A lady came in to see Bob Newhart, psychologist, for some counseling to deal with an improper behavioral pattern in her life. As she shared her struggles, he said he had the answer for her. She took out a pad and pen to take notes, expecting something very profound. He said I don’t know that you need to do that. I have just two words for you, but if you want to take notes, that’s fine.” She poises with pen ready to write down his words of wisdom for her. Bob leans over his desk, looking into her eyes and says very firmly and loudly: “STOP IT!” The woman has a rather startled look on her face and finally responds: “So what are you saying?” Bob says, “You can’t believe how many people ask that same question.” He leans forward again, and speaking very directly repeats: “STOP IT!”
In our last “Wisdom of the Week,” we talked about how we are “creatures of habit,” and tend towards repetitive behavior and actions, whether it is our morning routines, where we sit at church, how we deal with criticism, adversity or disappointment, the route we take to work, how we spend our free time or what we eat and drink. Almost everything we do–at least 95 percent–is based on habit. So, habits are not necessarily bad. Certain patterns of behavior work to our benefit. Think, for example, of the difficulties you would have if you didn’t brush your teeth regularly. Imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t routinely take things to God in prayer or confess sin. On the other hand, some habits work to our detriment, negatively affecting our lives, our health, our relationship with others and our relationship with God. Habits develop over time, over repeatedly doing or thinking the same thing. It’s like trees which become strangled by huge coils of ivy which are wound around them like snakes. They are firmly fixed, the little rootlets of the climbers sucking the life out of the tree. There was a day when the ivy was tiny, only asking a little assistance in climbing. Had it been denied then, the tree would never have become its victim. But, little by little, the humble little vine assumed mastery and the tall tree became the prey of the creeping, strangling destroyer. Bad habits are like that–starting ever so small and seemingly insignificant, they gradually grow until their victims find themselves in a stranglehold. “The chains of evil habit are oft too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken” (Franklin). Bad habits are formed by continuing to make unwise choices. Each time the choice becomes easier to make until it becomes our normal response. We develop habits of mind just as we develop habits of the body. Our attitudes toward things and people, as well as our actions, are made by repetition.
Last week in the “WOW,” we didn’t have time to discuss how to break a bad habit. Just how do we follow Bob Newhart’s advice and “STOP IT”? Someone else said, “The best way to break a bad habit is to drop it,” but how do you do that when it has such a strangle hold on you? Whether or not we like to admit it, we get some satisfaction out of a bad habit, or we wouldn’t keep it. What we have to do in such a case is find out what it is about the bad habit that satisfies us and then do something about it. One of the keys to breaking a bad habit is to put something positive in its place. The void that is left when we remove something from our lives needs to be filled, or it will be filled again–if not with the same old habit, then with something worse. Don’t expect to change your old habits merely by saying that you’re going to stop them. Bob Newhart’s counsel was good, but didn’t provide a “how to” to help it succeed. When the Apostle Paul counseled the Ephesian believers to eliminate some of their bad (sinful) habits, he shared this with them: “…in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:22-24). Note that he told them not only to “Stop It!” (“lay aside the old”), but he also told them to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self…” And then he gave some examples: stop lying and start telling the truth, quit stealing and start working hard, stop using unwholesome speech and start saying that which edifies and is gracious (vv. 25-29).
Paul also stressed the importance of being “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (v. 23). When we have done something over and over, it is though we have made a groove in the gray matter of our brain and the “needle” of thoughts and actions soon just falls into the groove and we are in a habit or routine. In order to change that, we need a “renewing of the mind,” i.e., we need to fill in the groove by replacing those negative thoughts and actions with positive ones. For example, when we start thinking about that person who hurt us, instead of becoming angry, start praying for them. When you are tempted to succumb to the lusts of the flesh, quote an appropriate verse of Scripture and then “Just say no!” Remember that when Jesus was tempted by Satan, He quoted Scripture to resist him. We need to follow that example. So, make sure you memorize some verses that deal with your particular weaknesses and bad habits. The Psalmist wrote: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Thy word…Thy word I have treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee” (Psa. 119:9,11). The Apostle Paul’s counsel was: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you…” (Col. 3:16), and “…walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). As we consistently spend time in the Word and memorize and meditate on key verses that fit our need, we are being “armed” for the Holy Spirit within us to aid in our resisting temptation and breaking bad habits, replacing them with positive, fruitful ones. We are being “renewed in the spirit of our mind” (Eph. 4:23 cf Ro. 12:2).
To change a bad habit, you must not only substitute a better one, but you must prepare yourself to fight any criticism, fear, doubt, or disappointment that may come as a result of trying to change. Bad (sinful) habits are one of Satan’s greatest tools to defeat us and make us unfruitful and thus when we determine to break those habits, we are in for a spiritual battle. So, read Ephesians 6:10-18 and “…be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil” (vv. 10,11). Remember that the spiritual life is not a do-it-yourself operation. You may have talents and abilities and a strong personality, but all these things amount to nothing if you do not allow God to change you from within so that you substitute good habits for bad ones and so that your life reflects His will for you. Habits, remember, are nothing but repetitions. God can make you original and different. He can lead you to form new habits that will enable you to be all that God wants you to be. Try “Delighting yourself in the LORD,” you just may find it “habit forming!”