Habit formation: Here's what you're missing
Habit formation has always been a hot topic. For years, authors such as Stephen Covey and James Clear have tackled this subject to offer ideas, inspiration, and hope to those of us who struggle to form good routines. But could there be something missing, specifically for believers? Could there be a reason that many of us try endlessly to change our habits, only to fail again and again?
JPL author Dr. Greg Gifford has recently tackled this subject in his new release Heart & Habits: How We Change for Good. Dr. Gifford is Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master's University and a licensed counselor and certified Biblical counselor. The introduction to his book offers a sneak peek at this missing component in our efforts at habit formation and we offer that to you here:
If you haven’t built a fire by this point in your life, you’re missing out! When I was growing up, my family enjoyed camping in the Appalachian foothills of Northern Georgia and the Carolinas. When it was time for the sun to go down, sitting around the fire was just about all there was to do on the lazy camping night. We’d get everything ready for the fire and typically attempt to start the fire as the sun was going down or dinner time—whichever came first. The process of building a fire isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy either: go gather some wood, find something that would serve as a kindling, and grab your lighter. It’s not complicated, but it does take work. We would prepare for our fire by gathering wood for the fire during the day, so when nighttime came, we would already have enough firewood. Nobody likes searching for firewood in the dark!
When starting the fire, you place the kindling in the firepit and get a small flame going. The small flame catches a log or two on fire, and then you have yourself a fire! Yet, as the evening progresses, the fire begins to die out and you have to rally to find some wood, place it in the fire, and stoke the fire. To maintain the fire does take work, to be sure; it takes the work of gathering wood and adding it to fire. But once the spark of the first fire begins, it is much easier to maintain.
Habit development is much like building a fire. In habit development, you need to go collect the wood by developing good habits. For some this is easier, like simply picking up pieces, for others there is heavy-duty log lifting that lies ahead, perhaps even some wood splitting. Bring an axe with you! You need to have the wood ready to throw into the fire, if and when you get that initial spark of change in your life. You will need to stoke the change with good habits, otherwise the change will begin to die out. Despite our efforts in habit development, all the work of gathering the firewood is contingent on the spark of that first flame. The Puritans would say that only God can bring that first spark of change.
In the 1600s there was a group of theologians who were astute in their ability to apply the complexities of the Bible to daily life—these theologians are known as the English Puritans. They were theologians who remained in the church of England and wanted to see and see reform take place in the church—thus they were “Puritans” as opposed to “Separatists.” One English Puritan, Thomas Watson, said of our habits in the spiritual sphere of our lives, “What I have spoken is to encourage faith, not indulge sloth. Do not think God will do our work for us while we sit still. As God will blow up the spark of grace by His Spirit, so we must be blowing it up by holy efforts.”
We could lie down next to the fire pit and pray that God would send a lightning bolt to start the fire and sustain it, but building a fire doesn’t typically work like that, and neither do habits. Making no effort in our habits and saying, “Please Lord, bring about change in our lives!” is like saying “Please Lord, cause a flame by a lightning strike” while we lie in a comatose state next to the fire pit. That’s not the way fires get started and it’s not the way God will bring change.
Your habits are much like the fire: you have a responsibility to work and gather—to chop, to harvest, to stoke—but once you’ve started the habit, like the fire, things get much easier. When the fire is already burning, it’s really more about maintenance. Yes, it still takes work to sustain the habit, but the habit itself is already helping and making it easier. Although habits make things easier, our habits never determine who we will be or the directions our lives must go. It’s through the freeing power of God’s grace, and his Spirit, that we are no longer slaves to habits of sin and self-destruction. But our habits do make it easier to sustain change in our lives—or easier to extinguish change.
However, Watson made a great point: only God can cause the initial spark of change. No matter how much work you do, only God can bring about genuine change in your life. Despite all the habits that you attempt to develop, if God doesn’t bring that initial spark, then there is no fire. You can chop and gather all you want, but there will still be no fire. God blows up the spark by his Spirit; we blow up the spark by our efforts. That balance of God’s work and our work is essential to understanding habit development.
We know that our habits matter, in part, because God commands us to develop certain habits out of a heart that wants to please him. But do you know how your heart influences your habits and how your habits influence your heart? In this book, Heart & Habits, you will learn what the Bible says about your habits and how God uses your habits to help you change for good. Let the principles learned in this book help you to get the balance of heart and habits right, so you can experience lasting change—change for good.
142 pages | $9.75
Dr. Greg E. Gifford is Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University. He has worked as both a full-time biblical counselor and associate pastor before joining the TMU faculty—counseling in both non-profit and local church settings. Greg also served as a Captain in the United States Army from 2008-2012 after which he transitioned to counseling ministry.
Dr. Gifford blogs at heartandhabits.com/blog
- Carrie Schuessler