Not too long ago, I read an article describing how two groups of Christians reacted to a major, emotional story in the headline news. One group got their news from their trusted conservative sources, the other from their liberal ones. They discussed the story with their fellow church members who shared the same interpretation of the event, yet the two groups held completely opposite views of what happened.
When the Bible says, “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:4-5),” it can be hard to believe that different groups of sincere, dedicated Christians can draw completely opposite conclusions from the same event.
Is this bad?
1 Peter 4:10 tells us to be “good stewards of the multi-faceted grace of God.” The Lord is obviously capable of welcoming different opinions, political views, and cultural perspectives into the body of Christ, as we are “redeemed from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9).”
But scripture also warns us in several places to be “sober” as we go about our lives. What does it mean to be sober? Most of us would think “not drunk.” As it’s used in the Bible, the word means something different and is important in the context of the two groups I mentioned above. Today, more than ever, each of us faces an onslaught of news, opinions, sensationalized stories, advertisements, and media manipulation that can easily distract or discourage us. How we react can cause division and strife with our fellow believers, not to mention compromise our influence with “the world out there.”
Years ago, I took a course in business school called “Behavioral Decision Theory.” One of the professors who taught the class co-wrote a recent book called “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” The premise of “Nudge” is that government can–and should–use people’s biases to influence (or nudge) them toward productive and healthy decisions such as saving for retirement or living a healthier lifestyle to lower healthcare costs. In another recent news article, I read that the Obama administration wants to set up a “Behavioral Insights Team that will look for ways to subtly influence people’s behavior” based on the principles found in “Nudge.”
The effect of people’s biases on their financial decisions has become a field of serious study called “behavioral economics.” Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School received the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering research in this field. When I took the B-school class, our focus was on two things: understanding and using these biases to our advantage when marketing our products, and avoiding the biases ourselves so we would make better decisions as corporate managers.
At the start of the first class, the professor asked us a question that clearly showed how our biases can come into play: If we strung a piece of rope around the entire circumference of the earth (about 24,000 miles), how much longer would the rope have to be if we raised it a foot above the earth along its entire path?
Most answers from the class were given in tens or hundreds of miles. The correct answer? Just over six feet.
The common human bias at play here was an “anchoring bias,” meaning our thinking was “anchored” to the circumference of the earth, a big number. Therefore, we thought, adding a foot along the entire circumference must be pretty big too. But it’s not. We see the anchoring bias played out in reverse when we go shopping and come across a product sold for $49.99 rather than $50. Most shoppers focus on the first number, the “4” in this price, rather than the “9s” at the end. We think, subconsciously, it’s a lot cheaper at $49.99 than if it were one penny more, or $50. Marketers know this and regularly use it to their advantage.
Another common bias, the one influencing the two church groups, is called “confirmation bias.” We tend to look for information that confirms our beliefs, the things in our comfort zone. How many of us actually take the time to seriously look at something from the opposite viewpoint? How many people do you know whose parents said, “I wouldn’t marry that person if I were you,” but went ahead anyway? How many were later sorry they didn’t listen to their parents and consider the opposite viewpoint of such an important decision? My professors gave us pages and pages of biases such as these that we humans all too readily embrace. You can find them in Professor Kahneman’s recent book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.” One you’ll appreciate—we all think we’re better drivers than most others on the road (and than we really are).
A few weeks ago, I read 1 Peter 4:7: “But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be sober and watchful in your prayers.” That word “sober” caught my eye. I looked at the underlying Greek word used here and several other places in the New Testament, for example, 2 Tim 1:7, “For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind,” or self-control. The same Greek word translated here as “sober” and “a sound mind” is used in Mark 5:15 and Luke 8:35, where a crazy person who just had a demon cast out by Jesus is now sitting “in his right mind.”
Here’s the lesson for us–the Bible warns us to be sober, serious, in our right minds, and self-controlled in our thoughts and actions as we focus our prayers through the avalanche of information dumped on us each day. We live in a time like no other when politicians, journalists, marketers, charities, and even friends and loved ones are able to use emotional videos, Facebook posts, blogs, pictures, rumors, conspiracy theories, and so many other things to influence our opinions. The danger is falling victim to something that leads us astray from the truth of God’s Word and compromises our “spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind.”
Paul warns us in Colossians 2:18, “Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind.” 1 Peter 5:7 says, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
When Paul explained the “armor of God” in Ephesians 6, he ended the passage with an encouragement about prayer. Prayer is our battlefield where, in the words of Ephesians 6:11, we stand against the schemes of the devil who is constantly lying to us. Our spirit of power is unleashed in prayer. And we pray more effectively (James 5:17) when we are clear-minded and serious about what we’re praying for–in power and in love.
When it comes to doing spiritual battle against the enemy and protecting ourselves against his subtle but dangerous lies, we must do our best to discern what is really going on around us, and what is NOT going on, “in order that Satan might not outwit us, for we are not unaware of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).”
The Word of God is our standard of truth, sharper than any two-edged sword by which we can discern the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). The spirit of power we have is the same incomparable power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20), of perfect love that casts out fear (1 John 4:17-18).
With power, love, and a sound mind let us as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, as strangers and pilgrims in this world, learn, understand, and spread the truth from an eternal perspective!