Worth Green, Th.M., D. Min.
Habits are actions that are virtually automatic. This morning we are talking about the habits God gave.
Some habits we are born with. Habits like breathing, and eating, and sleeping immediately come to mind. These habits are hard wired into us for they address the lowest level of human needs, the needs of the body. If you were the only human being on the planet you would still need these habits.
Some habits we develop as a part living with others, in families and communities. Habits like loving and caring, and teaching and learning, and our attraction to beauty. These habits are hard wired into us by the higher needs that grow out of being a part of the human race. Let me lift up one example. Normal human beings have a habit of caring, and God intends this habit be passed from parents to children, and from generation to generation. The habit of caring is the joy of families, and the hope of nations. We ought never to take it for granted.
I am not trying to be all-inclusive, but there is one other habit that God gives each of us, and all of us, that I must mention. In Acts 17, we read how St. Paul, speaking to the citizens of Athens, once declared that God created us to seek Him. The apostle said:
“God made from one blood every nation of men that we might seek after him, and, perhaps find him.”
Human beings in every age have the habit of seeking God. This is true of the very young and the very old. It is true of 1st graders and college professors. I once asked a college professor, a physicists, why he believes in God. He said, “I believe in part because of the wisdom of crowds.” He went on to explain that the wisdom of crowd declares that a large group of people who are willing to wager on the outcome of a thing are often more accurate at predicting that outcome than a panel of experts. More than 90 percent of the people on our planet believe in God. A surprising number of people are willing to pay the price of faith, though it will cost some their lives, or their families. Others pay the price of following God though it cost them a large slice of their time, talent, and treasure.
God made us to seek him, but God did not leave it at that. Christians, like Jews before us, agree that God also seeks us. God’s seeking for us reaches its apex in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who stretches out his arms upon the cross to embrace us all, in order that he might lift us up to God and new life by the power of his Resurrection. But I am going too fast. Consider the early part of God’s history of seeking humankind. First God sought out and called Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Then God used one of Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph, to save his whole family from famine. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, and made Joseph an important man in Egypt, so that Joseph could make a place for his family. Joseph offered his family sanctuary. At first the Egyptians welcomed the children of Israel, Joseph and his brothers, but eventually, their families increased in number until the Egyptians were threatened by them, and enslaved them. Israel was sorely oppressed, but God saw their suffering, and God called to Moses to lead them out of Egypt to the Promised Land. It was on this journey from slavery to freedom that God used Moses to hand down the Law. The Law protected the children of Israel from false gods, and from one another, and from themselves. Moses gave the people the Law, that portion of it we know as the Ten Commandments, and then he commanded the people to make a habit of that Law. He said:
18 “You shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul (Adopt them! Memorize them! Love them like children!); and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.”
Wow! Moses knows a lot about habit development. Habits are formed in three steps: 1) the cue; 2) then the routine, the habit; 3) then the reward. First Moses lays down the habits he wants the people to form, the Law of God. He wants them to learn it, and live by it. Second, Moses sets up cues to trigger these habits, he has the people bind a reminder of them upon their hands and on their foreheads, and to talk about them with their children, and the reminder on the gates and doorpost of their houses. Third, Moses tells the people that if they keep the Law of God, the LORD will reward them by multiplying their days, and the days of their children, in the land that the LORD swore to give to their fathers as long as the heavens are above the earth. In other words: Long life in a pleasant place, and this promise will never fail!
The Good Habits of the Law protected the people of Israel, but they did a lot more than that. God used the Good Habits of the law to bind Israel into a community of trust and respect, so that they would be able to survive, and make progress, and prosper, not just as individuals, but also as a nation. In the 21st century it is a well-established historical fact that the Law made Israel a nation, and bound them together so effectively that not even nineteen centuries without a homeland could destroy them as a people. Jews were bound together by the habit of keeping the Law.
In point of fact, civilization itself depends upon the willingness of citizens in every age to get in the habit of keeping the law that God has written not just on tablets of stone, but into the matrix of our human nature. God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel through Moses, but God put the law into our hearts. The details of it vary from culture to culture, but the heart of the Law is the foundation of true civilization, things like: 1) Thou shalt not murder, 2) thou shalt not commit adultery, 2) thou shalt not steal, 3) thou shalt not bear false witness, etc. The thin veneer of civilization depends upon these and similar laws. Even a society of outlaws insists upon a code of conduct. That is why we speak of “honor among thieves.”
Now let me add an exciting fact. The good habits of the Law not only have the power to turn a hodge-podge collection of people into a nation, they can result in the preservation and prosperity of individuals and nations.
