Habits: Training the Thoughtless Mind

 

Forming and Breaking Habits

… I was bound by the iron chain of my own will. The enemy held fast my will, and had made of it a chain, and had bound me tight with it. For out of the perverse will came lust, and the service of lust ended in habit, and habit, not resisted, became necessity. [The Confessions of Saint Augustine, pp. 218-9].

Our habits are unconscious, recurring patterns of behavior. We acquire many of them through exposure to cultural and social interaction. Others develop from our disposition to particular pleasures and comforts.

Bad habits become habitual as a result of frequent and casual repetition. If practiced long enough, they reach the level of involuntary, addictive behavior that seems natural or essential, yet is far from desirable.

Such habits are also infectious, as communicable as a contagious disease. Our family, best friends, teachers and admired personalities are all capable of transmitting spiritual illnesses. They poison our character and contaminate our soul.

The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. [William James, The Principles of Psychology, Ch. IV, “Habit”].

Deforming Habits

Bad habits deform us. They make us into someone we don’t like.

They may have us spending all day immersed in our work. Every evening finds us watching programs that drench our thoughts with dramatic fiction.

We relax with sensational news events or media trivia. We spend weekends improvidently amusing ourselves with transitory pastimes that titillate our thoughts process until Monday morning.

Jesus said, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). We must honestly face the question, “Am I willing to give up a certain practice or habit that is keeping me from holiness?” It is at this point of commitment that most of us fail. We prefer to dally with sin, to try to play with it a little without getting too deeply involved. [Jerry Bridge, The Pursuit of Holiness].

Mindless Thoughts

Every thought is potentially a distraction that can lead us away from remembrance of God. Moreover, such mindless thoughts can group themselves and become persuasive sentiments and tempting ideas. They generate negativity and produce disharmony, within us and around us.

When arrayed and fully armed, such thoughts can march unimpeded into our inner conscience to rationalize and approve regretful conduct.

Spiritual strongholds begin with a thought. One thought becomes a consideration. A consideration develops into an attitude, which leads then to action. Action repeated becomes a habit, and a habit establishes a “power base for the enemy,” that is, a stronghold.  When we find ourselves wondering why we continue to do a thing we despise, here is the explanation. The enemy has made use of an area of weakness as his power base, and he hits us again and again. The only weapons adequate to  deal with such strongholds are those that are mighty through God. They are spiritual weapons.  [Elisabeth Elliot, Discipline: The Glad Surrender].

Our preferences and habits are first molded by repeated consideration of thoughts and ideas we find appealing. Before any action starts, our intentions conceive an objective, a desired result.

If we neglect to filter and refine our thought process, our mind eventually gets overwhelmed and congested with the prevailing social and intellectual pollutants. We then find ourselves drowning in evil, confusion and despair.

There is within the human heart a tough fibrous root of fallen life whose nature is to possess, always to possess. It covets “things” with a deep and fierce passion. The pronouns “my” and “mine” look innocent enough in print, but their constant and universal use is significant … There can be no doubt that this possessive clinging to things is one of the most harmful habits in the life. [A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, Ch. 2].

Breaking Habits

When secular enticements present themselves, we must recognize that they are transient temptations, and determine whether they are harmful or benign. We must remember that certain worldly activities, which may appear enjoyable, can weaken or harm our spiritual health.

Salvation as restoration refers to the undoing of bad habits, modes of thinking, ways of behaving, social relations, and political systems which have grown corrupt and deviated from the proper way. It is a return to the origin, in order to restore the original way of life according to the true principles and purposes of God. [Andrew Wilson, World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, p. 636].

Secular signs, symbols and images constantly bombard us to such an extent that few spiritual reinforcements are available in our daily life. To many, the words coming from the mouth of a celebrity, entertainer or athlete representing a commercial sponsor have more meaning and influence than the words of God.

The information media offers few images, symbols or role models representing traditional spiritual values. What we get instead are countless messages incessantly suggesting that we should increase pleasures and upgrade our physical passions.

Marketing and advertising have become scientifically precise. We are permanent targets of high volume manipulations seeking to habituate our appetites and desires to the call of a brand.

Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. [Romans 6:16].

Spiritual Habits

How can we cultivate habits that avoid spiritual contamination? When seeking to increase spiritual awareness, we should look not only at our religious devotions, but at our total lifestyle. We should examine our daily life for habits that divert us from spiritual development.

We are only what we are in the dark; all the rest is reputation. What God looks at is what we are in the dark—the imaginations of our minds; the thoughts of our heart; the habits of our bodies; these are the things that mark us in God’s sight.  [Oswald Chambers, The Love of God—The Ministry of the Unnoticed].

Whatever we find diverting us from remembrance of God should become a target for correction and improvement. Remembrance of God circumscribes such activities, helping us to avoid misconduct and resist temptations.

If any occupation or association is found to hinder our communion with God, or our enjoyment of spiritual things—then it must be abandoned …  Anything in my habits or ways which mars happy fellowship with the brethren or robs me of power in service, is to be unsparingly judged and made an end of, “burned.” … Whatever I cannot do for God’s glory—must be avoided. [Arthur Pink. A Call to Separation].

By regularly analyzing our thoughts and isolating worldly habits that preoccupy us, we can diminish our periods of spiritual dryness and increase pious behavior. Recognizing the consequences of our actions, we begin to cultivate spiritual habits and become sensitive to a higher order of existence.

CONVEY [unto others] whatever of this divine writ has been revealed unto thee, and be constant in prayer: for, behold, prayer restrains [man] from loathsome deeds and from all that runs counter to reason; and remembrance of God is indeed the greatest [good]. And God knows all that you do. [Quran 29:45]

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