How Your Habits Show and Shape Your Heart
This article by David Mathis has first appreared on The Gospel Coalition website.
The word “habit” can have such a negative feel. It can bring to mind smoking, alcoholism, or drug addition. Or something simply unappealing and annoying, like nail-biting, lip-smacking, or loud public itching of dry skin. Habits can be nasty little things.
They can also save your life. Like the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street. Or putting on your seatbelt, and pressing the brakes when the light ahead turns yellow. Or the habit of making a beeline for the Bible first thing in the morning.
Habits make Stephen Curry the NBA’s best shooter, Mike Trout baseball’s best hitter, and Jordan Spieth the world’s most promising young golfer. Habits keep a NASCAR driver from losing control and going airborne when he’s nudged going into Turn 3 at Daytona. And organizational habits make Fortune 500 companies excel beyond their competitors.
Science of Habit
While the human brain remains the final frontier of medical science, today’s cutting-edge research continues to put some of the enigmatic pieces together related to our habits. Bestselling books like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives now are popularizing this new science and helping us to think about our habits—where they come from and how to improve them.
At the heart of habit is the brilliance of our Creator. Making decisions takes time and energy, and habits keep us from having to make the same decisions over and over again:
Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. (The Power of Habit, 17)
And when our minds ramp down related to our routine actions, they stand ready to engage with something new or more important. With a habit, the decision is already made, and the bandwidth of our mind, so to speak, is free to us to focus our energy and attention elsewhere. “The real key to habits is decision making,” Rubin writes, “or, more accurately, the lack of decision making” (Better than Before, 5).
Habits for Receiving God’s Grace
For Christians, the so-called spiritual disciplines—or, as I like to call them, “habits of grace”—free our minds from preoccupation with technique and skill, and the depleting energy of making the same regular decisions, so that we can tune our attention elsewhere, to the most important thing. Habits that get us into the Bible and prayer, and that keep us deeply connected in the body of Christ are spiritual life-savers.
We shouldn’t want to wake up every day, weigh the options, and make the decision all over again as to whether the first voice we hear that day will be Jesus’s in the Scriptures. And when we’ve heard his voice in the Bible, we don’t need to stop and consider all over again whether we should pray, speaking back to God in response to having heard him speak in his Word. And it’s not most productive, and most spiritually advantageous long term, to make the decision all over again every weekend whether to be in corporate worship, or to attend community group. Make the decision and form the habit, for your own good and the good of others, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25).
The danger with having to make the decision all over again every time about these vital means of God’s ongoing grace is our wandering hearts may choose not to avail ourselves of his goodness. These are habits worth forming, because hearing his voice (in his Word), having his ear (in prayer), and belonging to his body (in the local church) are the lifeblood for the Christian life.
Habits for Enjoying Jesus
The power of habit not only keeps us from the folly of bad decisions; it can also transform spiritual exercises, like Bible meditation and prayer, from exhausting ourselves with Martha’s tiring exertions to coming alive through Mary’s life-giving receptions of grace (Luke 10:38–42). If we had to learn Bible meditation and prayer all over again each time we engaged, we’d be continually distracted, anxious, and troubled by our own doing. But forming good habits can make Bible intake and prayer into opportunities to sit at Jesus’s feet, and listen to his voice, and choose the good portion that will never be taken away.
The signal joy in forming “habits of grace” is being freed from focus on self, on our technique, to turn our soul’s gaze to Jesus. After all, the great goal of the spiritual disciplines—the end of the means of grace—is knowing and enjoying Jesus. The final joy in any truly Christian discipline or practice or rhythm of life is, in the words of the apostle, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). “This is eternal life”—and this is the goal of the means of grace—“that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
When all is said and done, our hope is not to be a skilled Bible reader, practiced prayer, and faithful churchman, but to be the one who “understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth” (Jer. 9:23–24). So our heartbeat in the habits we develop for hearing every word, speaking every prayer, and participating in every act of fellowship is, “Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD” (Hos. 6:3).
The means of God’s grace in Word, prayer, and fellowship—and their many good habitual expressions—will serve to make us more like him, but only as our focus returns continually to Christ himself, not our own Christlikeness. It’s in “beholding the glory of the Lord” that we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Spiritual growth is a marvelous effect of such practices, but in a sense it’s only a side effect. The heart is knowing and enjoying Jesus. And the science of habit serves that.
What Are Your Habits?
Your habits are, in fact, one of the most important things about you. Those repeated actions you take over and over, almost mindlessly, reveal your true self over time as much as anything else.
Our habits are windows into the deep things of our souls. “Character,” Michael Horton says, “is largely a bundle of habits.” Take a careful assessment of any person’s habits, and soon you can tell, with little margin for error, what really captures his heart.
But our habits not only show our hearts, but shape them as well. We’re always reinforcing habits or forming new ones. If Jesus truly is our Lord, Savior, and the greatest treasure of our lives, we’ll desperately want to have him reflected in the habits of our lives. And we’ll find it well worth the effort and energy to cultivate a modest new habit or two toward making him increasingly to be our greatest joy.
David Mathis is executive editor at desiringGod.org, pastor of Cities Church, and adjunct professor with Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines (Crossway, 2016), as well as the companion workbook for individual or group study. You can follow him on Twitter.
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