The world is full of bad reasoning, which is too bad because few people bother to learn logic anymore. What’s worse, the most common logical fallacies could be learned (and memorized) without too much trouble. This could save your life, your church, and your writing a lot of trouble.

For example, everyone should be familiar with the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. I say everyone should be familiar with this fallacy because everyone already is. We’ve all encountered this poor logic. I imagine we’ve all espoused it ourselves. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.” It’s the fallacy that confuses temporal sequence with causation. Whenever we reason “A happened, then B; therefore A caused B,” and cite no other information to substantiate this claim, we are committing the post hoc fallacy.

We see this fallacy all the time in every day life. On Friday I was watching the Chicago Blackhawks come back to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus was up by a goal when their goalie allowed a relatively easy shot to get by him. A minute later the Blackhawks scored again, causing the announcers to talk throughout the rest of the game about momentum and how that easy goal got the Blue Jackets out of sync, rattled their goalie, and opened the way for the next goal. But did the first goal in any way cause the second? Maybe Columbus let its guard down, but maybe Bryan Bickell fired off a wrister that would have got passed almost any goalie.

The same kind of illogic shows up in the news just as much. I’m always hearing “The markets are responding favorably to the President’s speech this morning,” as if something as volatile and complex as the worldwide global financial markets allow for such simple cause and effect. During presidential campaigns most of the coverage revolves around the horse race, with pundits confidently explaining where every tick up or down in the polls (all withing the margin of error mind you) is the result of this gaffe or that brilliant one liner.

We like to think we know why things are they way they are. But rarely can the complexities of campaigns and markets, let alone nations and centuries, be explained by simply noting what thing came before another thing.

The Post Hoc Problem in Personal Ministry

Our particular danger as Christians is that we like to explain people with the post hoc fallacy. Though our formal theology says otherwise, our practical theology often assumes that history is destiny. When trying to help people understand their struggles and their sins we tend to mistake prior personal experiences for causality. In other words, we approach present problems as if the most helpful course of actions is always to root around in past pain. Now to be sure, a good counselor (or friend or fellow Christian) will ask good questions about our personal histories.  Our past can effect the way we behave and experience reality in the present. But we mustn’t think the ways things were have determined the way things are.

In his excellent book Seeing with New Eyes, David Powlison tells the story of a young woman named Amelia. Since she was in elementary school, Amelia struggled with lesbian fantasies. She hated these fantasies and loved them at the same time. She was a Christian and figured she had to change or come out of the closet and forget about God. So she got some counseling. She discovered that she didn’t choose these desires, but they just happened to her. Her therapist accepted her (which helped) and explained the reasons for her lesbian attractions. Amelia’s father was an alcoholic and beat her and molested her. As a result, Amelia never learned to trust men. She looked to her mother for comfort, but she was helpless and passive. So Amelia has spent her life looking for a female love to fill the void her mother left inside her when Amelia needed her most. Years later, Amelia has learned that only Jesus can fill her deepest needs and she’s learning to resist her temptations more effectively.

What are we to make of this testimony? Powlison calls Amelia an “ambiguously cured soul.” Some good has certainly taken place, but there are some problems in Amelia’s story too. Her history, while crucial, is not as determinative as she thinks. Powlison notes that a woman with the same family history could have ended up with at least six different choices and habits. She could long for lesbian love, like Amelia, trying to fill the void her mother left. She could also have become promiscuous with men, having a distrust of women from her absent mother and a fascination with men from her overly sexual father. She could have become anti-social, figuring it’s not safe to relate to anyone because of her background. She could have become an addict, choosing to drown her pain in alcohol or drugs. She could have married an abusive man, repeating what happened to her growing up. Or she could have grown to love and value godliness in marriage after having seen such ungodliness growing up. Powlison concludes, “Knowledge of a person’s history may be important for many reasons (compassion, understanding, knowledge of characteristic temptations), but it never determines the hearts inclinations.”

There’s no doubt that where we’ve been has an effect on who we are. Sanctified common sense tells us not to ignore the past. But the post hoc fallacy warns us against giving too much power to the past. According to the Scriptures, the most important stuff in life flows inexorably from the human heart, not from our human histories. For all of us there’s A before B in our personal stories, but the notion that therefore A has caused B is not only illogical, it’s unbiblical.

