Learning to be Grateful

One of my morbid recreational interests is to watch CI - the Sky channel that covers forensics, law enforcement and courtcases in short programmes that can be watched over lunch or while doing the ironing. This long weekend I saw a new one, Curious and Unusual Deaths, which retells the stories of how people have died in weird, fascinating and unexplained ways around the world. (Yes, ghoulish I know, but it is Hallowe'en season!)

The episode that most caught my interest - and sympathy - was one portraying a 28-year-old South Korean man who died after playing an online computer game for almost 50 hours. Lee started playing the popular battle simulation game Starcraft on August 3 2005 and was fixed to his seat for over two days, his marathon gaming session broken only with the occasional toilet break or five-minute nap. Police said the man died from cardiac arrest “stemming from exhaustion”. Lee was hoping to become a professional gamer, a well-paid profession in South Korea where fantasy games cause massive social problems. Multiplayer online role playing games keep thousands of players glued to their screens for many hours.

The programme explained Lee's fatal attraction to the game by reference to intermittent scheduling of reinforcement. This phrase was a 'blast from the past' for me, since I completed three years study of psychology for my Science degree in the early seventies. At both Auckland and Otago Universities I learned to train rats and pigeons using a Skinner box, an animal crate that enables the creature to be rewarded for certain behaviours by the delivery of food. The 'schedule of reinforcement' is the protocol for determining when responses or behaviours will be reinforced. A schedule can offer continuous reinforcement, in which every response is reinforced, like the result we get when turning on a light switch, or extinction, in which no response is reinforced, like when we kick the non-responsive photocopier. Between these extremes is intermittent reinforcement where only some responses are reinforced - like taking a lottery ticket. My studies of the pigeons I taught to peck coloured buttons, in order to release a grain of wheat, utterly convinced me of the principle that intermittent reinforcement produces greater persistence - greater resistance to extinction -than continuous reinforcement. Reinforcement only part of the time results in slower acquisition of a behaviour, but much greater resistance to extinction of that response. (Myers, Exploring Psychology, 2005). Extensive research on how reinforcers can be most effectively scheduled have observed pigeons trained under a "variable interval regime" responding more than 10,000 times without being rewarded.

What has all that got to do with the godshapedlife? Well this same week that I watched that programme, I listened to a sermon on podcast, one that I got from Mars Hill Bible Church. Shane Hipps was speaking about Luke 11: 1 - 13, and contrasting the generosity of God with the begrudging hospitality of the neighbour woken at midnight. I wont go into it here but he offered an insightful re-translation of verse 8 that reminds us that even respected translations may miss something). Moving on to the section about eggs and scorpions, he noted how our gracious Father promises to give good gifts to his children, and calls on us to "ask, seek and knock."

And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

So God longs to give good gifts to his children. But why should we have to ask, pondered Hipps, rhetorically, when God is god anyway, and can do what God sovereignly wills for our good, without our permission or cooperation?

There is a pedestrian crossing outside his office in Seattle. It has a pole and a button, and folk who wish to cross the road press that button and wait for the lights to switch ,and the Don't Walk sign to change to Walk. We in NZ know about those buttons. Sometimes you stand there for ages before it changes, sometimes the response to your button-pressing is almost instant. You actually don't know if there is any connection between the button and the phasing of the lights but you press it anyway. And eventually it changes. This is where my thoughts leapt back to that pigeon cage in 1970, and a bird frantically pecking a button because once or twice, ten minutes ago, pecking that button gave him some grain. And a Korean lad clicking away for fifty hours because sometimes by doing that he achieved a target and moved up a level. Is our intercessory prayer life any different from that mindless addiction?

Shane Hipps didn't say this, but here is where my thinking went. The only way to prove that button is connected electronically to the pedestrian lights would be to have an electrical engineer uncover the wiring and trace it back. And the point of this passage, about eggs and scorpions, is the uncovering of the circuitry of prayer. Earthly fathers can be trusted, in the main, to protect and bless their children. How much more trustworthy is our heavenly Father, says Jesus. He encourages us to ask, seek and knock, and promises good gifts, not the least of which is the presence and power of his very own Spirit.

Coming back to the podcast, I heard where Shane Hipps actually went with this passage. It was a bit of an 'aha moment' for me. Picking up on that point of God's sovereignty and grace, he asked again the rhetorical question, "If God is god, and does his will anyway, why do we have to ask, seek and knock?" The answer, he said, is to teach us gratitude. If we never asked, we would never experience that rush of thankfulness when something goes well for us. Everything would be random, like the pigeon who gets her grain without pecking anything. (or a modern eenager who gets a car and a phone without saving for it). But if that same pigeon gets the food every time she pecks, her behaviour would not last through any dry period of non-reward. It is extinguished as soon as the rewards stop. Only when the rewards are intermittent, will she keep responding. And only when the answers to our prayers are intermittent, will we sustain enough hope to keep asking, and experience deep gratitude when we are blessed with a positive response. I recalled the research of the Spindrift group who found that the rate of germination of rye seeds and mung beans changed with prayer, and even more so under condtiond of stress. Twice as much prayer produced double the positive effects, and non-directed prayer ("Thy will be done" prayer) was more effective than directed prayer.

This might sound all very theoretical and mechanistic to you, but to me it is fascinating, part of the wonder of creation. If the rhythm of life is one that revolves around intermittent reinforcement, could not such a schema be integral to how humanity cooperates with our Creator through the mystery of prayer? Next time one of your prayers is seemingly unanswered, remember that God is shaping our behaviour towards increased trust in, and dependence on, him. And when you do experience one of God's good gifts, remember to be deeply thankful.

To Chew Over: What are you asking, seeking, knocking for this week? How will you react if God seems to say No?

Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.

Prayer is the contrite sinners' voice,
returning from their way,
while angels in their songs rejoice
and cry, "Behold, they pray!"

Prayer is the Christians' vital breath,
the Christians' native air;
their watchword at the gates of death;
they enter heaven with prayer.

O Thou, by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way:
the path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray!
James Montgomery.