Changing Our Habits (2nd in a Series)

Worth Green, Th.M., D. Min.

When we do something for the first time, we have to think about it. You like the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and so does your friend, so the two of you decide to attend a road show of “Cats.” You don’t like hospitals, but a member of your Sunday school class is scheduled to have surgery and you decide to visit.

Actions such as those I have just described require thought.

When we repeat a behavior over and over it becomes automatic. We don’t have to think about it. Your alarm clock goes off at 5:45 a.m. and you drink that first cup of coffee every morning at 6:00. Five days a week, at noon, you stop work to eat lunch. You leave for church every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. so that you can get here before the Band Prelude begins.

Habits are behaviors that have become nearly or completely automatic. We get through our days because we have successfully formed not dozens but hundreds of habits.

Habits can be good or bad, and few of us need someone to point out the difference.

In John 16:8 Jesus said that the Holy Spirit “will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Holy Spirit shows us what is right and what is wrong, but the Holy Spirit does not stop there. If we pay attention, the Holy Spirit also seeks to convince us of those habits we need to change, especially when a change will improve our lives.

Sometimes even good habits need to be changed. You know the old saying, “Good, better, best, never let it rest until the good is better, and the better is best!” In point of fact, what was good enough yesterday, may not be good enough for today and tomorrow. I love that line from “Mort ‘de Arthur” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It is the dying King Arthur who says:

The old order changeth, giving place to the new;
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom corrupt the world.

Or, as the hymnist has said:

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth,
We must onward still and upward
Who would keep abreast of Truth.

Sometimes, we need to change our habits, even when those habits have been good habits in the past. In order to save my knees, I have recently changed a 40 year running habit to a daily workout on an elliptical machine. On a more serious note, in Philippians 3:6, the Apostle Paul said that as to righteousness under the law he was “blameless.” Yet he quickly added

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

Before we can change our habits, we need to know how they are formed in the first place.

According to Charles Duhigg research at institutions like MIT have determined that habits consist of three parts. 1) First there a cue that set us a craving. The craving is the thing that makes us want to engage in a particular behavior. 2) Second there is the behavior itself, the routine we engage in over and over again. 3) Third there is the reward. The reward is the thing that makes us want to repeat the routine.

Habits can be formed very quickly. If you pass Krispy-Kreme on the way to work, see the “Hot and Now” sign, stop for a coffee and eat a donut everyday for a week, and enjoy the rush of sugar and caffeine that makes you an early morning dynamo in your workplace, you are well on your way to forming a habit.

Changing a habit is more difficult. The first thing we have to realize is that it is impossible to extinguish a bad habit. One portion of our brain is dedicated to habit formation, and once the patterns are established they can never be completely eradicated. Even people who have lost their memory, or some other cognitive behavior, often still act according to habit. Charles Duhigg points out that once a piece of paper has been creased and folded, it just naturally folds back into the creases; and, once we have formed a habit, so it is with us. Habits are impossible to extinguish.

Interestingly, more than 2500 years ago, Jeremiah said the same thing. In chapter 13:23, God speaks through his prophet and says:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are (in the habit of doing) evil. (Translation my own. The RSV reads, “accustomed to do evil”).

God then pronounces a terrible judgment upon Israel and sends them into exile. That exile is a warning for God’s people in every age. Bad habits are deadly serious! They separate us from God, from the ones that we love, and from our own best selves. Therefore we must always remember that many of the habits we form begin with a conscious choice, and we must be careful when we make those choices because “we make our choices then our choices make us.” Perhaps you will remember the caution from last week:

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.

Now if you have some bad habits, and most of us do, do not despair. Habits cannot be extinguished, but unlike a leopards spots they can be changed. That change is possible because God wills it so. Remember, though God condemned Israel to exile because of her bad habits, God did not abandon Israel forever. In Jeremiah 30:8-9 we read:

And it shall come to pass, says the Lord of hosts, that I will break the yoke from off their neck, and I will burst their bonds, and strangers shall no more make servants of them. 9 But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.

Interestingly, King David was long dead when Jeremiah said this. It is a Messianic statement.

Habits yoke us, and bind us, and make us their servants. We can’t extinguish them, but we can change them, for God intends that we should be free to serve Him. There is hope.

As I read Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit,” and noted the examples of those who had successfully changed their habits, I discovered that those who were most successful in changing their habits were those who believed it was possible to change their habits. Likewise, I observed that many of those who believe it was possible to change their habits believed it was so because they thought that God was willing and able to help them.

Let me give you one of the best examples reliance upon God for help in Duhigg’s book: Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. I am telling this story in my own words, but I am trying to be faithful to Duhigg’s emphasis.

Wilson grew up a teetotaler. Then, during World War I, he joined the Army. While training to go to Europe as an officer, he was invited to many different social affairs. At one of these affairs he was given a Bronx Cocktail, a combination of gin, dry and sweet vermouth, and orange juice. Wilson took one sip and thought he had discovered “the elixir of life.” Wilson liked drinking. For the better part of the next two decades he made it a major part of his life. By the mid 1930‘s he was starting to spin out of control. His fortune was gone, he was losing his family, he had lost his job. On a cold winter day, a friend dropped by, an old drinking buddy. Wilson poured his friend a drink. The friend refused. He said that he had been dry for two months. Wilson asked how he had done it. The friend gave credit to his faith. He talked of sin, and hell, and the devil, and of how we are powerless to help ourselves. Then he talked about the deliverance he had found in Jesus Christ. Wilson was not impressed. He thought his friend was drunk on religion the way he had once been drunk on booze. Wilson’s downward spiral continued for another month. Then, desperate, he checked himself into a prestigious New York clinic. They started him on belladonna regiment that was all the rage at the time. Soon Wilson could hardly function. He was hallucinating. He had tremors, and shakes. His pain was unimaginable. He finally reached bottom. Alone in his room, racked with pain, and unable to help himself, he cried out, “If there is a God, let Him show himself. I am ready to do anything, anything!”

