The Power of Spiritual Habits
Habits are powerful. Our ingrained habits influence our daily lives in a more significant way than we can imagine. They affect our dress sense, what we eat for breakfast and how we talk to our children. They impact our choice of friends and interaction with people. Most of the choices that we make daily are not the result of our conscious decisions, but our habits. According to a Duke University research paper published in 2006, more than 40% of the actions people performed each day were not actual decisions but habits.
Young Joshua would not leave the tent of meeting, where the tangible presence of God was, after Moses had returned to the camp (Exodus 33:11). Daniel would pray three times a day despite the king’s order and political opposition (Daniel 6:10-11). Early every morning, while it was still dark, Jesus would go to a solitary place to pray despite His busy ministry schedule (Mark 1:35). Paul strained forward to what lay ahead and pressed toward the goal despite the weight of ministry, opposition from within the church and persecution from without (Philippians 3:13).
These biblical characters exhibited good habits and healthy routines, which are worth emulating. Their habits were either birthed out of an earnest desire for God or practical necessity. More likely, the reason is a combination of both.
Spiritual Habits & Victorious Christian Living
A framework of good spiritual habits is necessary to lead and sustain a victorious Christian life.
Prayer and close communion with God are integral habits for keeping our love for God fresh and strong. Ministry without them would be dry and meaningless. The risen Christ commended the Ephesian church for their patient endurance and doctrinal purity, but He chided them for losing the love they had for Him at first (Revelation 2:4). It was unacceptable. Crucially, without the spiritual habits of prayer and communion, we cannot expect to hear God’s voice well.
It is also through prayer and communion that we draw strength and supernatural power from God. We are in a state of constant spiritual warfare with demonic forces. Though unseen, they are real and potent. We do not stand a chance against their attacks if we do not pray and keep close to God. If Jesus, in His humanity, needed to pray and seek God daily, how much more we need to do so.
God is our help, and we have many promises in the bible assuring us of His help. This promise found in the letter to the Corinthians is a classic example – “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13 - ESV)
Despite standing on God’s promises such as this, many Christians find themselves faltering and stumbling repeatedly. While we are thankful that God is loving and merciful, and He forgives us of our sins, this is not victorious Christian living. The abundant life that Jesus promised is an overcoming life. It is also bad theology to reassure ourselves that it is fine to live in such a defeatist manner.
One big reason for our failure to lead a victorious Christian life is our poor spiritual habits. We keep repeating the same sins just as a dog has the habit of returning to its own vomit. I am convinced that unless we change our habits, the victorious and overcoming life would remain an elusive dream and an unattainable reality.
Advances in neuroscience give us a closer peek into the nature of habits. Neuroscientists are now able to observe what goes on in the brain when a person is performing a certain task or engaging in some mental activities. They have discovered this lump of tissue, the size of a ping-pong ball, called the basal ganglia. It is located somewhere in the centre of the brain. Its function is to ‘learn’ and ‘remember’ routines that are repeated regularly. The next time the brain receives the cue to go through this routine, the banal ganglia would take over.
In other words, the banal ganglia stores the mental and behavioural patterns and acts on it. It is the neuro centre for habits. During a routine task, it takes over and frees the thinking and decision-making parts of the brain to focus on other tasks. Essentially, we do these habitual tasks without thinking. It is an automatic process controlled by the basal ganglia.
Think of how an experienced driver drives his car. He does not need to think. The coordination and responses of his eyes, hands and legs happen automatically. These actions have already been coded into his banal ganglia during the years of driving.
Now, let us apply this neuroscience understanding to spiritual habits. If you pray and read your bible daily, participate meaningfully in a community group weekly, and attend Sunday services regularly, these routines would become your spiritual habits after a while. It would become part and parcel of your lifestyle.
There are good reasons that the Scripture commanded us to esteem the Word of God and “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). These are God’s ways of building His people and stirring us to love and serve.
These basic spiritual habits will produce many tangible benefits in your Christian life. You will become more faithful in your walk with God and grow stronger in your faith. You will grow in the knowledge of God and intimacy with Him. Your constant exposure to the Word and regular interaction with fellow Christians will make you kinder, more loving, more compassionate, more patient, more self-controlled, and you will become more Christlike. The net result is you will be a better Christian; you will lead a more meaningful and victorious Christian life; you will be more fulfilled, more blessed.
Notice the knock-on effects of these three spiritual habits - pray and read bible, community group participation and church attendance. They are keystone habits. A keystone habit has the power to start a chain reaction changing other habits, and in the process transform everything. Therefore, it is important for us to cultivate keystone habits. Only then will we see positive changes and results in our lives.
Numerous studies reveal that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for personal success. It is a foundational block that we cannot afford to ignore. To quote a study, “students who exerted a high level of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades, had fewer absences, spent less time watching TV, and more hours doing homework. They outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic variable; self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ.”
And the best way to develop willpower is to make it into a habit. Willpower is a keystone habit, which is closely connected to self-discipline, self-control, patience, endurance, perseverance and other similar traits. Once it becomes a habit, many other areas in our lives will automatically become more manageable.
We will be better equipped to resist sin and walk away from temptation with greater ease. Pornography has seized the minds of many Christians, and I am not just talking about men as victims. Most capitulate in the face of it because they lack willpower and self-control.
I am not suggesting that victory over sin can be won by sheer willpower. That would be naïve. We need the empowering of the Holy Spirit to do so. However, it would be equally naïve to think that we can experience victory without us playing our part. We need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is always willing, but the flesh is weak. That is where willpower comes into play. Therefore, it is vital to develop the keystone habit of willpower.
Pastors Leslie & Adeline Chua