Habitual human behavior affects us the same way as the moon influences ocean tides and the sun influences Earth’s daily rotation through the solar system.
Once established and repeated over and over, our habitual behavior acts like gravity always and continuously pulling us into increasingly comfortable and persistent behaviors. Some habits result in healthy outcomes. Other habits – unhealthy consequences.
I habitually wash dishes. I wash dishes as I cook. When I find dirty dishes in our kitchen sink, I find myself compelled to rinse them before throwing them in the dishwasher. If it wasn’t for dishwashers, my hands might fall off chapped and withered. For the most part, that habit proves useful. Ninety percent of all our dishes, knives, spoons, forks, skillets, pots and pans sit cleanly on shelves ready for use. Plus, no one ever complained about feeling ill after they came to dinner at my home.
On the other hand, perhaps God cares less about me washing dishes than providing spiritual direction. God might say to me, “Spend less time washing dishes and more time guiding others to intentionally change their unhealthy habits into better ones. My response to God might be, “If Jesus dropped by my home to enjoy a meal on my newly cleaned dishes cooked in clean pots and pans, that helps you, God, by fueling your Messiah onward in ministry without fear of gastric upset or worse.” I consider dishwashing a reasonable trade off: God gets healthy ministers to teach and guide those searching for spiritual enlightenment when I provide them with meals that do no harm.
I developed a new habit. Since entering the ranks of nearly retired people, I awake most nights around three o’clock each morning. For the most part, I feel rested; and, I learned that as we age, we require less sleep.
I wander into our kitchen. If I find dirty dishes, I wash them before I make myself return to bed to get another couple hours of sleep. Sometimes I fail to fall back asleep, so I write sermons in my head. By the time I arrive at my church office, I feel ready to dive into writing a new sermon. I guess God sees my sleep deprivation as a worthy habit promoting the Kingdom of God despite my bleary eyes.
Habits act like gravity. Once an avenue allowing gravity to perform, gravity consistently acts to perform the same action over and over.
For example, every year my son’s science teacher required each student to enter the school’s science fair. Most parents relished this opportunity, so that they – the parents – found ways to show off their scientific prowess by putting together massive, gorgeous and well documented science projects almost as if as they, the parents and not their child, never got enough recognition carrying extensive science fair projects as student. Or maybe those parents believed that if their child received an “A+” on their science project, a scholarship from a rich and powerful university might arrive in the mail.
In contrast, I lamented those annual science fair project, because God gave little abilities in science to me. So, every year my son and I sat around attempting to come up with some adequate project.
One year, worn out with stress caused by no ideas for a science project, I gave up. After deciding that parents of successful science projects might find glee soffing at my son and I, I went to work feeling like a complete failure.
Yet, then it hit me. If I bought a 2-foot strand of rope and put one end in a bucket of dirty water and put the other end in an empty bucket, then with gravity’s help, clean water filled the empty bucket after the strand of rope acted like a filter. I grew so excited about gravity’s power that I saw myself winning an otherwise hopeless science fair award. My son and I thought that our genius finally found its way into the world’s purview. I saw myself winning the Nobel Prize for Science along with seeing complete envy on other parents’ faces.
Needless to say, my son and I once again found ourselves awarded with “Honorable Mention.” Not long after that science fair, he and I dropped out completely deflated.
Yet, I learned about the gravity with its constant and guaranteeable power to direct matter the same way that habits direct our behavior. Using us the same as using that strand of rope, our habits draw us along one avenue of behavior like gravity between the sun and moon draw the Earth and ocean tides. Once we establish a habit, the tendency to repeat kicks in.
Jesus among many great biblical teachers about habits – some being unhealthy, especially continually stealing from the poor or willingly avoiding the worship of the God who brought the Hebrews out of slavery to Egypt and into the Promised Land.
While I live more than a few less than habits myself, I find myself needing to engage in caution, reading wisdom lessons to help me re-establish a healthier set of behaviors. Like most of us, I struggle with those lessons and often fall short. Yet, I know where I can go to relearn lessons that I forget. I suggest we all might develop that habit of knowing where to go to find those healthy and healing lessons.
Tom Towns is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Cortez.