How Spiritual Disciplines Form Habits

by Bill Hull

When we start to train our mind to look at life differently, a great struggle will ensue. And if this training is not in the context of supportive relationships, we will probably fail. Lack of relational support is also why so many people gain weight back after significant weight loss. If they think it is a terrible loss to not eat chips, cookies, pasta, and ice cream, they look on these unhealthy foods with longing and miss eating them. Eventually, they go back to their old habits because they want to go back and think they need to.

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So like the goals in weight loss and healthy eating, the goal for spiritual growth is to form the will through the process of transforming desires and then through obedience to exercise good desires until they establish good habits and godly character. As Willard says: “We want to have a will that is fully functional, not at war with itself and capable of directing all of the parts of the self in harmony with one another under the direction of God” (Willard, Renovation, 156).

Confusing Disciplines with Spirituality

As helpful as spiritual disciplines are, they must not be confused with spirituality itself. They are not the basis for our relationship with God but simply practices that provide a context for him to work to transform us. I find it most helpful to think of spiritual disciplines as like the exercises we do to improve our physical well-being. Some disciplines will work indirectly like running, which changes the physiology of the body. The muscles burn energy, the lungs expand to take in increased oxygen, and the heart pumps harder. Over time (several weeks), the muscles grow stronger, the lungs have more capacity, and the heart’s ability to pump blood increases. The runner did not directly will the muscles, heart, and lungs to become better; this happened indirectly. The runner willed to run to attain the desired result but also gained greater general health.

The spiritual disciplines work in a similar way. Let’s say that you desire to become a more loving person. You can’t command your feelings to suddenly change. But you can choose to take the actions that will lead to the desired result. You ask God to change your motives. Then like a runner, you begin a program of regularly praying, taking in God’s word, and worship him in a variety of ways. Over time, your heart begins to enjoy pleasing him, like many runners begin to enjoy running. You may choose to fast, transferring the physical desire for food to spiritual longing for a deeper experience of God and the nourishment he provides. Then you may choose to serve others by doing loving things for them. Suddenly one day you realize that you enjoy serving others and that loving others has become natural for you. Like running changes the body, your spiritual discipline exercises, developed into habits, change your character, which is revealed by how you act. You chose to keep at these exercises because God put the desire for change in your heart.

Let me give you another practical, concrete example from real life. One fruit of the Spirit is self-control, the ability to do what we intend to do and not do what we don’t intend to do. Many people lack this ability. They cannot pass a pastry tray without having a taste, or pass by an attractive person without flirting. Often the desire for that food or person remains in their heart and mind.

Jesus on Transformation

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the process of spiritual transformation. The religious leaders, scribes, and Pharisees were focused on external behavior, ignoring the heart. But Jesus looks at the source of behavior, not just the outward appearance. He teaches that true godliness is driven from the mind, will, and spirit. For example, Jesus teaches that murder is the result of anger. If people are not first angry with others, they are not likely to murder them. So rather than avoiding the act of murder, we should focus on thoughts, attitudes, and feelings. Jesus tells us to deal with our anger, cultivate peace and love in our relationships, and forgive others who wrong us.

Here is an analogy. If you are flying to Houston from Los Angeles, you don’t have to fly to Seattle. Flying to Seattle is not something you need to worry about. In the same way, if you learn to forgive others and deal with the root of your anger, you won’t need to worry that you will kill them.

Lust provides another concrete example and connects to our earlier discussion about self-control. Suppose you are a man who meets an attractive woman, and you allow the image of her to take up residence in your mind. You can’t go through a day without thinking about her, having fantasies about her, and creating an alternative universe where you are together. You realize that something must be done to stop these desires. Our first impulse, trying harder to exert our will power, won’t work. You can’t command yourself, “DON’T LUST. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT HER!” Neither will attempting to obey commands and keep promises. No, the problem is too deep for these solutions. You need to address the source of your thoughts and the reasons behind your desire. The goal is to get to state were not thinking about the woman does not seem like a loss. You need to examine your longing and why you feel deprived when you don’t have what you desire. You need to bring the provision of God into that place of longing.

The Remedy

These situations are where the spiritual exercises and disciplines are helpful. The good news is that we have remedies to cure wrong desires! Whether our longing is for a person, food, a house, a job, or some other thing, the remedy is the same. Consider some basic things:

  • Begin by asking God, “Why am I longing for this person, thing, or situation?” Pray for help in discerning the source. Find another person you trust to talk with about it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer often spoke about how sin wants nothing more than to be alone with you. Sin is empowered when we shut others out.
  • Take a close look at your expectations and think about the consequences of satisfying your sinful desire. Often, we fail to think through to the end. So we need to ask what would it be like, honestly, to get what we want? Our dreams are filled with assumptions about the world that are not aligned with reality. Graciously, God will show us the fallacy of our dreams, which may have been fed by the values and idols of the culture in which we live. Also, you may have triggers in your life, unconscious ways of responding in which you’ve been trained to be dissatisfied with what you are or have. Remember that the enemy’s goal is to make us dissatisfied with what God has given us and to doubt that he loves us. The enemy wants us to think that God is withholding good things from us.
  • Be patient. Change takes time. You may ask why and then have to wait in trust for God to reveal the answer. In the meantime, practice what he tells you. Avoid the triggers and practice the antidote: remember that everything you have is a gift from God and learn to be thankful for what you do have. Focus on the good news of what Jesus has done for you in the cross and resurrection. Your mind will eventually change and inform your will. Over time, you will begin to want what God has convinced you is good. One day it will dawn on you that you no longer miss thinking about that person, food, house, job, or whatever. Its power is gone, and that is just fine with you.
  • Keep exercising the spiritual disciplines such as worship, service, Scripture reading and memorization, prayer, fasting, confession, submission, silence, and solitude. These disciplines expose our motives and bring the flaws in our character to the surface. Negative thoughts that have been buried for a long time and create destructive emotions will be exposed. The disciplines will provide the structure and context that you need for long-term growth and maturity.

Continue to read this blog for more on spiritual disciplines and training.

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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Unsplash.