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31 thoughts on “Your Heart Matters More Than Your History”

  1. Wesley says:

    Great post KD. I’m with you on both the need for people to understand logic today and the abuse of this simple logical fallacy. I think it occurs so much b/c it requires less work to truly determine what’s going on in our hearts. We get to become the Columbos of our own hearts and say, ‘aha! How can i pass off the responsibility for what’s presently going on in my heart? Oh, yes, this happened therefore i had no choice really.” Of course, this is not always the case, but immediately jumping to this fallacy i think is more common than we’d like to admit when dealing with any number of sin issues.

  2. Aaron says:

    Depends what you mean by the word “caused”. You hinted at it with “not giving too much power”. Ok, and agreed wholeheartedly. But, what about secondary causes, like letting a guard down towards certain behaviors that lead towards greater sins? I’m not saying you just blame your past and thus “pass the buck” in some sense. But, pointing out that an event led to a thinking, that led to an experiment that led to a certain sin struggle is wise and discerning.

    I really like this post, but sometimes in our current passion to root out the “heart issue” behind the sin, we could be helped by seeing how that heart issue was ever even on the table. The past can help here.

  3. Tom Eggebeen says:

    Just stumbled upon this blog … wasn’t sure what you were doing with this critique of logic … which I think you accurately describe. Yet, I was disappointed when you made Amelia the product of her past, anyway, determining, inaccurately, that her lesbian inclinations are a “temptation” to be resisted rather than her reality attacked by well-meaning (?) and poorly informed, christians. Anyway, I’m sure you have good intentions, but the old saw of “lesbian temptations” is tiring, indeed. I’m sure there are folks in your congregation who lap this stuff up, feeling all the more self-righteous, but I wonder how many Amelia’s in Lansing are finding faith and hope and life in Christ in congregations where the LGBTQ persons are welcomed and affirmed rather than condemned as a “temptation” to be resisted. Hope you give further thought to this and find your way to a more wholesome appreciation of life for people like Amelia. I think your analysis of the logic is right; you succumbed to the fallacy, however, in the end with Amelia. Or at least, that’s how I see it.

  4. Wesley says:

    @Tom –
    dunno how to say this bro but Christians kinda agree with the bible that all sexual urges outside of heterosexual marriage are to be resisted. People are absolutely accepted as they are (or should be) when they come into church, but that doesn’t mean they ought to to stay as they come. We’re all in process and all dealing with different stuff. The issue you’re describing then is wanting a Christianity that will just ignore what God says on a given subject, be it homosexuality or something else. It’s like someone who believes in Eugenics wanting to work at an old folks home, but not wanting them to take such a string stance on the value of life for elderly – not gonna work out.

  5. Norm says:

    If I may address a commenter, I beleve that you, Tom, have missed the point of Kevin’s post. He has not made Amelia the product of her past– he (echoing Powlison) says rather that her lesbian desires arise from her heart. When he talks about six different ways that a person could have responded to experiences like Amelia’s, he is saying that the simple reason she responded as she did instead of some other way is her heart’s inclination. Do you not say something similar, i.e. that Amelia’s reality includes lesbian desires and that she is following her heart? Where you differ with Kevin, and with Powlison, is that you believe those inclinations of her heart should be welcomed and affirmed and they do not.

  6. Andrew says:

    Great post Brother,

    I hope many people read this and are as encouraged as I was. I pray that people recognize that God is BIGGER than the past and although the past plays a role, the Sovereign Lord can change the heart of anyone he pleases.

    Ive been part of conversations with people where this seems to be thrown out the window. I’m thinking of times when people are discussing who is more likely to “accept Christ” or people who are more likely to “be good disciples” usually in the context of youth ministry. i think such talk is borderline blasphemous and fails to acknowledge the sovereign grace of God.

    Romans 8:28-30 The past doesn’t determine salvation. God determines salvation.

    Soli Deo Gloria.

  7. Melody says:

    Great post – I almost want to forward it to a friend who is very logical most times, but has given too much power to the past and has been encouraged in that by other well-meaning Christians. But a conversation might be better.

  8. Great post. I would like to recommend a book that really helps in counseling people to not only look at the past but also look to Christ. It is called “Cross Talk: Where Life and Scripture Meet” by Michael Emlet (I have no stake in how well his book does, just thought it was a good complement to your article).

