I’m unsure who was most nervous as I tried my best to keep the car on the road and avoid an accident. I saw the sweat forming on his face as he yelled animated instructions from the passenger seat. It hardly helped. I continued to press the brakes too hard when stopping and my lack of clutch control caused the engine to stall repeatedly. Each time we took off the Toyota Corolla roared and shook like a wild beast. We both survived the ordeal, but I will never forget taking driving lessons from my dad as a teenager!
Thankfully driving has become much easier and a lot less stressful. It has developed into a habit, an automated action that I hardly have to think about.
Why habits are important
The Bible has a lot to say about developing Godly behaviour. The apostle Paul urges all Christians to change their thoughts and outward behaviour in order to become more like Jesus Christ (Romans 12:2). He asks us to cultivate new habits (repeated behaviour) called the fruits of the Spirit which must replace the negative and destructive ways which has held us captive in the past (Galatians 5). These new habits are described by Jesus as loving Him (Philippians 4:13). We all want to live a better life, but forming new habits is hard and often takes time. Sometimes we fail, even though we try our best. Perhaps if we knew more about how habits are formed this knowledge can help us to implement more positive and lasting change in our lives?
The habit loop
Imagine coming home after a rough day at work. You feel a little down and sorry for yourself as you reflect on your stressful circumstances. You walk past the fridge on your way to the TV room. Suddenly you remember that there’s a delicious tub of ice-cream in your freezer. You really shouldn’t, but as usual you just can’t help yourself. After this indulgence you feel even worse as you wonder, “Why don’t I seem to have any impulse control?”
No matter the type of action, the process that we follow in forming these habits is exactly the same. Charles Duhigg, in his best-selling book the Power of Habit, describes the three elements that comprise our so called habit loops: trigger, routine and reward. In the example above the trigger was the negative emotional state experienced after a hectic day. And the reward the feel-good chemicals released by the brain after consuming comfort food. The more this behaviour is repeated the stronger the link in your brain between the trigger and the reward. Meaning the stronger the urge to indulge in the same behaviour the next time this particular habit is triggered.
Now that we know how the habit loop works, how can we go about forming positive habits as the Bible teaches us to do?
Forming new habits
Spending regular quality time with the Lord – reading our Bibles and praying – is something we know we ought to be doing. When you change this spiritual discipline into a habit it becomes easier to follow despite the pressures of modern-day life. Let’s break down the process and make sure that we create a habit loop – one with a trigger and a reward.
Because all habits starts with a trigger it helps if you stick to the same time when having your quite time – for example first thing in the morning. The alarm clock is the cue that sets off the pattern of behaviour: get out of bed, go to your study, read the Bible etc. The more you repeat the behaviour the stronger the neurological pathways in your brain and the easier and more automated the process becomes.
In order for your brain to form a habit there must be a reward. Why don’t you make yourself a warm cup of coffee before you start reading the Bible? Your brain will associate this physical payoff with your quite time habit loop. Also make sure that you define and internalize the benefits of spending time with the Lord: the deepening of intimacy, the peace in your heart, Godly direction and purpose to your life etc.
You can affect any number of positive changes through the power of habit. It is my wish that you will get behind the steering wheel of your life and learn to drive towards the abundant life that Jesus talks about in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
To learn more about spiritual disciplines that encourages your growth in the Lord, read these free Christian Literature Fund resources: