The Powerful Upside and Downside of Habits

Part of God’s kindness to us is that He wired us to be habitual people. Habits are excellent because they make us better people. Of course, the opposite is also accurate in that habits can be our worst nightmares.

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Imagine riding a bicycle while looking at your feet to make sure you placed your feet correctly on the pedals. Imagine trying to type while watching your fingers make each keystroke. Imagine running while watching each foot placement on the road. Imagine trying to get out of bed in the morning, while focusing on each muscle movement to make sure they all move in an appropriate and synergetic way. If we had to do those things, it would be virtually impossible to accomplish anything.

Have you ever arrived somewhere like work and then reflected about how you’re not sure how you got there? The reason for this is because you have made that trip to work many times. You know the route. You know what to expect. Though you were not on auto-pilot because you were paying attention to the drive, you were not “overly aware” of all the non-essential aspects along the way.

When you first made the trip to work, you noticed all kinds of things. You looked at this house and that tree. You noticed where the gas stations were as well as any unusual things along your route. You cannot always have a hyper-awareness of everything along the way to work. The mental and physical toll would exhaust you. By being habitual, you can enjoy other things while making your way to your destination. You are free to function at optimal levels.

The Upside of Habits

Another illustration of the “freedom to function” is in your prayer life. It is a good thing to have a familiar location for prayer. If you pray in a closet, for example, and have been praying in a closet for months or years, what you have done is created an undistracted environment to focus on the most important thing, which is unhindered talks with God.

When I was physically able to pray in my literal closet and first “carved out” my prayer spot, I was fully aware of all of my surroundings. When I first began to pray in my closet, I noticed the clothes hanging from the bar, the shoes on the floor, the light under the door, and the general layout of our closet space. After a while, I could sit on the floor with little awareness of those things. It was my habit to pray in the closet, and my habits served me to focus on what was important.

The Downside of Habits

While habits can be to your spiritual good, other habituated practices will drive you to destruction. This concept is the essence of Galatians 6:1:

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.

The word “caught” in this text does not mean, “I caught you” as though you were busted. It means you are in a trap as though it owns you, or it controls you. This entrapment happens because a person has participated in a specific sin over time until he has created a situation to where when particular events or things happen, he immediately begins a sequence of thinking and doing that leads him to a behavioral sin.

Pornography is a classic example of this. Biff has been struggling with porn for years. It is his habit, and his lust for porn has captured him. His marriage is not what it ought to be. His wife, Mable, is negative and critical, and Biff does not know how to lead, love, and disciple her. Both of them are selfish and have been unable to work on the real problems of their marriage.

The standard trigger that leads to Biff viewing porn is an argument with Mable. Biff is weary of her nagging. He also has a high view of himself, in that Biff believes that he deserves better than what he is receiving from her. He would like for Mable to be something that she is not, and after an argument, he begins to spiral down into self-pity. Again, he thinks he deserves better. Over the years, when these things happen, Biff turns to pornography and masturbation as a way to “self-medicate” his sinful self-pity. He has habituated himself into porn.

Habits can be a powerful means of grace to assist you in your walk down paths of righteousness. Or, like Biff, habits can be your worst nightmare. They can capture you as you “sin without thinking.” What habits do you have that keep you habituated in the claws of sin? What is your plan to change?

How to Help Biff and Mable

How would you help Biff to extricate himself from the downside of his sinful habit? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Biff must deal with the secondary issue, which is porn. His behavioral addiction points to a deeper issue, as all our actions do.
  2. Biff needs to see his self-righteousness, which is his core problem. He thinks he deserves better when the testimony of Scripture says that we all deserve eternal hell.
  3. Mable must see how her self-righteousness, as modeled by her critical and negative disposition, is contributing to Biff’s porn and masturbation. While she is not responsible for Biff’s choice to sin, she is contributing to the problem in practical ways. Mable is your classic sinning/victim.
  4. To learn more about how to help this couple, read the internal links at the top of this article, as well as the internal links within each of those articles.
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