Changing our Habits

This sermon is based on a book by Charles Duhigg, entitled, “The Power of Habit.” Having read it, I would not want to be without it.  It is available from many sources. I did not base this sermon on any one text from the Bible. If you are a believer, as you read through it, you will think of many Biblical texts that apply. I will mention several of them in the final paragraph. Finally, as a result of dialogues I had with the congregation after delivering this sermon for the first time, I changed some of the wording slightly, notably abandoning the misleading “Rational Behaviors,” for the less demanding “Unique Behaviors.”  WNG

This morning we are talking about behavior. We are constantly acting out at least two kinds of behaviors in our lives, Unique Behaviors and Habitual Behaviors.

Unique behaviors require a decision on our part, and make up about 60 percent of all behaviors. Suppose you like Willie Nelson, and Willie is going to try another concert in Winston-Salem. Suppose your friend also likes Willie Nelson. You talk it over with them, and you make a rational decision to attend the concert. You get on line and buy tickets and go. Or suppose you have a friend in the hospital.  You don’t like hospitals because they remind you of your own fragility and mortality. Never the less you screw your courage to the sticking place, and make a decision to visit your friend in the hospital, because that is what friends do. Every day we make a number of decisions and act out a number of Unique Behaviors.

Now what about Habitual Behaviors? Habitual Behaviors are behaviors we act out so often that we don’t even have to think about doing them. Suppose your alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. If you are a guy, the moment your feet hit the floor then,  “Usted va al baño.” or, in plain English, “You go to the bathroom.” Right guys? Then you go to the kitchen, make and drink that first cup of coffee. A wonderful caffeine buzz signals your brain that the day has truly begun. After coffee, you read the paper, eat breakfast, shower, shave, and brush your teeth. You may even floss. Then you put on your work clothes, which are more or less the same one day as the next, go to your car, get in, and drive to work. Unless the D.J. on the radio tells you there is a traffic problem, you follow more or less the same route everyday. You arrive at work, and work from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., taking 30 minutes for lunch. Most days, you eat the same kind of lunch with the same people. At the end of the day, you get in your car, and drive back home again. Unless you have to stop for something—like bread or milk or a prescription, you drive home the same way everyday.

All these often repeated acts are Habitual Behaviors. Everyday, we perform dozens, if not hundreds, of Habitual Behaviors.  Researchers at Duke say that habits make up about 40 percent of all we do.  It is good they do, for our Habitual Behaviors free us to concentrate on our Unique Behaviors. To use a simple analogy, most of the time we are flying the airplane that is our life with our hands and feet on the controls, but every once in a while, we need to disengage and trust the auto-pilot to take control.

Now some behaviors and habits are good like—like brushing after every meal, flossing at least once a day, and counting to ten before loosing your temper.  And some behaviors and habits are bad, and few of us have to be told what they are. The Holy Spirit “convinces us of sin and righteousness and judgment.”  If this is true of our Unique Behaviors, how much more is it true of our Habitual Behaviors.

Of course, lit is not enough to know we have a bad habits. One habit coach says that scientist studying gravity can still fall down, and people who know they have a bad habit can still suffer from that habit. We need to change the habits that drag us down.

Of course, before we can change a habit we have to know what a habit is. A habit—like all Gaul, is divided into three parts.  Part One is the cue, the person, place, thing or action that makes us want to perform the habit. The cue usually produces a craving, a powerful urge for us to do once more what we have done so many times before. Part Two is the habitual behavior itself, the routine we go through that makes up the habit. A habit is not just a single isolated act.  A habit usually consist of a series of ritualistic acts. Suppose you have finished mowing your lawn on a hot day. You don’t just drink a cold drink, a beverage of your choice. As you put your mower away, you begin to anticipate the pleasure it will bring. Then you go into your cool, air-conditioned  kitchen, open the refrigerator and take out your beverage of choice, you pop the top, carry it into the den, settle down in your favorite chair, and savor each sip—or gulp, depending upon your style. Part Three of the habit is the reward, the thing that makes you enjoy performing the habit. It may be a caffeine buzz, or a nicotine high, or any similar reward. If I can make a bad pun at the expense of two good authors, we know from a variety of experiments with mice and men (Steinbeck) that all rewards trigger an area of the brain where all creatures great and small (Herriot) record joy. Every habit, performed, gives mice and men; and cats and women, too, a brief moment of joy.

Let me tell you something about habits. Once a habit is formed, you can never just erase it. You know how you can take a piece of paper, and fold It over, and then crease it between thumb and forefinger. Once you have creased the paper, you can never get that crease completely out, not even using a steam iron or a linen press. That crease is always going to be somewhat visible. In the same way, there is an area in your brain that records Habitual Behaviors. And once it has become become creased, or grooved, or somehow marked with Habitual Behavior—I will not attempt scientific terms, you can never completely un-mark it.

Interestingly enough, writing more than 2500 years ago, the prophetJeremiah saw this same truth. He believed he was speaking for the Lord God of Israel when he wrote:

“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Can can my people do good, when they are in the habit of doing evil?” (Translation my own. WNG)

That is a very good question. The answer is, “No!” And “Yes!” No the Ethiopian cannot change his skin, and the Leopard cannot change his spots, and people can never completely completely reverse a habit. But, “Yes!” people can modify their habits, turning something bad into something good.

There are four steps to changing a habit?.

The first thing you have to do is to identify your bad habit, and break it down into three parts. You have got to recognize the Cue, the Habitual Behavior itself, and the Reward. Then you have got to keep the Cue and the Reward and replace the Habitual Behavior. Let me give you an example.  Suppose you eat fast food every day at lunch.  The cue is when the lunch hour rolls around. The behavior is going to a fast food restaurant and eating the fast food. The reward you get is the is the “comfort” or “joy” of eating such tasty, salty, sweet, fatty food. We don’t call it “comfort food” for nothing!

