Doing things without thinking is one of God’s greatest favors to you. Great habits free you to image God more effectively because they enable you to focus on the better things in life.
You just arrived at work. Before you get out of the car, you reflect on the drive. You don’t remember it. The trip to work is an old habit. You’ve made that trip so many times your mind releases you from paying attention to the commute.
I’m talking about kinesthetic memory. It’s the ability to do something without the need of full cognitive awareness. Some people call it muscle memory. I call it habits. Regardless of how you label it, the LORD gave this means of grace to help you function at maximum capacity in His world.
- You ride a bicycle without looking at the pedals. If your feet slip off, you automatically, without looking, place your feet back on the pedals.
- You type while looking at the computer screen, paying no attention to where your fingers land on the keypad.
- You get out of bed each day, giving no thought to the process of going from a lying down position to walking upright.
It would blow your mind to think about the number of things you do each minute of the day that requires no thought. The LORD did an amazing job creating you. Think about your drive to work.
- You drive while staying alerted to the other drivers.
- You listen to my podcast while pressing the brake or gas pedals.
- You daydream while watching for the light to change, and “listening” to my podcast.
- You observe a dancing lady with the big sign in front of the pawn shop while feeling your phone vibrate as you navigate a busy intersection.
- You go over your shopping list to make sure you don’t miss anything after work.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. – Psalm 139:14 (ESV)
The upside to habits is how you can’t live without them. There is too much going on in your world and mind to be a single-tasking person. Nobody knows this better than a mom with young children.
She is not allowed to do one thing at a time. If she could not develop many good habits, she would go crazy. Carrying a newborn in her arms, while making hot tea, while talking to her three-year-old is an art. Oh, and the phone is blasting out, “Another one bites the dust.” It’s from her annoying friend.
And then there is sin, humanity’s common adversary. Because of the nature of sin, habits are not always right for you. There are times when habits take you to destructive places in your life and relationships.
The downside to habits is why you must guard your mind by giving grave and reflective thought to the bad things you do. More than likely you do those things because of well-developed bad habits.
And just like the drive to work, you will be in a relational scrape in a nanosecond, while not realizing how you got there because you developed bad habits.
Repentance is never complete until you change your bad habits. Too many times a person will sin, confess their sin, ask for forgiveness, but never change their behaviors (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Repentance means you change your old way to a new way—a way that looks like Jesus. You must do more than acknowledge what you did wrong. You must do more than ask someone for forgiveness.
If your sin is a pattern in your life, you must take your soul to task and unpack the things that have dulled your mind, which keep you doing what you’re doing. Sinful habituations is your call to think about how you came to the place of mentally-disengaged behavior.
The overeating habit
Recently, I wrote two articles (here and here) about overeating, weighing too much, and bad health practices. I dealt mostly with the underlying issues of the heart while interacting only slightly with the behaviors.
In this article, I want to delve more into your behaviors and how your habits give shape to them. If you want to change, you must dig down deep to get at the behavioral causes of your habits.
I’m using the wrong behavior of overeating to illustrate, but you can apply these ideas to any bad behavior. Anger, porn, over-sleeping, and smoking are four common bad practices that tempt people to indulge themselves.
For this chapter, I want you to substitute whatever your bad habit is with my illustration of overeating.
Kelli is overweight. She knows it, but she does not know what to do about it. Kelli read my chapters on overeating and seems to be getting a handle on her anxiousness and worry patterns—the heart issues that feed her desire to eat more. She also understands her craving for comfort and control, which are born out of a spirit of fear.
But she continues to eat more than she should. What she has not addressed yet are her habits—those unconscious behaviors that trigger her mind to go for food. Kelli is like a sleepwalker. She moves about her home, nibbling-to-scarfing, without realizing what she is doing.
Though she may have a tacit awareness of what she is doing, she doesn’t understand it fully. Her habits are part of her psyche—her soul: the non-organic part of her. Because all habits work this way, she is not able to change until she “wakes up” and realizes what she is doing to herself while in her soul-funk.
Counseling the habituated
Habits can be the things you do every day, and they can also be the things you do seasonally. Seasonal habituation could be detrimental holidays, birthdays, or anniversaries, like the anniversaries of death or divorce.
For many of our brothers and sisters, the Christmas holiday season is the stimulus for bad habits because they mix the assumed joy of the season with the loss of something. A person spontaneously mourns because of their loss, while not fully realizing why they are depressed.
You do not have to associate the habits of overeating, oversleeping, porn, anger, or smoking with a season. These bad habits can, and often do, become the everyday makeup of a person. It is who they are.
