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…

 

Going Through the Motions

man wearing yellow jacket

It has been said that many of us over-estimate what can be done in the short-term, but we under-estimate what can be done in the long-term.

Recently a friend expressed that he was discouraged because after a week of eating healthy and working out every day he had not lost any weight or seen any results. He was feeling discouraged.

Every near year people make ambitious resolutions, yet statistics show that most resolutions are not only abandoned, but that year after year, the same people tend to make the same resolutions, until many of them give up making resolutions completely.

I’m not against New Years resolutions; in fact I think that setting goals and making resolutions is a healthy part of Christian spirituality. See: Making Resolutions is Not a Lack of Faith, It Can Be an Act of Faith

Why do so many people abandon their resolutions?

One reason is because we often set goals which are too ambitious, or we set too many goals. As a result, we quickly burn out or become discouraged, or get behind and realize we’ll never be able to catch up.

Another reason is discouragement. Like my friend, when intense effort doesn’t produce foreseen results, we wonder whether our effort is pointless.

When I was 17 I tried to learn Spanish by listening to Spanish radio for hours every day. After a few weeks I gave up because all I got out of it was a headache.

We live in a society that expects quick-fixes and instant results. We want “just-add-water” and “microwave dinner” solutions. In other words: many of us are willing to give intense effort for a short amount of time, but if we don’t get the results we hoped for right away, we give up and move on: quitting diets/hobbies/jobs/relationships/churches – as soon as they are hard or not fun. As a result, we often don’t stick with things long enough to see significant impact.

Abide…and you will bear fruit

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Going Through the Motions Can Be Good

People tend to use the phrase “going through the motions” in a negative way, to refer to doing outward actions without heart or passion. However, “going through the motions” can be good if you’re going through the right motions! Getting set in your ways is only bad if your ways are bad! If your ways are good and helpful, then getting set in those ways can be the best thing you can possibly do!

Here’s why: because…

“Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity every time.” – Bruce Lee

The Power of Walking

One of the metaphors the Bible uses to describe a relationship with God is “walking with God.”

  • Enoch walked with God (Genesis 5)
  • Noah walked with God (Genesis 6)
  • Abraham walked with God (Genesis 12)
  • Zechariah and Elizabeth walked with God (Luke 2)

Walking is used as a metaphor in the New Testament to describe a pattern of life, e.g. walking in darkness / walking in the light.

Walking is an interesting metaphor because it implies small steps, which on their own are not spectacular or glamorous or noteworthy, but over time the cumulative sum of those repeated actions can take you great distances, and to the highest peaks.

Walking doesn’t even elevate your heart rate – but perhaps that’s part of what makes it so powerful: it can be sustained for long periods of time.

Walking is essentially: small, continual actions, which lead somewhere.

For example: If you read just 2 chapters of the Bible per day, in 5 years you will have read through the entire Bible 3 times. Just imagine how well you would know God’s Word with that small effort, sustained over time.

If you read 10 pages in a book every day (about 15 minutes), in 5 years you will have read about 60 books.

What if you devoted the next 5 years to pursuing God?  What if you took small, but continual steps which, over time, would snowball into huge effects in your life?

C. S. Lewis put it this way:

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p.132)

For more on this topic, check out this message: A Vision for Your Future

Vacation and Russian Novels

For the past week we have been on vacation in California. For the first week of it we were in Orange County where I attended the Calvary Chapel pastors conference in Costa Mesa. Rosemary and the kids spent time with friends and at the beach, and Rosemary was able to attend some parts of the conference as well. The conference was refreshing; a great time of focusing on the Lord and recentering as well as reconnecting with friends from all over the world. 

After that we went down to North San Diego and visited friends and family there, and then came to Los Angeles to stay with family. We’ll be back in Colorado for church on Sunday.

Overlooking Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood hills 

One of the books I’ve been reading on vacation is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Several years ago I read Crime and Punishment and it became one of my favorite books. I think Dostoyevsky was a brilliant writer, particularly how he developed characters and got inside their minds.
What was interesting about Crime and Punishment was that it wasn’t only a novel so much as it was a platform for Dostoyevsky’s view of human anthropology – in other words: what makes us tick. What I found even more interesting, as I looked more into Russian literature from that time period, was that the other great Russian author, Tolstoy, did the same thing with his novels, but he had distinctly different views. 

Tolstoy was a pacifist, who considered himself a Christian, but didn’t want anything to do with church in any way. In fact, the more you get to know his views, you realize that he was extremely legalistic and held many strange interpretations of Biblical passages. For example, Tolstoy said that since Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39), that means that we should not even have police, because the role of the police is to resist evil people. What he was arguing for was beyond pacifism to a form of anarchy, which was based on his fundamental belief in the basic goodness of humankind: that left to our own devices, with no outside intervention, people would trend towards good rather than evil, and that the trajectory of the human race is towards greater virtue, peace and harmony. Tolstoy’s views were a major influence on Ghandi and others.

Dostoyevsky on the other hand, did not share Tolstoy’s views about humanity. Dostoyevsky considered himself a serious Christian, something which is very apparent in his writing, and he held much more traditional (and biblical) views about the nature of humankind and what makes us tick. 

In Crime and Punishment, for example, the main character is a university student who ends up killing the older woman he lives with. The popular thinking at the time (and still in our time as well) was the Englightenment theory that people are basically good, and that when people do things that are wrong, the reason they do them is either because of lack of education or because of poverty. Thus, the thought is that if you can educate people and bring them out of poverty, then crime and violence, as well as racism and hatred will cease to exist. The Bible does not agree with this theory, and says that the reason people do bad things, is because we are sinful and broken, and sin doesn’t just affect us, but it dwells within us, it is part of our very core. We weren’t designed by God to be this way, and it is for this reason that Jesus came, to redeem us from the curse of sin and death. But apart from redemption, all people are sinful, which is the reason we do sinful things. 

