As seen in Word&Way June 2, 2020
Habits are amazingly powerful patterns of behavior and practice that occur automatically, repeatedly, and often unconsciously. In his recent book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, Justin Earley cites a Duke university study that asserts 40% of our actions are not products of choice but unconscious habits. Think about your daily habits including morning and evening routines, the route you take to work, diet and exercise (or lack thereof), the content you stream, smartphone usage, and outfit combinations. Many of these behaviors are not actual choices but done by rote.
The good news is that many habits are innocuous behaviors that free our brains up to focus on other things. My habit of preparing similar meals repeatedly allows me to talk with my wife about her workday or help my kids with homework while making dinner. Taking the same route to work each day frees my brain to unpack the drama of life while driving safely. These are examples of how unconscious habits help make everyday life easier.
The reality is “we are all living according to a specific regimen of habits, and those habits shape most of our lives … This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that habits form more than our schedules: they form our hearts.” (Earley, p. 7.)
We are all deeply shaped and molded by the habits we keep. Many of our habits have been disrupted lately. We are in the process of developing new habits to account for the constant changing landscape we find ourselves. I can think of no better time for us to reflect on the habits forming our hearts and consider how we might go about developing healthier habits.
The Apostle Paul wrote to a collection of churches in the city and suburbs of Rome during a period of significant social and political change. Jewish and Gentile Christians are struggling to have a united vision of what sort of lived theology is required to be a follower of Jesus in a rapidly changing environment. They have many questions including how does resurrection impact daily life, what meal-time habits do we observe, where does individuality end and community begin, and what does it mean to proclaim Jesus as Lord in the capital city of the Roman empire?
After laying out a theological foundation he shifts to practical disciplines midway through the letter: Because of what Jesus has done, now do these things in response. Paul never uses the term, but I think Romans 12:2 can be applied to habits. Do not conform to the habits of this world but let God transform you into a new person. Remember that Paul was writing to a collection of churches, meaning the ‘you’ in this section is plural as in ‘y’all.’ This is a plea for the whole church to experience renewing transformation, and since it is for the community it is also for the individuals that comprise said community.
Good habits free us to focus our attention on other matters. Bad habits enslave, preventing us from doing the good for which we are designed. Bad habits thwart us from, “knowing God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (NLT). We cannot simply override a bad habit with willpower. It might work for a moment or even a season, but eventually habits eat willpower for lunch. Our hope rests not in willpower, but rather by letting God transform our minds.
During this season of uncertainty, social distancing, and disrupted habits let us take a moment to reflect on what sort of habits are shaped by the world and how we might release them in exchange for better habits that will form our hearts into the sort of people and communities that recognize God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.
New habits take time requiring lots of attention but given our situation at least we have it to give right now. Habits help us get a grip on what we are doing with that time much like a trellis gives direction and health to a vine plant. Without the trellis, a vine plant will choke out other plants or become so ingrown it dies. (Earley, p. 15)
There are any number of positive habits that lead to transformation and what you and your community need may not be what others need. Some basic habits to develop or strengthen are various kinds of prayer, scripture reading, generosity, good sleep patterns, better diets, and sabbath rest. Additionally, some deeper habits for our cultural context might be to limit smartphone use, alter the types of media we stream, perform some sort of service, celebrate more, confession of sin, and finding creative ways for fellowship.
How you go about these things will require a measure of intent. Set short-term goals. Practice them as a church community or with a small group for accountability and strength. Creating new habits will be a process (on average 66 days) of allowing God to “renew your mind” but the reward is that then you and your community will be free to “learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”