Developing Better Habits

What has your congregation started paying attention to recently that wasn’t front and center a few years ago?

Is it racial, economic, or ecological justice? Maybe it’s the prevalence of trauma or the reality of social divides. Or it could be what to do with your church building or how to shift the conversation from institutional maintenance to community presence.

Whatever it is, the crucial question is this: How do we sustain our focus on these issues for the long term? What can we do to make sure that these matters aren’t a passing fad, something we address with one-off programs or an interesting sermon series here and there?

Part of the answer is that we have to start developing better habits.

We often fall into the trap of thinking that significant, lasting change is the result of a heroic act of an individual, a ground-breaking idea, or a dramatic intervention of some sort. But far more often, change is a lagging indicator of our habits – those regular, almost subconscious tendencies and activities that inform our day-in and day-out life.

Habits are so impactful because they change our trajectories. Imagine a plane flying from Atlanta to Seattle. If the pilot turns the nose of the plane 3 degrees south at the outset of the trip, the plane will end up in San Francisco, not Seattle. It’s like that with our habits, too. Cultivating better habits in our life and leadership will dramatically impact the long-term trajectory of our ministries.

Maybe that’s why Scripture is constantly trying to shape our habits. Think of Galatians 5:22-23. The fruits of the spirit aren’t ideals or virtues. They are habits. That’s the point of the metaphor, isn’t it? From an agrarian perspective, fruitfulness is a lagging indicator of the daily, routinized practices of an attentive farmer. When we habituate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we nudge the nose of our plane ever so slightly towards Jesus.

We see something similar at work in Micah 6:8,

“… and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?”

Notice the first verb: do. Not think, not ponder, not speak, not write resolutions about. Do. The Hebrew verb used here, ‘aśah, is often used in the context of farming, where it refers not only to the work of planting a garden but also the daily work of its upkeep. Justice, like the fruits of the spirit, is a habit. Micah isn’t hoping that we carry out heroic bursts of justice work here and there. Micah is inviting us to habituate justice until we don’t even have to think about it. Habits are automatic, not a pivotal choice in a moment of crisis.

All of that is well and good, but developing better habits is hard. Ask someone who has tried to quit smoking. Studies show that even the best strategies for quitting rarely work. It’s only when the individual starts identifying as a non-smoker that they have success in resisting the urge for a cigarette. In other words, true behavior change is identity change. If you really want to be the type of leader or church that is thinking about racial, social, economic, or ecological justice for the long haul, you have to start doing the deep work of identity change. For our habits are nothing more than an embodiment of who we understand ourselves and our churches to be.

This brings me back to Micah 6:8, this time, with an eye towards the last phrase: “walk humbly.” There are several ways of describing humility in Hebrew, and NONE of them are used in Micah 6:8. What we find here is a rather odd linguistic expression that means something closer to walk attentively. What Micah is recommending is not a modest view of one’s self-importance, but rather the need to develop the habit of paying close attention to what is going on around us. Or, as my football coach would have said, “keep your head on a swivel.”

Works of compassion and justice become habituated in our lives only when we become more deeply attentive to the pain of others. These habits emerge out of close contact with suffering, grief, trauma, and dislocation. These habits are cultivated not in the pulpit but in the public – prisons and detention centers, AA meetings and homeless shelters, the living room of an over-worked single parent or the bedside of a victim of gun violence. It’s in spending times in these places that we start developing the sort of habits that will sustain for the long haul the work we’ve started in recent years.

What habits do you need to be developing? What are you reading? Who are you listening to? Where are you showing up and with whom are you spending time? What part of your identity do you need to re-discover? Which of the fruits of the spirit need to become more automatic for you when interacting with your spouse, kids, parents, team, congregation, or neighbors? What sustains you when you face challenges? What are you doing to dig deeper wells of connection with colleagues?

Chances are, your answers to these questions will tell you everything you need to know about whether the issues you are paying attention to now will be the issues you’ll be paying attention to for the long haul.

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