Spiritual habits shape our desires as they condition us to follow Christ.
This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.
When we moved into our current house over eight years ago, I found it funny that I had to explain to my kids what the phone jack on the wall was for. They had never seen a landline before. They looked at me with astonished eyes as I explained that when I was a child, we only had one phone in the entire house and we hung it on the wall in the dinning room. A long spiral cord allowed me to stretch that phone around the corner into the living room if I wanted to have a private conversation.
Now we carry around our phones in our pockets. I appreciate the ease of communication and speed with which I can locate phone numbers, addresses, product reviews, documents, spreadsheets, email and many other digitized things I need. Our smartphones have given us a giant push forward in efficiency, but they have also formed bad habits within us all, myself included. The explosive growth of digital technology, social media and streaming entertainment has conditioned us to crave novelty.
With a simple tap on an app and a scroll of our thumb, we are stimulated by something new: new messages, new comments, new shows, new videos, new pictures and new options. I appreciate the speed with which we can communicate or get information, but I am beginning to see how detrimental digital media can be to our souls. The habitual ease of access to the ever-changing novelty of our digitally-enhanced world is forming within us a distaste for routine and repetitive habits.
We find tremendous transformative power in habits, because habits are those practices that shape our desires and loves. As James K.A. Smith argues in You Are What You Love, we are not merely thinking beings, we are “liturgical” beings who are directed by what we love.1
“You are what you love because you live toward what you want.” —James K.A. Smith
Habits shape our desires in that they condition us to live toward a certain kind of end. The repetitive reach for our phones shapes us to desire new input and new entertainment. However God did not create us to be consumers, but worshipers who worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We become like Jesus as we worship the triune God, and as we form habits in pursuit of Jesus.
HABITS FORM A HOLY HABITUS
In shaping our desires, habits shape a habitus within us. Habitus is an internal instinct that influences our choices and behaviors. Alan Kreider describes habitus as formed by the way we do what we do, a kind of knowledge carried in our bodies. For Kreider, habitus “constitutes our profoundest sense of identity; that forms our deepest convictions, allegiances and repulsions; and that shapes our response to ultimate questions—what will we live for, die for and kill (or not kill) for.”2 According to Smith, “Habitus is a kind of embodied tradition … it is something that comes to me, from outside me, conditioning and enabling my constitution of the world.”3
Our desire is to develop the instincts of Jesus so that we love and live like Jesus. We form these instincts when we accept habits as gifts from followers of Jesus who have gone before us. We practice particular Christian habits in order to form a Christian habitus within us. As we practice holy habits we form a holy habitus within us.
Peter challenges us to practice the very qualities we want to possess. He writes, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. … Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:5–7, 10). We supplement these qualities of our faith when we practice them.
We need to practice the qualities we want to see take root in our hearts, even if they are not the most exciting or novel. As I write in By the Way:
“To be honest, sometimes following Jesus is boring. Welcome the boredom. Sometimes following Jesus is repetitive. Accept the routine. Sometimes following Jesus is quiet. Cherish the silence. Sometimes following Jesus is slow. Embrace the pace. We need Christian habits to form us in this new pace of life in pursuit of Jesus.”4
To be faithful followers of Jesus and effective spiritual leaders for the spiritual communities we serve, we need habits such as these. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Habit #1: Welcome Boredom.
Sometimes following Jesus is boring. Welcome the boredom. I freely admit that I struggle with an addiction to my phone just like so many others. Smartphone usage has formed bad habits in me where I can easily eliminate boredom by scrolling through social media, checking my YouTube subscriptions for updated videos, only to follow any of the rabbit trails provided by endless entertainment apps. We need to resist that bad habit with the better habit of welcoming boredom. Not every day can be standing with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Some days we are just walking into Jericho or leaving Jericho without much happening at all (Mark 10:46).5 Feeding our insatiable appetite for entertainment will keep us spiritually immature. Forming habits that welcome boredom allow us to grow in Christ.
Habit #2: Accept Routines.
This habit flows naturally from the first, but it goes to the heart of the practice of habits themselves. The power of habits to form a holy habitus in us is effective only if we continually practice the habit. If you would like to run a marathon you cannot go out and run a couple laps around the track, expecting that a couple of workouts will prepare you for a grueling 26.2-mile race. You need a habit of training to run a marathon successfully.
Allowing the Spirit to form you into the image of Jesus requires routines of prayer, Scripture, worship and other spiritual disciplines. I have found great benefit in following the routines that come from the liturgical calendar, so that every year I practice habits around seasons like Advent, Christmas, Lent and Eastertide.
Habit #3: Cherish Silence.
Elijah climbed up on top of Mount Horeb to hear the voice of God, but the voice did not come in a mighty wind, earthquake or fire, but in the sound of a low whisper (1 Kings 19:12). We have been scripted to believe we can only encounter God in big, loud, dramatic experiences. The truth is we more often encounter God in silence when our hearts and minds quiet their frenzied chattering. If prayer is about carving space out in our day to be attentive to the presence of God, then our times of prayer require moments of intentional silence where we do not speak, moments when we sit quietly. Maybe God speaks to us and maybe God doesn’t, but a regular habit of silence puts us in a place where we are alert and attuned to the Spirit of God.
Habit #4: Embrace a Slow Pace.
We do not grow like tiny yellow daffodils. We grow like mighty oak trees. Daffodils can sometimes spring up overnight, demanding we spray weedkiller on them again. Oaks grow slowly, incrementally, forcing their deep roots into the soil, and spreading out their branches over years and decades. We don’t develop the instincts of Jesus, a holy habitus, when we are in a hurry. The curious process of spiritual formation requires a pace of life that is out of sync with modern life. We need a slower pace. We need rhythms of work and rest, worship and play. We need to embrace a pace of life that may seem inefficient to others, but it is a way of living that reflects the life of Jesus.
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1. James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Grad Rapids, MI: Brazos 2016), 13.
2. Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 40.
3. James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic 2013), 81.
4. Derek Vreeland, By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2019), 179.
5. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples “came to Jericho” and then the text records that as they were leaving Jericho with a large crowd, on their way out, Jesus had a beautiful engagement with blind Bartimaeus whom he heals. However what happened while they were in Jericho before the crowd and before the healing miracle? In my imagination, not much really happened. It was presumably a boring day.