What Motivates You? Thoughts on Pascal’s Pensees (Listening to the Saints)

Vanity is so anchored in the heart of man that a soldier, a soldier’s servant, a cook, a porter brags, and wishes to have his admirers. Even philosophers wish for them. Those who write against it want to have the glory of having written well; [72] and those who read it desire the glory of having read it. I who write this have perhaps this desire, and perhaps those who will read it” – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 46-47). . Kindle Edition.

This summer I am trying to share some words of wisdom with the students in my college ministry while they are all back home.  My source for these thoughts, right now, is Pascal’s Pensees, a Christian classic.  I have read and blogged through a number of other Christian classics.  Usually what happens is I read it at my leisure, highlighting parts that stick out to me.  Then I go back later and give a second read to the highlights as well as necessary parts around them to gain context.

This week I have been thinking about two portions that struck me as I read.  The first I quoted above.  Here Pascal is writing about vanity, that so much of what we do is motivated to get people to like us.  I love that he says even he is susceptible to this desire as he is writing this book!  This resonates with me because I have long since realized I tend to be a people-pleaser.  I try to avoid conflict, I want people to like me and beyond that to get along with each other.  There have even been times in my life that I have not said things I know I ought to have said for fear of stirring too much up.

What about you: do you tend to be a people-pleaser?  Do you want people to admire you, even to the point where you’ll change what you say and do to get people to like you?

The second quote from Pascal is about how we fail to be content with the present:

We do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists. For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away. We try to sustain it by the future, and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 50-51). . Kindle Edition.


This reminds me of Yoda’s words about Luke Skywalker, “Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing!”  Luke always dreamed of the future, of being away from where he was now, of being somewhere more exciting.  I am sure you can relate to this as a college student, since college is greatly focused on the future: your career, where you’ll live, who you’ll marry.  It is hard to say focused on the present when the reason you are getting a degree is to prepare you for the future.

At the same time, both of these things – wanting people to admire you, looking to the future – can be good motivators too.  There are times when we ought to bite our tongue because what we say might hurt people.  No one likes a self-centered jerk, thinking of how to please other people can be good.  In the same way, not being content with where you are, wanting to move on and do great things can be a great motivator.  Think of Luke, he went off and defeated the empire and restored the Jedi!  If he had been too satisfied living as a farmer on Tatooine he’d have not done that!

The question I am left with is how do we balance these things? 

How do we work to win friends and influence people without being a conflict-avoiding people pleaser?

How do we make the most of where we are in the present while being motivated to a better future?

To zero in to your life as a Christian on campus, there are situations when you want to defer to others, to work hard not to reinforce the stereotype of a judgmental Christian.  Then there are other situations when your friends need you to tell them the truth, even when it hurts.  Likewise, you need to be working to serve Jesus on campus right now while preparing for further service in the future.

My prayer is that you will, by the strength of the Spirit, do this!  May Jesus be with you as you go.



Beliefs and Desires – Thoughts on Pascal’s Pensees (Listening to the Saints)

I used to write a “Weekly Word” every Friday, devotional thoughts geared towards the CSF students at PSU Berks.  This summer I am bringing the Weekly Word back in hopes of providing spiritual support to the students while they are home.

Blaise Pascal lived in France in the mid-1600s and by all accounts was a brilliant, well-rounded man.  He contributed both to mathematics and physics as well as to Christian philosophy.  I think he would fit in well on a contemporary university campus, at least on the academic side of things.  That is why I think looking at some of what he wrote will be helpful for college students.

His most well-known work of philosophy is called Pensees (thoughts).  Pascal had hoped to write a full defense of Christianity but died before completing it, the notes for this book were put together after his death and published as Pensees.  My theology professor in seminary considered Pensees one of his favorite books.  I read it probably about five years ago and I’ve returned to it recently, reading a few portions every couple days or so.  I am finding it more interesting the second time through, now knowing what to expect.  I think there is a lot of food for thought here for college students

Pascal writes:

The will is one of the chief factors in belief, not that it creates belief, but because things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them. The will, which prefers one aspect to another, turns away the mind from considering the qualities of all that it does not like to see; and thus the mind, moving in accord with the will, stops to consider the aspect which it likes, and so judges by what it sees – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 31). . Kindle Edition.

