Every once in a while I come across a passage in the Bible that makes me want to cringe. That was the case yesterday reading 1 John 2: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world.”

Then someone reminded me of something I hadn’t managed to retain in seminary — that in this context the “world” (kosmos) in Greek has more to do with an entrenched, systemic order of things in which “lusts” are in the driver seat. That term itself (“lusts”) can get misinterpreted by contemporary ears: we tend to think of it in exclusively sexualized terms; yet for the writer of John worldly lusts, cravings and “boasting” acquisition and achievement are so much more than merely entertaining naughty thoughts about one’s neighbor.

“Worldly Lusts” – What Are They Really?

Worldly lusts are more like the automatic inner drives or reflexes that condition us to act like we are only cogs in an existing system of how things are (and are fated to be). In America, that “worldly order” is likely a combination of the so-called American dream and its often endlessly workaholic pursuit and a hyper-consumerist culture that bombards our senses with an unrelenting, inescapable blitz of all we must have in order to be happy or to have arrived.

A life given over to these lusts is the modus operandi of acquiring whatever strikes one’s fancy in any given moment:

  • The compulsive need to respond to the subliminal chatter of a Facebook feed that taunts you with your “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out), and which marketing consultants are said to be constructing an endless stream of new apps around
  • The flash sales that seduce you with the promise of more stuff that’s going, going gone
  • The endless appeals to everything we are yet to be, have yet to achieve and that will never ultimately make us happy

Maybe we laugh at those Dos Equis commercials about the most interesting man in the world for the very reason that they also strike a subliminal chord of recognition. Maybe we, too, want to be at the center of things, as masters of having acquired all that we lack.

“Learned Helplessness”: Is It a Spiritual Condition, Too?

Psychologists have used the term “learned helplessness” to describe how seemingly uncontrollable, inescapable events can trigger a state of passivity or paralysis that overrides a person’s natural “fight or flight” escape and survival mechanisms. Positive Psychology founder Dr. Martin Seligman initially coined the term after noticing how dogs that received repeated shocks over time became conditioned to do nothing to escape or protect themselves, even when the opportunity might present itself.

But is it possible that learned helplessness is also a a spiritual condition? When “worldly lusts” become the governing stimuli by which a human life operates and becomes accustomed to, does a similar phenomenon apply?

How Imagination Can Heal “Learned Helplessness” 

Human beings who have experienced the psychological phenomenon of learned helplessness can often find healing via the exercise of their imagination. Replaying a past trauma from the safety of the present moment, and then introducing the perspective of what one would have done to exercise self-agency in that place of perceived helplessness, can help individuals heal from traumatic wounds and feel more alive in the present.

I wonder if practicing the use of the imagination can offer similar hope in answer to the spiritual equivalent of learned helplessness. Does Paul in Romans mean something similar when he challenges his readers to not be “conformed to the pattern of this world” but “transformed by the renewing of your minds”? Is it possible that for the American church at least, our main problem is one of a lack of imagination? If “inspiration” in its most basic sense is to breathe, isn’t imagination, as the direct byproduct of inspiration, central to life itself?

Could it be that learned helplessness — as a conditioned response to “worldly lusts” — is what feeds the victim narratives that  afflict many quarters of the American church today? Is the main root of this problem that we’ve lost our imagination? Perhaps healing begins by asking God to stir our imaginations so that we can “be the change” that we “wish to see in the world,” as Gandhi once put it. Maybe that’s where more abundant life starts — because we don’t have to be helpless cogs in a system that tells us we’re the sum of our lusts.








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