deepest affections and desires.