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Holy Habits

June 15, 2020

But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” Romans 6:17-18

The results of a 2009 European study put to bed the notion that it takes just 21 days for a new habit to form.  The study concluded it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit, and an average of 66 days for the new habit to become automatic.[1] Some habits take longer to form.  Psychologists tell us that our brains like habits because they are efficient. When you get into a car, you put your seat belt on without thinking, or when you come into the house you lock the door behind you.  When habits become automatic, they free up your brain for other tasks.

Paul encourages us to form “holy habits”—to move from being a slave to sin to being a slave to obedience to God—so that following God’s pattern of living becomes second nature: “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”[2] Romans 6:17-18.

At one time or another, most of us have been held hostage by at least one destructive habit.  I was a chain smoker for many years.  I quit on August 21, 1981—primarily because I didn’t want to start a family while I was smoking.  I was helped in large part by my husband, who was always encouraging—never critical.  I hung a calendar from the National Cancer Institute on the wall opposite my desk in my office with pictures of people engaging in healthy outdoor activities. As I stared at that calendar during the day, I was encouraged to go for a run with Bob every day after work.  Bob had been running for years.  At first, I could hardly run 30 feet without stopping to take a breath; Bob would patiently circle back and run in place while I caught my breath.  But we trained every day, and I gradually increased the distance I could run without stopping.  Six weeks later we ran in the Los Angeles Athletic Club’s 10K in downtown Los Angeles, finishing in the Coliseum.  After that, there was no stopping me.  I became a running fanatic, running 4-5 miles most days after work, and 10-12 miles on Saturday mornings.  I replaced a destructive habit, my addiction to cigarettes—with a constructive one, an addiction to running and feeling good.

Likewise, God encourages us to leave our bondage to addictive, destructive habits, and follow the pattern of life that he has laid out for us.  As we begin to follow that pattern, it becomes second nature—a default behavior.  That’s not to say that we won’t ever slip back into old behaviors, but the more time we spend in the Word and following God’s patterns, the more free we will become. The Message puts it this way: “You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!” (The Message Romans 6: 16-18).

We become freer by aligning our hearts with God’s heart.  The Spirit, living within us, helps us face life’s challenges and guides us to God’s heart.  The Spirit effects the transformation, but we put ourselves in line for transformation by spending time in the Word and in prayer.  Richard Foster notes that “We do not become godly by trying to become godly. We become godly as ‘holy habits’ such as love, joy, and peace fill our character so that we do the right thing instinctively . . . without thinking about it.”[3]  Taking a breath before responding when a sharp word slips from someone’s mouth, not cursing when someone cuts you off on the freeway, showing your love for family and friends through acts of kindness and generosity, showing gratitude to others, forgiving readily, being slow to anger and quick to encourage and praise, are all examples of holy habits.

Next Sunday is Father’s Day.  Father’s Day is an opportunity to show your love for your own father, as well as the father of your children, who has invested so much of himself in them.  It is also a good time for fathers to remember how important it is to cultivate “holy habits.”  Fathers who develop such habits benefit from a closer relationship to the Father, and set a good example to their children.

Many of our fathers, husbands, or other family members or friends have served or are serving in the military. The theme of Psalm 91 is God’s protection of us in the midst of danger.  This psalm is sometimes referred to as “The Soldier’s Prayer.” Soldiers pray this psalm as they journey into harm’s way: “Under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness . . . If you make the Most High your dwelling . . . then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent, For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you . . . ‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him.’”  (excerpts Psalm 91: 4-14).

Jeremiah was God’s soldier. His adherence to God’s pattern for his life was the armor that protected him from many assaults. He was maligned and abused for speaking the truth: “I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me . . . I hear many whispering . . . ‘Denounce him!  Let’s denounce him!’  All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying ‘Perhaps he will be deceived, then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him.’” (Jeremiah 20: 7, 10). His friends rejected him. He was unjustly accused, tried, convicted, put in stocks, thrown into a well, threatened, and humiliated.  He spent years as a fugitive. But throughout his life he remained faithful to God, and continued to speak the truth, bolstered by his faith: “The Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and will not prevail . . . (Jeremiah 20:11).

Fathers are mighty warriors in today’s culture against the many assaults on the family and on those of faith. But they, and we who have been set free, have assurances that God will be with us in difficult and challenging times, and that we will be eternally rewarded for our faithfulness.

Jesus confirms that life will not always be easy, but that we can be assured that he will be with us and that he will be our advocate: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will also disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10: 32).

Are you struggling with an addiction or bad habit? Have you been maligned, defamed, or abused?  Have you struggled with recurrent and long-standing problems?  If so, you are not alone.  God encourages you to follow the pattern he laid out for you at your baptism: put on his armor and ask the Spirit for help in forming holy habits. You may not be recognized in today’s culture or even during your lifetime, but God notices “the very hairs on your head .  . . so don’t be afraid.” (Matthew 10: 30-31).  You will be given a hero’s welcome when you hear these words from the King himself: “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Prayer: “Father, help me to be sensitive to what is happening to people around me.  I know there are unmet needs beneath the surface of the most successful and self-assured.  I know that today I will meet some who are enduring hidden physical or emotional pain, others who are fearful of an uncertain future, and still others who carry burdens of worry for families and friends. May I take no one for granted, but instead, be a ready communicator of Your love and encouragement.  Make me aware of the concerns of others, available to express Your care, and articulate with Your hope. Amen.”  Lloyd John Ogilivie

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] European Journal of Social Psychology, Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009 (2010) Published online 16 July 2009 in Wiley Online Library (

[2] The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 91:1-10 (11-16); Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:5a, 21-33.

[3] Richard Foster, Life With God (2008) HarperCollins, p. 155 (emphasis original).

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