Two Takeaways on Habits (3/3)

Recently, I wrote two posts on habits. The first looked at Atomic Habits by James Clear, the second interacted with The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Earley. I’d like to explore habits and the Christian life more in the future, but for now, I’ll be wrapping up this short series with two thoughts:

#1: Understanding Habits Can Help Overwhelmed People

The compulsive nature of bad habits can foster a sense of helplessness. We wonder if we can really change after so many failed attempts. We lapse into bad habits to procrastinate and escape responsibility. This creates a vicious cycle of feeling ill-equipped to face the demands of life, leading to more avoidance and retreating into our vices.

We must remind overwhelmed, despairing people (often ourselves!) of Gospel truth — that a loving God pursues and finds us in our failure. At the same time, it is also important to think about simple, tangible solutions. Struggling people need to reminded of their agency. We are not helpless or worthless because of wasted time, poor decisions, and bad habits. We can choose something different.

That is where a book like Atomic Habits can be so helpful. It dispels the mystique surrounding our bad habits — the feeling that they are an unconquerable Goliath. Instead, Clear lays out how habits work in different stages: cue, trigger, craving, reward. He then gives tactics to combat bad habits and build better ones at each of those stages. This understanding of habits can move people from “I’m overwhelmed and don’t know where to start” to “It’s a long road ahead, but I have a few strategies that seem doable.” That shift in mindset is crucial.

The Gospel is most precious to those who are struggling and weak; those who know they can’t make it on their own. When we believe the Gospel, however, it doesn’t make our bad habits magically disappear. We will still feel overwhelmed at times. It makes sense, then, to incorporate sensitivity towards weakness into our understanding of sanctification, growth, and change, including habit change.

We build “atomic” habits precisely because we are weak. We take small steps because we can’t handle everything all at once. And so, every step is a reminder of our insufficiency and how we need our Savior.

#2: Understanding Habits Can Help with Lasting Application

As Christians, we have many opportunities to hear from God’s Word — Sunday sermons, Bible studies, personal reading, online resources, and more. That means we have ample opportunities to apply God’s Word to our lives. How effective are we?

Sadly, I often let time slip through my fingers. I can operate on autopilot for weeks or months at a time, without much conscious reflection on how I’m living. While I study God’s word, I treat its truths like abstract principles that are disconnected from real life. I take notes during the sermon, mull over ideas in discussion groups, but forget what I learn afterwards.

Preachers and teachers could probably strengthen their application game (as one who sometimes teaches, this is certainly true for me!) But the reality is they are (1) applying lessons from the original biblical context to (2) a broad audience, composed of different demographics, with different experiences, and life circumstances. It is understandable that a message’s application will sometimes be general. As hearers, we need to take responsibility for thinking intentionally about application.

That’s where I think an understanding of habits can be helpful. In Clear’s words:

“Anyone who stops to think about it comes to the same realization — humans are largely defined by the small routines that make up our days and weeks…Habits are how we stand up and get our hands on time…Only when your habits are constructed to match your worldview do you become someone who doesn’t just know about God and neighbor but someone who actually loves God and neighbor”

Call it understanding habits or plain common-sense, but we need to think practically and specifically about how God’s word fits into the rhythms and routines of daily life. We need to ask: how can I realistically remember, apply, or obey this truth I’m learning in a way that is consistent over time? Drawing from the toolbox of habit literature, both Christian and secular, can help us with that kind of lasting application. More on this in the future!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the topic of habits. Hoping to write more series like this. Would appreciate any feedback. Thank you!


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