February 17, 2020

Weekly Reflections – The Ordeal of Breaking Bad Habits

Weekly Reflections – The Ordeal of Breaking Bad Habits

The Ordeal of Breaking Bad Habits

The human condition is a reality that invariably produces what one might call “bad habits.” I suspect you know what I mean. One of the tasks of working out our own salvation is that of initiating change in the form of shifting from bad habits to good habits.

The following was written (but significantly edited by me) by Steven Lawson, the founder of the Monk Manual. I think it is worth sharing with you. Consider it food for some serious thought this coming week. And note that overcoming bad habits is an invitation to change, even to be “converted.”

Blessings and peace,

Chaplain Allen


“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to the point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, [or for that matter, above him[ and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect,
he ceases to love.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Change is hard. As in really hard. And if you’ve ever had (or now have) a bad habit, you know how hard it can be to get rid of it. How many of your own “bad habits” can you identify right off the top of your head? I eat too much. I fail to exercise enough. I pick my nose. Yes, change is hard!

Resolutions for changing our behavior usually follow this four-step process:

1. We are inspired to change.
2. We create a plan.
3. We attempt to live into the new plan.
4. We fail.

Does that sound familiar? Usually, we do great for a few days, a few weeks, or maybe a few months – but then our willpower seems to fail us.

There is quite a bit of scientific research and theory out there on starting and stopping habits. Much of it is very helpful, but if we look at our habits as purely external/biological realities, we are missing a critical point. Our external realities are always tied to and flow out of our interior/spiritual core. Change occurs first at one’s core and then manifests itself on the surface, not the other way around.

Our angry outbursts actually aren’t about the inciting incident or individual in front of us. Our procrastination isn’t about a lack of will power or discipline. And our overindulgence in INSERT VICE HERE rarely has to do with that actual vice (at least in the beginning). In all these scenarios, something deeper is going on within us.

The behaviors we want to rid ourselves of are often merely coping mechanisms, misaligned tactics we’ve adopted to satisfy a real need, or to protect ourselves from something that scares us just a little too much.

The problem behind our inability to stop undesired behaviors isn’t willpower. It is denial. Through courageous and honest reflection (coupled with earnest prayer), we can discover the real roots of our behavior, and through this process of self-discovery, put ourselves on the path to meaningful and lasting exterior change.

Dealing with one little old bad habit may not seem like much until you begin to address it. Then it becomes major change! Sometimes the task of discovery and implementation is greater than we can handle on our own. When this happens, it helps to enlist a trusted friend who can listen and with whom you can bounce off your deepest thoughts.

Also, there is a time when seeking professional help in the form of a therapist is appropriate. Don’t shy away from this option if that is what you need. Dennis Wholey wrote in his book, The Miracle of Change, that “All the great behavioral professionals agree: Don’t attempt major change alone.

As we enter the second month of the year and our New Year’s commitments begin to wane, it is worth pausing and asking ourselves the following questions.

1. For the behaviors we are struggling to kick: What is this behavior really about? What do I really want when I turn to this behavior?

2. For the behaviors, we are struggling to build: Why is this behavior important to me? What might unseen fears be getting in the way?

Credit: Steven Lawson, founder of the Monk Manual, ©2018, www.monkmanual.com


One book I have found to be helpful is The Power of HABIT: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg, ©2012, Random House. In Part 1 (of 3) Duhigg addresses:

1. THE HABIT LOOP (How habits work)
2. THE CRAVING BRAIN (How to Create New Habits)
3. THE GOLDEN RULE OF HABIT CHANGE (Why transformation occurs)

Without going into detail, the habit loop includes three parts: 1. a cue or trigger, 2. a follow-up behavior, and 3. a reward. The road to change is first to become aware of negative behavior patterns and then to seek to identify each of these three aspects of the patterns. This is the beginning of putting lasting change in place. The same process works for those good habits we already possess.

One other aspect of this is the need to recognize those times and situations when we are most susceptible to “falling off the wagon.” It may be when we are most fatigued. It might be when we find ourselves in a particular location or environment. It might be the TV or the Internet. Once identified, we are in a position to minimize our exposure to these triggers.

The apostle Paul, in chapter 7 of his letter to the Romans, agonizes over this issue of changing one’s behavior. (“…what I do I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…The willing is ready at hand but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want…For I take delight in the law of God in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members…Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but with my flesh, the law of sin.”) May the Holy Spirit work in us to effectively implement recipes for change such as those that have been laid out by Steven Lawson and Charles Duhigg. May we then serve the law of God rather than the law of sin!

“God is prepared to take full responsibility for the life that is wholly yielded to Him.”

-Andrew Murray

Finally, it has been said that “God is prepared to take full responsibility for the life that is wholly yielded to Him.” Trappist monk Thomas Keating has coined this process as “the divine therapy.” God first changes our inner motivations. This frees us to replace them with more wholesome behavioral operating programs. Our job is to be open to the change.

Building on the idea about the formation of new habits being a conversion experience, the French novelist Anatole France says it this way, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy, for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.” That sounds scriptural to me.

Put another way, please note that unleashing the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome bad habits and live life more fully is only possible to the extent that we yield ourselves in openness to that Spirit. So, get out there on the playing field!

Put change to work for you in the form of better habits that come from God!

Read more reflections, Burdens