First impressions matter.

It’s been a truism in business and sales circles, but no book has demonstrated it as clearly as Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. In the first two seconds of seeing someone, we have already disposed ourselves toward them in a certain way. Life is not just a matter of our conscious thoughts or our willful decisions–our environment and context shapes us in ways that we may not be aware of.

And as a result, these first impressions are malleable. We can change them by placing ourselves in new situations and settings. So Gladwell writes:

Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions–we can alter the way we thin-slice–by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions. If you are a white person who would like to treat black people as equals in every way–who would like to have a set of associations with blacks that are as positive as those you have with whites–it requires more than a simple commitment to equality. It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture, so that when you want to meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority, you aren’t betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort.
As Christians, we of course want to see the world as it is, which means seeing individuals as made in God’s image and being aware of the demonic among us. Our “first impression” of individuals must go deeper than race or personality–rather, we must become attuned to their spiritual status.

If Gladwell is right, then changing these first impressions demands placing ourselves in contexts that reinforce seeing people this way. Our sanctification is not a matter of our decisions or our will alone, but a matter of repeatedly and constantly placing ourselves in environments that will reinforce the work of the Spirit in the secret parts of our heart. Whether by listening to music, consuming appropriate entertainment or surrounding ourselves with friendships that edify, we must situate ourselves so that our environment reinforces our Christian beliefs.

There is one further lesson to tease out, I think, from Gladwell’s insight. I have sometimes met individuals who at one point had experienced something like an Aldersgate moment, but had become burnt out on church sometime later and stopped attending because it had become dull. I have some sympathy for this.

But if Gladwell is right about the incredible number of decisions that are occuring on the fringes of our consciousness, then we must be faithful to put ourselves in contexts where the Spirit is working even when it seems as though He is absent. He may be, after all, rearranging the furniture in the dark corners of the mental room and shaping our subconscious patterns of judgement. We endanger our own spiritual lives if we pursue only the growth that we can be aware of, rather than the growth the Spirit is working in us.

See my review of Blink here.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

2 Comments

  1. He may be, after all, rearranging the furniture in the dark corners of the mental room and shaping our subconscious patterns of judgement. We endanger our own spiritual lives if we pursue only the growth that we can be aware of, rather than the growth the Spirit is working in us.

    This is an great insight and excellent reminder.

    Usually the most drastic changes in a Christian’s lifestyle immediately follow conversion, but that doesn’t mean sanctification slows down afterwards. It’s just that the obvious stuff is usually first, and it takes the rest of one’s life to “rewire” the subtler habits of thought as well as action.

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