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