Our new readers will be surprised at how much of what we do, think and feel is a matter of habit.
WITHOUT habits we could not function — or perhaps even survive. That's the good side of habits. Habits allow us to perform an astronomical number of actions without significant conscious thought, effort or undue attention — like tying our shoes, buttoning a shirt, riding a bike, walking, running, typing, remembering a telephone number, even responding to danger.
What a Habit Is
A habit is a learned pattern of acting or thinking or feeling. It is not a pattern we were born with, as many lower creature responses are. Don't con fuse these learned patterns with inborn or "wired-in" involuntary responses such as digesting, breathing, sweating or shivering at cold. Developing habits, particularly if they are good habits, allows us to conserve higher mental processes for more demanding tasks and challenges. By contrast, wrong habits waste human energy and limit human growth and development. "Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables," says a Spanish proverb. A habit starts to form when we respond to something — physically, mentally or emotionally — several times. How many responses are required to start a habit may vary from person to person or with different kinds of stimuli. But as we respond, a pattern starts to occur, neural circuits and pathways in the marvelous human brain and nervous system are formed. Precisely what happens in the human mind and body is even now beyond the mind of man to fully understand. Learning patterns, at first, go into the brain's short-term memory system. As they become more established they move over into the brain's long-term storage center. This much is perceived by those scientists who have studied the subject of habits. Then the brain activity at which humans excel-memory-goes to work so that a specific message or stimulus triggers an automatic response, thought or feeling. We call a lesson that the brain's cells have learned well enough to accomplish automatically, without thought, a habit. Good habits and bad habits are formed essentially the same way. Therefore it is critically important for parents to see that children establish good habits particularly in early years of life. Habits are difficult to unlearn. The brain apparently never totally "forgets" bad habits, although they may drop out of dominance in one's life through lack of use, or if replaced by another, it is hoped, better habit. So-called free spirits and individualists (and many think that describes them) are not really free of habits. They merely develop their own idiosyncratic habits. What we call human personality, in its broadest sense, is to a large extent a composition of thousands of individual and specific habit traits. Humans are compounds of various habits. Thoughts a human thinks are not habitual, of course, but patterns of thought very much tend to become habitual. Some people develop sound thought patterns; others are habitually scatterbrained. The capacity to form habits is possible with most higher living things. But the way the marvelous human mind was created with the spirit in man, humans, more than any other creatures and more than we care to admit, are creatures of habits — habits of thinking, habits of acting, habits of feeling.
Unique in Habits
Our individual habit patterns show up not only in how we pronounce words, but in our general attitudes and demeanor in life. It shows up in how we cope with anxiety. Some, as a result of learned habit, develop a perpetual frown, others exhibit a quick temper, others fearfulness, hostility or suspicion. Others are habitually more open, loving, friendly and exude confidence. We develop differing, even unique, habits in our hand, body and posture movements. Different dietary and appetite habits are acquired. We develop differing feeling habits — what makes us feel good or bad, what produces fear and apprehension and how and to whom respond sexually. All of these are learned. We do not inherit these specific traits. Even repeated successes or failures in life are often a matter of habit; they result from a repeated way of responding to problems and challenges in life.
Habits free us to learn new things. They also make it difficult for us to change established ways of doing things, or thinking or feeling. Habits lock us into certain response patterns, so we tend to resist any change in our accustomed routine, even if it is in our best interests to do so. Too often humans are slaves to bad habits. It takes strong character to break bad habits! Animals could never survive for long in nature if they developed many of the bad habits humans do. We may smoke, abuse alcohol, misuse sex, pop pills, overeat, under exercise or develop emotionally destructive feelings and remain alive, though we are still slowly killing ourselves as individuals. By these bad habits we are limiting or crippling our human potential and development. Many bad habits are, in fact, what the Bible calls sin! They involve violation of God's great spiritual-law, the Ten Commandments. Bad habits reinforced by chemically addicting substances — nicotine and certain drugs, for instance — are very hard to shake. But habits damaging human emotions and attitudes can also be very difficult, at times even more difficult, to change. Tragically, whole nations can get locked into wrong habits of eating, acting, thinking and feeling.