I’ve spent a lot of time in ministry studying apologetics, seeking to provide answers to people’s questions and objections to faith in Jesus as well as providing positive reasons a person ought to believe.  If you read much in Christian apologetics, you soon get the impression that there is a simple formula: present the evidence and any clear-minded, rational person will believe.  Not all write in this way, but many do.

It does not take long to see the problem with this.  First, many clear-minded and rational people do not believe in the Christian gospel.  Second, if you think about it, most of what we do throughout the day is not a result of rational thinking.  We do not take time to analyze every choice we make.  At times we seem to run on auto-pilot, making choices almost without thinking about it.  Think of the time you drove home and when you arrived you had no memory of your drive.  You were lost in thought and just going through the motions, motions you had gone through dozens of times.  Or think of your choice to go to the movies last weekend.  You probably went to one of the bigger budget, well advertised movie (and we say advertising doesn’t influence us!).  In the theater you had a moment of enjoyment in front of the big screen, pulling for the good guys and hoping the bad guys got justice.*

This is sort of what Pascal is talking about in the above quote.  It is our will, not just our belief, that moves us.  The will prefers some things, causing us to look at things differently. The will moves us to things we like, things we desire or love.  This may even get to the point where we believe something is bad for us but we like/desire it so can’t help but do it (stories of young men and women who struggle with pornography come to mind).

Along with this, Pascal realizes that we want people to like us.  Often we are unwilling to recognize our own shortcomings: “Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them, and to be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 32). . Kindle Edition).  And we prefer people who support us no matter the decisions we make, rather than those who tell us hard truths: “For is it not true that we hate truth and those who tell it us, and that we like them to be deceived in our favour, and prefer to be esteemed by them as being other than what we are in fact? One proof of this makes me shudder” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 32). . Kindle Edition).

What is a true friend?  The person who affirms us no matter the decision we make or the person who has the guts to call us out when we make a wrong decision?  I think we all would agree, upon rational thought, that it is the latter.  But when it comes down to it, who do we surround ourselves with?  Are we putting our beliefs in motion, that we need people willing to challenge us in our lives?  Or do we go with what makes us happy, flattery and affirmation?

Pascal again:

They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.

Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence, although he then spoke in sincerity and without passion – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.

May we seek true friendship, finding people willing to love us for who we are and who challenge us to grow into even more mature people.  May we do this even when it hurts.

And may we realize that correct beliefs are only part of becoming a full human.  May we learn to love and desire, to will, things that point us closer to Jesus Christ.

*My thoughts in this regard have been influenced in recent months by reading some fantastic books by the likes of James K.A. Smith and Myron Penner, just to name a few.

Breaking the Idol of Certainty by Greg Boyd (Review)

I read a lot of books, but Breaking the Idol of Certainty by Greg Boyd might be the first book I’ve read where I found myself thinking that this is the sort of book I’d want to write. I felt like Greg was at times writing out my own thoughts. If you’ve ever struggled with doubt, or just felt like you aren’t a good Christian because you don’t feel as certain as others around you appear to, this book is for you. Greg writes both as a brilliant scholar and as a real person whose struggled with doubt. He actually said at one point that this is his most autobiographical book, and he shares a lot from his own life.

I’ve been a Christian my whole life. When I went to college and seminary and began to fall in love with learning, especially learning more about theology and the Christian faith, I yearned for certainty. I think, deep down, I struggled with doubt and I hoped if I read and studied enough I’d find a full-proof answer that would satisfy even the most skeptical person. Of course, I didn’t find that. At the very least then, I hoped I could figure out what the real truths of Christianity are so as to know who was a real Christian and who was not. If anything, the reverse happened. The more I studied different issues, the more I realized how sincere, Jesus-loving people disagree. And I also came to see that most of these issues don’t really matter, at least as it pertains to the most core truth of Christianity.

