Pavlov’s Dogs and Children of God


Thoughts from yesterday’s sermon: Pavlov, the Russian psychologist, got his dogs to salivate whenever they heard a bell, because they were conditioned to associate getting yummy treats with the sound of the bell. The question then became: what about human beings? Are we simply a product of our conditioning, or is there real freedom within us to chose our own way?

Subsequent tests on human beings have shown us to be not so very different from Pavlov’s dogs. We give a lot of lip service to freedom, and yet close examination of our lives indicates that our choices are often easily predicted by our genes interacting with our environment/conditioning.  Most of this takes place on an unconscious level — the life we think we want is molded by our culture and its endless barrage of advertisements that define for us what a desirable life is supposed to look like.

In the book of Job, human freedom is at stake.  Satan claims that Job’s “goodness”, his “faithfulness”, is merely a product of conditioning that has positively reinforced his moral and pious life.  Take away the positive reinforcements — the happy and healthy life Job has enjoyed with his family, wealth and health — his own version of doggy treats –and Job will quickly curse God and give up his commitment to the good.

The fact that Job does indeed “keep the faith”, even though it is a faith full of questioning and anger, witnesses to the fact that we are indeed more than our conditioning — that we have the capacity to be truly free, rising above our conditioning.

Jesus was getting at the same idea when he talked about love.  If you love those who love you, he said, what does that prove? Your love is simply a product of positive reinforcement.  In essence, you got a doggy treat every time you acted lovingly, because you were getting the love back from those you loved.

If you would be truly free, Jesus says, then your life must reflect the freedom of God, which is demonstrated in the fact that God loves both good and bad people.This is “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

This past week, the suffering of Job was re-enacted in Amish country where several little girls, truly innocent, were savagely murdered by a sick and evil man.  The Amish community witnessed to the glorious freedom of the children of God when they made public statements that they forgave the man who committed these atrocities.  As such, they resembled another Job figure, Jesus himself, innocently suffering and dying on a cross, forgiving those who nailed him there.

What about ourselves?  Are we truly free, or are we just coasting along unconsciously, shaped by the various forms of conditioning taking place in our lives?Â

It took billions of years for human beings to finally appear upon this earth (a fact that is expressed in the Genesis story that portrays human beings being created on the last day, uniquely made “in the image and likeness of God.”) With our advent, a glorious new possibility arose, in some sense revealing the whole purpose of creation:  a creature with the capacity to mirror the creator, truly free, which means truly loving; capable of creating; capable of stepping back with a sense of awe in wonder of it all and saying, “Wow, this is good stuff!”
Have we made that step, or are we still just hanging out with Pavlov’s dogs?



  1. Gail
    09 Oct 2006 12:06:46

    The senseless and horrific murders of Amish school children last week struck a very deep chord with me for a variety of reasons. As a teacher of innocent, multi-disabled children in a small private school, I can only imagine the fear that struck the teacher, adults and of course the children as this scene unfolded. And yet as the story of this man’s possible intent to molest these innocent young victims surfaced, I think that perhaps God was merciful in taking them home before that could happen. I pray that He will continue His healing of those left behind to mourn and grieve their loved ones, as well as those still suffering in serious condition in the hospital.

    Back in June, Al and I had the pleasure of vacationing on a Mennonite farm in Lancaster county surrounded by the Amish in “The Little Stone Cottage,” an absolutely beautiful retreat advertised for “Christian Couples” on a vacation rentals website. (
    This crime took place within 5 miles of where we stayed and the name of the family who offers the house for rent is Stoltzfooz, similar to that of one of the murdered young girls and apparently a very common German name in that area. We have reservations to go back to the farm over President’s weekend in Feb. so I sent an email to the owners expressing our sympathies, thoughts and prayers for their family and community. I am in awe at the level of forgiveness that they have expressed in the news reports–not so much for the family of the killer, but for him! As Lucy Stotzfoos so graciously responded in her email back to me, healing will take a long time, but with the grace of God, it will happen. These beautiful people really do “walk the walk!”
    Their faith is remarkable, not unlike that of Job. I know that my own faith has been strengthened by the many unpleasant experiences of my own life and I’ve learned that it truly always works out for the best. I know that may sound contrite, but I do believe it. If we didn’t experience the sad and bad, we might not recognize the good that comes from those times.

    As my dear old friend Jeanette Nickelson always said, we are the sum total of our life’s experiences and if it doesn’t kill us it will make us stronger! What a truly wise and wonderful friend she was and how much I will always miss her.

    May our faith always be strengthened by the happenings in our lives, even as it takes time to heal and recognize the blessings God has bestowed upon us.

  2. Justin
    09 Oct 2006 15:33:51

    I was thinking about yesterday’s sermon as I was driving into work this morning, and I was struck by the following semi-paradox: Conventional wisdom holds that God created humankind with the unique trait of ‘freewill”, but the message in Job is that it is only in accepting and embracing God’s will that we can truly consider ourselves free. A secular version of this sentiment is poetically summarized in the lyrics to the song of one of my favorite bands, Rush:


    There are those who think that life has nothing left to chance
    A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance

    A planet of play things
    We dance on the strings
    Of powers we cannot perceive
    ‘The stars aren’t aligned
    Or the gods are malign…’
    Blame is better to give than receive

    You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
    You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
    I will choose a path that’s clear
    I will choose freewill

    There are those who think
    That they were dealt a losing hand
    The cards were stacked against them
    They weren’t born in Lotusland

    All preordained
    A prisoner in chains
    A victim of venomous fate
    Kicked in the face
    You can’t pray for a place
    In heaven’s unearthly estate


    Each of us
    A cell of awareness
    Imperfect and incomplete
    Genetic blends
    With uncertain ends
    On a fortune hunt that’s far too fleet


    Side note: Rush was a favorite band of John Jernstrom’s as well. I fondly remember seeing one of their shows a few years ago with John and Greg Elbin in tow. I’m sure John is cracking a grin right now at my ability to slip a Rush reference into Pastor Jeff’s blog 🙂

  3. Susan
    09 Oct 2006 17:34:45

    It has been reported that two of the survivors of the Amish shooting told their parents that 13-year-old Marian Fisher, one of the slain girls, asked to be shot first, apparently hoping the younger girls would be let go, according to Leroy Zook, an Amish dairy farmer.

    “Shoot me and leave the other ones loose.”

    She left this world with such honor and courage, truly living out John 15:13 — “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

    She chose God’s way freely.

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