Land of the Little Loves?

Michael Metzger

Think globally, act locally. Good idea—but not great. It suggests we’re living in the land of the little loves.

David Brooks recently wrote about how we have big and little loves.¹ The little loves are for family and neighborhood. They’re good. They’re like a shepherd protecting his flock. A big love is about changing the world. It’s taking on climate change, human trafficking, or reframing capitalism (what Whole Foods’ John Mackey seeks to do).

The distinction between big and small is the difference between the intimate and the transcendent. Small loves—family, church, neighborhood—are based on what we see as beautiful. They’re local. A big love is based on what inspires awe. It’s global. It’s embracing what business consultant Jim Collins calls a BHAG, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

There are at least two ways to discover big and little loves. One is neuroscience. Recently neuroscientists have shown that the experiences of beauty and awe activate different parts of the brain. However, most of us can’t afford an fMRI scan. We have to look elsewhere. I suggest a cheaper route—James K. A. Smith’s new book.

Smith is the author of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. This is the third book in the Calvin College professor’s trilogy on human nature. I wish he had written it first. You Are What You Love is his most accessible book. The central idea is that you are what you love. What you love is what you do habitually. What you do habitually is chiefly formed by cultures.

If you’ve read Smith’s first two books, you know he views evangelicalism’s understanding of human nature as marred by the Enlightenment. Smith is not alone in this assessment. But when you read You Are What You Love, you’ll begin to see how Enlightenment-informed evangelical cultures nurture little loves more than big loves. Take discipleship.

“Every approach to discipleship assumes an implicit model of what human beings are,” Smith writes. They shape how we view “what sorts of creatures we are—and therefore what sorts of learners we are.” Enlightenment learning can be summed up as: Think right, act right. But this is a reductionist approach to discipleship. Humans become nothing more than brains-on-a-stick. Smith observed this in an advertisement for a Bible verse memory program in a magazine. At the center of the ad was a man’s face. Emblazoned across his forehead: “YOU ARE WHAT YOU THINK.” But that’s not true.

The Enlightenment approach overestimates the influence of thinking and underestimates the power of nonconscious processes. Behavior is mistakenly seen as always the outcome of conscious, rational reflection that ends with a choice. But as Iris Murdoch notes, “At crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”²

The truth is that, for the most part, we intuitively feel our way through life more than think our way. This is what Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, says in his book Strangers to Ourselves. It is “nonconscious” operations that mostly shape behavior. Only about five percent of what we do is the outcome of conscious, deliberate choices. Ninety-five percent is nonconscious, shaped by cultures. In today’s world, the most influential cultures—the ones most shaping us—are global. This is why making disciples requires making global culturesacting globally; not just thinking about it.

Getting to work on making global cultures will create a sense of awe. Big loves. But when Christians merely think globally—study it, discuss it—we don’t inspire awe. We’re left with little loves—family, friends, and neighborhood. I hear this in Christians saying they only want to make a decent living, have a nice home, and find a good church in which to raise their kids. What ever happened to a BHAG, like changing the world?

The early church “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). That’s a BHAG. I’m longing to hear of believers pursuing BHAGs—big loves—as well as little loves. If that describes you, I recommend Smith’s book. He describes the kinds of corporate worship experiences and spiritual disciplines that inspire awe. These foster the big loves.

David Brooks writes that the amount of big love in a society can rise and fall. Alexis de Tocqueville feared something like this happening to America. He wrote of “the danger that, amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness.” He feared daily life would become “quieter and less aspiring.” I see this happening in the faith community. We’re living in the land of the little loves.


[1] David Brooks, “In Defense of Big Loves,” The New York Times, May 31, 2016.
[2] Heather Widdows, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (London: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p. 109.


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  1. Mike,
    I agree with your wish that Smith had written this book first. . . A very well done book which points to huge implications for the way we not just “think” about liturgy but for the reality that what we do and practice actually shapes us. I agree that acting globally requires a lot more than just thinking about it, but the ways it is often done is through things like mission tourism and the like. Global engagement must mean more than just doing stuff far away… it is tacking big issues that take us beyond of our comfortable limiting actions.

  2. The BHAG for Smith is to practice habits that heighten your enjoyment and awareness of God’s presence in the here and now. Of course, many in our world would not consider that a BHAG. I think, however, the chief end of man (according to the Westminster Confession of Faith)is indeed to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. That, I believe, is a BHAG. I am afraid that many of the BHAG that I have committed to in the past have been ego-driven in many ways by my false self. Yes, God’s will could be for me (or His church) to accomplish something world changing…but it might be “big” in a much different manner.

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