Boyd argues that there is one core, which is to know Jesus Christ crucified, as Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians. Beyond this there are other beliefs and doctrines which we hold to different degrees of confidence. In terms of concentric circles, at the core are the dogmas of the Christian faith, things Christians have mostly always agreed on (Trinity). Next come doctrines, things that tend to separate different Christian denominations (ways to baptize, Calvinism v Arminianism, etc.). In the outermost circles are things that are just opinions. I’ve often thought the same way, Boyd’s insight is the addition of the one core point of Jesus Christ crucified, prior to the dogmas and doctrines.

There is much more good in this book. Boyd argues you cannot truly grow in faith if you do not doubt, for if you think you are certain then you won’t seek to learn more. He also calls out Christian apologists who hypocritically expect others to examine their views without being willing to question their own viewpoints. Perhaps most important, he emphasizes the definition of faith not as belief, things you assent to, but as trust. It is different to believe things about God then to trust in God.

I am a fan of Greg Boyd, listening to many of his sermons and reading his books. He is a passionate and intelligent disciple of Jesus. And this book is truly a gift to the Church, I know i will recommend it to many people in the future.

King of the Campus by Stephen Lutz

Steve Lutz does ministry with college students at Penn State University and in his previous book, College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture, gave others who work in campus ministry a lot to ponder and put into practice. His second book, King of the Campus,  is targeted not to his fellow pastors but instead to Christian students on secular university and college campuses. The book is divided into three parts. Part one looks at university life from a Christian perspective. This is the “foundation” part where Steve sets the tone by emphasizing God as the “king of the campus” (hence the title). Part two builds on part one, showing students how they are agents of this God, working to extend God’s kingdom on campus. Finally, part three goes the next step by looking at specific arenas on campus (classroom, church, parties) and how God’s kingship relates to them. 

I guess the best thing I can say about this book is that I am making my student leadership team read it this summer. It will provide us with lots to talk about as we brainstorm for the coming year on campus. I have long looked for a good book to hand out to my students that is not shallow – they’re in college and there is enough shallow Christianity out there already. I have also searched for a book to give them that focuses on their place on campus – there are many books about general ministry but life on campus is unique and needs its own treatment. Finally, I wanted something that was broad – I’ve found many books that focus on the life of the mind, developing a Christian worldview, but there is more to life in college than that. I believe Steve has done campus ministry a great service with this book!

House of the Dead and Poor Folk by Dostoyevsky

Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky will go down as the book I read on my Kindle while I tried to rock my newborn baby to sleep. Perhaps a weird choice. I recall reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales while holding my first child, though I think I read some of those out loud, perhaps scarring her for life. Also, not necessarily a wise choice as Dostoyevsky is not a fast-paced author. So at 3:30 in the morning while I am half-awake, trying to get a baby to sleep but needing to keep awake so I don’t drop the baby, would Dostoyevsky make my eyelids droop? Surprisingly, if Dostoyevsky ever wrote a fast-paced page-turner, this just might be it. 

Poor Folk was his first book, written before his time in prison. The psychological depth of his later books such as Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment is not visible yet. Instead we get an epistolary novel, a story told through the letters between two lonely, poor people. It is beautifully written and well worth your time. If you’ve never read Dostoyevsky, this might be a good place to start.

Then there’s The House of the Dead, which I mostly had finished prior to the baby being born.  When I was in high school I thought The House of the Dead was just a video game (anyone remember that?). I think you got to shoot zombies or other creatures or something. After reading some of Dostoyevsky’s big books I decided to try some of his shorter, lesser known works. This one caught my eye, due to its title, but it obviously has nothing to do with the aforementioned game. Instead this is a story drawn from Dostoyevsky’s own time in prison in Siberia. I found it difficult to read (perhaps a pointless statement as all of Dostoyevsky is a bit difficult, that’s what makes it fantastic). This book was difficult because there is little over-arching narrative. Instead it is a series of memories from prison life. As Dostoyevsky paints the picture, he shows that the prison in Siberia certainly is a house for the living dead. Historically speaking, it seems this sort of prison was the predecessor of the later gulag under communism.

All that said, if you’ve read some Dostoyevsky and want to read more, check this one out. If you’re new, read Crime and Punishment or Poor Folk first and then come here