Because of this, they become characterized by what they do. If you know the person well, you are less surprised by their actions. Over time you are tempted to accept them as they are, while not helping them overcome their caught-ness (Galatians 6:1-2). There are three primary reasons for this:
- You are afraid to address the caught person.
- You don’t know how to talk to the captured person.
- You don’t perceive the person is trapped.
When addressing habituated patterns (everyday lifestyle habits), you want to look for trigger points. These are the things that happen to a person that motivates them to develop their habit.
Here are a few examples:
Example #1 – A guy trained himself to look at porn every time his wife leaves home. Years later, after she leaves, something inside of him begins to burn. It is like a giant magnet pulling him to his computer screen.
Example #2 – A lady trained herself to sleep when things get tough. When life circumstances become challenging, she escapes through sleeping. After a decade of avoiding conflict, she is like a drug addict taking a drug-induced trip. She sleeps through life, hoping things will change.
Example #3 – The wife of an angry spouse trained herself to eat in response to her husband’s displeasure. She feels unsafe and wants comfort. Her God-given desire for love is soured, so she turns to sweets. What she meant for good became an evil means of solace.
Example #4 – A teen lives in a dysfunctional home. His parents always bicker with each other, and he has no means of leaving the environment. Video gaming becomes his “go-to” response. Now he’s addicted to gaming, and his grades are falling.
All four of these people wrongly responded to the trigger points in their lives. At one time they probably could have walked away from their negative responses to sin, but now they can’t. They used to be in control, but now their habits control them.
Their sinful responses to the sinfulness in their world are as unnoticed as the lady who doesn’t remember her morning drive to work. She gets to work and reflects on the journey, amazed she arrived without killing herself. The overeater finishes off the ice cream and reflects back on what she did. Her sadness motivates her to eat more–another bad habit.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. – Galatians 6:1-3 (ESV)
The first thing to do for the habituated person is to talk with them about these ideas. Draw attention to what is going on in their lives. Help them see the benefits and liabilities of habits. They must understand how the LORD gave habits to survive, and how the devil twisted the LORD’s kindness to destroy humanity (John 10:10).
As they gain clarity, begin unpacking the process that habituated them. Start with the trigger points—the things they do when temptation comes. Discover the sinful stimulus that motivates them to respond to problems with bad habits.
Discern how “caught” they are. If this is the beginning stages of bad habits, it won’t be hard to stem the tide. However, if this has been a pattern of habituation for many years, your work with them will be challenging.
Walk through all the triggers. There may be more than one, especially if they have developed a pattern of wrong responses to adverse circumstances. Typically, in the beginning, there may be only one trigger—the angry husband. The wife, in this scenario, began to eat after each time he railed on her. Overeating became her habit.
With no one challenging her behavior, she began to eat when any conflict, difficulty, or unnerving situation came into her life. Now she is controlled and managed by several triggers. You want to spend time with her to talk about all the negative situations in her life and how she habitually responds.
She is genuinely caught in her sin, though the original cause was not her fault. Make sure this is clear to her. She is the sinning-victim—a person who sins in response to being sinned against by someone else.
She needs to cultivate mental awareness to recognize what is happening to her and how she is about to respond to her husband’s awful actions. This process takes much prayer. She must regularly engage the Spirit, asking Him to illuminate her mind to what is going on in these moments.
It would be great if she learned the habits of (1) pre-praying, (2) praying at the moment, and (3) post-praying. These are cultivated attitudes and behaviors of prayer before the temptation comes, during the temptation, and after it leaves. Whether she fails or not, she must become a prayer warrior to break this habitation. Passive obedience is not enough. She must actively engage God.
Teach her other habits too. For the overeater, she can make more healthy selections like carrots, apples, oranges, or celery. She does not have to stop eating, but she must eat healthier things.
Finally, teach her about the grace of God that works in her failure. She will fail. Encourage her. Let her know it’s okay to fail. She is not going for perfection; she is going for gradual transformation. She will never be perfect.
She wants to create a pattern of positive habits while factoring in the possibility of episodic failures along the way. The goal is not perfection in a fallen world. How is she characterized?
- A person with good habits, though she fails?
- A person with bad habits?
- An individual who is always trying to be perfect?
Insist that she agrees to allow you to speak into her life about this stuff. It will take a lot of work to change years of bad habituation, and she will not be able to do it alone. Make plans to connect with her every couple of days via the Internet and “coffee shop” meetings.
As you progress, you may be able to address the other issues connected to the bad situation in her life, like her husband. It would be great if he stopped antagonizing her, but for now, you need to stabilize her by helping her to break the bad habits.
Also published on Medium.