Habits Aren’t the Point. Habits Are Important.
I’m a fan of Kyle Strobel. I was interested to hear him speak on a topic that matters a lot to me: the role of habits in spiritual formation.
It’s a good talk, but I was alarmed to hear him say this:
Today we have a litany of problems when it comes to Christian spirituality, the lived life of the Christian. We are inundated with self-help … It’s really just Aristotle dressed up like a Christian. Develop habits, habituate yourself into good character. That isn’t Christian, that’s self-help. It’s Aristotle, and Aristotle is brilliant. It’s brilliant self-help, but it’s self-help. It’s not a Bible doctrine of sanctification … What we discover is a whole discussion of practices and liturgy as formation that is more akin to magic than it is to the Christian understanding of sanctification. We have a whole discussion of spiritual formation as spiritual discipline, as if you can boil down the spiritual life to a bunch of practices we’re supposed to do…
My worry is, at the end of the day, I see very little other than Aristotle being sold, that we’re just offered habits to change our lives. But let me suggest that this isn’t Christian, and it’s certainly not how anyone in the Christian tradition has talked, at least in the West.
Is he right? Are habitual approaches to spiritual growth really just a dressed-up version of Aristotle that has nothing to do with the Christian view of sanctification? Should we toss out books like The Common Rule, Habits of Grace, and How to Grow?
What’s Wrong With Habits?
On one hand, Strobel is right. His concern is that Christians will adopt the same approach to spiritual growth as, say, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. Is there anything that distinguishes Christian approaches to habits from mainstream self-help literature?
Strobel correctly identifies that habits aren’t really what makes us change. “Spiritual practices cannot form you, you cannot habituate holiness in this way.” He’s right. We don’t grow simply by becoming better habit-keepers.
How do we grow, then? He compares habit-keeping to Elijah’s act of stacking wood and drenching it with water:
When you do a spiritual practice, whether it’s reading the Bible, listening to a sermon, praying, whatever it’s doing, you’re stacking wood and you’re drenching it with water. You have no ability to start fire, only God can do that. The only way that this becomes meaningful is if God by his grace offers the fire of love in the heart of the person. That’s it.
No amount of wood stacking gets you closer to developing yourself spiritually or to growing in holiness. Spiritual practices have no ability to grow you in holiness because holiness is sharing in God’s life … We are partaking in the life that God has broken open. And spiritual practices simply are means of sharing in that life of grace.
It may sound like Strobel is splitting hairs here, but it’s important. The power is never in the habit. We grow as we partake in the life of God. We don’t achieve this gift; we receive it.
So how do we partake in the life of God? Well, spiritual practices or habits. He calls them “postures of receiving” in his book on Jonathan Edwards:
Practicing means of grace does not create grace or holiness in the life of the believer. At best, the means of grace are irrigation channels for the real water of life. Unlike spiritual disciplines, therefore, which often become attempts to make ourselves holy, means of grace demand a posture of receiving. Rather than being in control of our spiritual lives, we come as the needy, thirsty and desperate.
Habits Aren’t the Point, but We Still Need Them
The solution isn’t to ditch habits or spiritual practices. It’s to remember that the habits don’t change us. They just put us in a posture to receive what God promises to give when we come to him.
I tried to say a similar thing in How to Grow:
Habits are essential, but in the end, they aren’t the point. If we focus on the habits and disciplines themselves, we’ll become arrogant and judgmental of others who aren’t as successful, or we’ll become discouraged when we fail. It’s possible to build great habits and completely miss the point, which is ongoing spiritual growth and intimacy with God. D. A. Carson reminds us, “The truly transformative element is not the discipline itself, but the worthiness of the task undertaken: the value of prayer, the value of reading God’s Word.”
The point, in the end, is our pursuit of God. We need habits that support that pursuit. We won’t pursue God without them. They are ways of putting ourselves in the path of God’s grace. David Mathis compares the habits to flipping the light switch: we don’t produce the electricity any more than we control the supply of God’s grace. But there are ways of turning on that power in our lives. The habits allow us to access God’s grace so that it flows into our lives. “There are paths along which he has promised his favor,” he writes.
Let’s build habits that put us in the path of God’s grace.
As best as I can tell, every recent author on the role of habits and spiritual growth expresses the same truth.
It’s not that the books on spiritual growth and habits are wrong, contrary (I think) to what he says. It’s just that we can’t be reminded enough. Habits aren’t the point; God is the point. But habits can lead us into a posture of receiving what God has to give, and I appreciate Strobel’s reminder.