About 40% of our actions are not conscious decisions but habits.
Have you intended to drive somewhere and missed your exit because you stopped consciously thinking about where you were going and habit kicked in and you went where you most often go…work for instance?
This is true for much of our lives…we are, to a large extent, the sum of our habits.
What has become habitual for us has become normal for us…we can begin to believe that our habits…are things we can’t control
They are just “us”
This includes good and bad things…being angry, or kind, or grumpy, or self-controlled…being anxious or calm.
“No…these aren’t habits…these are personality traits, things beyond my control, they are who I am…or they are not my fault.”
Well…it’s not about “fault” or assigning blame…the question is… “Who do we want to become?”
We have different personalities and there are a number of reasons why we respond in certain ways…but a large part of who we are and how we respond is the result of what we have turned into habit.
Since we are called to become like Christ over time…this would clearly indicate that we need to give attention to habits of all kinds.
It’s pretty much a waste of time to try and avoid or assume blame…for our habits.
It’s much better to give energy and attention to the formation of God-honoring and people-blessing habits.
It is believed by brain scientists that old habits don’t truly disappear they are just overpowered by other habits.
*They are talking about habits as physical pathways in the brain
The old proverb about the two dogs…good dog, bad dog…which one wins? The one I feed the most.
Habits are how God has designed us to function…imagine how difficult life would be if we were unable to form them.
The first time you do something…it is difficult…over time it becomes easier.
When you do something over and over the mental power needed to perform the task decreases significantly (a golf swing, playing the piano…but also…being kind, holding your tongue)
This is called “Chunking” by behavioral scientists…taking several things that require thought and effort and through habit…blending them into a sort of single habit.
So, for instance, when you are first learning to drive a car…there are SO many different things to think about…its not a single thing what we call “drive”…its lots of things.
Over time your brain “chunks” these into one large semi-automatic action…with a single word for it…driving.
We don’t say as we head to lunch after church… “I’ll start the car, adjust the mirrors, turn the wheel, look around, apply gas, break when needed, watch for road signs and speed limits…”
We say… “I’ll drive”
That’s chunking…life would be impossible without it.
In the 1990’s some MIT researchers came up with a three-step loop that is at the core of how habits form in our brains…cue, routine, reward
- Cue: Any trigger that tells your brain when and which habit to use
- Routine: an activity, emotion or behavior
- Reward: how your brain determines if a loop is beneficial to you or not.
-Cue: “I’m bored”
-Routine: “Grab a bottle of wine”
-Reward: “You feel relaxed and happy”
-Cue: “I’m angry or feel disrespected”
-Routine: “Lash out, win the war of words”
-Reward: “I feel justified, I have proven my point, I won”
-Cue: “I’m anxious”
-Routine: “Hide, avoid people”
-Reward: “I feel less anxious”
You can see how this loop can go bad.
Of course, it’s not always bad…there are many good routines…those we call good habits.
But calling it “reward” doesn’t necessarily mean it “good” for you overall…it just means you brain registers it as a good outcome in some way in that moment.
So…you feel relaxed after the wine (brain says “good outcome”)
-But many become addicted that way
You feel justified, satisfied after lashing out (brain registers that as “good outcome”)
-But you can destroy relationships over time that way
You feel less anxious when you avoid others (brain says “ding, ding, ding” “good outcome”)
-But you become more anxious the more you avoid life and others.
So, to change habits…
You don’t just focus on the routine…but on the entire process.
Examine the routine: What behavior needs to change.
Analyze the reward: This is the “why” of the behavior…is this really “good”? Is this what I want.
Identify the cue: What are the triggers? How do I begin to apply new routines them?
-Cue: Lonely, sad, missing my mom…long day ahead, how do I fill it.
-Routine: make a list of people to serve, then spend the day serving them
-Reward: satisfaction, joy, sense of purpose.
This is a good application of this habit loop.
Habits require willpower…we all have it available to us…it is a gift from God.
Willpower is like a muscle not a skill or a personality trait.
Everyone has it, but it can become strong or it can atrophy.
It becomes stronger the more it is used…weaker the less it’s used.
And like our muscles…it can be strong in one area and weak in another.
Strong hamstring, weak quad…cause knee problems.
Willpower to develop good habits in one area of your life (work)…but not in another(home)…causes problems in all of our life.
These areas do not stay distinct from each other.
We want to develop good habits in all areas of our lives…not to look good, or to win God’s approval.
But because we can…God has designed the world such that this is how we can maximize our good and his glory through us.