Overcoming Wrong Habits
Who hasn't been a slave to bad habits? Who hasn't carelessly allowed bad habits to take deeper and deeper root in his or her mind and emotions? Improving your life — physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually — is largely a matter of changing or overcoming bad habits. It is a matter of developing new, better and more dominating habit patterns of thinking, acting and feeling. There are absolutely fundamental requirements and essential steps that must be applied to replace a bad habit with a good one. Many lose sight of such essential steps because of heavy demands on their minds or time or because of discouragement from past failures to overcome some nagging habit or vice. The first law of changing any wrong habit is: 1. ADMIT WHAT YOU ARE DOING, OR THINKING OR FEELING IS WRONG AND HARMFUL. In biblical terminology this is the first step in repentance. (Of course, this demands the right standard of determining right and wrong. And this requires a knowledge of God's law.) It is impossible to change without taking this step. So many fail because they never, deep down in their minds, squarely determine or admit what they are doing or thinking is wrong. They will not admit to themselves that they eat too much, or drink too much or are addicted in a damaging way to some practice or thinking. They justify their present ways and refuse to see any damage they are causing to themselves or others — until serious consequences strike them. You — not someone else — must be convinced you should change! You must want to change a bad habit! After this critical step is taken, other essential steps are required. You must then: 2. POWERFULLY RESOLVE TO CHANGE AND QUIT THE WRONG HABIT IMMEDIATELY. This, in biblical terminology, is the second step in repentance. Don't put off a decision. You cannot expect success with a halfhearted or weak effort. You must be strongly motivated to change. Grasp the consequences or potential consequences if you don't change. 3. DEVELOP A CHANGE — OF" BEHAVIOR PLAN. This means: Understand the influences or situations that spark old habit patterns and avoid them whenever possible. Abram did not shake off his past until he moved to a new land (Gen. 12). (Some situations you may not be able to totally control or alter, but you can change your attitude toward them.) Develop right and positive habits or thought patterns to replace the old damaging patterns. Repeat right patterns as often as you can. These soon replace the wrong pattern of acting or feeling. You can do this if the new pattern has some great value or reward, or if failure to do so means an unwanted result. Don't try to taper off from a bad habit. (Only a few situations might dictate differently. For instance, some physically addicting drugs could cause serious bodily harm or even death if suddenly quit "cold turkey." Some serious problems need the assistance and guidance of properly qualified and knowledgeable persons.) Occasionally, giving in increases rather than decreases the persistence of an old habit. Recognize and control self-defeating thought or reasoning patterns. Such thinking may be, "It'll be OK, just this once!" or, "He does it, why can't I?" or, "Why deprive myself when there are so few pleasures in life?" Resolve not to start a pattern of giving way to pressures from friends or others. This is one of the toughest challenges in habit breaking. Keep your eyes on your goal. Don't give in to your old habit — even once. You'll refire the old habit and get hooked again. Permissive thoughts and actions do count; it is like rewelding and energizing the old cables of habit. Yet if you do slip, don't get discouraged. It is difficult to break habits, to give up entrenched sins. Most people slip from time to time in the process of struggling against a bad habit. Get started again. Failure is certain only if you give up. 4. SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP IF NECESSARY TO OVERCOME PHYSICAL HABITS. It is not possible for this article to properly cover all the various kinds of damaging habits humans can fall prey to, and to cover the special considerations that may be necessary to deal with them. Sound health and financial, ministerial or other help may be needed. Various pamphlets or books dealing with specific kinds of physical problems are available and helpful. For spiritual bad habits, you have Jesus Christ and the Bible to turn to for divine help.
A New Outlook Needed
Changing bad habits often demands living different patterns of life. It usually requires a totally different outlook on life, a sharp redefining of what is most important in life. Breaking damaging habits means seriously asking, perhaps for the first time, "What is the true purpose of life?" You will need to understand what character really is and ' its importance in successful living. Character is coming to know right from wrong, good from bad. It means admitting when you are wrong and turning from the wrong. It means determining, despite all difficult circumstances, to do the right instead of the wrong. That means a person must mobilize all available resources to conquer a bad habit. And here is where the power of the Spirit of God comes in to overcome bad physical and spiritual habits or sins. Overcoming bad habits is one of life's supreme challenges! You have to ask yourself squarely, "Is being a slave to a bad habit — damaging my mental or physical health, being obnoxious to my neighbor — really the way God wants me to live?" "Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's [not truly yours], " reveals Scripture. Some may say, "But my bad habits are not my fault!" Perhaps that is true, particularly if patterns started in early years of life under wrong influences or from ignorance. But the fact is, there was a time when habits were within our control, but we permitted them to reach a point where they became out of control. In other words, we caused them to develop; conversely we can cause them to disappear. There are all kinds of annoying habits. Perhaps not all are necessarily great faults, but then again, maybe they could be. Such could be chewing food with one's mouth open or talking with food in one's mouth. Frequent body odor in social situations from not enough bathing reveals a lack of sense of decorum or lack of concern for oneself or others. These become sin if you contemptuously refuse to change them after you realize them. There are some bad habits that are outright sin. "... Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers; nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God" (I Cor. 6:9-10). Certain individuals develop the habit of lying, of exaggerating or cursing.
