Category: Collection Four: Practicalities

Letter 33: Pavlov and Virtue


My Son,


I think about Pavlov’s dog experiment nearly every week. That sounds strange, and you probably think your ole man is crazy, but let me explain.

Ivan Pavlov pioneered research on how people learn through classical conditioning by experimenting with dogs. Dogs naturally salivate when food is brought to them. Food is an “unconditioned stimulus” and salivation is the dog’s “unconditioned response.” Pavlov would feed his own dogs each day, and each time they would see food they would salivate. Eventually, whenever Pavlov would simply walk in the room, the dogs would salivate. He was curious about this and decided to do some experimenting. He gave some dogs their food, but every time the food was given he would ring a bell. The dogs eventually learned to associate the bell ringing with food being brought to them, so even if the food didn’t come the dogs would still salivate if they heard the bell ring. A natural response could be triggered by an unnatural stimulus by having that stimulus associated with a natural stimulus.

Why am I sharing this with you, my son? Although people are more than mere animals, we often learn in a similar manner when it comes to classical conditioning. If someone has a flood of positive associations with a given activity, they will probably be more inclined to do the action. For example, if you were given a cookie while you did homework, you could associate your enjoyment of the cookie with your homework. Maybe you would get to the point where the original stimulus of enjoyment, the cookie, could be taken away and you would be left with the sheer enjoyment of homework (a somewhat unnatural stimulus for many kids). This was a very basic example, so now let’s turn our attention to how we can use classical conditioning to aid in our journey of godliness and virtue.

I was once told that virtue is a habit of doing good. Faith, hope, and love are chief among Christian virtues, and there are many others. How do we live a life of virtue? The key is habit. How do we develop habits? The key is discipline. Some basic “disciplines” of the faith include praying, reading the Scripture, meditating, adoration, fasting, almsgiving, etc.

For many, including myself, these disciplines do not involve positive associations and seem quite unnatural at first. How do we get an unnatural stimulus to bring about a natural enjoyment? Pavlov’s dog experiment! If you naturally find enjoyment in eating chocolate, then perhaps you should eat chocolate while reading Scripture for a while until you can have that same enjoyment with only Scripture. If you naturally feel peace wash over you when you light a candle, then light a candle before morning and evening prayer; you may find yourself feeling that same peace through the natural rhythm of prayer with or without the candle. Experiment with this yourself. Find out what seems to naturally give you those positive feelings and add a discipline to make the discipline enjoyable. Your enjoyment of the discipline could be key in you sustaining the discipline for the long haul. Vices (those things opposite of virtue) are normally practiced because they “feel good.” Vices can be destroyed by negative association and virtues can be established through positive association. I myself am still learning how to use this method of classical conditioning to form virtue and destroy vice in my life.

May we, as creatures of habit, learn to practice the good and shun the evil. May faith, hope, and love become our knee-jerk reactions in every situation. May we become more and more like Christ as we learn to enjoy the virtue-forming disciplines he has given us.




Letter 32: Sowing and Reaping

My Son,


“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will, from the Spirit, reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:18).

You will reap what you sow. This language may be unfamiliar to you since we didn’t raise you on a farm in the country. Let me explain. Every year, farmers sow seeds into their fields. If they plant corn seeds, then at harvest time they will have corn (barring a terrible drought). If they sow seeds for wheat, then they will reap wheat. What you put into something is what you will get out of it.

What do you invest your time and energy into? If you do your homework, then you should get a good grade. If you spend your days watching TV instead of doing your homework, then you probably won’t get a good grade. If you play video games, then you will become good at video games (but what value is there in that?). If you spend hours playing the guitar each week, then you will be able to play the guitar better. This principle applies especially to your spiritual journey. If you invest your time into reading Scripture, then you will become more knowledgeable about Scripture. If you pray every day, then you will become better at praying and opening yourself up to hear God’s voice. If you focus your attention on things that are pure, then you will reap pure thoughts. If, on the other hand, you invest your time into watching pornography, then you will reap a life of perversion. If you wake up late every day and neglect the disciplines, then you will reap a life of laziness. If you focus your energy on just making money, then you will reap a life of greed. What you sow is what you will reap.

Sometimes people I encounter are surprised that their life is a spiritual and emotional train-wreck. They are surprised when they find themselves eating out of a pig-trough, even though they were the ones that turned their back on the Father and spent their inheritance on sinful living. They are surprised when God feels distant after sowing years of watching TV rather than praying. They are surprised that they always feel anxious, when in reality they are constantly busy and never take the time to rest on the Sabbath. Why are people so surprised when they finally get what they’ve been investing their lives into? We must not be a people who are surprised, but a people who own up to our sin and zealously repent. Repentance means that we stop sowing into sin, and start sowing into the Spirit. Give, pray, fast, meditate, read Scripture, spend time in adoration, and practice other such disciplines. The disciplines of the faith are good ways you can start sowing in the Spirit.

This is my appeal to you my son: sow in the Spirit! Draw near to God and he will draw near to you (James 4:8). My hope is that you will live a life filled with love, joy, peace, and all of the fruit of the Spirit. Now is the time for you to plant seeds of the Spirit so that you may enjoy a fruit-filled life.