Having Our Senses Trained

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:12-14

The writer of Hebrews has been expounding some weighty questions in the previous chapters; concepts essential to the understanding of Christianity. But his audience isn’t mature enough to comprehend these. The author isn’t telling them, “That’s all right, you’re just children. You’ll get this later.” He is saying that they ought to have trained themselves better by now. The Greek word for trained, , contains a root from which we get our word gymnasium. The phrase translated “constant practice” carries the sense of “habit.” So, the writer is saying, “You should have been in constant training to develop the habit of distinguishing good from evil!” That sounds like work.  

Long before Hebrews was written, Aristotle discussed the question; “Whether happiness [which seems to be the best thing in the world] is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training, or comes in virtue of some divine providence or again by chance.” (Nic.Eth. I.9)    

In Book II.1, he answers himself; “Nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature . . . Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.”  

There are practically unlimited self-help resources available that offer to teach, for a price, how to develop useful habits. Opinions differ as to how long this should take. Anyone who has ever resolved to get into better physical shape or to start eating better is well aware that it takes much less time to develop a bad habit than a good one. Once we have acquired something we consider a “good habit,” it still requires intentional efforts to maintain it. Unfortunately, the bad ones take almost no conscious effort. They seem to exist by nature, and must be broken rather than simply let expire.  

Aristotle concludes the above mentioned section with, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” We live our lives by habits. Either those habits will simply happen to us or we will have to make an effort to cultivate virtue.  

I often hear people asking questions such as, “My child will only read books about ______.  She’s already read this, this, and this. What else can I give her?” In this instance, a habit is being, or has been, formed; possibly in the parent and the child. The thinking seems to be, “I want my child to love to read, but she isn’t as enthusiastic about it as I would like. Or is, perhaps, downright contrary.  However, she’s consented to reading about ______, therefore, I must find more of that, whether it is good literature or not.”

Why does this seem like the proper approach when it comes to choosing books for our children when few of us would consider the same approach in other matters of health or character formation? Wouldn’t most of us look with scorn upon a parent who would say, “My child is a picky eater. All she wants to eat is peanut butter. So, please share your best peanut butter cookie recipes and alert me to sales on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I’m hoping that by indulging this phase I will be cultivating a love of healthful eating. I mean, really, as long as she’s eating . . . Right?”  

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Our senses are constantly being trained, but becoming accustomed to solid food won’t happen without effort. We’ve become so used to the market scrambling to meet our consumer-mindedness that some of us can hardly manage unless our books meet us right where we are. The publishing industry is expected to cater to everyone. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear, “Why, oh, why isn’t anyone writing books for redheaded adopted children who were bitten by dogs when they were toddlers?” The demands cause publishers to flog writers into searching for that last frontier in niches. What is the next group we can cater to? Can’t think of anything original? Simply take a tradition and turn it on its head. As we passively accept this situation, we allow modern literature to dull our hearing rather than taking an active role in training our senses.  

Virtues aren’t going to arise in us without some hard work. We’re going to have to stretch ourselves. When someone laments, “No one is writing stories with main characters just like me,” why do we so often say, “Yes, yes, you’re so right.  We must contrive more of that”? Instead of, “Have you tried this new series?” why are we not replying, “Have you already exhausted the classics?”


Aristotle also observed, “. . . children in fact live at the beck and call of appetite . . .” (Nic.Eth. III.12) Anyone who ever was a child knows this is true. As parents, we surely don’t desire that our children remain in this state. But it does seem that, with our own senses dulled, we often mistake devouring for real reading.   

Contemplating our uncultivated habits brings C.S. Lewis to mind. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he describes what he means by joy, and how trying to “get it again” became his constant endeavor. The harder he tried to conjure the feeling, the less often it came. Sometimes, when he forgot himself for a moment, he again tasted joy; “But far more often I frightened it away by my greedy impatience to snare it, and, even when it came, instantly destroyed it by introspection, and at all times vulgarized it by my false assumption about its nature.”  

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We should be training our senses, and those of our children, to read deeply and well rather than encouraging a habit of reading with greedy impatience trying to conjure a certain feeling, constantly trying to “get it again.”

Books don’t have to be a certain age in order to contribute to the cultivation of virtue. Some things to look for, however, are writing and stories that attempt to raise the reader to a higher level of virtue rather than stooping to the reader’s comfort level.

One theme involved in turning traditions on their heads is to have stories without a clear distinction between good guys and bad guys. It’s considered clever to blur the line between good and evil. We can’t train ourselves to discern good from evil if there are no heroes who wrestle with evil and win.  

Neither Aristotle nor the author of Hebrews pretends that acquiring virtue is easy. They speak of training and being made prefect. Being made perfect means we’re not there yet. If we’re not in good shape, training should start slowly. A business mentor used to say, “Find someone who has what you want and do what he did.” Perhaps a good starting point might be training your eyes and ears to sense someone who has what you want. Find a mentor and ask about the next small step.