Bad Habits Can Be Changed – Thank God!
I don’t remember the first book by Andrew Murray I ever read.
But I do remember having the feeling that I’d met a kindred soul. (That sounds a bit “Anne of Green Gables“-ish, doesn’t it?)
There was something in the way he wrote, but more so in his perspective of the things he wrote about that resonated with me in a deeply spiritual way.
I still feel the same way today.
I am presently about 3/4 of the way through Andrew’s book, “Humility,” the one book besides the Bible that has truly changed my life. This is my second time to work through it in the past year. It’s that good and that rich.
The chapter I read this morning held this jewel…
We know the law of human nature: acts produce habits, habits breed dispositions, dispositions form the will, and the rightly-formed will is character. It is not otherwise in the work of grace. As acts, persistently repeated, beget habits and dispositions, and these strengthened the will, He who works both to will and to do comes with His mighty power and Spirit; and the humbling of the proud heart with which the penitent saint casts himself so often before God, is rewarded with the “more grace” of the humble heart, in which the Spirit of Jesus has conquered, and brought the new nature to its maturity, and He the meek and lowly One now dwells for ever.
The big idea from this paragraph that grabbed my attention is serving me as reinforcement to a similar idea I’ve been having for a while. Who knows? I could have caught the idea from Andrew my first time through the book. But here’s the idea…
Andrew calls a progression to our attention, something he calls “The law of human nature.” I believe this idea is not only insightful, it’s got the potential to transform us if we apply its truth rightly. Here’s the basic gist of it:
action → habits → disposition → will → character
In short, the idea is that our actions develop our habits, which shape our disposition (attitudes), which form our wills, which finally, produce our characters.
Modern research backs it up
Modern research is revealing that physical actions actually create neural pathways in the brain. Those pathways become larger and therefore stronger, making the actions easier or more natural, the more we do the actions that contributed to its formation in the first place. So a physiological change that’s happening in our bodies as we repeat an action over and over. That’s the action → habit connection.
Beyond that is the cumulative effect the resulting habits have on us as people. Andrew observed rightly that our disposition or mindset is shaped by the regularly occurring (habitual) things in our lives. We are like an old dirt road, rutted and worn by repeated use. That reality demands that we carefully consider the lasting impact of habits such as laziness, criticism, lust, and many others. That’s the habit → disposition connection.
The formation of our disposition, in turn, determines our will. We actually wind up wanting the things we do the most. That result is either good or bad, an addiction on the one hand or a personal discipline on the other. Obviously, we can either ignore this reality or act with intention to use it to our advantage. So, there we have the disposition → will connection.
Whichever fork in the road we take at that juncture will determine our character.
But that doesn’t mean that bad habits destine us to a life of poor character. Andrew observes that God steps in at this point, through the process that we call, “sanctification.” Andrew refers to two passages that tie together the needed transformation of a will already bent toward pride and self, and the desperate need of deeply abiding humility…
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. ~ Philippians 2:12-13
- This passage highlights the powerful role of actions and habit in the development of the soul.
- But we see that God Himself is using them to craft us, to shape us into people who please Him.
THAT is amazingly good news for us.
We are partners with God almighty in our own reclamation. We fearfully/humbly “work out” or live out the salvation God has already given to us and He promises to do His God-sized work in us.
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. ~ James 4:4-7
- This paragraph also addresses the issue of action and habit, but goes further.
- The phrase, “friendship with the world” describes a condition, brought about through repeated action (habit).
- James wants us to clearly see that there is a two-fold result of persistently chasing after worldly things:
- First, we become worldly in our disposition/character.
- Second, we become God’s enemy.
That second result is a contradiction beyond measure because the Holy Spirit already resides in us.
We cannot remain in such a condition, so God provides us even more grace through the gift of humility. As we receive His humility and submit ourselves to God instead of the worldly pursuits, over time He conquers the habits that got us into our mess in the first place and helps us overcome all spiritual forces that have taken the opportunity to ensnare us.
Even the most strongly entrenched aspects of our personalities can be transformed by God’s grace.
No matter the myriad actions and repeated habits that have brought us to the point of enmity with God, He will overcome them and change us through humility. That is Andrew’s point.
Could we avoid the habits in the first place?
As I spoke with my wife about this section of Andrew’s book, she said the only thing missing is the issue of belief. In her mind, our beliefs are the first link in the chain because we only acti on what we believe.
I began testing her idea by trying to come up with a situation where an action might NOT be prompted by a belief. I couldn’t do it.
Even actions done spontaneously or instinctively have an original belief behind them. That doesn’t mean that we always take action on what we believe, just that when we do act, the action is instigated by a belief. In a situation where we do not act on what we believe, the inaction is motivated by a stronger belief. That could be the subject of an entire post by itself.
So back to the question: Is there a way to prevent the formation of new, unhelpful habits in the first place?
That’s where my wife’s observation comes in.
If belief is the first link in the chain, then filling our minds with true, strong, righteous beliefs about God first, ourselves next, and the world, we should be able to set ourselves up for the opportunity to act according to truth, which in turn, would begin the formation of good habits.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. ~ Romans 12:2
The assertion Paul is making an Romans 12:2 supports my wife’s point.
What fills our minds is what will determine whether a not we are conformed to the world-ish way of living. It begins on the level of belief.
So, if we were to re-write Andrew’s progression an a ” How it should look for the Christ-follower” way, it would be something like this…
True beliefs → right actions → truly good habits → godly disposition → conformity to God’s will → Christ-like character
How do these ideas resonate with you?
Do you see the hope we have because Christ in our lives?