Justin W. Earley was living overseas as a missionary.
While living there, he recognized the power that law and business have in shaping the world, and felt called to be a missionary in the field of law. So he returned to the US, went through law school, and became a corporate lawyer. He was successful and life seemed fine, until he started experiencing symptoms of clinical anxiety and panic attacks. In his book The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, he wrote about his struggles, saying,
Only in retrospect did I realize that, while the house of my life was decorated with Christian content, the architecture of my habits was just like everyone else’s. And that life had been working for me—until it collapsed. (p. 4)
Habits? What does his story have to do with habits?
According to a Duke University study, 40% of our daily actions aren’t really the products of conscious choices, but the products of unconscious habits. That says a lot about how much our habits influence our daily lives. But to understand the real power of habits, we have to consider what really drives us.
In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K.A. Smith asserts that humans fundamentally do not behave based on what we think but, rather, on what we want, what we love. The desires and loves in our hearts have their own autopilot mode. They direct us toward their vision of what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. Without our conscious consent, our hearts are moving us toward that vision. So the things we love are seen in our habits. Our habits reveal what is in our hearts.
That’s what Earley learned through his struggle with anxiety. Though he continued all his Christian duties, his habits of living with a chaotic, packed schedule revealed that he was no different than all the other law school students and lawyers––believing that a busy, overcommitted life was the way to succeed. He confesses,
My head said one thing, that God loves me no matter what I do, but my habits said another, that I’d better keep striving in order to stay loved. (p. 5)
Our habits don’t just reveal something in us. They also play an active role in shaping our desires and loves. In You Are What You Love, Smith states that,
Our ultimate loves, longings, desires, and cravings are learned. … We learn to love…through practices that form the habits of how we love. (p. 21)
To help us better understand this, Smith uses the concept of liturgy. Liturgy typically refers to the intentionally repeated patterns in a church worship service. Liturgies are meant to not only shape the way people worship but to also form people’s hearts of worship. For example, through regularly praying the Lord’s Prayer together, not only are people learning to pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but also, the words themselves are shaping their hearts for God. Smith is illuminating the fact that all habits are basically liturgies. Godly habits are liturgies that form a godly heart of worship. Bad habits are liturgies that form a wrong orientation of our worship.
The Psalmist mentions this in Psalm 115:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands. …
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:4,8, ESV)
Godly habits are liturgies that form a godly heart of worship. Bad habits are liturgies that form a wrong orientation of our worship.
Habits don’t just reveal the idolatry in our hearts. We learn to desire and love idols through our habits. But, through our habits, we can also learn to love God more than our idols. As Smith states, “The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire. Learning to love (God) takes practice” (p. 25).
After experiencing the worst of his anxiety and panic attacks, Earley and his wife sketched out a few daily and weekly habits for him to commit to, and asked his best friends to keep him accountable to them. Experiencing his life being formed in a new way from practising the new habits, he shared those habits with others, which is how The Common Rule came to be written.
Realizing the importance of good, godly habits, you have probably tried practising a habit of prayer, Bible study, etc. and experienced failure at some level. Maybe even feeling like failure is the only habit that you’re successfully practising. Yet, in a way, failure actually is a habit; and it’s as powerful as any other, if not more. Earley says,
Failure is not the enemy of formation; it is the liturgy of formation. How we deal with failure says volumes about who we really believe we are. Who we really believe God is. When we trip on failure, do we fall into ourselves? Or do we fall into grace?” (The Common Rule. p. 162)
The habit of failure and our habitual response to failure also reveal what is in our hearts and form us: either shaping us into people who don’t trust in the truths of the gospel and, rather, trust in their own resources, resulting in either self-condemnation or pride, or shaping us into people who trust in the gospel and allow God’s grace given to us through Christ to transform our hearts and lives. As Earley says, “Your habits will never change God’s love for you. But God’s love for you can and should change your habits.”
Questions for reflection:
- List five habits in your life. What do they tell you about your heart? What kind of “liturgies” around you shape what you worship and how you love them?
- What new habits may you want to try, to be formed in Christ-likeness? Who are some people with whom you can practise these habits together, and/or who can keep you accountable?
- How do you usually respond to failure? Why would Jesus’ death and resurrection be “good news” in your moments of failure?
[Editor’s Note: This article belongs to our series on “What forms us?” Of course, it’s ultimately God who shapes us toward Christ-likeness. But we hope these reflections encourage awareness and inspire intentionality in how we live. For more articles in this series, click the #whatformsus tag.]