If there is any question about this, Nazi Germany is a perfect case study of how the most educated society in the world, which was well off economically, committed some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. If the Englightenment theory was true, that shouldn’t have happened, but the Biblical view would say: educated and rich people are still sinners, they’re just educated and rich sinners. What all people need is a new heart, something which can only be found in and through Jesus Christ.
In Crime and Punishment the main character is an educated young man who kills his landlord simply because he wants to, because he’s curious what it will be like, and then he justifies his actions to himself. Why do people do bad things? Because sin dwells within us, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Dostoevsky would say.

I am only 20% of the way through The Brothers Karamazov, but am very much enjoying it. It tells the story of a father and his 3 sons, actually 4 – as one of the servants is also the son of the man. The father is a foolish and base man, his oldest son is similarly base, but at least has a sense of conscience which his father seems to lack. The second son is an intellectual and considers himself an atheist, but is torn because he realizes that if there is no God and no afterlife and no Heaven or Hell, then there is no meaning to life. The third son is an apprentice monk at the local monastery, where he studies under a devout elder. There is another elder at the monastery who is crazy, and somehow in his derangedness is more popular with the people than the devout and humble  elder who actually says a lot of things which are good and biblical.

One of the points that Dostoyevsky is making in the book is that the life of sincere Christian faith put into practice is the truly good life. Through the characters he is showing the results of a life of sin and the meaninglessness and pain of life apart from God and encouraging the reader to forsake sin and turn to God.

At least that’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far. I’ll let you know if anything changes!

Here are some excerpts:

“Love God’s people, let not strangers draw away the flock, for if you slumber in your slothfulness and disdainful pride, or worse still, in covetousness, they will come from all sides and draw away your flock. Expound the Gospel to the people unceasingly. Do not love gold and silver. Have faith. Cling to the banner and raise it on high.”  – Father Zossima, the humble and sincere elder to Alyosha, the third son who is a Christian

“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Païssy began, without preface, “[humanism], which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analyzed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. But they have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvelous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque.

Reading and Writing… but Mostly Reading

 

I haven't been posting much on this blog lately, mostly because I've been doing a lot of reading. I've had plenty of thoughts and ideas though, so I'll get caught up on some of those over the coming days and weeks, but below is a list of some of the books I've read lately. Most of them are theological, some are practical and others are fiction.

Earlier this year, around late summer/early fall, I felt a strong desire to get back into reading more, and so that's what I've done. Several authors and leaders that I respect have come out recommending that pastors read more fiction in order to excite the immagination and stir up God-given emotions which find their fulfilment in the salvation which Jesus gives, e.g. redemption, love without ceasing, heroism, sacrificial love, etc. The idea being, that everything we love in stories is deeply engrained within us because the story of the Gospel is written on our hearts, therefore these truths resonate within us and move us deeply whenever we encounter them. This was one of the convictions of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and the reasons why they wrote fiction as vehicles for communicating and celebrating the spiritual truths of the Gospel.

Here's that list:

Center Church, Timothy Keller – This is Tim Keller's treatise on pretty much everything he's ever thought about culture, the Gospel and church. I wish everyone could and would read this book. It's a bit laborious but you come away with basic instruction in many areas which are incredibly helpful in not only being a disciple of Christ but also a person who helps share the good news and make disciples. Absolutely great book.

Christ and Culture, Richard Nieburh – This is considered a classic on the subject of how Christians are to relate to culture. Rather than giving many (any?) answers to the question, in this book Nieburh helps to categorize different responses and explain the underly beliefs behind how Christians relate to culture, and showing how it has worked out throughout history. He gives 5 different approaches of Christians to culture, from rejection of culture to complete embracing of culture and the views in between. It's a very informative and helpful book; many consider it the seminal work on the subject.

Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson – As the title suggests, Carson revisits Nieburh's classic book, pointing out some areas (rightly) where Nieburh did not take as strong of a stand as he could (should) have, such as his claim that the Gnostics were simply Christians trying to embrace their culture. Carson claims that while Nieburh did good work, he should have been quicker to condemn certain approaches to culture and the Gospel which are actually heretical. There's more to this book, but unless you're really interested in the topic, I would suggest read Nieburh's book and spit out the seeds.

Egri Csillagok, Gárdonyi Géza – A classic Hungarian work of historical fiction which has as its setting the siege of the city of Eger by the Turkish army in the 15th century. Eger is the town my family lived in in Hungary, before moving to Colorado, so this book has long been on my list of things to read.

Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to do with Well-Intentioned Dragons, Marshall Shelly – An easy read, mostly of stories shared by pastors and help for understanding and ministering well to people who can be problematic in church, whether intentionally or not.

Tertullian, First Theologian of the West, Eric Osborn – I felt that Eric Osborn went out of his way to dispell any negative criticism of Tertullian. Perhaps that approach is justified, but I'm not sure it is in every case.

1984, George Orwell – I'd been meaning to read this for a while. It wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but I'm glad I can check it off the list. The thing about the TVs that watch you and you can only turn them down, but never off, was pretty interesting. I felt that the love story, although not totally unnecessary to the story, was given too much attention.

Issues in Missiology, Dwight Pentecost – A great overview of the theology of missions and the issues related to sharing a timeless message in changing and varied cultural settings. Definitely a good read for anyone interested in sharing the Gospel cross-culturally, both here and abroad, as many of us live in areas where other cultures are present and represented.

That's it for now. I've still got a stack of books on my desk waiting to be read…

Next up: The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I'd love to hear your thoughts about what you've been reading, or if you've read any of these books. Leave me a comment below.