Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on October 25, 2009.
Deuteronomy 11: 18-21
A culture that neglects to cultivate good habits will soon find itself the prisoner
of bad habits.
Have you ever heard the expression, “I am going to drop (something) like a bad habit”? Perhaps a couple has been dating and the young lady becomes exasperated with the young man and calls her mother, best friend, or co-worker and says, “I am dropping him like a bad habit.”
I had a friend in seminary who had two expressions that he used all the time. One was, “I am as serious as a heart attack” or if he was done with something, he would say, “I am going to drop that class like a bad habit.” It is really pretty interesting when you think about it because most of my bad habits don’t go away that easily. We use it as an expression that, more or less, makes it seem like it is easy to do. It is here today and gone tomorrow. We can drop that thing like a bad habit. I don’t know about your bad habits, but mine want to stay around longer than that. Mine take longer to get rid out.
Have you ever had someone near you who popped their chewing gum? If you try to get them to stop, they can’t do it. Maybe you have a co-worker who taps a pencil on a desk or clicks a pen. You think, “I am going to go crazy if he doesn’t stop.” Maybe you know someone who swings their legs when they have them crossed and it makes the whole couch move. You have asked them repeatedly, nicely and not so nicely, to stop but they can’t quit. It is a bad habit.
We all habits like this that we have tried to get to go away. I don’t know why it is when we think of the word habit that we immediately go to bad habit.
I did some test marketing on this and asked people to do a one or two word association with the word habit and, invariably, if not on the first, by the second or third word, the word bad came along. What we really need to think about is not bad habits but the power of habits, and even bad habits might give us an illustration. We think about how we have tried to change the way we eat. All your life maybe you have been trying to diet and finally you come to the place where you think, “I need to have a lifestyle change. I have to start eating right.” It is very difficult to change the habits we have always had of pulling through McDonald’s and getting a Big Mac or getting a triple Whopper with extra cheese. It is hard to stop those patterns that have been a part of our lives. But that should tell us something and that is that habits have power. Instead of always thinking of how we have to work against them, maybe it would be good if we could think of how we could bring them into our favor.
Let me share a few quotations. Do you remember Robert Fulghum who wrote the book, Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten? In one of his later books, he described habits as the autopilot of life. Just flip it on and you don’t have to think about it.
Caroline Westerhoff has a book entitled, A Song for the Baptized. She says, “Habits have a power for good. Habits liberate us. Habits release us from the obligation to think through every move we make. Responding out of habit means we can do two things at once. We can do what the habit allows us to do and we can go on with our lives.”
Habits are those things that we do often enough and long enough until we come to the place where they are engrained in our lives. They are as much a part of us as the color of our hair. There are good habits. Think about the power of good habits. Think about putting on a seatbelt. If you are a parent, you try to teach your children to put on a seatbelt every time they get into a car. It is a great day when you finally get to the point where you don’t have to turn around and look to see if they have buckled up. Instead, you just hear the automatic click and know they have done it. As a parent, think how freeing that is to know that when your child is 12 and they are going to ride with another family that the habit is going to click in. When they are 17 and riding with a friend, it is good to know that the habit has stuck and they are going to click on the seatbelt. It was worth the effort when they were younger. You may not think that is a habit, but it is. How many of you think about putting your seatbelt on when you get into a car? I don’t, but I always have it on. It is a good habit. It is autopilot. I can go ahead and think about where I am headed and not have to think about putting on my seatbelt because it has been done.
Another parenting thing is cleanliness. I know very few children who, at some point in their lives, would have preferred not to take a bath. I always think of this great Leave it to Beaver episode where Wally and the Beaver are in the bathroom off their bedroom. They fill up the tub with water, drop the soap in the tub and pull it out so the soap is wet. They sprinkle water on the towels and on the floor and then hang the towels back up. Then they go in and change and put on their pajamas. This was a great rouse for their parents, Ward and June Cleaver, to pretend like they had taken a bath.
What family among us with children doesn’t initiate the habit of cleanliness? We would like to know that when they go off to camp, to college, or someday are on their own and married with a family that they are going to be clean. It is autopilot. They don’t even have to think about it. We taught it to them.
What about manners? How many times did your parents have to say to you, “Say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am, no sir, no ma’am.’” How many times did they have to say it to you before it became a part of your life? Do you think about manners now? You don’t think about manners. You just do it. It’s a good habit. Habits are one-time decisions that we then act on until they become a part of our lives. When it comes to things like brushing your teeth, putting on your seatbelt, shaking somebody’s hand, saying yes ma’am and no ma’am, these are good things. They are the autopilot of life. They enable us to do two things at once. We don’t have to think about manners. We just have them because our parents instill them as habits in our lives.
When you read the passage from Deuteronomy 11:18-21, we realize what an important part that good habits play in the life of faith. In the Jewish tradition, in what is being told to the children of Israel as they are preparing to move into the Promised Land is the sense of repeating the actions with their families over and over until the things that are important in their relationship to God are just second nature. They just automatically respond the way the children of God are supposed to respond.
The illustration is about scripture. Miss Prissy did give us a wonderful illustration with the children. How old were those children who were saying the Books of the Old Testament? Some of them were just six or seven years old and already have learned all the Books of the Bible, already have learned where they can find something in scripture, so that scripture, the lessons of scripture, and the voice of God that comes out of the pages of scripture can be a part of the habit of their lives. They are on autopilot. It is second nature. They don’t even have to think about it. It is already there and it is planted within their hearts. It is a part of who they are as they grow and confront different things in life that we wish they did not have to confront. They have made it a habit.
Think about some things that ought to be one-time decisions that our actions then repeat, and repeat, and repeat until we don’t have to think about it any more. It can be for us as individuals. If we have children or grandchildren under our care, it can be a part of that but think about things like telling the truth. Should telling the truth be something we decide each time? When I find myself in a tight in business or find myself where I am caught at school in something I didn’t want to do, should it be something that I have to make a decision as to whether or not I am going to tell the truth? If I believe in Jesus Christ and am trying to reflect Christ’s character in the world, is that a decision after the first time? Shouldn’t it be a habit to tell the truth every time so we come to the place where it is never a choice again?
What about something like compassion? If we reflect Christ in the world and believe that these are the hands of Christ and Christ is working through my hands, shouldn’t we be compassionate all the time? It doesn’t mean react the same way every time, but shouldn’t we be compassionate all the time? Shouldn’t it be an on-going decision whether or not I am going to be kind this time?
The same thing applies to grace. Those of us who have received grace through Christ, would we not make the decision, once and for all, that I will be a gracious person and not come to a situation where I say, “Will I be judgmental or not? Am I going to condemn this person or not?” or is it just a part of who we are?
The passage in Deuteronomy talks about doing and teaching these things and centers on the scripture. Doing these things is what it means to be a child of God. These good habits have a force for good in our lives. It does not guarantee always success and it doesn’t mean that there will not ever be a tragedy in life, but it certainly does lay the framework for a good life.
As difficult as bad habits are to break, how much power would it bring into each of our lives if we had the power of good habits? If, as Christians, we take what Christ tells us to do, we practice it and repeat it until it becomes a part of our hearts. If, as Christians, we are on autopilot so that when a circumstance comes before us, we react as a child of God ought to react.
Think about the power of a bad habit and think about the power of a good habit. Cultivate it out of a commitment to Christ and out of a response to what Christ has done for us, making a decision once and for all that decides the way I will be in certain areas for the rest of my life. Could that make my life stronger? I believe that would be a tool that in the hands of God would draw me closer to him.
Copyright 2009. P. Joel Snider. All rights reserved.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.