The Power of Habit (1st in a Series)

by Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min. based on:
Hebrews 10:24 & Luke 22:39.

Listen to this Message.

This morning I am beginning a series entitled, “The Power of Habit.” This series was inspired, and informed, and will sometimes be illustrated by the content of a book by Charles Duhigg, entitled, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do the Things We Do in Life and in Business.” However, let me quickly point out that this series is not limited by Duhigg’s book. Once I finished the book, I made a study of habit in other relevant sources, especially the Scripture, and I CONVINCED that all I intend to say in this series is in perfect harmony with what I find therein.

Now let us begin with a definition of habit. There are several.

According to one dictionary one’s habit has to do with one’s physical appearance, and the dress that one wears.

A man who is grossly overweight has “a fleshy habit”; a monk, fat or thin, wears a habit, as does a priest, a ballet dancer, or a baseball player. The Geneva gown I am wearing this morning has been my Sunday habit since 1977.

When I was serving the Little Church on the Lane in Charlotte, I wore a more complete clergy habit, in the form of a black shirt and round white collar. I did not wear that habit everyday, but I did wear it often enough to appease my Bishop, Herbert Spaugh, and my Senior Pastor, Herbert Weber.

The low point of my experience of wearing the habit came on a Sunday morning. On that particular Sunday I did not have a clean black shirt, so I showed up at church in a white shirt and tie. Mr. Weber sent me home with instructions to take a black shirt out of the dirty clothes hamper and put it on. I did exactly what he asked. When Herbert asked me to jump, I invariably said, “How high?” It was the last time I pushed that particular button.

The high point of my experience of wearing the habit came on a Sunday afternoon. It was a wet and windy day, and when I got on the elevator at Charlotte Memorial Hospital, my clerical collar was hidden by my trench coat. Two ladies were on the elevator with me. The elevator started its climb. Then it suddenly lurched, and dropped back almost a foot. One of the ladies cried out, “God help us!” I looked right into her face, then keeping my hands in my pocket, I flipped open my coat to reveal my clerical collar, smiled a broad smile, and said, “He will!” The expression on her face was total astonishment! I felt like Superman stepping out of a phone booth!

I think it is important to note that a person’s habit says a lot about that person. John the Baptist, a rough and ready prophet, was said to wear a rough and ready coat made of camel hair. That fits with his character. Jesus was said to wear a robe that was seamless, woven as one piece from top to bottom. That fits with his character. Jesus the Messiah was the seamless integration of God and Man. A policeman wears a vest and caries a weapon. A fireman does his job wearing an oxygen mask, and carrying an ax. In the 1980‘s businessmen and women were told to dress for success by wearing blue and gray. Teachers have to be careful not to dress so as to call attention to themselves.

What we look like or what we wear may rightly be called a habit. Of course, there are other definitions.

According to one dictionary a habit might simply be “one’s usual manner of behavior.”

Suppose you go to the beach for a week, and you do as Elayne and I recently did. You take a walk every morning. You walk Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then Friday you decide to swim instead. Your morning walk was becoming routine but it was not yet automatic.

Yet, according to the same dictionary, a habit also be “an acquired (or chosen) mode of behavior that has become nearly, or completely involuntary (automatic!).”

Perhaps you know the story by Laura Hillenbrand entitled “Unbroken.” It the story of Louie Zamperini, the Olympic Runner who joined the United States Army Air Force, only to be forced down in the South Pacific while on a search mission. Zamperini spent 47 days in an open raft, miraculously survived, and then, finished the war in a Japanese Prison Camp. He survived unbelievable hardships unbroken at least in part because he was an athlete. Zamperini started running when he was 14 years old. His high school was having a competition between the classes, and the girls in Louie’s class thought that of the 4 boys in the class he had the best chance to do well in a 660 yard run. They were wrong. Louie finished last. His coach said a track was the last place Louie needed to be. Louie’s older brother Pete disagreed. A senior, he was a ten letter man and he was determined to make a runner out of Louie. Every day after school Pete mounted a bike and prodded Louie through a long run with a stick. Louie hated training. He briefly ran away from home to avoid it. Then Louie had a change of heart. He had an opportunity to spend the summer in a small cabin on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation. He rose each morning, took up his rifle, and ran the hills, and valleys, and canyons, sometimes chasing herds of wild horses until he was tired. Then he would head for a sulphur spring where he swam, watched over by the Cahuilla women as they did their laundry on the rocks. That evening he would run back to the cabin, shooting a jack rabbit for his supper on the way. Then after supper, Louie would lay on the roof of his cabin reading Zane Grey novels until the last of the light faded from the sky. The next morning he would get up and do it all over again. Hillenbrand said that Louie ran not because he had to, and not because someone else wanted him to, but because “…it was what his body wanted to do.” Louie did not get up in the morning and decide whether or not to run, he just ran. He had the habit and the habit had him. Let me give one more example.

I have a friend who is still smoking a pack of cigarettes everyday. He tells me that three times everyday, following a meal, a cigarette just materializes in his right hand, and, suddenly, he has a cigarette lighter in his left. Of course he is overstating his case. I know he still buys cigarettes by the carton and he keeps his lighter filled. He knows he has a nicotine habit.

Now you may be thinking, “Thank goodness I make decisions for myself.  I would hate the thought of running, or smoking, or doing anything else at all without first thinking about it.”

Well, if you are thinking that, you would be wrong. According to Charles Duhigg, studies have shown that about 40% of all we do everyday is by habit. And that is a good thing, because if we had to consciously choose to do everything that we do on a daily basis, our brains would need to be as big as small melons.

