The Power of Habits

In a recent article, “Introducing Worldview,” we looked at how our worldview is the framework out of which we answer the big questions of life; seeing that it is also the impetus for our decision-making and behavior. However, it should be pointed out that you can have a completely reasoned, well-thought-out Christian worldview in your head and still miss the point of Christianity, which is more than just knowing about Christ—it is becoming like Christ.

An easy way to see this is to ask yourself a simple question, “Do you always behave based on your worldview?” Or “Do you always behave in accordance with your beliefs?” For example, we might believe that God makes people in his image with full dignity, value, and worth, but how do we treat them on a day-to-day basis? When we talk about someone behind their back, look lustfully at a person, or show indifference to the needs of others, we are failing to live up to our belief that people are made in God’s image. This is our problem.

If we persist in behavior that contradicts our stated worldview, we will likely begin to search for an alternative worldview that justifies our behavior. This was true of Aldous Huxley, who famously said: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning . . . We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom . . . There was one admirably simple method of . . . justifying our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.”¹ Huxley’s desire for absolute sexual freedom led him to adopt a worldview that allowed him to do whatever he pleased.

We can see that our behavior will affect our beliefs. Given that fact, some Christians have suggested that we don’t need to worry so much about worldview and instead just focus on behavior. But this is a reactionary position. The Scriptures demand that we love God with our hearts, our souls, and our minds (Luke 10:27). So, it’s no good simply casting off the study of worldviews.

Worldview studies are still vital for thinking about our life in the world. Our worldview can, for instance, can get us thinking in the right direction. For example, when I speak ill of someone behind their back, I may be convicted that it is wrong; but because I know that people are made in the image of God, I now have a deep sense of why it is wrong. That doesn’t mean that I will necessarily change my behavior, but it is a start. From all this, it is clear that we don’t need to abandon worldview studies, but on their own, worldview studies are incomplete.

The problem is, we cannot think our way into behaving like Christ. In his book You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith says that we are sometimes guilty of thinking about sanctification in terms of “information transfer.” As if by acquiring more knowledge, we can simply think our way into becoming the sort of people that God wants us to be. This does not ultimately work, because we are not, as Smith argues, “brains on a stick.”²

According to Smith, “We don’t need less than knowledge; we need more. We need to recognize the power of habit.”³ We need to pay attention to our loves, to our desires. We act out of our desires; we act based on what we really love. Our desires and our loves orient us toward how we behave in the world. So, becoming more like Christ involves more than just knowing what God loves and what God hates. It involves aligning our desires and loves with his, instead of trying to align his desires with ours. It involves practicing being the sorts of people God wants us to become. It involves habits.

Of course, only God can sanctify us. It is the Spirit who gives us the strength to be more like Christ. It is God who will complete the work of sanctification in our lives, and without him, we are powerless. Practicing good habits isn’t about simply trying harder. However, God does use various habits to shape and form us on the road to complete sanctification. These habits are often referred to as the “spiritual disciplines.”

The idea of spiritual disciplines has become odious to some Christians, because we see them only in terms of humdrum routines—going to church, having a quiet time, praying for x number of minutes every day, etc. But these habits are not meant to be mindless rituals. The spiritual disciplines (prayer, reading of Scripture, fasting, fellowship, contemplation, sacraments, etc.) are actually the place where belief and behavior intersect and overlap. These habits are, it turns out, vital in shaping our loves and desires, forming us into the sort of people that God wants us to be as we journey toward our final destination.

Our ultimate destination as Christians is knowing God. Wait, didn’t I just say that it wasn’t just about knowing? Yes, I did. But when the Bible talks about knowing, it’s not just talking about intellectual knowledge. It’s talking about an intimate, personal knowledge of God that leads to convictions, which in turn lead to actions. This is why 1 John 4:7-8 tells us that if you don’t love others, you don’t really know God.

The point is not to have it all figured or to accumulate facts about God, but to know God intimately, to have a deep personal relationship with him—to know what it is that God loves, to know what his heart for the world is, and to act in accordance with that love.

Over the next few weeks, we will look at various spiritual disciplines that will help form us into people who truly love God and our neighbors.