The Spiritual power of habits: Introduction

By Kent Bateman

“I believe the gospel–I just don’t believe it right now. I believe that at a head level, I just don’t believe it at a heart level right now.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a pastoral counseling session, a small group setting or out to coffee with another follower of Jesus and heard those words. So often the distance between knowing something and living as if it’s actually true seems to be the hardest distance to traverse.

Perhaps this is why Jesus closes out the sermon on the mount by saying “whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.” Not just “whoever hears these words of mine,” or even “whoever knows these words of mine.” But whoever “knows them and puts them into practice.” The way we bridge the gap between knowing something and living as if it’s true could be described as habit.

Three kinds of habits, or two?

But habits can be good or bad. Galatians makes it clear that “we reap what we sow.” And that we are always either “sowing to the flesh” or “sowing to the Spirit.” This is different than how we often think about our habits. We tend to put them in categories of good, bad, or neutral. Reading our Bible, in this view, is good. Looking at porn is bad. Watching Netflix or spending time on social media is neutral. But Galatians doesn’t seem to have a neutral category. The line it draws is whether it is sowing to the flesh or sowing to the spirit. And Paul seems to think we’re always either doing one or the other.

To put it another way, your habits are always forming you into a certain type of person. It almost feels too common-sense to say outloud, but if you have a habit of coming home and watching two hours of TV each night, you will become the type of person who needs to come home and watch two hours of TV each night. If you have a habit of going out and buying something every time you feel stressed, you will eventually become the type of person who needs to buy something in order to deal with stress. Our habits have a way of shaping us–forming us over time into a certain type of person. As James K.A. Smith puts it in his popular book You Are What You Love, “the things we do, do things to us.”

A long view of habits

Seen in this light, our habits matter infinitely more than we think. And habits that help us keep in step with God and His design for our life have more power than we give them credit for. This means that waking up each morning and spending time in the Scriptures is having an effect on us, regardless of whether we “feel something from it” or not. Blocking out time in our schedule to Sabbath shapes us into a certain type of person, whether it feels restful each time or not. And spending the spare moments of our day communicating with God through prayer might matter, even if it doesn’t seem like it changes anything each and every time.

Richard Foster says that “our tendency is to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years.” Don’t shortchange how much your habits are forming you in the long-term, even when you don’t feel like you’re getting many results in the short-term. Our instant, results-driven culture would have us believe that if something isn’t immediately effective or successful, we should abandon that method. But Scripture would say “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Habits matter. In this week’s series of posts, we’ll take a look at three significant habits that shape us over time into a certain type of person. Time in the word, Sabbathing and prayer are three things that have the potential in the long-term to form us into the image of God. As we reflect on these, consider where you may have undervalued the spiritual power of habit. What habits have killed your spiritual life and vitality, and what habits might do the opposite?

Published June 5, 2017

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Kent Bateman

Kent served as a communications director and pastor at Midtown Fellowship in Columbia, SC for four years before being sent out to plant City Church in Knoxville, TN. Kent has been married to his wife Ana for four years and they have one son, Whitaker.