What do you want?

That’s the question. It is the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship. In the Gospel of John, it is the first question Jesus poses to those who would follow him. When two would-be disciples who are caught up in John the Baptist’s enthusiasm begin to follow, Jesus wheels around on them and pointedly asks, “What do you want?” (John 1:38).

It’s the question that is buried under almost every other question Jesus asks each of us. “Will you come and follow me?” is another version of “What do you want?,” as is the fundamental question Jesus asks of his errant disciple, Peter: “Do you love me?” (John 21:16 NRSV).

Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John—or you and me—and ask, “What do you know?” He doesn’t even ask, “What do you believe?” He asks, “What do you want?” This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want. Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person. Thus Scripture counsels, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Prov. 4:23). Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.

So discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all—a vision encapsulated by the shorthand “the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings. His “teaching” doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation; he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit”; he “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). To follow Jesus is to become a student of the Rabbi who teaches us how to love; to be a disciple of Jesus is to enroll in the school of charity. Jesus is not Lecturer-in-Chief; his school of charity is not like a lecture hall where we passively take notes while Jesus spouts facts about himself in a litany of text-heavy PowerPoint slides.

And yet we often approach discipleship as primarily a didactic endeavor—as if becoming a disciple of Jesus is largely an intellectual project, a matter of acquiring knowledge. Why is that?

Because every approach to discipleship and Christian formation assumes an implicit model of what human beings are. While these assumptions usually remain unarticulated, we nonetheless work with some fundamental (though unstated) assumptions about what sorts of creatures we are—and therefore what sorts of learners we are. If being a disciple is being a learner and follower of Jesus, then a lot hinges on what you think “learning” is. And what you think learning is hinges on what you think human beings are. In other words, your understanding of discipleship will reflect a set of working assumptions about the very nature of human beings, even if you’ve never asked yourself such questions.

This hit home for me in a tangible way several years ago. While paging through an issue of a noted Christian magazine, I was struck by a full-color advertisement for a Bible verse memory program. At the center of the ad was a man’s face, and emblazoned across his forehead was a startling claim: “YOU ARE WHAT YOU THINK.” That is a very explicit way to state what many of us implicitly assume. In ways that are more “modern” than biblical, we have been taught to assume that human beings are fundamentally thinking things. While we might never have read—or even heard of—seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, many of us unwittingly share his definition of the essence of the human person as res cogitans, a “thinking thing.” Like Descartes, we view our bodies as (at best!) extraneous, temporary vehicles for trucking around our souls or “minds,” which are where all the real action takes place. In other words, we imagine human beings as giant bobblehead dolls: with humungous heads and itty-bitty, unimportant bodies. It’s the mind that we picture as “mission control” of the human person; it’s thinking that defines who we are. “You are what you think” is a motto that reduces human beings to brains-on-a-stick. Ironically, such thinking-thingism assumes that the “heart” of the person is the mind. “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes said, and most of our approaches to discipleship end up parroting his idea.

Such an intellectualist model of the human person—one that reduces us to mere intellect—assumes that learning (and hence discipleship) is primarily a matter of depositing ideas and beliefs into mind-containers. Critical education theorist bell hooks, echoing Paulo Freire, calls this a “banking” model of education: we treat human learners as if they are safe-deposit boxes for knowledge and ideas, mere intellectual receptacles for beliefs. We then think of action as a kind of “withdrawal” from this bank of knowledge, as if our action and behavior were always the outcome of conscious, deliberate, rational reflection that ends with a choice—as if our behavior were basically the conclusion to a little syllogism in our head whereby we think our way through the world. In all of this, we ignore the overwhelming power of habit.1

So we assume that a disciple is a learner who is acquiring more information about God through the Scriptures—that serious discipleship is really discipleship of the mind. And of course that’s true. Scripture enjoins us to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). A follower of Jesus will be a student of the Word, one “whose delight is in the law of the LORD” (Ps. 1:2). If you’re serious about following Jesus, you will drink up every opportunity to learn more about God, God’s Word, what he requires of us, and what he desires for his creation. You don’t just show up for worship and the sermon: you’re there for adult education classes; you join a small-group Bible study; you read your Bible every day; you attend every conference you can; you devour books that help you further understand God and his Word; you drink up knowledge. You want to learn.

Ironically, this is true even for versions of Christian faith that are proclaimed “anti-intellectual.” Many modes of Christian piety and discipleship that are suspicious of formal theology and higher education are nonetheless “intellectualist” in how they approach discipleship and Christian formation, narrowly focused on filling our intellectual wells with biblical knowledge, convinced that we can think our way to holiness—sanctification by information transfer. Indeed, that’s precisely the conviction behind the ad for the Bible verse memory program mentioned above: If “you are what you think,” then filling your thinking organ with Bible verses should translate into Christlike character, right? If “you are what you think,” then changing what you think should change who you are, right?

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press: A Division of Baker Publishing Group.