EFAC Australia

Habit formation is part of how we are wired, but what place do habits play in Christian discipleship? Habit formation is part of how we are wired, but what place do habits play in Christian discipleship?

Ben Underwood is Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park. Thanks to James Clear, DanGroenewald and David Brooks for some of the ideas in this article.

I suspect you don’t decide your life afresh every morning

How often do you wake up with the whole day stretching before you, without plans or obligations, ready for you to decide what you will do with the day as you lie there gazing at the ceiling? I suspect for many of us it is pretty much never. There’s always something to be done—right now, then after that, and after that all the way to dinner time and beyond. We live busy, planned, scheduled lives, and if you want to have any chance of shaping what you do this week, this month, this year according to what you really want, then you need to learn to get better at taking control of the routines of your life.

What do you want to be?

Suppose you want to be a mature Christian. You want to be someone with a good knowledge of the Christian faith, a strong involvement with a Christian community, and an attractive Christian character. How is this going to happen? Well, you are going to have be a person whose way of life is to learn the Christian faith, to be a committed member of a church and someone who reflects on themselves and their conduct humbly, puts off what is ugly and wrong, and puts on what is handsome and good. How will this happen? Spiritually speaking, this is the work of the Spirit of God, but we are told to ‘live in accordance with the Spirit’, to ‘walk by the Spirit’, and so we can pay attention to the very human activities of living and walking, which is to say the daily habits and routines of everyday life.

Identity: I am a person who learns their faith, who’s involved at church, who’s growing like Christ

Jesus and his apostles are keen in the New Testament to impress on Christians that they belong to God and that God will bring them to Christian maturity. ‘Now you are light in the Lord’, says Paul in Ephesians 5:8. If you see yourself as a musician, as someone who will play an instrument, and play it throughout their life, you are more likely to persevere in practice and go on to play long term and competently. If you believe what the Bible says about you as a Christian—that you are God’s dearly loved child (Eph 5:1); that God will teach you truth and reveal himself to you; that you belong amongst his people in the church; and that he will enable you to bear the fruit of the Spirit—then I suspect you are more likely to persevere in learning, churchgoing and repentance than otherwise.

Automate the habit so it becomes a powerful and enduring way of life

Suppose you want to embrace the identity that I am a person who goes to church—or, if you are a parent, that we are a family who goes to church. Prove it to yourself by turning up to church once. But then think about how you are going to automate the habit of going to church so that it is as much a part of your life as brushing your teeth. You might find it helpful to break down the habit into smaller habits and plan a sequence of habits that will become one powerful and enduring routine. If I need to leave at a certain time, what needs to happen in the hour beforehand to make departure as easy as possible? If we are going to be back at a certain time, what needs to be done so coming home again does not present problems that deflate me on arrival? You will need to anticipate what might disrupt this routine and plan what you will do about it when that happens. When someone asks you or your child to a social event that clashes with church what will you do? Because you are person who goes to church, this invitation will have to respect that reality. So maybe you will decline it. Or maybe you will go to church at a different time that day. But you are not the person who lets social occasions habitually trump church, because you are a person who goes to church. It is the way of life that is building you into a mature Christian and that is the core of who you are. There is more to think about, and in any case you won’t be perfectly consistent at church, but you will be consistent. Your habit will be going, not missing. And you will learn to live as the child of light that you are.