This year we are in Proverbs and other wisdom literature in Scripture.
Proverbs has a general organizing structure (we looked at it early in the year)…but it is largely topical, designed to give insight for living well in God’s world as he has designed it to work.
So, there are many different life topics, distributed throughout the book.
This month we are looking at what the book has to say about Wise Habits
Which passage or Proverb should we use to introduce “Wise Habits”?
It’s a tough choice…the entire book is essentially about developing wise versus foolish habits…life patterns
Becoming “wise” or a “fool” is largely presented as habitualizing certain things in your life.
But let’s go back to Proverbs 4 (we were there earlier this year)…and pick out some clues to the priority and the principles of wise habits.
Here a father is instructing his son…we are to see ourselves as the son and God speaking to us as the father…wisdom comes from him.
Look at 4:20-27…three principles
- Pay attention
- You are what you love
- Work at it
Wise Habits begin with paying attention.
20-22 My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to a man’s whole body.
A child becomes wise by learning from those with wisdom.
When the child is sure that she is already wise(or just not paying attention)…she will pay no attention to what she is being told…and will not learn from the lessons life is teaching her…God is teaching through life outcomes.
*We were bathing our foster granddaughters and they kept insisting on standing up and slipping and falling.
I thought “Even if you don’t want to listen to me…do you have absolutely zero capacity to learn from experience…even experience that is like 45 seconds old?”
But the child must learn to pay attention because she is forming habits that will shape the outcomes of her life.
Not just habits of academics that are important for life success…learning letters and words, multiplication tables.
But habits of character…how to respond to authority, how to treat others, how to deal with your own emotions.
These are the kinds of things that will position the child for a happy and satisfying life…or an unhappy and dissatisfying one.
Destin Sandlin created a backwards brain bicycle
His bike was designed so that when you turned the handlebars left the front wheel goes right.
Haven ridden a bike his entire life it took 8 months and lots of practice to learn to ride this bike.
His son, however, learned in two weeks…because his bike habits were not as well formed in his brain.
Children can learn new habits (good and bad) quickly because old habits are not so ingrained.
Thus, you have the cultural proverb “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Which is generally true, but like all Proverbs (Biblical and otherwise)…it’s not universally true.
Even young dogs must have “tricks” reinforced daily or near daily…or these “habits” like…fetch, sit…whatever…will be over written by new, more practiced habits…like run away, or chew up the furniture.
Two things I’ll say about old dogs and the backwards brain bicycle:
- Parents…lean into the reality that your child is forming habits. You have powerful and important influence in what those habits will look like…these are going to shape their lives.
You are shaping their habits mostly by what you personally…communicate, celebrate and demonstrate in your own life.
- You are wrong to believe you could never master a backwards brain bicycle if you’ve had many years on a bike…you are never just too ingrained in your habits.
If you have formed habits that are not God honoring, and others-blessing…habits that don’t resemble Jesus…then we must do the work to form new ones…and we can.
But the lesson of the backwards bike is that It will be more work if you have ingrained habits.
Our response should be…ok, its more work…so Let’s do the work.
Because…if you are older habits are more ingrained but you also have more experience in how change happens…you have the grit to do the work to make the change.
Children are less ingrained in habits but often quicker to feel sorry for themselves and give up.
Do the work to change…it doesn’t matter how old you are.
This process of change is identical with God’s primary purpose in your life…sanctification, becoming more like Christ.
Don’t accept habits that don’t look like Jesus.
Even if you are 80, you are a child before God…still in need of transformation of habits.
If you are grumpy, judgmental, quick to speak your mind, or given to worry…stop…that doesn’t resemble Jesus…it’s not acceptable…shouldn’t be to you.
Do the work to change those habuts…and if you die before you change…Okay…we are all going to die before we are fully like Jesus.
When we move through life trying to convince ourselves and others that we are right in our thinking, and behaving…or we just can’t change…then we are unlikely to see what habits need to change…or the embrace the pathways of change.
Our country has formed these various lines where we stand on one side or another and shout across at each other…this is true both actually and symbolically.
When we become passionate about what we believe (which is a good thing)…we can also become obstinate about what we believe (which is a bad thing…not open to any correction)
First…pay attention…what needs to change in you…not them?
If you are not dead yet…
Then you are still in the “being sanctified” process.
Since this is true…your habits are need in attention…so don’t be an obstinate child…forsaking your Father’s instruction…pay attention.
Father…I am a child, my habits need to be shaped into the image of your son…show me, help me not be defensive.
- You are what you love: Wise habits are empowered by the heart:
23 Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.
We have talked about this verse a great deal this year because it is so critical to understanding what biblical wisdom is.
The heart…the thinking, choosing, believing, loving…is the source of your life.
The heart is where wise habits form.
Remember that cue, routine, reward loop?
What our hearts are learning to love (seek as a reward) is critical to who we are becoming as people
A couple of years ago I quoted James K.A. Smith from his book, “You are what you love: The Spiritual power of Habit”…it bears repeating today.
In John 1 two men began to follow Jesus…when Jesus turned to these would be followers, he asked them “What do you want?”
Smith says Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples when they express interest in following him…“What do you know” “What do you believe”…but what do you want?
This is the right question because we are what we want…we are becoming what we love.
Jesus wants hearts that are his.
We can decide to want what we should want.
Our actions flow from our longings…what we see as “reward”
Even the MIT secular scientists know this is true…at least at the brain level.
And we are much more than our brains.
So, becoming like Christ is paying attention to our what our hearts hunger and thirst for.
In every news story…good and bad…you see people…who like the Sprite add campaign says…are “obeying their thirst.”
So, what are we to do, practically speaking…to change our thirst…can we do this?
Yes…heart habits are still habits…and they can be reformed.
Our hearts follow our investments…to change heart habits…change life investments.
*Recently a friend said he was feeling much more accepted, connected in relationships at our church.
I was happy to hear that and I told him why it was.
He used to not show up…then he started showing up.
His new friends hearts are following their investment in him and his heart is following its investment in them.
It’s not magic…but it works like magic.
Decide what you should have a heart for (what you want to love)…make investments there.
You can change your thirst (it will obey you)…then you will in a sense, obey your thirst(it will become habit)
I hope this is not confusing because it is so important and so practical.
I have seen this over and over in my life and in the life of my friends and family.
Like two people who don’t particularly like each other…who invest time and effort in each other…and become dear friends.
Both grow from the investment…probably more so than if they had just stuck with people they more naturally “liked”
They become fast friends…because they did the work to see their hearts changed.
This brings us to the third principle that turns up over and over in Proverbs…
- Work at it: Wise Habits take hard work
24-27 Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. Ponder the path for your feet then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.
Working hard for salvation is impossible, unbiblical.
Not working hard for life change is impossible, unbiblical.
Don’t confuse the two…when we do…it is problematic.
This the “Grit” part of wise habits.
Pay attention, guard your heart…get some grit…do the work.
So, let’s look at some of the grit factors in shaping habits in these verses.
24-27 Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Form habits of speech through effort…just do it.
Pray…but do the work to see it happen.
Here’s the NT version of this…
Eph. 4:29 “Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.”
Don’t let it come out of your mouth.
Don’t wait on God to do it to you or for you…see to it yourself…start taking control of your words.
Next grit advice…
Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you.
This has wide application…don’t look around wondering what it would be like to be married to him or her (if you are already married)
Don’t look around…wondering why you don’t have their life, or health, or face, or child, or their stuff.
Don’t look around and get rolled by the waves of anxiety swirling around you…keep your eyed fixed directly before you…on what?
On God’s ways of wisdom…on what God has provided for you…on God himself.
Here’s the NT version of this.
Hebrews 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Decide where you will look to determine how you will live your life.
Looking straight ahead is not being oblivious to the needs around you
But this is about setting life direction…fixed in your purpose…not blown around by the winds and waves.
Keep your eye on what your life is to be about.
Then watch where your walk.
Ponder the path for your feet then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.
Watch your words, fix your focus and watch your step…that pretty much covers it.
These are all proactive personal choices…not waiting on God to do something to you…but using the resources God has provided for you to make habitual what is good to be and do.
So…get excited about the possibility of forming new habits…or continuing to further embed good habits in your life.
I get discouraged when I repeat old bad patterns…but we can’t stay there.
Rouse yourself…move into the possibility of becoming more like Christ and treating others better and better.
What a great opportunity…when the world around is reflexively striking out…or shrinking back…we can be people who are more and more reflexively reflecting Jesus…and moving into the life of others for God’s glory and their good.
Cue: High anxiety. Interpersonal tensions. Disagreements. Fear.
Routine: Pray. Trust. Love. Understand. Refuse to be a people pleaser.
Reward: Love, Joy, peace…God is seen through your life.
Wise habits are there for us to develop…God has given us what we need to go after them.
Jesus looks at us still and asks “What do you want?”