  9. Andrew says:

    Well said Kevin.

    A great site to quickly learn and/or review the most commonly used logical fallacies is https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

    Thanks for this post!

  10. Tom Eggebeen says:

    I knew it … touch a sore spot, and the yelping begins … damn those LGBTQ persons; what right do they have to expect anything but a trouncing from all these good christians, who truly know everything because of their inerrant Bible (which one, the original?) and, of course, “all Christians agree,” which means that I couldn’t possible be one – how convenient. Oh boy, what a joke, all of this pious posturing. Oh well … to leave you all to your comfortable little corner, I’ll not bother with any further posts. Truly sorry I came across this blog. Yikes … THE END!

  11. Wesley says:

    Thanks Tom for demonstrating the “Tu quoque” fallacy for us.

  12. David Volsky says:

    @Andrew (the first one) – I agree with what you’ve said about who is likely to accept Christ or be a good disciple. The Apostle Paul is the perfect example. Of all the people we would pick to be the champion of the Christian faith, it certainly would not have been Saul of Tarsus. But God, in his sovereignty, saw fit to do otherwise. God is truly amazing.

    @Andrew (the second one) – Thanks for the link with the list of logical fallacies. It was either my speech or philosophy class where we discussed many of these, but I lost my notes and have been looking for something like this. Very helpful to me.

  13. Paul Janssen says:

    By a wide, wide margin, the most egregious example of post hoc ergo propter hoc is the reading of history that says “everything started to go to pot in American history when the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools in 1963.” I’ve heard that so many times that it’s apparently become an accepted “fact.” It’s really no such thing. For one thing, a LOT of things happened in 1963 (as they do in every year). Hello? Kennedy assassination? VietNam? Etc….. For another, the Supreme Court never banned prayer in 1963. It ruled against certain types of prayer in certain situations, but the decision didn’t spring out of nowhere, and it has continued to evolve over the years (in ways that I consider to be totally absurd, but what I think about it isn’t really the point). That the ’60’s were a major turning point is without doubt — read Robert Putnam’s American Grace — but to pin all of today’s culture wars on a single Supreme Court decision is a total fallacy, in terms of logic. Not really a direct response to Kevin–just a sideways example of similar frustration.

  14. Hodge says:

    “but I wonder how many Amelia’s in Lansing are finding faith and hope and life in Christ in congregations where the LGBTQ persons are welcomed and affirmed rather than condemned as a “temptation” to be resisted.”

    We don’t have to wonder, because the Bible indicates that the answer is, “None.” Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Hence, the gospel is “repent and believe.” Any LGBTQ person who repents may be saved, like anyone else who repents, but the Bible is clear that without repentance, salvation isn’t possible. Hence, to affirm one is his or her sin is a hate-filled evil that damns the LGBTQ person. That’s the irony of your comments. You’re actually the hateful one. Crazy how life works, hugh?

  15. Paul Janssen says:

    Wow. You’re hateful. No, you’re more hateful than me. These are apparently two Christ-followers talking to each other? Aside from which side is “right,” what kind of public witness is this? Is there any surprise that non believers see little to emulate among us? This kind of rancor they can get in “the world.” Could we have the tiniest bit of maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, please?

  16. Hodge says:

    Paul,

    Are you joking? Seriously. We’re to love one another in the way the Scripture tells us to love one another, and that includes rebuking one another when we are being hateful in the biblical sense. Your version is anachronistic and begs the question as to what is loving. I see nothing but a false assumption on your part. Unity in the bond of peace has everything to do with talking about what is loving and what is hateful in terms of bringing about that peace, which is shalom “order,” not getting along as you seem to think it is. That’s why unity is in the truth in Scripture. Your unity separates it from truth and good and places it with “effeminized” speech. You ought to rebuke the authors of Scripture for the same then. I’m sure they’d grow as weary of your “cult of the nice” as I am. Give me love over nice and save my life, would you?

    BTW, don’t you think it’s a tad bit hypocritical to call people out for attempting to identify hatred and then go on to call their speech hateful?

