A pastor, known for his lengthy sermons, noticed a man get up and leave during the middle of his message. The man returned just before the conclusion of the service. Afterwards the pastor asked the man where he had gone. “I went to get a haircut,” said the man. “Well why didn’t you do that before the service?” the pastor asked. “Because,” the gentleman said, “I didn’t need one then.”
Most of us have a bad habit we are constantly trying to break.
One woman tells about the day she told her husband she had a solution to her bad habit of biting her fingernails: press-on nails. “Great idea, honey,” he smiled. “You can eat them straight out of the box.”
Someone said, “A habit is something you can do without thinking — which is why most of us have so many of them.” Frank A. Clark
Of course, he’s not talking only about bad habits. He’s talking about habits in general, while leading us toward the idea that many habits are not so good.
I can’t imagine there are too many people who’ve never struggled with kicking a bad habit. But despite our best intentions, we find that stopping the behavior is a real challenge. Of course you might be thinking of the usual bad habits, such as smoking, drinking, swearing, and too much sugar in diet.
While I’m interested in those, I also want us to focus for a moment on more invisible bad habits. These bad habits are invisible because they’re more like our personality. They’re actually habits that are not good for us. We habitually use them in our daily interaction to our cost and loss. Of course nobody has all of these but I bet most of us have too many, when even one might be too many.
Some people have the invisible-perhaps-to-them-bad habit of needing to win at all costs and in all situations. The need to show people we’re smarter than others, as well as claiming credit that that we don’t deserve, is a form of the bad habit of having to be better than others. It comes from the need to feel worthy or deserving of attention.
There is the bad habit of being negative toward others, such as hurtful sarcasm and cutting remarks that we think make us witty; or starting our responses to someone’s ideas or hopes with the words, “No,” “But,” and “However,” which secretly say to everyone that I’m right and you’re wrong.
There’s the bad habit of speaking when angry, which is using our emotional intensity as a way to get our way. This bad habit can arise toward an innocent person who is just trying to help us but has to bring us bad news—otherwise known as killing the messenger.
Another bad habit is the failure to build others up. It’s stingy and unpleasant to forego giving others proper and complimentary recognition, to praise or reward someone when they deserve it. People like this also often fail to express gratitude. This actually is an easy one to break. You just starting thanking people or telling them they’re doing a good job.
And last there is the bad habit of making excuses, and all its siblings, including refusing to express regret or saying sorry when it’s our turn, which is the refusal to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others. Blaming others for our mistakes is another form of this bad habit.
These are habits. Nobody has to talk like this or act like this. It’s an acquired taste. How many and how often we exercise these often determines a lot more of the happiness we give to the world and the contentment we receive from it than we normally think.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”
Good habits are the heart of good living.
The truth is if you have to decide every single day whether you’re going to go the gym, plan out your day, or read a good book, when you leave those choices up to your whims, to that day’s circumstances and your current mood, you’ll usually end up punting. It’s psychologically taxing to make the same decisions every day.
Back in the 1990s, Starbucks employees were regularly cracking under the pressure of so many custom-made coffees. Then Starbucks created the LATTE method for their baristas: LATTE stands for Listen, Acknowledge, Take action, Thank the customer and Explain why the problem occurred. With this new habit, customer and employee satisfaction radically improved.
Success came from getting in the habit of doing things differently, and in this case more organized. The great philosopher Aristotle built his whole ethics on this observation: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Good habits make a difference, but often we have to learn them.
Dave Ramsey, a financial guru, has a snowball debt plan in which he recommends paying off your smallest debt first. The idea behind the plan is twofold, that one, once the first debt is paid, you can take the money you were paying towards it and start using it to pay off the next debt, and two, that the satisfaction you’ll get from knocking out the first little one will keep you motivated to wipe out the rest.
