Habits

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.

“O Prince of Life”

Here is a prayer from Gerhard Tersteegen (1697 – 1769):

O Prince of Life, teach us to stand more boldly on your side, to face the world and all our adversaries more courageously, and not to let ourselves be dismayed by any storm of temptation;
may our eyes be steadfastly fixed on you in fearless faith;
may we trust you with perfect confidence that you will keep us, save us, and bring us through by the power of your grace and the riches of your mercy.
Amen.

A Prayer to Know Jesus

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lord, Fill Me

Here is a prayer from Martin Luther (1483 – 1546):

“Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it. I am weak in the faith; strengthen me. I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent that my love may go out to my neighbor. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.
Amen.

Jesus, You Are . . .

Here is a prayer from Johann Freylinghausen (1670 – 1739):

Who is like you, Jesus?
You are the light of those who are spiritually lost.
You are the life of those who are spiritually dead.
You are the liberation of those who are imprisoned by guilt.
You are the glory of those who hate themselves.
You are the guardian of those who are paralyzed by fear.
You are the guide of those who are bewildered by falsehood.
You are the peace of those who are in turmoil.
You are the prince of those who yearn to be led.
You are the priest of those who seek the truth.
Amen.

Prayer to the Good Shepherd

O God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of your people: Grant that, when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

A Prayer from Thomas à Kempis

Here is a prayer from fifteenth century German-Dutch Canon, Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471):

Above all things and in all things, O my soul, rest always in God,
for He is the everlasting rest of the saints.
Grant, most sweet and loving Jesus, that I may seek my repose in You…
For my heart cannot rest or be fully content until,
rising above all gifts and every created thing,
it rests in You. Amen.

“Dwell on these things”

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:6-9

Let’s consider some of the topics and issues we may encounter if we go online, use social media, or even avail ourselves of traditional news sources: the covid pandemic, a war in Ukraine, anti-racism, climate change, rising fuel and food prices, the transgender movement, and now, most recently, a leaked US Supreme Court opinion about potentially overturning Roe v. Wade. Any one of these–and usually more than one at once–often has people from differing ideological viewpoints and worldviews literally screaming at one another and hurling insults and using inflamed rhetoric. Reason generally lags far behind emotion. And virtually all of our media will play to one side or the other, stoking fear and inciting panic for ratings and profit.

Our culture is by all appearances coming apart at the seams. Cue 80s rock band REM: It’s the end of the world as we know it. People use the phrase “culture wars” for a reason. And many become very invested in the outcomes of this conflict. Especially those whose horizon of meaning reaches no further than science, education, technology, and politics. Watch enough media and you will come away with the distinct impression that our southern neighbors aren’t far from another civil war or, worse, that all of Western civilization is on the verge of collapse. Whether the opinions (or the attitudes) of those yelling on Twitter or the evening news are actually representative of most people, perhaps it’s difficult to say. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that we live in divisive times.

Here’s my problem: by and large the church has not helped. And when I say church, I mean the church as a whole.
And what I’m getting at is the degree to which so many Christians, including so many prominent leaders, have accepted the secular terms of engagement of the culture wars. We have become willing to participate in the conflict, even using un-Christlike means to do so. If Christian engagement in the culture looks no different than that of your average political pundit or media outlet, how is this representing the character and will of Christ?

And more importantly, what is it doing to us, to our souls, to our hearts, to our minds, to our ability to participate in the world knowing full well that politics and culture are never ends in themselves? If we are followers of Jesus, then our horizon of meaning extends far beyond the earthly fray of our current experience. We are living in the “meantime” between coming into existence and entering eternity. That’s not to say we ought to ignore politics or eschew cultural engagement. What it does mean, however, is that the character of our engagement ought to be distinct. After all, God says we are to be holy as he is holy. This means to be set apart. It means to be distinct. It means not living as everyone else lives. Not because we are morally superior. Not because we are to escape into some holy huddle. But because the vantage point from which we understand and experience the world isn’t shaped by seeing political goals as the ultimate answer to any of our human ills. We are bound by the cross and the resurrection–and therefore bound to the one who was crucified and raised. And his kingdom agenda–and the means by which he seeks to fulfill it–cannot be circumscribed by political parties or our preferred media and news platforms.

