“The world needs a holy people who have learned the habits that are a foretaste of the coming kingdom.”

Embracing Exile

In Embracing Exile, I wrote a lot about habits, practices, liturgy, and their connection to living faithfully as God’s people. I am increasingly convinced that disciples of Jesus are not made by accident but are intentionally formed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through spiritual discipline and all the means of grace. Whether it’s living as a reflection of Christ’s light in a dark world, raising children as resident aliens in a strange culture, or living as a blessing to Babylon, intentional practices of (what I call) counter-formation are necessary.

The truth of this was reaffirmed for me again when I picked up and read Charles Duhigg’s recent bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. In it, Duhigg analyzes the most recent research on not only how formative habits are in nearly every aspect of our lives but also how re-habiting of life is possible and how dramatically a person’s life can change by altering one’s habits. Duhigg’s book has reaffirmed three truths for me about living as faithful exiles in a strange world.

1. We cannot live faithfully as God’s unique people without discerning all the various ways we are—to use Paul’s language in Romans 12—being squeezed into the world’s mold.
Habits groove our minds to discern and interpret the world in fixed patterns. For example, researchers observed the way the brain works when learning a new task, like driving a car. Remember when you were fifteen and driving a car for the first time? When a person first learns to drive, the brain is working hard through the whole process. Everything about driving—gears, pedals, mirrors, steering, speed, road conditions, and other cars all around—is overwhelmingly new. However, it doesn’t take very long for those practices to become routine. In fact, in observing the average person’s brain activity during driving, the mind goes into high gear at the beginning when observing conditions and again at the end when parking, but in between, brain waves drop significantly as the mind goes into an automatic gear. That’s why, once a person learns to drive, they can get to their destination while singing songs on the radio or fuming about their hard day at work. It’s crazy, but people essentially drive without thinking about it.

Each of us must ask the question: what are the voices, practices, and cultural liturgies that are forming my habits (and thus my heart and subconscious mind)?

The same principle applies for how people observe—and, more importantly, discern—the world. In the same way the voice picks up the accent of a region, the eyes begin to perceive and interpret the world through influence and habit. For this reason, it is important for Christians to occasionally take what James K. A. Smith calls a “liturgical assessment.” Each of us must ask the question: what are the voices, practices, and cultural liturgies that are forming my habits (and thus my heart and subconscious mind)? There are hundreds of questions that could and should be asked. What books am I reading? What news stations are forming my perceptions? What radio talk-show host is becoming the voice in my head? How does the ethnic and economic nature of my neighborhood shape my perceptions of others? How are my choices of leisure and entertainment forming the way I view the world?

Unfortunately, most people will not (indeed, cannot) see the world differently until a crisis of some kind occurs. We cannot live in escape from the world, but the more aware we can be of the way we are constantly being formed by “this present age,” the more open we will be to allowing the kingdom to “transform us by the renewing of our minds.”

2. Small changes in habit can make a big difference.
There is a great deal of research that demonstrates the huge impact of small changes in behavior. For example, there seems to be a connection between making the bed in the morning and accomplishing more in life. There is a significant connection between childhood success and well-being and regularly eating meals as a family.

I was a very average student in high school and early on in college. If you had told me at twenty or twenty-one that I would have a career in academia, I would have laughed out loud. Then two (almost accidental) habits changed everything. The first was when a group of my friends invited me to start spending an hour in the library studying with them every day. Every day we met in the library at two o’clock, and for one hour we read and studied together. We became quite religious about it. I know it sounds crazy, but that hour meant I was better prepared for tests. Which meant I started to get better grades. Which meant I started to think of myself as a good student. That hour meant I started reading textbooks. Which meant I actually began to enjoy most of them. Which meant I started having a habit of reading regularly. Which meant I have become a lifetime reader.

I went to my first seminary class with a group of people I had just met in student housing. As we walked into this large lecture hall, they said, “Come with us, Scott. Let’s sit in the front.” I had never sat in the front before that day! That was the second habit that changed everything. Because I sat in the front that semester, I couldn’t multitask without the professor seeing it, so I paid more attention. Sitting in the front meant I wasn’t distracted by the clock or other students. Sitting in the front meant that I got called on first when I raised my hand. The professor learned my name quickly and invited me to have coffee. Over coffee I realized how much I liked the subject. That professor encouraged me to continue my education and eventually became my PhD mentor. I’m convinced none of that would have happened if my friends hadn’t invited me to sit in the front with them.

It is amazing how the changing of one habit (even a small one) can lead to new insight, new opportunities, and new levels of faithfulness.

Small practices can make a huge difference. Make one change in your own life. Commit to regular church attendance. Join a small group. Begin keeping a prayer journal. Volunteer to teach a Sunday school class. Sign up to go on a mission trip. Sing in the choir. Invite a new person or family to lunch once a month. It is amazing how the changing of one habit (even a small one) can lead to new insight, new opportunities, and new levels of faithfulness.

3. Re-habiting is most effective when done in community.
Did you notice in the examples I gave above that my academic habits changed because of others? I needed friends to meet me in the library every day or to sit with me in the front of the class. Research shows that our habits change most readily when we have a community of friends changing with us.

In Romans 12, when Paul writes about not being conformed to the patterns of the world but being transformed by the renewing of our minds, the very next passage is about life in the body of Christ. In the succeeding verses, Paul encourages connection in the body and every part using their gifts in edification of all the others. It is hard to be faithful in isolation. We really do need each other.

So, begin to take a liturgical inventory of your life. What voices, what practices, what habits are forming the way you view the world? Are those voices, practices, and habits shaping you toward or away from the kingdom of God?

Start small. Ask God for the wisdom to find the right place or the new habit for transformation and a deeper faithfulness to his purposes.

Include others. Faithful exiles encourage, edify, and discern God’s best in the community of friends called the church.