What followed that prayer has been told thousands of times in thousands of AA meetings. Bill Wilson had an experience that very few people are privileged to have. I have never had it or anything like it. Nor do I regard it as essential to salvation or to habit change. Perhaps God permitted Bill Wilson this experience because God had so very much for him to do?

Wilson said that a white light filled the room. He said he knew the ecstasy of what he believed was God’s presence, and the desire for drink was taken from him entirely. He never had another. Not only so, he decided to spend the rest of his life helping people change the habit that had ruined his life, and almost killed him. He kept that promise until he died of emphysema in 1972.

The result was the twelve step program we know as Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Now in developing the AA program, Wilson hardly followed a scientific formula. For instance, he chose to make it a twelve steps program because there were twelve apostles. Yet simply by remembering his own experience and by following his instincts he did some things wonderfully right. For instance, Wilson understood that many things could cue a desire for drink including loss, disappointment, stress, and loneliness. So, too, Wilson was smart enough to see that the reward for drinking was just not getting drunk. Though getting drunk can be a hedonistic pleasure, few people drink just for the pleasure of getting drunk. People drink to escape, to forget, to easy their pain. And, ironically, to find community. Often, a big part of the reward for getting drunk was being with people who shared your experience. It was sharing your own story, and believing that someone listened, and identified with you, and cared.

If I may interject a personal opinion, it is my opinion that hard drinkers standing around a bar sharing their problems have invested their drinks with sacramental power. It may be the wrong kind of sacrament, but the fact that they share it may help make change possible. I would also like to interject a question, and I invite anyone who has an informed opinion to tell me about it. I wonder if AA works better for those whose habit is to drink with others, than for those whose habit is to drink alone?

Though Wilson did not approach the founding of AA very scientifically, he succeeded in isolating the three parts of habit formation. He isolated the cue, and the reward, and he kept them both while creating a new routine. Wilson invited people to substitute a AA meeting for time at the bar.

Then Wilson did something brilliant. Wilson asked that those beginning AA commit to attending 90 meetings in their first 90 days of AA membership. Of course, they could attend them three times in one day if they needed too, but they still needed to attend 90 days. Besides that, if no meeting was available when they felt the need for drink, they could call on their sponsor, for everyone who joined AA was assigned a sponsor to help them make it through those difficult times when no meeting was available. Wilson reasoned that if a person can avoid drink 90 days that person was well along the way to changing their habit.

How long does it take to change a habit? Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon and the author of “Psycho-Cybernetics” said that WWII amputees he studied took an average of only 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb. That seems very optimistic, and several people who have lost limbs have told me so. This study gave rise to the myth that habit change could be accomplished in three weeks. Again, I find that overly optimistic. Phillippa Lally a psychologist at University College London reported that her subjects who were trying to learn far less traumatic new habits, such as eating fruit daily, or going jogging, took an average of 66 days before the desired behavior had become unchangingly automatic. Some could effect permanent change in as little as 21 days, but some took as long as 245 days.

We don’t know how long habit change takes for every individual, but ninety days is a good start for millions of people every year. It works in AA, chances are it will work for you.

How do we change a habit? We begin by analyzing the habit. We determine what cues it; why do we do what we do. Sometimes the answer is not as obvious as one might think. It may be that you buy that Krispy-Kreme donut every morning not because you want the sugar rush, but because you work in a stress filled office and the person behind the counter who hands it to you shows you the only smiling face you will see all day! Next we determine the routine, the habit itself. It is a good habit or a bad habit? Most of us can answer that question truthfully if we really try. Finally, we determine the reward. Then we keep the cue, and the reward, while we modify the routine.

This little formula opens enormous possibilities. For instance. I recently read that if a person with a stable body weight will substitute a glass or bottle of water for one high calorie soft drink every day for one year, that person can lose 25 lbs. This works even if one does not change one’s existing eating or exercise habits! Of course, here is the hopeful part, the real battle is not waged over the course of a year, it is waged and won in the first 90 days! And, to take a page from my friends at AA, we make those 90 days one day at a time!

Let’s not get fixated on weight loss. There are dozens of examples of habits that need to be changed.

Finally, let us be thankful that as Christians we have a resource that others do not, God.

Bill Wilson was always suspicious of organized religion yet 7 of the 12 steps upon which AA is based mention or assume God. Yet another step, the 1st , recognizes that one is powerless to help one’s self. That is Christian theology! Another step, the 4th, asks us to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of our selves.” That, too, is the language of theology. And two other steps deal with making amends to people we have wronged. Who would have guessed that habit change was dependent upon the quality of our relationships with others? There is a lot of Christ in all of that.

Bishop Spaugh was not an alcoholic. Yet he carried a 40 year chip from AA in his pocket for the work he had done with that organization.

Several times I heard the Bishop address a meeting.  he always said something like this:

If you are here out of need, and you want to get started on sobriety tonight, turn your life over to a higher power. If you want to get started right, call your higher power “God.” If you want to accelerate your progress to health and wholeness, understand that your higher power is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ask him to take charge of your life. And he always quoted something like 2nd Corinthians 3:18: ‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another…’

You can never totally extinguish a habit. The folds in the paper of the unconscious mind are too deep. However, with the help of God and a few friends, you can change that bad habit for a good one.

Finis

About the author:

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