Cultivating new habits works in the same way. Start with the habit that will be easiest to gain; the confidence you garner from mastering it will carry over to your next hardest habit. Your confidence will keep snowballing; when you reach that hardest habit, you’ll finally have enough mojo built up to attain it.
But too often we find ourselves seriously beholden to bad habits.
In any family, measles are less contagious than bad habits, which means your bad habit may be a handed-down bad trait. But this doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. God has a different family plan for you and me.
In our reading, Paul tells us we can replace one habit with another much better habit. Paul encouraged the Ephesians to replace the old self with a new self, falsehood with truth, stealing with labor, unwholesome speech with edification, and bitterness with kindness.
This is because it’s not really possible just to throw out a bad habit and leave nothing in its place. Nature and souls abhor a vacuum. Habit overcomes habit, it’s said for a reason. To break a bad habit you must cultivate a good habit in its place.
Of course this isn’t easy. Habits are hard to break. It’s takes great power and focus and hard work and desire—and it takes divine aid—to break through to a new you.
Freedom from the painful consequences of bad habits is God’s hope for you and me. As Scripture says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Gal. 5:1
I heard the story of how elephants are brought into captivity. Have you ever been to a circus and seen a giant elephant with a small rope around its ankle? Did you ever stop to think, hey, wait a minute? Physically speaking, there is no way that small little rope can hold back that giant elephant!
Here’s how it works. When trainers begin taming a baby elephant, they place a heavy chain around its ankle and stake the chain into the ground. Day after day, hour after hour, the baby elephant struggles to escape. But his
efforts are in vain. He simply cannot break free from the grips of that powerful chain. Eventually he surrenders. He resolves in his mind that there is no possible way he can escape that chain. When he has given up trying, his master replaces that giant chain with the small little rope.
If the elephant ever opened his eyes to the truth, it could break free at any moment. All it would take is one try, but since the elephant doesn’t know that, he doesn’t take a step in the right direction of freedom.
And so it happens that ten, twenty, thirty years later, the giant elephant remains controlled by something that really has no power over it.
That’s how it is for us. We’re allowing our lives to be controlled by things that no longer have the power to control us, except the power that we are choosing to give it. To experience the freedom of healthy, divine habits we need to be intentional in both driving out bad habits and ushering in new one. So how do we do that? Where do we start?
The first step is recognizing you are bound and you have a problem that is the first step in breaking free. Alcoholics who never admit they are alcoholics won’t find freedom. People filled with anger who won’t admit they have a problem won’t get freedom. It’s not someone else’s problem; it’s yours.
A friend tells his buddy, “I can’t break my wife of the habit of staying up until 5 in the morning.” “What’s she doing?” the friend asks. “Waiting for me to get home.” See, that’s his problem.
Second, prayer is important. Pray, and as part of your prayer, visualize the new you. Hear the sounds of success. Hear the compliments. “Oh, you’re looking so much different.” “You don’t act that way anymore.” Just imagine your new life and how great it feels to have made this change. Do this repeatedly.
The truth about prayer is that it’s part talking to God and part talking to yourself. The best prayer goes up to the Lord and goes out and around to surround the person. Bless yourself with vision of the new you. Empower yourself, and let God empower you as well.
The third thing you ought to do to break the bad and bring in the good is reward yourself. Once you’ve gone a week or so with no more swear words or whatever the habit is, buy yourself a book, or go shopping. Spend five dollars, or six. Eat at a favorite restaurant. Do whatever wholesome activity makes you happy but do it in full awareness and consciousness of the connection to your success in breaking away from the old.
Finally, if you slip, forgive yourself. Be gentle with yourself. As Anonymous groups say, progress not perfection. Your efforts have not been wasted and you haven’t lost as much ground as the too tough on yourself part of you is trying to make you believe. Pick yourself up and try again. You are getting stronger and better and more of a blessing to yourself and others.
God wishes us to grow every day toward his grace and by his divine and good will. May you walk the path the Lord seeks for you.
Can anybody say Amen?