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 man said, “I didn’t need one then.”
Most of us have a bad habit we are constantly trying to break. Someone said, “A habit is something you can do without thinking, which is why most of us have so many of them.” Now, 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 those are obviously detriments, other more invisible bad habits surface time and again. These bad habits are invisible because they’re more like our personality. They’re habits that are not good for us. We habitually use them in our daily interaction to our and others’ cost and loss. Of course, nobody has all of these, but I bet most of us have too many, when even one might be more than we would want if we could alter how we think, what we say, and how we do things.
Some people have the invisible-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 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 is an easy one to break. You start thanking people or telling them they’re doing a good job. If you want to get to the root of this stingy attitude, this ungenerosity, one lets go of a zero-sum perspective on life, on others, really. What you get isn’t taken from me. That person’s up doesn’t mean you went down. Someone else’s gain doesn’t come from my loss. Trust there’s more than enough to go around.
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, patterns of thinking, seeing others, ourselves, talking and acting. 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. 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.
The financial guy, Dave Ramsey, has a snowball debt plan in which he recommends paying off your smallest debt first. The idea behind the plan is twofold. 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 next. 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. The truth is in any family, measles are less contagious than bad habits, which means these things are handed-down and therefore invisible—it’s the water you swam in growing up. But how it started doesn’t really matter. Recognizing what doesn’t work is what’s important. Just because this is how you say things or what you think or how you act doesn’t mean it’s best, appropriate, helpful, good. There’s a different way out there.
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 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.
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 its efforts are in vain. It simply can’t break free from the grips of that powerful chain. Eventually, it surrenders. When it’s given up trying, its master replaces that giant chain with the small little rope.
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. To experience the freedom of helpful habits we need drive out hurting habits and take on healthy habits. First, we want to acknowledge what is ours and not theirs. Life might be stressful and someone else is trouble, but the one with the lit match is setting the fire. We all know admitting is the first step. A drinker who doesn’t admit won’t find freedom. The angry man or woman who won’t
admit they’re drowning themselves and their target in resentment won’t find freedom. The rope is around your ankle. It’s not someone else’s problem; it’s yours. I can prove it with a short story. A friend told 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. Practice what you need to hear or say or do. 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 praying person. Bless yourself with vision of the new you. Empower yourself, and let God empower you as well. Make it real first between you and the Lord. God can grace your will with his will.
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, go shopping, eat at a favorite restaurant, go to a movie. Do whatever activity makes you happy but do it in full awareness of the connection to your success in breaking away from the old. Build yourself in the good habit by being good to yourself.
Finally, if you slip, forgive yourself. Progress not perfection. Your efforts haven’t 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. Good habits lead to good life, and God’s life in you.
Can the church say Amen?