“Our habits incline us to act in certain ways without having to kick into a mode of reflection; for the most part we are driven by an engine that purrs under the hood with little attention from us.” James K.A. Smith
“Without planning, we’ll practice our Bible memory just once or twice and then no more. We’ll do lots of good things, but only a couple of times. One of the great strengths of good traditions in our lives is the repetition—not something done once, then something else, then another thing altogether—but good things done regularly, dependably, until they become habits.” Noel Piper
We’ve all had something in our life that we wanted to change, or knew we needed to change, but we never pulled the trigger. Or, we gave it a shot but gave up after a couple of days. That might be eating healthy or going on a new diet, an exercise routine, wanting to stop a behavior or pattern of behaviors, curbing spending and sticking to the budget, practicing a spiritual discipline such as Bible reading or prayer, or even just wanting to respond different than we have recently, like not responding in frustration or anger to those around us.
So if we know what we should do and we have good intentions for doing it, why don’t we end up doing it? What’s the disconnect between our knowledge and desire and our actual experience of change?
There are a lot of answers to that question based on each individual, so I don’t want to oversimplify (too much). But one thing most of us have in common that keeps us from experiencing more change in our life is we have bad habits getting in the way. It’s just that we don’t have the “good habits” yet we want to create, but more often than not, we have bad habits that are like ruts we get stuck in. It’s hard to get out of these pathways and patterns we’ve been walking in and living in for so long. It’s not impossible to teach an old dog new tricks, but it is certainly difficult to retrain an old dog with new tricks.
In recent years, I’ve been helped by reading books and articles that explain just how powerful our habits are, and just how important it is to replace habits that distract or de-form us with habits that form us toward the kind of person we want to become. It’s simply a matter of learning more or having the right intentions, but we need to form new habits to accompany our knowledge and intentions.
Examples of Habits Overpowering Desires
Here are just a few examples of how good desires are undercut by bad habits.
- Good desire to go to bed early vs bad habits of staying up late
- Good desire to eat healthy snacks vs bad habits of grabbing something easy when I’m hungry
- Good desire to read more vs bad habits of picking up my phone or computer (which takes up my time)
- Good desire to not get mad or be impatient vs the bad habit of immediately turning to frustration and annoyance
- Good desire to be present with my family bs bad habit of picking up or thinking about other things (work, church, writing, etc.)
- Good desire to save money vs bad habits of spending (Starbucks, extras in the store, using Amazon, buying something a little above my price range)
- Good desire to not worry in scenarios and trust in God vs bad habit of turning to internet searches, thinking about all the what if scenarios, and figure it out or fix it ourselves
- Good desire to interact with new people at church vs habits of talking to the same people
- Good desire to be in the Word or pray vs the habit of sleeping in, turning to your phone, or watching TV
Good Habits Matter More than Good Intentions
Knowledge is insufficient. Too often we think that if we or others simply learn more or have the right information, transformation will happen automatically. We know this is not the case. Churches can be full of people with “Bible knowledge” (though we also shouldn’t miss that the church is severely malnourished now when it comes to Bible knowledge) who don’t live it out or make the connections to their own life.
In Deep Discipleship, J. T. English writes, “Discipleship can tend to focus only on how what we know shapes us while simultaneously neglecting how what we do shapes us.” This doesn’t mean knowledge is unimportant, but that it’s incomplete by itself. Knowledge needs paired with the right habits.
Habits aren’t just things we do, but they do something to us. Habits either form us or deform us. The habits in our life aren’t neutral activities. Our habit (my habit) of turning to my phone when I wake up and before I go to sleep, and countless moments in between, is affecting me in ways I don’t realize? It’s doing something to me through what I think I need from it, from the impulse in me that grows stronger to grab it whenever there’s a dull moment, and from the way it distracts me from more important things in my life. These habits de-form us just as much as a good habit forms us.
In Recapturing the Wonder, Mike Cosper writes, “To experience the richness of life in God’s kingdom, we must reorder our lives. We need to see through the shallow promises of our culture, and we need rhythms, signposts, and practices that reorient us to another world.”
Cultivating good habits is hard up front but makes doing what we desire easier later. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith says, “Our habits incline us to act in certain ways without having to kick into a mode of reflection; for the most part we are driven by an engine that purrs under the hood with little attention from us.”
Habits create a “second-nature” in us as practices become postures, as things that take a lot of work early on become a more natural part of who we are and what we do. Habits help aim our desires and loves in specific directions.
When something becomes a habit (whether it’s choosing to read the Bible over giving in to a distraction, praying rather than fearing or becoming angry, choosing not to covet or lust, or practicing self-control), the fight becomes a little easier over time. This is partly why addictions and bad patterns are so hard to break. We form ways of responding or choosing that become cemented in our minds, brains, and hearts that over time are very hard to rewire. It takes a lot of work, and most of us give up easy. So part of our battle against sin and temptation is establishing habits that grow us and uprooting habits that deform or distract us.
Drew Dyck writes the following in Your Future Self Will Thank You: “Forming a new habit (especially a good habit) is a tremendous draw on your willpower reserves. Initially the new behavior may be physically or mentally challenging. It will cut against the grain of your natural inclinations. It takes effort. Lots of it.”
Habits influence and shape desires. They reorient what we find enjoyable or pleasant. Just like when you first start a diet or exercise plan and don’t enjoy it, over time you might not just put up with it but find joy in it. Spiritual habits are similar. Often, they are more difficult when they are irregular activities, and as they become habits, we find more joy in them and benefit from them.
James K. A. Smith views our habits as “liturgical practices,” meaning they’re habits that shape us through their order or repetition. “We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.”
Habits are most effective when they are rituals with reflection. We don’t want habits to become rote activities we do without thought, simply to check a box, or to be seen by others. While some do rituals without any reflection on what’s being done, why it’s being done, or what it means, many have run from the ritual side of things and lost the forming power of habits. J. T. English argues, “Teaching void of habit formation tends toward Gnosticism. Habit formation void of teaching tends toward empty ritualism. Teaching and habit formation together tend toward wholeness—integration.”
Sometimes the structures and rituals can be seen as freeing, rather than restrictive. They relieve us from the burden of always choosing or willing new spiritual activities we must come up with by providing spaces, times, and practices to swim in. Drew Dyck writes, “You outsource the work of willpower to the factory of habit.” These is, in part, why so many people have found help through the structures of the daily readings and practices of more liturgical churches or through implementing the liturgical calendar readings.
You might be asking, so what do I do now? How do I change my habits? What habits should I put off and put on? This post is only a teaser, but below are some of my recommendations for exploring the role of habits in more detail.
- You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith
- Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science by Drew Dyck
- Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren
- Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper
- 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke
- “How Your Habits Show and Shape Your Heart” by David Mathis
- “How to Root Out Apathy with the Power of Habit” by Glenna Marshall
- “How Habits Help You Grow” and “Growing by Habit” by Darryl Dash
- “The Power of Simple Spiritual Habits for Family Faith” by Christie Thomas