September 17, 2017

Are Our Habits Consistent With What We Know?

Cameron Tarrh

Whenever I’m in my car driving somewhere, I usually have something playing other than the radio. Lately, it’s either been a sermon or a podcast of some sort. I love studying and learning about theology, the Bible, and culture; for all these things, you can find many different podcasts and sermons if you search hard enough. This is the reality of the world we are living in – a world of constant information everywhere we turn.

Information is not the Goal

I love gaining new information about things and I love being reminded in fresh ways about truths that are timeless, but sometimes information is not enough. It’s easy for me to slip into thinking that the more information I gather about God and the Bible, the better I’ll be. In addition, I can also slip into thinking that the more information I teach people, whether kids or adults, the better they’ll be. I think all of us probably slip into thinking this way from time to time, but when we think this way we end up making gaining and teaching information an end in itself when it is actually a means to an end. Gaining and teaching information is not enough; these are important, but there needs to be more. Ironically, it was through a sermon I was listening to recently that I was reminded and convicted that it takes more than a retention of facts about God and the Bible to become more like Jesus.

It Takes Practice

We can always be increasing in our knowledge of God, but while we are commanded to do so, we are also commanded to practice the things we know and to discipline ourselves for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Godliness, simply put, means to clothe ourselves with the life and character of Jesus (Colossians 3:12-14), but in order to do so, it will take discipline and practice. But what kind of discipline and practice? Should we all practice asceticism and deny ourselves of any kind of material good? Strictly speaking, for some to grow in godliness, it might actually require a little asceticism. For instance, if someone is seeking to acquire as much wealth as they can for their life, they might need to deny themselves material goods for the sake of understanding what’s really important in God’s eyes (See Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler). However, asceticism – denying ourselves the things we want – will not get us anywhere, at least not by itself…

Forming Habits

In Colossians 3:12-14, Paul commands believers not to simply take things out of our lives, but to put things on. If all we do is focus on taking everything out of our lives that we know is not pleasing to God, we will feel defeated and burnt out every time. The focus should not only be on what we should take out, but primarily on what we should put on, which is the character and life of Jesus. We are commanded to put on such things as love and compassion and forgiveness but we cannot expect these things to come into our lives without practicing them through the influence and power of the Holy Spirit. This is why forming habits is important.

Sometimes when I think about spiritual disciplines and forming habits, I don’t think of them as very “spiritual.” What I mean is that it seems that if I have to discipline myself or try to form habits of putting on compassion and mercy, it doesn’t seem genuine. It should just come as a natural part of being saved, right? While this seems to happen to some people, I don’t think this is the story for most people. Why are forming habits important? Essentially, forming habits of spiritual disciplines helps us to take the knowledge we have about God and transfer it to our hearts by living it out in experience. It is summed up by what Paul says in Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will,“ (NIV, emphasis mine).

Disciplining ourselves for godliness and forming habits makes me think of a circuit. In a circuit you have a source and then once a pathway is opened to another destination, electrons are free to flow from the source to the destination. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are our life-giving source, faith and discipline are the pathways, and our hearts are the destination (this illustration is not perfect, but it helps). As we practice disciplines, we allow the Holy Spirit to work and form us.

Forming godly habits starts in our mind, but doesn’t stay there. For example, when we begin to form habits of memorizing and meditating on Scripture, what we will find is that the information we knew about God from a familiar scripture passage will suddenly take on a whole knew meaning as we let it flow from our minds to our hearts. What I’m referring to is like when a person knows in their mind that God loves them, but as they habitually meditate on and memorize passages that talk about the love of God, suddenly God’s love is known to that person in a deeper way than if they simply kept information in their mind.

Another example of godly habit forming would be like a person who knows in their mind that all people, everywhere, are made in God’s image and therefore have worth and value, but that truth has not sunk deep into their heart. However, the more they habitually pray for others and by faith choose love through the Holy Spirit, that knowledge will become more than just information retained in the mind – it will become reality, and the way that person sees people will begin to change.

Where is Faith?

Practicing spiritual disciplines and forming godly habits does not negate faith in Christ. Actually, practicing these things can be an expression of our faith in Christ. Paul said in Galatians 5:6 that,

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” (NIV, emphasis mine).

If a person seeks to discipline his or herself in order to try to earn God’s approval, that is a problem because no matter how hard we try, we will never have anything to boast about (1 Cor. 1:28-31, Gal. 6:14). Although, if we desire to love God more and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and we practice spiritual disciplines in order to know Him and to be aware of His presence in our lives, then disciplines and godly habits can be seen as expressions of our faith – expressions of love toward God and neighbor. We should think of them as deeds of response to God’s love, not as deeds to earn it; as ways to grow in Christ-likeness and the realities of who we are in Him, not as ways to earn a certain status before Him.

An Example to Follow

As we think about this, let’s remember that whether we work with children, teens, or adults, we can’t and shouldn’t expect them to do things that we do not do ourselves. I will use Awana as an example –

In Awana, kids are expected to memorize verses throughout the year during one-on-one or small group time with leaders. It is certain that most of the kids will look up to the leaders as examples; are the leaders memorizing scripture like they are teaching the kids to do? Do the leaders see Scripture memorization as an important discipline to practice, or do they just see it as something kids do to learn and eventually outgrow? It needs to be the former. Not that they have to memorize the same verses and passages as the kids each week, but they should at least have a high regard for memorization and seek to perform that discipline in their own lives if they are teaching others to do so. It should be the same with us all.

Let’s take the time to think about what disciplines to incorporate into our lives. For many of us, just trying to incorporate one can seem a little overwhelming; even still, if it is just for a few minutes every day and if it is just getting into the habit of reading Scripture or memorizing one verse every day, practicing some sort of discipline to help us focus on God’s presence and to allow the truth we know to take root in our hearts will be worth it.