The Good habits of the Law make successful individuals. In Psalm 1, the Psalmist says that a man who honors the law of the Lord is like a tree planted by a streams of water, that yields fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, and in all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1)
Though he never mentions the 1st Psalm, in his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg demonstrates that good habits make successful people, and caring families, and growing churches, and profitable businesses that are great for their customers and their employees, and great nations like our own.
Duhigg even points out that Good habits can make great football teams.
Many of you know the name of Tony Dungy, the coach who turned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the worst team in football to one of the best. The Bucs did not have patience. They fired Dungy because he lost two play-off games in 2001 and 2002 without getting to the Superbowl, but the very next year, 2003, Dungy’s successor continued Dungy’s principles and won the Super Bowl. Immediately after the Bucs fired Dungy, he got a call from the Indianapolis Colts. They wanted him and they wanted his methods. They had one of the best quarterbacks in football, Peyton Manning, but they could not win the big games. Dungy guided them to 10-6, and then to 12-4, and then to 14-2. In the 2006 season he took them to the Super Bowl where they beat the team that had beaten them in play off games the two years before. The New England Patriots were leading 21-3 at the half. No team in Super Bowl history had ever overcome such a deficit. In one of the most exciting games in history the Colts came back to win 38-34. Dungy had his Super Bowl victory. In the process, he became the only coach in NFL history to make the playoffs ten years in a row!
Dungy’s coaching philosophy was centered in habit formation. His philosophy of winning is a simple one. Dungy said:
Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.
Now this was a novel idea. Football is supposed to be a game that balances brains with brawn, and Tony Dungy said that players with good habits are better than players that think too much. Dungy said that good habits allowed football players to react quicker than their opponents. This is of utmost importance. Football is a game of milliseconds, and those milliseconds separate winners from losers. If you do the right thing by habit, he said, eventually, and most of the time, you come out on top.
Dungy understood habit formation and habit change and he became a winning coach and produced winning teams.
In the same way, Moses taught that God wants us to navigate our lives by habit. The more we do right, the easier it is to do right. God wants us to get so much in the habit of doing right that faced with a choice of doing right or doing wrong we don’t even have to think about it. The best time to resist temptation is the moment that the temptation presents itself. The longer we think about it, the more likely we are to give in. If we want to think, we ought to think about this: The rewards of doing wrong are immediate, and temporary. The rewards of doing right may take longer to achieve, but they are eternal.
Let me finish up with a couple of stories.
Earlier this summer, Elayne and I went downtown to see an afternoon movie at the Aperture Theater. After the movie we decided to walk down 4th Street toward the Reynolds Building. We walked, and we remembered the way things were. Then we turned around and started back. We were just opposite the Aperture when I suddenly noticed a very beautiful young lady walking toward us. I followed her with my eyes until she passed, and my eyes met those of my wife. I said, “She is beautiful!” Then, in a quick recovery, I added, “Of course she is not as beautiful as you.” As an aside let me say that every husband ought to think his wife the most beautiful woman in the world, and he ought to tell her that everyday. If he says it often enough, she will believe it, and if she believes it, he will believe it, and they will both be happier. Anyway, Elayne said, “Yes, she was very beautiful, and did you notice that she was walking with the movie star, Owen Wilson?” With that I turned around, and saw she was indeed with Owen Wilson. Then Elayne and I continued down the street, and she said that the girl was probably camouflage for Owen Wilson. And I said, “Yes, but remember though she is pretty now, you have been pretty to me for twice as long as she is old.” And she has. And it was a nice evening.
Let me tell you a second story. Years ago I was walking across the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary with my friend, Father Donald, who was a Franciscan Priest. Suddenly a very beautiful girl loomed up before us. Father\. Donald raised his hand to his eyes like a salute, punched me in the ribs with his elbow, and said, in a voice only I could hear, “Stewardship of the eyes, brother, stewardship of the eyes.” He was right.
I have mentioned a movie star. Let me mention a line from a movie. It was Hannibal Lector who said, “What does a man covet except that which he sees.” He was right. If you don’t want to spend money, don’t shop. If you want to loose weight, avoid restaurants with all you can eat buffets. If you want to break an addiction to drugs, or alcohol, don’t spend time with people using them. What we see, we think about, and the temptation arises. Let us add a new first line to the verses that have been a running refrain for us over the last several weeks.
Beware your looking, because your looking becomes thought,
Beware your thoughts for you thoughts become words.
Beware your words for your words become actions.
Beware your actions for your actions become habits.
Beware your habits for your habits become character.
Beware your character for your character becomes your destiny.
The way to a good long live in the pleasant place we live is to live according to the habits that God gave.