We all have habits, good and bad. And when I think about what a habit is, I think of a regular pattern of behavior that has become unconscious over time because of frequent repetition. What you deliberately begin doing, if repeated often enough, becomes what you do without thinking. Sometimes this is a good thing. Often, however, it is not such a good thing.
Which brings me to my real question: why are bad habits so often more easily formed than good habits?
In my experience, bad habits kind of start because we’re looking to avoid something that requires more effort and discipline. For instance, someone may develop a habit of going through a drive thru too often for meals because making something at home is too much of a bother. This is a bad habit for obvious reasons.
A number of years ago I had developed the habit of watching TV in the evenings and staying up too late doing so. It began as a way of decompressing, of trying to wind down and get my mind off of whatever stress I was feeling. Eventually I found myself just doing it because that’s what I did. It was a bad habit for at least two reasons. First, I would stay up much later than I would have otherwise–because with a streaming service you can watch episode after episode of your favourite show. Hence, the term “binge-watching.” Indeed, I would often doze off in my chair because I was up too late. Truth be told, that means I wasn’t actually watching TV for the last little while; I was napping in front of the TV. And the result? Not as restful a sleep that night. Inevitably, I felt groggy and less attentive the next day. Not to mention a little guilty.
Second, I would eat more. Yes, I said it. Staying up watching TV later meant I would give in to the munchies. Doesn’t mean I was truly hungry. Doesn’t mean I needed more sustenance. But like a lot of other people, I associated watching a favourite show or movie with having a snack. Again, not a good thing. Mostly because celery and carrot sticks were not my usual snack of choice. In any case, one bad habit opened the door to another.
So that’s me. I’m sure you have your own bad habits to contend with.
The bottom line: bad habits require nothing of me. They often offer gratification in the moment. If I’m depressed or frustrated or stressed, then I can make myself feel better (at least briefly) by indulging in a bad habit, a behaviour that distracts me from how I’m feeling. It’s a temporary fix. Bad habits are often about passively reacting to life. And unfortunately such bad habits involve other unintended, negative consequences.
But a good habit requires something of me. A good habit takes conscious effort and intention. If, for example, regular exercise is a good habit, I have to plan to exercise. It’s not simply going to happen on its own. For many of us, it is very difficult to include exercise into our lives. Lots of things become obstacles to doing so. And the lack of a plan, of a system that incorporates it into our everyday lives, certainly doesn’t help.
Good habits also mean having to defer gratification. A good habit may not feel good. It may not bring immediate relief or satisfaction. Some good habits are very, very difficult to develop. Particularly if you have some life-patterns already firmly set in place that the good habit seeks to dethrone. Most of us have a degree of aversion to change. We don’t tend to be enthusiastic about exchanging unhealthy habits for healthy ones. It’s too much work. Life is already too hard.
Here’s the thing. Sometimes we have a skewed view on what’s good. We might actually fool ourselves into thinking that treating ourselves several days a week by going through the Tim’s or McD’s drive-thru is a good thing, a reward for a hard day’s work or a source of comfort for the stresses of our circumstances. Ever think, I deserve this? Been there, done that, right? The truth is, we deserve better than what our bad habits offer us.
Maybe you’re wondering (but probably not) what this has to do with faith or with following Jesus. Isn’t this all self-help talk? Well, first of all, let’s be careful about separating what we think of as spiritual from what we think of as non-spiritual. Just because something isn’t overtly spiritual or religious doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with what it means to be a Christian. Every inch of our lives concerns God and relates to how we connect with God and live out our faith. Put simply, everything is spiritual: our eating habits, the way we handle our money, the entertainment or media we enjoy and consume. We can’t separate the way we treat our bodies from what’s going on in our hearts. We are whole beings, commanded in Scripture to love God with all that we are. Jesus did say, after all, to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37).
Sure, he doesn’t say anything about loving God with all our bodies. But let’s have a moment of honesty. What’s happening with our bodies has a profound effect on our hearts and minds. If I am groggy from staying up too late the night before, it will be harder to focus if I am trying to pray the next morning or to read Scripture. Or I might be more grouchy and impatient with my family.
Consider, also, that forming bad habits is often a result of wanting to avoid dealing with difficult things in a healthy way. Or of simply not wanting to put in the effort to do something worthwhile. What effect is this going to have on our spiritual lives? Do we think that following Jesus ought to be effortless, that we can grow in our faith without any intention or work on our part? Do we think that we will never have to deal with suffering? Is life–including the life of faith–about our comfort and ease? We need to be aware enough to notice how our attitude in one area of life impacts our attitude in other areas. We cannot so easily compartmentalize ourselves.
As far as good habits go, we can often struggle with prayer and other spiritual disciplines (because we all love discipline!) because there’s no immediate payoff in the moment. There’s no instant gratification. It doesn’t automatically make us feel better. Prayer and reading Scripture and engaging in Christian community are not there to distract us from the stuff that stresses us out; instead, they should provide us with the spiritual resources to deal with such stuff in a more healthy, ultimately life-giving way. Does this mean we that we are spiritual failures if once in awhile we have too much Haagen-Dazs or watch a little too much TV? No, but we ought to work towards being more intentional with our lives and the choices we make and the habits we therefore form. In one sense, our habits are our lives. So reflecting on our habits–good and bad–is to reflect on what we want our lives to be like and who we want to be.