A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of trying to get quickly in and out of a bookstore. Perhaps it’s the recent proliferation of online book shopping options, and my tendency to use them instead of the walk-in variety over the past few years, that made me foolish and vulnerable enough to assume that such a thing was possible. The thing I had come for was on a shelf in the back. Inevitably, I was stymied by the very first book display.
What had caught my eye was a glossy yellow copy of Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. It’s the kind of book perfectly calculated to attract a popular audience, because it tells us what we already know. No one actually needs to be convinced that habit has power: we know from experience how powerful our routines can be, especially the destructive ones. Our most self-serving habits may feel like freedom in the moment, but even as we indulge in them, we somehow know that being ruled by whims isn’t liberation. At our best, we sense the paradoxical truth: we’d feel free if we were more disciplined. Many of us long for better habits. We wish that our characters were marked by more self-control, more wisdom. Yet how do we begin moving in the direction of virtue?
Duhigg’s book is pleasantly written and rigorously studied. But the original, truest, and deepest study of the power of habit was conducted not in university psychology departments or doctors’ offices, but by the Christian church over the past two millennia and, before that, for millennia more by the Hebrews.
In fact, no more thorough discussion of the power of habit is to be found than in the poetry of the Old Testament. “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked,” Psalm 1 says, “…but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night” (verses 1, 2). The greatest book of religious poetry in world literature begins by defining the righteous man as one with the habit of meditating on Scripture, of repeatedly and intentionally taking in—even delighting in—God’s Word. The person who does this lives wisely and well.
Let the Bible form you
The Bible describes a wise person as someone who applies his or her heart to understanding (Proverbs 2:2). The truth communicated in Scripture is compared to a precious chain worn around one’s neck (Proverbs 1:9). Elsewhere, the wisdom of the Lord is like a stream by which we are planted (see Psalm 1:3), a garland to grace our heads (Proverbs 1:9). Each of these images highlights how God’s Word shapes our characters over time—through habit.
There is simply no way to become wise quickly: slow, intentional exposure to truth is the only way. We have to fasten God’s Word to our foreheads and our doorposts—seeing it again and again as a part of our daily routine—if we want to remember it in the heat of the moment. This aspect of human memory is why companies pay millions to air the same ads two or three times during the Super Bowl: one ad three times is more powerful than three ads once.
Modern American Christians like me tend to see even good habits as restrictive. When we emphasize our own individual experience of God, we can tend to approach the Scriptures based on the emotional needs of the present moment or, all too often, not at all. A disciplined routine of engagement with Scripture can feel forced, bland, or even disingenuous. Yet if we only come to the Bible at moments of perceived need, we miss the chance to encounter it on its own terms—to let it shape what we think and feel, to allow it to form us instead of asking it to conform to us.
It was appropriate, then, that I stumbled upon The Power of Habit during the weeks just before the traditional Christian season of Lent. Lent is an old word. For many Christians, it’s fallen out of use. We might be tempted to let “Lent” rust in the corner alongside words like censor and sacristy. But even for those who don’t normally follow the old Christian calendar, Lent can offer an opportunity to acknowledge the power of habit in our spiritual lives, and to do the hard work of planting ourselves by the stream of God’s Word, as we were commanded to do.
Lent is defined as “the period preceding Easter that in the Christian Church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence in commemoration of Christ's fasting in the wilderness. In the Western Church it runs from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday and so includes forty weekdays.” For centuries, the church used its liturgical calendar to help form the spiritual character of its people. If the point of that calendar was to mimic the life of Christ in our yearly routines, then Lent is the season where we struggle along with him for a season of fasting and discipline. At the end of it, our renewed focus on God yields the fruit of wisdom, of a character more like Jesus’s.
How habits can make us free
When we observe Lent, it’s possible to emphasize the fasting and forget the discipline. Sure, giving up coffee or Pinot Grigio for a month and a half would be good for us. But what if, instead, we cultivated the discipline of waking up early to read Scripture? Who might we start to become?
New habits can feel like work—even servitude. But there is an old prayer of the church in which we tell Jesus that, paradoxically, serving him gives us perfect freedom. We cannot make it two chapters into the Psalms or Proverbs without encountering the ideas of wisdom, discipline, and the Word of God woven together like so many strands in a braid. The more time we spend in his Word, the more we become like that righteous person from Psalm 1: strong, contented, fruitful. Perhaps those of us who are hungry for wisdom but lacking a way to seek it can start by committing to opening the Bible once a day for the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. If we read very far, we will be reminded of something we already knew: that God can do quite a lot in forty days.
 The New Oxford American Dictionary
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