Creatures of holy habit
“Don’t try to be like Jesus; train to be like Jesus,” pastor Richard Martens told the congregation at Glencairn MB Church one Sunday. His words resonated with me as an athlete and coach.
You can have natural talent in a sport, but if you don’t hardwire the right automatic body movements through practice, your success will be variable. Can we also leverage the way God made our brains to become more consistently like Jesus?
A spiritual exchange takes place when we accept Christ’s payment for our specific sins and our sinful patterns. In our inner being, we become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Sometimes, the Holy Spirit instantly delivers us from persistent sin. At other times, God works with us choice by choice to overcome tendencies that don’t please him.
That’s where training for righteousness comes in.
In the Bible, the apostle Paul instructs his young protege Timothy, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7–8).
Richard’s sermon made me consider what it means to teach myself to be godly. I believe this training includes intentionally forming holy habits and planning ahead to avoid sin.
Put habits to work
I recently listened to two books that opened my eyes to how much habits govern our lives: The Now Habit by Neil Fiore and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
To form a habit, Duhigg writes, we need a cue, a routine and a reward. For example, if you regularly brush your teeth before bed, the cue might be getting your pyjamas on and going to the bathroom. These actions trigger the tooth brushing routine of unscrewing the toothpaste cap, rinsing your brush under the tap, applying toothpaste, then grabbing a book so you can read a few pages while you brush. (That’s my routine.) The immediate reward is that refreshing clean feeling you get after brushing.
“A habit is a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day,” says Duhigg.
You could employ this knowledge to form patterns for right living. For example, you could read Scripture more regularly by linking your reading to a practice that is already ingrained in your life.
When my father-in-law wakes up, he brews a cup of coffee. Then he sits down with his tablet and reads the Bible while he drinks. Making coffee has become his cue to read the Bible. He doesn’t have to think about it anymore: his routine is to fill his mind with God’s Word first thing in the morning.
Plan for righteousness
Understanding how God designed our brains could also help us break sinful patterns. Many of us repeat painful, destructive interactions with the people closest to us. We feel guilty, but powerless to respond differently.
It is possible to plan for righteousness. If you are like me, you have a predictable set of sin scenarios, situations that provoke unChristlike behaviour.
I often play the lead role in an unholy drama when my teen children take a long time to do their chores or get ready for school. Annoyed, I tend to get in their faces. This produces a negative reaction (and might also explain the sign on my daughter’s door that says, “DON’T COME IN. THIS MEANS YOU MOM”).
In the heat of my annoyance, I need to walk away. I often ask my calmer, more patient husband to help the kids stay on track while I stroll briskly around the block or cycle for a few kilometres.
I take comfort in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
Did you get that? God will provide an escape. We can teach ourselves to see the way out in the moment. As well, God can reveal to us ahead of time how to bypass sin.
Recently, I have been working with a spiritual director to draw closer to God. She recommended an ancient Christian practice of reviewing the day in God’s presence (the daily examen).
I ask myself the question, “Where did I see Jesus?” and let God bring to mind glimpses of his presence throughout my day. I also ask, “Where did I miss Jesus?” Through this inquiry, God shows me the times when I chose not to obey.
A practice like this sensitizes me to my common sin scenarios and helps me to see paths around unrighteousness.
On its own, reshaping habits and learning to discern escape routes will not bring freedom. The gospel reminds us that we need God’s help to change. There is no substitute for confessing our sin and receiving Christ’s forgiveness. But practices can help us flee from evil and run a better race for our heavenly head coach.
—Sandra Reimer trains to be like Jesus at Glencairn MB Church, Kitchener, Ont.