Habits Old and New 

 

For all our impressions that we are independent, creative, original and not under the power of anything, we are all in fact creatures of habit. Life really is the same old scene in so many ways; eating, sleeping, working, childcare, procedures, interactions with people- routine is so much part of our existence. Because of this, we each have our comfort zones, out of which we don’t like moving. Indeed, people will suffer great things, fight, manipulate, pay any price- to just preserve their present position, to stay living where and how they are, rather than move on to something which may be far better for them. Whilst we may consider ourselves liberal and broad minded, eclectic thinkers and always open- we are in fact conservatives to the core. The Lord recognized this when He commented that nobody who has tasted old wine ever wants new wine, because they naturally think “the old is better” (Lk. 5:39). Yet the call of the Gospel is to be part of a new creation, both now and eternally; to refocus our horizons beyond the immediate, and instead look to the eternity which awaits us in God’s Kingdom. We are asked to become new people, and that new being has very different structures to the old, natural being. In one sense we are called to be led of the Spirit if we are born of the Spirit, meaning that we never quite know to where we are being led but are continually on the journey throughout this life (Jn. 3:8); rather like Abraham journeyed by faith towards the promised land, not knowing [in terms of physical detail] where He was going (Heb. 11:8).

And yet on the other hand, we are still human, and we function still as creatures of habit. God recognizes this; and so 2 Kings 17 points a contrast between people deciding to follow the customs and manners of the pagan nations rather than accept the commandments of God; His commandments were and are designed to elicit a way of life, to be the alternative to the customs or tradition which we previously lived by. Judah walked in the habits [“customs”] of the heathen and of the kings of Israel; “they followed vanity and became vain and went after the heathen” (17:8). The habits of our world likewise are vain; wasting time online, following gossip and speculations, and in the end we become as vain as the vain habits we have slipped into. Once habit solidifies, it becomes effectively part of our nature and almost impossible to change, at least in human strength- so Jer. 13:23 teaches us: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may you also do good, that are accustomed to do evil”. The Hebrew translated “accustomed” carries the idea of repeated habit. The Hebrew idea of ‘teaching’ is connected to the words for ‘habit’ or ‘custom’; because teaching was by repetition. The Lord Jesus “morning by morning” heard God’s word “as the learned” (Is. 50:4); but the Hebrew words for “accustomed” in Jer. 13:23 and “learned” in Is. 50:4 are the same. God teaches by repetition- which may be out of vogue in the experience / problem based learning philosophy of current education, but it’s God’s way.

The Impact of Jesus on Habit

Whilst we are to develop good spiritual habits- regular daily prayer, Bible reading, fellowship with others etc.- it is the cross of Christ which can deliver us from the vain traditions we inherited (1 Pet. 1:18). It’s very hard, almost impossible, to break out of habit and regularly acting and thinking according to a familiar sequence; but in the blood of Christ, or rather through our response to it, we find unleashed the power of new thinking, new horizons, a new way of being. This matter of habit touches upon the question:  How exactly was it that the Lord Jesus was of our nature and yet somehow never sinned? There are many windows onto that question, but one of them is in the reflection that He didn’t face every temptation with a steel will which was strong enough to just about save Him from sin and keep Him grimly hanging on to the way of righteousness. Instead I would suggest that His habitual way of thinking and living was such that many of the issues which are temptations to us, and which were to Him too in a technical sense, He simply didn’t heavily engage with because His whole way of thinking was beyond that. It’s rather like the temptation to take drugs or abuse alcohol; they are technically temptations for me, but in reality they are not because I have never been an alcoholic or drug abuser. But for the recovering alcoholic or drug addict brother or sister, they are huge temptations. And so it was, on a far wider and higher level, with the Lord Jesus. His habits and way of thinking, what the Bible would call His “spirit” (note the parallel between heart and spirit in many places, e.g. Ez. 13:2,3), were so spiritually advanced that many of our temptations weren’t a serious possibility of failure for Him.

If the person and work of the Lord Jesus inspires new habits, we can better appreciate how one of the reasons why He and His followers were persecuted was because His death meant a changing of the "customs" (Gk. 'habits') of the Jewish system of worship (Acts 6:14). Even within the first century ecclesia, the Judaizer element demanded that converts still kept the "manner" or habit (Gk.) of Moses (Acts 15:1; 21:21). We have noted that people will fight viciously to preserve their habitual way of life; and this is especially true when it comes to religion. It's why people who think outside the box and suggest change within our own community have suffered far more anger than let's say atheists or Moslems. The Gentile world likewise of course resents that the Gospel is a call to a new set of "customs" (Gk. 'habits')- Acts 16:21.