All of this means that for those of us who are people of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we need to be incredibly careful not to let ourselves get so caught up in the so-called culture wars–and the media we consume–that we forget how we are bracketed by creation and redemption. We must not be paying so much attention to the news and to what we see on social media that we essentially become spiritually myopic, conflating the winning of cultural and political points with participating in the reality of the kingdom of God. Because then what will happen? Everything in the news–from covid policy to economic policy to all of the cultural “sturm und drang”–will have the potential to throw us into an existential tailspin. Like how every national election is supposedly the most important election of our lifetime. Like how every news cycle requires a crisis. It’s as though the volume has been turned up to eleven on the amplifier of life.

But we have the choice of a more life-giving, flourishing way. And it’s why I began with the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And at the very least Christians ought to be those who seek this way–and who also therefore are inviting others to seek it. If all the news and nonsense of our world causes you anxiety or anger; if you notice that scrolling for too long on Facebook or Twitter actually makes you feel worse and less at peace; and if your media consumption leads you to dehumanize and belittle (even if only in your mind) those with whom you disagree, perhaps it’s high time to begin dwelling on other things. Things that are true and beautiful, noble and just, praiseworthy and excellent–the deeper truths of reality we find in Scripture, truths that lend our lives dignity and hope, and that have the power to reconcile and heal, to relieve our despair, and to provide us with a kind of peace nothing else can.

If we only focus on the actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine or the actions of political leaders closer to home, we might have plenty of reasons to spend all of our time worrying. If we only focus on what this world says we need or should want, we might have plenty of reasons to feel anxious and insecure. If we allow what we see and hear in the media we consume to define what’s most important, to define our horizon of meaning, then we are all the more likely to become adrift in anger and frustration that the world isn’t the way we want it to be. And we will also find that this anxiety will become the undercurrent of our attitude, that it will bleed into our conversations, relationships, and the way we deal with our personal circumstances. We will become what we consume. Or to put it another way: You are what you eat.

Now, let me say, I battle with this myself. I also need to listen to what Paul says in Philippians. I need to learn to dwell on what Paul lists in the passage. I need to spend more time filling my heart and mind with what will nourish and bless me and those around me. I need to absorb more and more scriptural truth into my spiritual bloodstream. Because I don’t want polarizing political and cultural outrage to be what primarily shapes my patterns of thought, my mood, or the way I face life. Instead, I want to be able to be aware of and to engage in our common cultural life from a place of spiritual health and stability. And I don’t want to be shaken by events and issues that are often outside my control. I want my reaction to the world, and my interaction with it, to be more and more Christlike.

Notice how Paul exhorts the Philippians to pray instead of worrying. Prayer in the Christian tradition is part of a larger worldview in which we know ourselves to stand in relationship to the sovereign, holy, and loving triune God of the universe. If God is who he reveals himself to be, then worry, even if in fits and starts, ought to have less and less of a hold on my life. But if I want this to happen, if I want to get to a place where I can be at peace in this world even if not with this world, then I need to meditate upon, inwardly digest, and dwell on the God who created it. I believe this is possible, but only if we willingly and intentionally take time to separate ourselves from the noise of our cultural environment and allow ourselves silence and solitude, knowing that there–in the place where we might hear the still, small voice–that God is most likely to meet us. It’s in entrusting ourselves prayerfully to him that we will discover Christ guarding our hearts and minds, and providing the peace that nothing in this world can either provide or take away.

My Prayer

Usually when I share a prayer here, it is a prayer I have found elsewhere. This time, however, I thought I would share part of a prayer that I wrote in my journal this evening after having had a very good day and a blessed Sabbath. It’s a prayer about bringing who we are before God in more direct contact with who we are around others. Less pretense, more honesty. More fully myself, and more at home in the skin God has dressed me in. Less afraid of what others think, and more alive to the presence of God. Maybe it will connect with you in some small way. Here it is:

Jesus, help me to speak words that come from the deepest, most truthful part of me. May I be real as I stand before, with, and beside others. Remove falsity from my heart. And may I learn to speak more frequently of you in winsome, humble ways. Amen.