The Role of Habits in Transformation

white concrete spiral stairway

We tend to use the word “habit” to refer to negative behaviors, such as biting your nails, wasting time online, cracking your knuckles. But not all habits are bad.

In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and BusinessCharles Duhigg talks about the science behind how habits are created, and how to replace bad habits with good ones.

Habits As Vehicles for Transformation

In my recent post Going Through the Motions, I talked about how the biblical metaphor of walking, which describes a pattern of life, implies small, continual actions which lead somewhere. With this in mind, habits can be vehicles for transformation. They help us build practices into our lives that shape us into certain kinds of people.

In his book, Desiring the KingdomJames K.A. Smith pushes back against Rene Descartes assertion that we are fundamentally “thinking beings” who happen to have bodies, and asserts that are bodies play a much more integral part in our formation than many in Western society have tended to think (as a result of Descartes’s philosophy). Thus, the things we do with our bodies have a role in shaping our affections and forming sanctified habits.

“Spiritual disciplines” refer to actions such as prayer, church attendance, studying the Bible, giving generously, serving, taking communion, fasting, and more – which are taught in the Bible and were modeled by Jesus himself. Spiritual disciplines are habits which serve as vehicles of transformation: shaping us through repeated action into certain kinds of people.

See: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why

Habits Prescribed by God

Drew Dyke in his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You, points out how God prescribes routines and rituals designed to build holy habits into the lives of His people:

“God commanded the ancient Israelites to observe seven sacred annual feasts, keep the Sabbath, tithe their income, purify themselves, worship regularly, and present offerings and sacrifices at the temple.

Though the New Testament frees Christians from having to keep the whole Jewish law, there are still sacraments like baptism to symbolize our spiritual rebirth and the communion meal to remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus. On top of this, our weekly gatherings include rituals designed to instill beliefs and behaviors to bring us closer to God and each other.

Even in ‘low church’ settings that don’t use the liturgical calendar or recite ancient creeds, there’s often a rather predictable cycle of songs, prayers, and preaching each Sunday. There are Sunday school or midweek small group meetings.”

“But We Shouldn’t Be Religious or Legalistic, Right?”

I have met people who say:  “Oh, I don’t want to be religious or legalistic — so I only do those spiritual disciplines sporadically.”

This is not about legalism nor empty religiosity. We do not believe for a minute that any of these things save us. Nor do we do these things in order to manipulate God into blessing us or giving us what we want. That is the definition of legalism: believing that your relationship with God is predicated on your ability to keep rules.

Instead, we do these things in order to be healthy and grow. Eating and sleeping and drinking fluids help us be healthy physically: to do these things only sporadically would be very unwise and cause you to be very unhealthy. The same is true when it comes to a neglect of spiritual disciplines.

Atheism and the Ache for Spiritual Disciplines

Drew Dyke shares in his book about a talk he heard from a man who “gushed about how brilliant the church is to establish such rhythms.” “He waxed eloquent about singing Christmas carols, looking at religious art, and the experience of paging through the Bible.” The surprising thing is that the speaker, Alain de Botton, is an atheist.

“We tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it…. Religions go, ‘Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it,’” – Alain de Botton

He isn’t being critical of repetition; just the opposite. He acknowledges that Christianity is very good at creating habits which fuel transformation, and recognizes that atheists are poorer for lacking this.

I would argue that these spiritual disciplines cannot be translated into an atheist or agnostic framework because they are tied to Christian theology. Some humanists try to be “good without God” – but what they lack is the foundation of Christian spiritual formation, which is justification by faith: the fact that in Christ we are accepted and loved by God apart from our good works.

Alain, like James K.A. Smith, states that “The other thing that religions know is we’re not just brains, we are also bodies. And when they teach us a lesson, they do it via the body.” He also praised the biblical practice of dividing up time by having repeating holidays such as Easter and Christmas, which force us to “bump into” key beliefs and celebrate them again and again.

Essentially what this atheist man was rightly observing and praising was that spiritual disciplines are designed to help transform through the development of habits.

Spiritual disciplines are “Spirit-empowered, heart-calibrating, habit-forming practices to retrain our loves.”[1]

Video Discussion

Check out the discussion Mike and I had about transformation, and the roles of the hope of the resurrection and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Also, about half-way through I  spill coffee on my Bible…

 

What Science and the Bible Say About What Leads to Happiness

I recently stumbled upon the work of behavioral scientist Winfred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, which made the New York Times Bestseller list a few years back. I found the basic premise of the book quite interesting in that through her research Gallagher has validated something which the New Testament has been teaching for almost 2000 years.

For Gallagher, it was an unexpected event in her personal life which set her on this journey: she was diagnosed with an aggressive and advanced form of cancer. Going into her treatment, she had expected it to be a miserable time, but instead found it to be a surprisingly pleasant period of her life. Although physically uncomfortable, she enjoyed many things during this time, including going on walks, and her personal favorite: an evening martini. This led her to later pursue investigating the role that attention plays in a person’s happiness.

After 5 years of studying this topic, she came away with what she called “a grand theory of the mind:”

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

The biggest factor which leads to happiness, in other words, is what you choose to focus your attention on.

Author Cal Newport, in reference to this says:

This concept upends the way that most people tend to think about their subjective experience of this life. We tend to focus on our circumstances: assuming that what happens to us, or fails to happen, determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes: whether you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding.¹

In other words: our perception of the world and of ourselves is shaped less by our circumstances, and more by what we choose to focus on and pay attention to.

For readers of the Bible, this only serves to confirm what we already know and believe. This is the reason why the Bible says things like:

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

This is the reason why Paul the Apostle could write a letter from jail about being full of joy in Jesus; because he took his own advice to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

This is the reason why to those suffering pressure and persecution as a result of their Christian faith, Paul’s advice was to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

As Winfred Gallagher rightly discerned: two people can be facing the same exact circumstances, but what they focus on will determine how they feel about it and deal with it. This has been a trademark of Christianity from its inception. However, as Christians, our focus is not on shallow pleasures and momentary distractions, but we draw from the deep well of hope that is found in Jesus Christ alone! For this reason:

we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Whatever you are going through today, may you fix your eyes on Jesus, and may the hope you find in Him define your reality, giving you joy in the face of anything life brings your way.