The New Being

Part of being transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ (Rom. 12:1) means changing our habits from those of the world or of graceless religion; to the new habits which are inspired by the ultimately free example and spirit of the Lord Jesus. The habits of the new life are a discipline; self control in regularly met situations, training like a soldier or athlete does, learning obedience as a child does, these are all Biblical reasons to think that the believer in Christ isn't free to do as he or she wishes, but to accept that our nature being what it is, regime and discipline are required. The disciplines of regular prayer morning and evening, daily quiet time with the Lord, daily Bible reading, preferably in a systematic manner, prayer before meals, not forsaking meeting together as the manner (Gk. 'habit') of some is (Heb. 10:25), these are all only a few of the habits of the new life. But the habits we are asked to adopt are largely mental, internal, psychological. That when we are asked to be generous or respond to a need, or to forgive, we habitually remind ourselves that we are to do so as God does- with the utmost generosity, good measure pressed down, reflecting the grace lavished upon us (Eph. 1:8). That when we are in a situation requiring us to exercise choice or to resist temptation, we as a habit immediately think what Biblical precedents there are to guide us, and what situations in the life of the Lord speak to us in helping our choices. The Lord during His wilderness temptations set us the way; He perceived that as Israel had been led by the Spirit / Angel into the wilderness to be tested for 40 years, so He had been led by the spirit into the wilderness to be tested for 40 days. And so He answers the three temptations by quoting each time from the same section of Deuteronomy, twice from Deuteronomy 6 and once from Deuteronomy 8. He saw the essence of Himself and His situation in Israel at that time; and we too should become accustomed to realizing that Biblical history holds the key to our inspiration, for what is recorded there, the characters and histories that have been chosen for recording and preservation, are there exactly because they are intended to speak to us, as a living word. But it all depends whether we are in the habit of seeing ourselves in Biblical situations; and the ability to do this meshes seamlessly with the habit of daily Bible reading and meditation. Prayer especially is to be habitual, and not only when urgent situations provoke it. David seems to have had a habit of praising God seven times during the day (Ps. 119:164). I learnt this lesson powerfully when paying an unexpected visit to a sister in rural Eastern Europe with eight children aged from 1 to 18, difficult husband, no money much, rejected by her own family for the sake of Christ. I entered the porch, and asked one of the younger children where mum was. She looked at the clock. "It's two o'clock and after lunch mum always prays, so, she's still praying". I went deeper into that humble home and through the open bedroom door I saw mum kneeling down at her bedside. And she more than any busy businessman had things in her life which appeared to demand her attention 24/7. If she can do it, lady Madonna, children at her feet, so can you and I.

The Life of the Spirit

But it's not just a question of replacing one set of habits with another. "The law of Christ" hasn't replaced the 613 commands of the law of Moses with another set. The "law of Christ" is the principle of being committed to be as Christ, to live by the law or principle which is Christ. And He is "the Lord the Spirit", and as such He changes, radically and dynamically, all who look into Him; for He is as a mirror, and the more we look into Him, we no longer see ourselves there but Him (2 Cor. 3:17,18). This is the power of a Christ-centred life. Life in Him isn't like life according to the vain customs or habits of this world, drifting on autopilot through life until we die the same death billions of others have done as they pass mindlessly through life's wonderful time of opportunity, as in a dream. We are asked, constantly and daily, to make some election, some conscious choice, to respond to God's spirit as it is in His word and radically change; we learnt about baptism, and we did something concrete and actual about it- we physically got wet, burying ourselves in water. And we are asked to continue that kind of life. We must ask when was the last time that we perceived something from God and actually did something actual and real about it, changing a pattern of living or reaction. For we are invited to live and in that sense experience "the eternal life" right now; not that we will not die, but insofar as we can live now the kind of life which we will eternally live. And the life eternal won't be any passive sitting under vines and fig trees as if on some eternal tropical beach holiday. It will be the life of the Spirit, of progress, of change, of eternal movement ever deeper into the things of the Father and Son whom we do dearly love.

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