What Happened to Me: My Habits

I grew up as the youngest of three boys. Since both of my big brothers played basketball, and since–judging by the stares on the faces of children who sometimes gawk at me in public–I am abnormally tall, I wanted to play basketball like my brothers did. One thing I remember from the drills I did as a youngster, which at the time I never thought to have any connection to my life as a Christian, is something coaches talked about as "muscle memory." The idea they were trying to get across to me was that once I could find a way to get the ball into the basket, it was a good idea to work at getting my body to do things in exactly that same way as many times as possible. Then, even though getting the ball into the basket in that way would take a lot of focus and concentrated effort in the beginning, eventually my body would develop its own "memory" of how to do that, and after time I would become able to do the same thing at the right times without thinking about it–just by habit. It was true, and I became able to put the ball in the basket without much concentrated effort, but–unfortunately for my basketball career–apparently my body also always remembered how to run slowly and jump lowly, so I didn't get as many opportunities to shoot the ball as I would have liked.

Years after I stopped playing sports very often, that idea of muscle memory came back to me as I was getting rid of a misconception. For much of my life, I had unconsciously separated everything I did into one of two categories: I mistakenly thought that there were some things I did physically (like shooting a basketball, playing a guitar, driving a car, eating a taco–or eating a plateful of tacos), other things that I did spiritually (like praying or reading the Bible). I didn't see that the two categories were very relevant to each other or had any influence on one another.

But then I began studying how God changes people's lives and what our role is in cooperating with the grace that is offered to us, and I discovered that not only had I been mistaken in thinking there was a separation between the physical part of my life and the spiritual part of it, but that making that mistake had been costly. While it is true that there are physical parts of me and non-physical parts of me, I made mistakes and became frustrated because I couldn't see what now seems obvious: when I do "spiritual" things like reading my Bible or praying, as a human being I have no choice except to do those things in my body; and vice versa–everything I do in my body, even if it was something I considered non-spiritual, affects my character/that part of me that makes choices and connects with God/my spirit.

My misunderstanding of both sides of that was inevitably harmful to me in my earlier attempts to follow Jesus, because I had no room in my conception of Christianity for understanding the importance of our habits. Each one of us has habits ingrained in our bodies which are self-centered and end up causing harm to us and those around us. Some of us have a tongue and lips that lie or spew gossip before we know what happened; some of us turn to food, drugs, or alcohol for comfort; some of us have sexual addictions; some of us are experts at quietly shunning people with our body language; the list could go on, and those of us who know ourselves pretty well might respond, "Practically guilty of all of the above."

We all have ingrained, bodily sin-habits, and the New Testament repeatedly talks about our responsibility to take those off (even put them to death) and to put on other ingrained, bodily grace-habits in their place. Last week, I wrote about the difference it made for me in my mind when I began to read authors who talked about the Christian life in ways that made sense, and coming to understand the essential role of our bodies in our efforts to follow Jesus was a big part of that for me. It gave actual, practical, plan-able meaning to passages of scripture like, "...offer your bodies as a living sacrifice...," "...put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed...and clothe yourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience...," or "to set the mind on the flesh is death but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace."

So how do we do that? What are the grace-habits we want to become ingrained in us? Dallas Willard (the person most responsible for helping me put my body and spirit back together in my efforts to follow Jesus–or, rather, to realize that they were never separated in the first place) nails the issue on the head and should give each and every one of us tremendous hope:

We can become like Christ in character and in power and thus realize our highest ideals of well-being and well-doing. That is the heart of the New Testament message.

Do you believe this is possible?

My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing–by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.

What activities did Jesus practice? Such things as solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, intense study and meditation upon God's Word and God's ways, and service to others. Some of these will certainly be even more necessary to us than they were to him, because of our greater or different need. But in a balanced life of such activities, we will be constantly enlivened by "The Kingdom Not of This World"...(1)

As my relationships changed and I stopped attempting to live an isolated Christian life, and as my thinking changed and began to center on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and their implications for how I will live my life today, and as my habits changed and I began to attempt to take on Jesus' lifestyle rather than further entrenching myself in destructive habits and wonder why my spiritual life wasn't getting anywhere...began to change. My life is full and rich in the things that are the most satisfying. Things like love, joy, and peace are now states of which I have tasted the tip of the iceberg rather than things I long for but haven't authentically experienced.

After all of my explorations, my questions, and my putting the claims of Jesus to the test in my life the best I know how, I am convinced that there is a highway deeper and deeper into this kind of life whose on-ramps are open to each and every human being. That highway is called discipleship. Next week, I will conclude this series by inviting you to join me and countless other students of our ancient Jewish rabbi on it.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Isaiah 5:1-7
  • Psalm 80:1-2,8-19
  • Hebrews 11:29-12:2
  • Luke 12:49-56

A Prayer for the Week*:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of this redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) See Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, pp.x-xi

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]