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…

 

The Last Supper? Actually, No.

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This week is Holy Week, the week during which we remember the final week of Jesus’ life on Earth leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection.

Maundy Thursday is the day in the church calendar when we remember what we call “the Last Supper”, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified. For more on the “lesser known” days of Holy Week, read: “The Less Famous Days of Holy Week

However, there are several aspects to these traditions that might be misleading.

First of all, Jesus’ Passover Dinner with his disciples would have been on Wednesday evening. According to Jewish thinking, this would have been Thursday, since in Jewish thinking the new day begins at sundown. Thus, what we consider to be Wednesday night would actually be considered Thursday by the Hebrews.

For more on the timing of Holy Week, read: “Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up

But most importantly, what is misleading is the name “the last supper”. Consider what James K.A. Smith has to say on this topic:

when Jesus celebrates the Last Supper, he actually intimates that it’s not really the last supper, but the penultimate (second to last) supper.1

Smith is right. Think about what Jesus said during that supper:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29 ESV)

Paul the Apostle then says this about the practice of the Lord’s Supper by Christians:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV – emphasis mine)

In other words, the meal commonly referred to as “the last supper” was not ever meant to be thought of as the last supper that Jesus would have with his disciples, but as the preview of the great supper that they would one day share with Jesus in His Kingdom.

In other words, Communion, AKA the Lord’s Supper, AKA the Eucharist is an eschatological supper, through which we remind ourselves week in and week out of what is to come: the wedding feast of the lamb, in the New Jerusalem (Heaven).

Consider these words further thoughts from James K.A. Smith:

there’s a certain sense in which the celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be experienced as a kind of sanctified letdown. For every week that we celebrate the Eucharist is another week that the kingdom and its feast have not yet fully arrived.2

As you remember and reflect during Holy Week on Jesus’ penultimate supper, and every time you take communion, keep in mind that we do so both as an act of looking back and as an act of looking forward! Both are essential aspects of the hope that we have in Jesus!

 

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdomp.199
2 Ibid., p.200

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

Hebrews 10:24-25 tells Christians to not neglect gathering together, but to seek all the more how we can stir each other up to love and good works.
I just taught that passage last Sunday (audio of that message here), and in my preparation I discovered that the phrase “stir up” essentially means to pester or annoy someone, to not leave them alone. I’m thankful for people who do that in my life.

A friend of mine had been politely pestering me to read James K.A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” for about a year before I finally picked up a copy and started reading it earlier this month. I’m glad I did.

Smith’s basic premise is that all of us are constantly being shaped by “liturgies,” including (and primarily) “cultural liturgies.”

Liturgies, as he uses the term, are not confined or restricted to the order of service in a church worship service. Liturgies are, according to Smith’s use of the word, “rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity—they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us.” Liturgies, wherever they may be found, serve to shape us by forming affections within us.

Smith points out that such liturgies can be found throughout our culture, in places like malls, stadiums and universities, to name a few.

As Christians, it is important that we intentionally submit ourselves to the kinds of liturgies which will shape us into the kind of people we believe we ought to become, and which shape our affections in the right direction.

He points out that our nature as humans is such that we are not so much shaped by our worldviews as our worldviews are shaped by our practices, experiences and affections. Therefore, knowing this, it is important that we submit ourselves continually to the right kinds of “liturgies”.

Liturgies, he explains, “inculcate particular visions of ‘the good life’ through affective, precognitive means, and do so in a way that trumps other ritual formations. In short, they are the rituals that grab hold of our hearts and want nothing less than our love.”

Malls, stadiums and universities are filled with “rhythms, rituals, and spaces which are loaded with meaning; and more specifically, they are loaded with a particular vision, a unique ‘understanding’ of what it means to be a happy, fulfilled, and flourishing person; in short, implicit in these liturgies is an understanding of what it means to be really human.”

It is important therefore, that we recognize the “religious” nature of cultural practices and institutions, and understand that they are not neutral and that participation in them shapes us in very real ways. We should be aware of this fact, and also decide what “liturgies” we want to participate in, in order to shape our affections in the right directions.

He states that this makes it all the more important that Christians focus on creating and practicing our own uniquely Christian liturgies – formative practices which shape us and develop our affections in a particular direction. Christian liturgies include church attendance and participation, reading the Bible and listening to sermons in weekly church services, praying and singing with others, taking communion, being part of a community group, etc. His goal in this is to help us “see the importance and centrality of Christian worship in ways that we perhaps haven’t heretofore.”

I think this is a very important realization: that the reason to participate in church is not only to learn things, but to take part in practices which shape our minds and hearts towards God and His ways. This is why you need church even if you already know “everything” 🙂

There are other reasons as well:

Statistics show that church attendance has a radical impact on families and on the success and health of marriages.