Think about all you do everyday by habit. Consider how you brush your teeth. As late as the First World War very few Americans brushed their teeth. Draftees often had such rotten teeth that the Army considered tooth decay a threat to our national security. That is no longer so. I will bet that each and everyone of you brush your teeth morning and evening, and I will bet you do it without thinking about it. It is automatic. It is a habit.

Or think about this. Most of you men put on your socks and shoes every morning and take them off again every night. Which shoe do you put on and take off first, right or left? Duhigg asked his readers that question, and I determined to answer it. However, more than a month after first considering that question, I still can’t answer it, because once I started thinking about the question, it added an element of thought to a process that was a long standing habit.

Or how do you get to work? I will bet that unless you run into a traffic jam, or an accident, or something of the sort, you drive to work the same way each and everyday. It is automatic, and sometimes frightfully so. I usually visit the hospital in the morning, then  drive into the church office. One night I was called to the hospital for an emergency. When I finished my visit, I had a lot on my mind. I started out of the parking lot at the hospital deep in thought, and did not break my train of thought until I found myself pulling into an empty parking lot here at the church. I had driven here by habit.

I could mention other things, like eating, and drinking, and breathing, all done, more or less, according to habit. Airplanes have automatic pilots, and, in one sense, so do we.

Let me give you just one other definition of habit. Habit is ethos.

Let me explain. After I finished Duhigg’s book, I turned to the New Testament. Much to my chagrin, I found that the word “habit” appears only once in the text of the Revised Standard Version. In Hebrews 10:24-25 we read:

24 Let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.

Given the importance of habit, I thought it unusual that the New Testament contained the word habit just one time, so I looked a little deeper. I found that the word in Hebrews 10:25 ordinarily translated by the English word “habit”is the greek word “ethos.”

The Greek word “ethos” and its derivatives appear not 1 time but 23 times in the New Testament. However, with the one exception of Hebrews 10:24 it is not translated with the English word “habit,” but with the English word “custom.” Once I understood that ethos and its derivatives could be translated habit or custom, I was suddenly privy to a gold mine of information. Let me give you a few examples.

  • In Luke 1: 9 Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was serving at the alter in accordance with the custom of the priesthood when the angel appears to him and tells him about John.
  • In Luke 2:42 at the age of twelve, Jesus and his family go up to Jerusalem during passover according to custom. When considered along verse 41—in which the parents of Jesus go up to Jerusalem year after year, it means that the boy Jesus may have visited Jerusalem not just once, but many times.
  • In Luke 4:16 Jesus goes to the synagogue as was his custom, and it is there he stands up to read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…” Jesus closes the book and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” According to Hebrews 10, some people lack a regular church habit. According to Luke 4:16 Jesus had one. It was his custom to be in the synagogue or “the gathering.” If Jesus needed “the gathering,” we certainly need it.
  • According to Luke 22:39, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, “He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mt. of Olives.” His disciples followed him. He went that he might pray. He prayed that he might conform to the Father’s will, and, according to Luke, an angel appeared to him and strengthen him. Prayer was a habit with Jesus. Therefore, when he needed the solace and power of prayer, it was readily available to him. He urged his disciples to form the same habit, and us through them.

Let me say a word about a disciple, my dear friend Ron. Ron died on Friday afternoon after a brief battle with cancer. Ron had a kidney cancer that encased the kidney and spread into the body cavity. The surgery which he had on Wednesday—-which at least one doctor refused even to attempt, was his only chance. I spent 20 minutes alone with Ron on Wednesday morning before his surgery, and I can tell you that I have never met with anyone before so serious a surgery as calm as he. Ron was a lay Franciscan in the Catholic Church and he believed very much in the power of prayer. He told me that morning that about a year ago, before he knew he had cancer, God gave him a centering prayer, “Rest in Me.” He told me on that morning that he had recently been given a new centering prayer. The words of his prayer were, “Here I am.” God says, “Rest in me.” Note:1 Ron responds, “Here I am.” Ron’s family arrived. We prayed. I said good-by. Ron went into surgery. Ron’s six hour surgery turned into 9. Then, that night, he required a second surgery of 6 hours. The next day, Thursday, he required another shorter surgery. That evening, he had a critical heart episode. By Friday morning Ron’s family knew that he was dying, maintained only by the medical machines. Ron’s family decided, in accordance with his living will, to let him have his body back, to decide with God his future.. After that I shared with them the “Daily Text” for Friday, June 22nd, 2012. It was from 2nd Samuel 15:26. Therein David, struggling with Absalom for his kingdom, approaches Jerusalem, sends in the Ark of the Covenant, and says, “Behold, here I am, let Him (the LORD) do to me as seems good to him.” Ron’s centering prayer was, “Here I am.” Expanded it meant, “Let the LORD do to me as seems good to him.”

Ron faced that surgery, and the possibility of death unafraid, because he had thatched his roof before it started to rain. throughout the days of his life he formed the prayer habit, and when the crisis came, he could rely on the strength of prayer, and on the Heavenly Father to  whom he prayed. Prayer was so much a part of him.

The original meaning of the Greek word “ethos” is “character.”

Our habits become our character. Of course, habits do not just drop down upon us from the sky. Habits are formed, and habits can be changed. We are going to talk about that in future sessions. In the meantime, let me leave you with this oft heard exhortation:

Be careful of your thoughts, for they become words.
Be careful of your words, for they become actions. 
Be careful of your actions, for they become habits.
Be careful of your habits, for they become character.
Be careful your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Finis

Note 1: In the recorded version of this sermon, I record the first part of Ron’s centering prayer, God’s part, a bit differently. The family gently corrected me. My memory of my time with Ron early on Wednesday was clouded a bit by emotion.

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.