  17. Paul Janssen says:

    Hodge,

    Please quote in detail the location where I called either your or Tom’s speech “hateful.” Please indicate to me how saying “You’re actually the hateful one” falls within the dictum of Christ to “love one another” or, for that matter, “love your enemies.” I did a search — I figured I must have missed Tom accusing someone of “hate speech.” But it’s not there. I won’t impugn your motives. I won’t question your faith. I refuse to call you hateful, because I’ve never met you. We may differ on what “maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” means — I don’t notice the phrase “unity in truth” in there — but our difference doesn’t mean that your read is any more adequate than mine. May God bless you in every overture in which you truly express the spirit of Christ. Peace be with you.

  18. Paul Janssen says:

    BTW can someone tell me exactly where the “unity in truth” meme comes from? Is it Martyn Lloyd-Jones? Because while it is possible that the nothion can be derived from the Scriptures, it is, thererfore, derivative, and, I wouldn’t think, authoritative. Am I totally mistaken about this? It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been out to lunch, of course, but it seems to me that it’s being rather uncritically appropriated as though it were on a par with, say “speaking the truth in love…..” Just curious. I stand ready to be enlightened.

  19. Hodge says:

    Paul,

    “Please quote in detail the location where I called either your or Tom’s speech “hateful.””

    No problem. Here you go:

    1. “Is there any surprise that non believers see little to emulate among us?”

    Why would nonbelievers see little to emulate among us if you were implying that my speech was in line with Christian love? Here, it’s merely the implication of hateful speech. But this is made explicit in the next phrase.

    2. “This kind of rancor they can get in “the world.”” What do you think “rancor” means? Are you honestly trying to get away with hiding what you said with a synonym? “Rancor” = hateful.

    “Please indicate to me how saying “You’re actually the hateful one” falls within the dictum of Christ to “love one another” or, for that matter, “love your enemies.””

    How does it not? It teaches someone who has a confused view of what is loving what love and hate really are. It’s loving to tell someone that they are being hateful by affirming their children when they take meth. It’s loving to point out that hatred works against the life of someone and the exaltation of God in their lives. I can’t, for the life of me, understand why I even have to point this obvious fact out to you, Paul.

    “I did a search — I figured I must have missed Tom accusing someone of “hate speech.” But it’s not there.”

    Wow, you’re quite the wooden literalist, Paul, aren’t you? So if I just tell everyone that you aren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but don’t use the word “stupid,” you’d be OK with that? People don’t have to use the literal words to say what they need to say. I can imply that you are all sorts of things without using explicit wording. That’s the glory of language. Tom, implied that LGBTQ people would not find Christ in our unloving environment that labeled their sexual conduct as sin. That’s the same as saying that we are not being loving like those churches that affirm their behavior. Hence, I said that it is actually loving to condemn it and hateful to affirm it when it damns a person. Again, that seems obvious.

  20. Hodge says:

    “BTW can someone tell me exactly where the “unity in truth” meme comes from? Is it Martyn Lloyd-Jones? Because while it is possible that the nothion can be derived from the Scriptures, it is, thererfore, derivative, and, I wouldn’t think, authoritative. Am I totally mistaken about this? It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been out to lunch, of course, but it seems to me that it’s being rather uncritically appropriated as though it were on a par with, say “speaking the truth in love…..” Just curious. I stand ready to be enlightened.”

    Paul, I don’t know you, so maybe you’re in a learning process and don’t know the Bible all that well. So be it. May God be with you in your seeking Him. However, unity in the New Testament is ALWAYS in the context of the truth. The main passages are in John 17 and Ephesians 4, where unity is gained in being sanctified by the truth. But we see it throughout the NT. John tells us that those who do not adhere to apostolic teaching are “not of us,” but those who do, do so because they are “of us.” I could go into more details exegesis but hopefully that will suffice and you can just read those passages, in context, for yourself.

  21. Paul Janssen says:

    Never mind. It’ seems clear to me that your mind is made up, and is not open for genuine discussion. In other words, your general tone of discussion seems to be “Let me tell you where you’re wrong.” And yet the clear implication of your statement “unity is ALWAYS in the context of truth” quite clearly implies that unity in truth is in fact a derivative concept….i.e., read the context, because it’s not there directly.
    Rancor, taken to an extreme, can be considered a synonym for hatred. I did not mean it as such. I should perhaps have used the word “petty squabbling” which is by no means the same as hatred.
    I take it from your interpretation of several statements that you are of the school that believes that the bible is more important for what it ‘means’ than for what it ‘says,’ since that appears to me to be your regular practice. That, as you know, is shaky ground. I wouldn’t have expected it from you. That’s the price you pay for not being a wooden literalist, I guess. Or are you only a wooden literalist when it serves your purposes?
    I’m so confused. Apparently I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. Or maybe I’m just stupid. Guess so. In any case, I’m done with the snarky tone of this repartee.

