Does changing your habits change your life? Can you become healthier, happier, or holier if you incorporate new, small daily habits into your life?
I decided to start this year off with a new habit. I have to work out regularly because I have arthritis. If I don’t work out, I feel terrible all day. If I do work out, I feel pretty good all day. Since I’ve had a hard time being consistent, I decided I would simplify my workout routine and do one short workout every day.
When January 1 rolled around, I told myself not to workout because today is a holiday. The next day was a Saturday, so I said this is a weekend day so no worries. Then it was a Sunday, the Lord’s Day (freedom in Christ!). So I said I’ll start on Monday. Monday came and went and now it’s Tuesday, the 5th of January and this morning I got busy helping my son get ready for the new semester. Maybe I’ll just spend this year thinking about working out more… so much for that habit. I feel a bit discouraged so far this year on that front.
On the other hand, ten years ago I decided to walk more, but I was out of shape and each step felt like it took tremendous willpower. So I started out with very short walks a few days a week. Slowly I began to want to walk more. Eventually, walking became a very regular habit for me. I now walk 2 miles or more 4-5 days a week and I take a longer hike at least once a week. When I walk regularly, I feel better physically, I am more relaxed throughout the day, and when I’m on my walks I feel the presence of God with me quite often. The habit “took” and I’m happier and healthier today than I was then. I feel happy when I think of all the miles I’ve walked, alone or with others. It isn’t a chore anymore, most of the time, it is a joy.
Habits have a lot to do with willpower, and they get all wrapped up in our self-esteem, our sense of worth, and sometimes even our perception of our own holiness, belovedness, or even our salvation. They also have a lot to do with the ways our brains are wired.
The Neuroscience of Habits
Charles Duhigg may have launched the current habits movement in 2012 with his book The Power of Habit. More recently, Atomic Habits by James Clear became a best-seller in 2018. Clear summarizes the recent science of habit formation like this:
If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Focusing on the overall system, rather than a single goal, is one of the core themes of this book (27).
These two books, and others like them, are based on research not only into human behavior but also into the neuroscience of human behavior. How can we re-wire our brains to actually help us get better, and override the parts of our brain that sabotage us? Both of these books have been helpful to my own understanding of how I can make small changes that will lead to greater health and life. They’ve also helped me to see better that failure is just a part of the long-term process of change.
But Can Habits Make Us Holy?
Incorporating good habits into our lives, in small steps, with a lot of support around us can help pastors and leaders become healthier. And we aren’t exactly the healthiest bunch out there, according to most studies. These books on the neuroscience approach to habits can be very helpful in moving in a good direction. The science is pretty clear that new habits can indeed help us be healthier, and perhaps happier. But can they make us holier?
Behavioral change is not holiness. Jesus said that the Pharisees tried to clean the outside of the cup, but the inside remained unclean. Some of us may feel that an emphasis on habits is simply behavior modification without spiritual depth. Yet at the same time, we want to be healthier, more loving, and more at peace in our minds and hearts. Can new habits help us in all aspects of our lives, including the pursuit of a holy life? Or are they just a modern version of Pharisaical self-righteousness?
New Testament Habits
Since long before the advent of neuroscience, people have worked on small, regular habits as a way to form the person. Jesus said “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much…” St. Paul wrote “I discipline my body” and he praises Timothy for following his conduct. St. Paul wrote to Titus that training in godliness would lead to “self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” The picture here is of someone who works on growing as an act of faithfulness and stewardship, not in an attempt to earn love.
The vision of the New Testament is of a Christian who does not rest salvation on the perfection of habits. But she pursues regular habits that form her mind, soul, body, and spirit. At the same time, she recognizes that our inner person is also being formed. The third letter of John sums this up, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” The writer prays that all may go well, including good health, alongside soul health. And notice that the recipient is already “beloved.” The reader does not need to be healthy in order to be loved. Love is already given before the prayer for health is prayed.
Belovedness is the Foundation not the Goal
God already loves us. Our habit formation starts with God’s love, our habits don’t create or earn God’s love. Scrupulosity, the belief that perfectly obeying laws will please God, and antinomianism, the belief that no rules are ever helpful, are both to be let go. Instead, we could think of belovedness as the foundation of our habits and our formation, not the goal.
And yet, habits can form us into people who live the belovedness that is already ours.
Anglicans should know a lot about formation. We have the liturgy, the Daily Office, and the seasons of the year as regular “habits” that form and shape us. James K.A. Smith has written a lot about the power of our daily “liturgies” and how they form us. In You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, he writes that discipleship itself involves habits of love. He writes that “if you are what you love, and love is a habit, then discipleship is a rehabilitation of your loves”(19). Our spiritual habits require a telos, or ultimate focus, that draws our hearts to love God and his beautiful vision. That ultimate focus is God and his love for us. God’s love is the beginning and the end.
But these habits are not imposed laws. In Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson writes “There is nothing externally imposed about spiritual disciplines. In adopting them, we simply recognize that our innate spiritual aptitude cannot develop fully without practice” (10). Thompson and Smith help us see a vision in which we practice disciplines as we seek to live into freedom and relationship with God.
In The Country Parson or the Priest to the Temple, Anglican priest George Herbert describes why his book for pastors is so demanding. He writes that “I will set as high as I can, since he shoots higher that threatens the Moon, then he that aims at a Tree.” Later, he pictures the priest standing before the communion table, wondering why God would ordain someone as fallible as him to celebrate the eucharist. Herbert then says he realized that “thou art not only the feast, but the way to it.” In other words, none of us is perfected in this life. But Jesus is not just the goal of our lives, he is also the way to the goal. He is both the feast and the way to the feast. We are never alone, he is always with us. In all things, we are nourished by him. So our habits are not a way to get to Jesus. He is already with us in our practices and habits, if we will only see him there.
We are Holy, We are Becoming Holy
Holiness is, on the one hand, a fact for any baptized believer in Jesus Christ. God has set us apart, made us holy, in Christ. On the other hand, we seek a holiness of love in our lives. We seek to learn by habit and practice how to grow in our own inner sense of God’s love and grace, and also to express that love and grace in all of our relationships and doings. God has also placed in us a desire to care for the sacred bodies, souls, minds, creation, and relationships that he has given us.
Tish Harrison Warren illustrates this with a story about making the bed in Liturgy of the Ordinary. She resolved to make the bed first thing each day during Lent. A simple habit, but it meant putting off looking at her phone for a short while. She reflects “my new Lenten routine didn’t make me wildly successful or cheerfully buoyant as some had promised, but I began to notice, very subtly, that my day was imprinted differently. The first activity of my day…was not that of a consumer, but as a colaborer with God” (27-28). This little change eventually led her to more reflection upon the love of God each morning, and less iPhone distraction.
So I would say that habits can make us holier. That is, if they help us better see the holiness that is already ours in Christ, and to grow in the holiness of love and the nurturing of the sacredness of life. They don’t make God love us more, he already loves us with an everlasting love. They don’t make us a place in heaven, Christ did that already. They don’t make us superior to anyone else. But they can form us, strengthen us, and equip us. In that sense, they help us in the pursuit of holiness. They can also help us move away from unwanted thoughts, move toward physical fitness and nutritional health, and move into better, more loving, relationships with others. Habits can be holy.
If practicing habits successfully leads us to perceive ourselves as God’s beloved, and helps us to share that belovedness with others, then let us persevere in making habit lists, trying to pray the Daily Office every day, reading more about neuroscience and willpower, forming self-care groups, or taking a nutrition class. All of these are holy acts by people who are beloved of God.