Human Power Not Enough
The Bible reveals all of the essential laws of overcoming bad habits mentioned in this article. That is because the true way of life — the way of giving — is not just "accepting the Lord in your hearts," as many religious leaders emphasize. Living right before God is overcoming wrong habits of acting, thinking and feeling. It is developing — with God's help and his written revelation — sound mental, emotional and spiritual traits of character. "To him that overcometh [sinful pulls and habits] will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame [temptations to sin], and am set down with my Father in his throne," said Jesus Christ (Rev. 3:21). "Be not deceived; God is not mocked," emphasizes Scripture, "for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7). We sow bad habits, we reap sickness, sorrow and eventually death. The ultimate author of all bad habits is Satan the devil. Some deny his existence. But he is very real. He has influenced the way this world has lived throughout history. The apostle Paul put it plainly in Ephesians 2:2: "... in time past [before repentance] ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince [Satan] of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience." Satan broadcasts into human minds wrong moods, feelings and ideas to which humans can respond. With what results? "Among whom also we all had our [conduct] in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind..." (verse 3). But God calls some in every age to a life of overcoming these lusts and desires. For these called-out ones, the change process (repentance and conversion) is to be so far-reaching that only the power of God joined with human will and effort can produce a new man or woman with totally new habits. Notice the way to begin breaking bad habits:. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord... " (Isa. 55:7). "Repent," said Peter in Acts 2:38. That means a change in life style and an about-face in thinking. For a wholly repentant individual it means demonstrating total surrender to God by being immersed in water, or baptism. This pictures the death of the old man and his wrong habitual ways and the emergence of the new man — one desirous of forsaking his old habits and of totally going God's way. (Read our free explanatory booklet All About Water Baptism.)
It Takes God's Power
Then God promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to help a newly converted person understand right and wrong and develop right spiritual habits and attitudes. Converted humans then begin a lifelong process in which they are to "put off concerning the former [conduct of] the old man [the old sinful habits], which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed [note, this is a process] in the spirit of your mind; and... put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Eph. 4:22-24). "Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness [foul habits] of the flesh and spirit, perfecting [again, a process] holiness in the fear of God" (II Cor. 7:1). Many bad habits and emotions are too deep, too powerful, to be overcome by human power alone. Why? Because they are spiritual in nature. God has set in motion spiritual laws (Rom. 7:14), and they cannot be fully fulfilled (as good habits) by human power and effort alone. In addition, Satan and his evil host of fallen angels (demons) work to discourage humans from changing their wrong habits or sins (see Ephesians 6:10-18). And social organizations and customs often militate against making such changes. God knows all these difficulties. That is why human beings are offered such fantastic rewards of rulership in God's kingdom for overcoming. God offers "exceeding great and precious promises [his Holy Spirit among them]: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust" (II Pet. 1:4). "(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal [in our own strength], but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) casting down imaginations [or reasonings], and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (II Cor. 10:4-5). Scripture commands, "And be not conformed to this world [with its wrong outlook and habits]: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind..." (Rom. 12:2). Character development involves meditating on doing what is right. The book of Psalms is full of material on which to meditate. See also a grand summation of what our minds should center upon in Philippians 4:8. Character involves doing what is right, not just agreeing with what is right. If you are a hearer but not a doer you deceive yourself (Jas. 1:22). Overcoming some bad habits will be possible only through humbly yielding to God and asking him for your needs daily — like getting strength from eating food several times a day. "... work out your own salvation with [godly] fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13). But what if you slip? Get totally discouraged and momentarily want to give up? That's the attitude Satan would like you to fall into! "If we confess our sins [falling into bad spiritual habits that violate God's law], he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). In this human life, you may never totally overcome all bad habits or sinful pulls. But God wants to know the direction you have irrevocably chosen to go in your mind and life. When need be, overcomers are instructed to seek help and encouragement from proper sources: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual [that is, those more mature in outlook and knowledge], restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:1-2). A mature person realizes humans are creatures of habits — good habits, bad habits. He never condones bad habits. He knows he cannot change anyone who does not want to change them. He will, however, try to set an example by overcoming bad habits in his own life. He will encourage others who are trying to change bad habits in their lives, realizing given similar circumstances or experiences he could have similar problems. All of our habits — whether acting, thinking or feeling habits — are "at first cobwebs, then cables." But the miracle of conversion and of true spiritual understanding is that wrong "cables" can be snapped — their dominance broken in one's life. New and right habits of thinking, acting and feeling can then be developed in their place. What kind of habits do you instill in your life?