  22. Hodge says:

    Very interesting. You want to teach me, but if I teach you, it’s the unpardonable sin. I’ve studied this issue for over twenty years, so when I see that you don’t have a biblical concept of love (as you still think it’s petty squabbling to define it), you don’t have a biblical concept of peace, and you don’t have a biblical concept of unity, then, yes, I’m not going to be open to your uninformed opinions over my years of study. Sorry. I just think knowledge is better served that way.

    “I take it from your interpretation of several statements that you are of the school that believes that the bible is more important for what it ‘means’ than for what it ‘says,’ since that appears to me to be your regular practice.”

    Making a distinction between meaning and the words used to convey that meaning, in terms of what we should see as authoritative, is nonsense. Of course, we should go with meaning, because that is to take the entire discourse seriously. Your practice would lead to all sorts of eisegetical fallacies. The Bible speaks in context, not outside of it, so implication is part of its communication.

    “That, as you know, is shaky ground.”

    No, it’s shaky ground to divorce what is said with meaning. I find it odd that you would suggest such. Letting the explicit imply is called cooperative communication. It’s what loving people do with one another. Unfortunately, most people don’t love God enough to let Him imply.

    However, your statement that it is merely derivative, in the sense that it’s just a theology constructed upon the text, is not what I’m doing here. My point is that it’s a theology taught by the text as a whole, implied by what is said. Implied meaning is contained within the text and are signified by the explicit. That’s why I can call you stupid without using the word, and you will still get my meaning. The implied is as much God’s Word as the explicit (which is Jesus’ point on the Sermon on the Mount as well–He condemns the Pharisees for not applying the implications of Scripture).

    If only I would have spoken poison to you nicely. You’d be my best friend, Paul. Oh well. You continue to misdirect love, unity, and peace, but it will only hide the reality of destruction and death that your misappropriation of those concepts creates. Love without truth is misdirected and becomes hatred when misapplied. The same is true of unity and peace.

  23. Hodge says:

    “Rancor, taken to an extreme, can be considered a synonym for hatred. I did not mean it as such. I should perhaps have used the word “petty squabbling” which is by no means the same as hatred.”

    I see, so you’re going to define it differently so that you can say that you did not accuse my posts as hateful. So you think they are loving then? Thanks, Paul. This is a good illustration of why implicatures are important for communication. I don’t need the word “rancor” to know that you were saying my posts were unloving. It’s already in the implicit statements you made. The word just clarifies it. But since you are unwilling to admit your own hypocrisy on the matter, I can find no value in discussing anything with you further, as your general tone of discussion seems to be “Let me tell you where YOUR wrong.”

  24. Paul Janssen says:

    I’ve let myself be sucked into this casuistic maelstrom for too long. The negativity is overwhelming. See ya.

  25. Hodge says:

    What you see as negative and overwhelming might have saved your life, Paul. Do you need to be in a room with people who don’t critique your ideas all the time? I’m attempting to free you from your folk religion. In the end, you’ll see me as more loving than all of your friends who handle you with white gloves.

    I would suggest a church filled with teachers who are ear-ticklers and prophets of soothing speech, where the adulteress’s lips drip with honey. It’s a much more positive environment for those who are fixated on the delusions of temporal peace.

    However, the real church, as its Lord and its prophets, is fixated on eternal matters, and so it’s going to look positively toward what builds true love and peace from an eternal perspective. But that means a lot of negativity in its dealings with false peace and love. Jesus did a lot of that, which is probably why you see His followers in a negative light for doing the same. War is negative, and we’re in a war. That’s the price of true peace. Fight the good fight, contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, take captive every thought for Christ, correct, rebuke, reprove, exhort, if you’re brother sins, go to him, he who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue.

    Positive and negative, in light of these, are merely perceptions and say more about the person’s perspective than they do about what is said.

  26. Paul Janssen says:

    Oh please.

  27. Hodge says:

    Blessed are you when Paul Janssen rolls his eyes at you, for so he treated the prophets before you.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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