Christian Living

Creatures of habit: Why habits matter

Everyone has habits. This is because habits are a part of what it means to be created.

You might have the habit of taking off your shoes when you enter a house. Or always sitting on the same side of the aisle in church. Or, like me, of binge watching TV dramas when you’re doing the ironing (why is there so much ironing?). 

We all know what a habit is, but here’s a definition: a habit is something that we do on a regular basis, usually without thinking about it—and not doing it feels wrong. 

Some habits we deliberately cultivate, and some we have because we’ve been taught by others to do them. I’ve just learned a tricky new way to cut out a busy intersection when driving home from the city—but I have to deliberately think about it, or my habit takes me the old way. I know it will take time to ingrain the new habit, but it’s worth it because the new way is better.

Made for habits

Our bodies respond to regularity. We are made for habits. We get hungry at roughly the same time every day; we generally like being in a routine. 

This is because we are embodied; we are creatures. God has made us this way. We know from neuroscience that the more we do something, the more ingrained it becomes. Neural pathways are laid down in our brains, so that we eventually don’t even realise we’re doing it.

So it makes sense that we get ourselves into habits all the time, and in this fallen world, it makes sense that we can sometimes struggle to get out of some of the habits we form.

Forming habits

So, what does this mean for us as Christians? While we wait for Jesus’ return and our eternal home in the new creation, we will want to harness our natural habit-forming tendency—for good. I don’t mean that we just want good, clean habits like always drinking 8 glasses of water a day or always sending a thank you note after a party. 

I’m talking mainly about habits of Bible reading, prayer, and resting. This is because these are the habits that will help you to keep going! You might already be in great habits of doing this. But if you’re anything like me you’ll start something new… and then it kind of just stops.

Taking charge of our habits

The real question is: who is in control of my habits?

Is it the world? Is it my sinful nature? Is it social media? 

Did you know that the primary business of Apple, Google and Facebook is to control your habits? It’s so they can advertise to you and make money off you and your habits.

So, if you don’t take charge of your habits, other things will. 

And the good news is we can take control of our habits, by God’s grace.[1] He does it through his Spirit enabling you to exercise self-control. That is, God works through our own conscious efforts to take control of our life and our habits.

Just like my new way of driving home, it will take time to ingrain the new habit, but it’s worth it because the new way is better.

A study done at the University College London on people’s habits discovered that it takes people anywhere between 18 days and 254 days to form a new habit. So it might take a while to change.[2]

Habits are a key part of our godliness 

Love for God is a whole-of-life thing. We need God’s word to grow in our knowledge and love of him, and to grow in our love for others.

As Deuteronomy 6:5 tells us, it involves heart, soul, might—everything. And the implication of this is that our regular, creaturely lives and relationships, and our patterns of life, need to be disciplined so that God’s word takes centre stage.

Deuteronomy 6 tells us that we need to think and talk of God’s word “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (v. 7). In the daily cycles of sitting, walking, sleeping, getting up, God’s word needs to be front and centre. 

This is because we so quickly forget. God knows that we are creaturely, and that in this world we are weak (Ps 103:14), and that’s why he tells us to have his word ingrained into our lives through our habits and cycles. 

What’s our goal?

In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul speaks about the discipline of godliness for the sake of gospel ministry. 

Paul uses the image of an athlete—someone who has set their eyes on the goal and everything they do is to help them get to that goal. Now my friends will tell you that I don’t know much about sport, but I do know that proper athletes don’t faff around when the goal of reaching the Olympics is ahead of them. And they certainly don’t faff around when the goal of winning the medal is in their sights.

And just like an athlete, we don’t get our habits in line just for the fun of it. We use them as tools to help us train for the life we’ve been given to look forward to when Jesus returns.

This is especially relevant for those in ministry. Notice what Paul says in verse 27. It’s sobering: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Now, I’m no hero at this myself. I’ve been challenged by God’s word here to get it together. But remember that in the face of our weakness and failure, what is the remedy? The remedy is always to turn to Jesus. How do you do that? By the very thing we’re talking about—reading God’s word the Bible, and praying to him.

It’s worth it

At this point you might have some objections, like “I’m not a disciplined person!” I’m hearing you. I’m not a super disciplined type of person myself. Or “I’ve tried and it doesn’t take!” 

This isn’t about our conscious decisions. It’s about consciously disciplining our unconscious decisions, our regular responses.

You’ve got to get to the point where you just do it—and you never know, you might just grow to love it. And it will be a struggle until Jesus returns. This is because there’s an extra element to developing these kinds of habits—it’s a spiritual battle. Satan does not want you to be in the habit of turning to God’s word and to your heavenly Father in prayer.

How do you fight the spiritual battle? Surprise, surprise: by turning to God in his word, and turning to him in prayer.

It takes effort to create new habits, but it’s worth it because of the prize—you’ll be ready and waiting when Jesus returns, rather than faffing around with worldly things. You’ll be loving and serving people. The people you serve in ministry don’t need you to be doing a ton of things. They might think they need that from you. But what they really need you to be is a certain kind of person—the kind of person who keeps turning to Jesus, listening to him and relying on him. 

Look out for part 2 next week, when Bronwyn will share the nitty-gritty of cultivating new habits. 


[1] I need to say here that there is a difference between a habit and an addiction. An addiction is a behaviour that you can’t control; it’s a problem you need to get help for. A habit is something you can control, though it might take effort. If you are struggling with a habit that you can’t seem to break, or with an addiction, then do talk to your GP or someone else about it so you can get the help you need.

[2] Phillipa Lally, ‘How habits are formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world’, Wiley Online Library, 16 June 2009 (viewed 22 March 2019).