Three is a Magic Number

Three is a magic number. School House Rock taught me that. Dr. John Frame taught me that. But more importantly, the Bible taught me that! It seems that important things often come in threes. Not as a ranking of 1, 2, and 3, but as a union of three different, yet equally important things.  The Trinity is an excellent example of three distinct yet united persons who work together. They are not ranked in importance, but all rely on each other.

But we have clusters of threes within ourselves as well. One that we will focus on today is the trio of “head, heart, and hands.” If we define “head” as what we know or study, “heart” as what we feel, and “hands” as what we do, then we can see how they begin to work together. What I believe will necessarily influence my behavior. There are also holy and unholy ways we can think, feel, and act which we have termed called orthodoxy, orthopathos, and orthopraxy respectively.

Let’s look at their interrelatedness more: Right thinking (orthodoxy) can inform our emotions and our practices. If we learn and trust God’s sovereignty, our emotions and actions may be different when confronted with challenging times in life. Similarly, if I know of God’s love for all peoples, it can influence my emotions toward Missions, and I may go myself or support those who are sent in my actions. But we need not always go in this order from head to heart to hands. Science tells us that we can “trick” our heads by smiling. The physical act of smiling, even when forced, can release neurotransmitters into our brains to make us happier. Thus, actions influence emotions.  C.S. Lewis reminded us of this in Mere Christianity when he wrote, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” These examples are not promoting a “fake it till you make it” type of living, but demonstrating how our faculties interact within us. We are whole, embodied persons, not just brains, and emotions, and actions. The beauty of the three relying on each other is that as we grow in sanctification in any of them, it should have carryover into the others. We are greater than the sum of our parts. We will likely have natural propensities toward head or heart or hands, but we can find what we are weakest or “less naturally inclined to” and focus on that for the good of all three.

When these three are working in union, we are greater as a whole. But balance in the trio is imperfect much of the time. We have likely all experienced imbalance within ourselves and others. Orthopraxy alone is legalism – looking only to how we act and not for the “why” behind it. Orthodoxy alone is haughty, concerned with right and wrong and not with how truth, which is both good and beautiful, changes us, or helps our fellow man. James reminds us that faith without the associated actions (that should come from head, heart, and hands working in unison) is dead (James 2:14). Orthopathos without orthodoxy or orthopraxy is unrooted emotionality without rails to run on. Sometimes emotions can be referred to negatively, but even a cursory look at the Psalms reminds us that David, a man after God’s own heart, felt deeply. Emotions are not the enemy. Orthopathos isn’t about feeling less, but about allowing our emotions to drive us toward God and others in worship, gratitude, compassion, and service.

Many have experienced this imbalance in different seasons in life. Consider the seminary student who spends all of his or her time studying God’s word, but feels dry spiritually. Or consider the servant who spends all of his or her time serving God’s people, but similarly feels dry spiritually. Knowledge is good. Emotions are good. Service is good. All were created by God for his glory and our good and sanctification.

We need all three. Study and read books. Ask others about their lives. Work hard, volunteer, practice hospitality. Connect, journal, cry, and laugh. Pray and share one another’s burdens. All are important. All can be acts of worship. All can be done in big or small ways. Checking in with one’s head, heart, and hands should be done regularly. Because three is a magic number.

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