How you change this behavior? Well, it will take Will Power and lots of it. You may lack adequate Will Power, but you can strengthen what you have if you plan in advance. Pick out a skinny friend, or a vegetarian friend, and make a lunch date. And when the lunch hour comes, head out to a restaurant of their choosing, and when they order a grilled chicken salad, you order a grilled chicken salad. Or, when they order tofu, you order a grilled chicken salad. The reward you get is threefold. 1) lunch with a friend, 2) a surprisingly good chicken salad, and 3) the feeling that you have just enjoyed an important day in the rest of your life.

How long do you have to keep up this behavior until your old bad habit is modified and replaced with your new good habit?

It has often been said that to form a new habit you have to perform the ritual for 21 days. That is proving a little optimistic, especially when people are trying to deal with an addiction of one kind or another, whether cigarette, alcohol, drugs or fast foods.  Current research suggest that it takes an average of 66 days to change a habit, and as long as 245 days. Bill Wilson the founder of AA insisted that newbies attend a meeting everyday for 90 days. All these figures are good news—even 245 days is a finite amount of time.  This too will pass!  And when it does you will have begun a new, healthier life.

Third—when you are trying to change a habit, make sure your Keystone Habits are in place. A Keystone Habit is a habit that flows into every area of your life.  Exercise is a good example. When you exercise, you feel better physically and emotionally. You work better, sleep better, eat healthier and enjoy life more. Many researchers and physicians say that exercise is the most important thing you can do for yourself. In the quest for a longer life, it even trumps giving up cigarette, alcohol, or fast food. I am testimony to this. I ran for forty years. It was my stress reliever. It did not transform me into a skinny person, but it helped me maintain a fairly reasonable weight. It also gave me time in the day to pray and plan, and to turn concentrate on any decisions or projects that I was working on. At the age of 60 years, when I had to stop running; I did not stop exercising, I just changed from running to other things. I modified my exercise habit; but I kept it in place. I have had a couple of heart attacks, and I have heart disease; but a number of my doctors—including two cardiologists have told me that, given my family history, my exercise habit has almost certainly already prolonged my life.

Prayer and Bible study are also Keystone Habits that flow into all of life.  Martin Luther used to pray three hours every morning.  When he had a particularly difficult day, he did not cut down on his prayer time, he extended it, so that he could be more effective during the remaining hours of the day. Few people will pray for three hours. I certainly don’t, but Luther’s commitment—even in the face of increased activity, is revealing. Bible study, devotional reading, and meditation is akin to prayer.  The ancient rabbis used to say, “An hour in Scripture is as an hour of prayer in the site of the Holy One, Blessed Be He!” Indeed, disciplined reading or study of any kind can be a Keystone Habits that flow into an effect all of life. For instance, research suggest that learning a new language can stave off dementia and other forms of illness in older people.

There is a fourth step to changing a habit: You have got to believe that change is possible. This is where God comes in. As a Christian, I believe that God is the secret sauce in Alcoholics Anonymous and all other twelve step groups. Perhaps you know that Bill Wilson the founder of A.A., had a tremendous experience of God. Wilson said that one night God came into his room like (a palpable presence), and just took the desire to drink away from him.Bill Wilson did not consider his experience of God as normative. However, when he lined out the twelve steps of A.A.—one for each of the apostles, he did make reference a higher power, not once but several times. In Step One, we admit that we are powerless over alcohol. In Step Two, we confess that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.  In Step Three, we made a a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.  This goes on and on, through a fearless moral inventory, and a total willingness to allow our Higher Power to remove our character defects from us.

Not every member of A.A. the idea of a higher power. Many who are agnostics and atheists are attracted to A.A. for its support and community.  They find ways around God. I had a friend in Charlotte who told me his higher power was the door knob on his front door.  He said, “When I grasp it, I know I have made another day.”

Now AA and other 12 step groups have attracted a lot of attention from researchers from major universities—like UC Berkley and Brown. These researchers have found that people who reject the idea of a higher power still profit from the 12 Step program, and many of them have successfully turned their lives around, and lived sober for many long years. Indeed, researchers have concluded that only one thing separates the unbelievers in A.A. from the believers in A.A.  When a major conflict or crisis comes, believers are more much more likely to survive the crisis and emerge with their sobriety; while unbelievers much more likely to fall back into their old, self-destructive behaviors.

Now when some people hear this, they say, “Hey!  That means God is real—we can’t get along without God.” The researchers themselves are more modest. They say that it is not God that is important—but the fact of believing. If you believe it, you can achieve it. If you believe you can change, you can change. If you believe you can conquer your addiction, you can conquer your addiction and live a happy productive life. Researchers like good parents say that belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe and tell yourself you can, you can. If you don’t believe and tell yourself you can’t, you can’t.

That brings us back to God. Bishop Herbert Spaugh ordained me, and did his best to put his stamp upon me for good. He carried a 40 year A.A. Chip in his pocket.  In A.A. you get a chip for every year of sobriety. The Bishop was not an alcoholic, but for more than forty years he regularly attended meeting, so they gave him the chips He was often asked to address groups from AA.  He usually said something like this:

“If you want to change your life—trust your higher power.  If you want to change your life and the lives of all those you touch—trust that your higher power is God. If you want to change your life, and the lives of all those you touch, and help transform the world, trust that your higher power is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In my experience, the Bishop is right on target! If you want a text for this sermon, you can find lots of them. Like, 2nd Corinthians 5:17 “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come.” Or, Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Or Ephesians 3:20, which is a benediction:

“Now unto him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask, think, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever. Amen”


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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