Intro 2: Why We Need Habits
Becoming like Jesus by adopting his pattern of life
On Thursday, January 15th, a miracle took place in New York. Or so some people say. Flight 1549 took off from LaGurdia headed for Charlotte, NC only to run into a flock of geese minutes later. The damage to the engines was extensive, and it soon became clear that an emergency landing on the Hudson River was the safest course of action.
In a matter of minutes a number of crucial maneuvers needed to happen in order to avoid a disaster. The Captain and the Co-pilot had to shut down the engines, set the right speed so that the plane could glide as long as possible without power. They had to get the nose of the plane down to maintain speed, but then get it back up again before hitting the water. They had to disconnect the autopilot, override the flight management system, and activate the ditch system which seals vents and valves to make the plane waterproof. Perhaps most importantly of all, they had to glide the plane towards a sharp left-hand turn so that they could land the plane facing south, going with the current of the river. Then they had to level the plane from the tilt of the turn, so that on landing it would be exactly level.
This is a small list of some of what happened in the span of just a few minutes. And as you know, everyone survived the landing. Newspaper headlines across the world described this event as the Hudson River Miracle.
Gary Player, the great South African golfer, was once asked by a reporter after a particularly impressive round if he felt lucky that day.
“Sure,” he responded. “But I’ve noticed that the more I practice, the luckier I seem to be.”1
These two stories—ones I first heard packaged together by N.T. Wright years ago—tell us something about ourselves and the air we breathe: our culture values spontaneity. We prefer a spontaneous miracle, like the successful landing of Flight 1549, and a spontaneous performance, like Gary Players’ amazing round of golf.
But what actually happened in each circumstance? When we look past the headlines and beyond the events themselves, what do we find?
Oddly enough, we find the same thing in both stories:
Decades of training that led to the acquisition of habits that led to an embodiment of goodness when it mattered most.
Learning to do Anything Well
How is it that you learn to do anything well?
What does it take to become a great athlete?
A regimented diet. An exercise routine. A coach, or two, or three. A goal. Practice.
How do you learn an instrument? A new skill? A new language? How do you learn to walk? To speak? To listen in a way that your wife knows you are actually listening? (I’m genuinely asking here …)
None of these things “just happen.” They take work. They take effort. And sometimes they take a lifetime of work and effort to see any real fruit. This is simply how God has created us to learn and grow.
But here is where we sometimes stop thinking clearly about our faith:
What does it take to be a great Christian? In other words: What does it take to respond properly to the free grace we have been given in Christ?
Does it take work? Does it take effort? Does it take a regimented day? Or a coach, or two, or three?
Or does it just “happen?”
More often than not, I think you and I trick ourselves into thinking it just happens.
Jesus and Habits
Consider the following passage from the Gospel of Matthew
Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
There are a number of startling features scattered throughout this familiar Gospel account. This passage includes a ghost sighting and humans walking on water. If I was one of the disciples, those are moments I would never forget.
As I spend more time with this passage, I think the real surprise might just be found in verse 23: Jesus himself took time out of his day to pray.
Now I am too committed to reading the Bible on its own terms to pretend that this is the main point of the passage. It probably isn’t even one of the main points of the passage.
But this sort of thing happens often enough throughout the Gospel narratives that it is worth spending some time considering for a moment: The reality is that Jesus regularly stops what he is doing, goes off by himself, and prays. And he does this even when surrounded by crowds that desperately need his healing and teaching. And I, at times, find this surprising.
Jesus did this constantly. Despite his mission and work, he developed a habit of prayer. We are called, above all else, to become like him.
We have no reason to believe that God will make us more like Jesus simply by zapping us with supernatural, no-effort-on-our-part holiness.
We want convenient store holiness. Conveyor belt holiness. Amazon Prime two-hour free delivery holiness. But the pages of the New Testament are full of calls to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” To “train ourselves for godliness.” You would have to search far and wide to find a command in Scripture to “sit and wait while God makes you holy through no effort of your own.”
Nearly forty years ago Eugene Peterson was able to diagnose one of our culture’s greatest collective diseases today: our preference for the cheap, and the casual, and the instantly-available:
“One aspect of our world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently.”
So if becoming like Jesus does not happen in an instant, how does it happen? If it is not something that can be done quickly, and efficiently, how can it be done?
I have not read many recent authors who have answered these types of questions better than the late Dallas Willard.
“We can become like Jesus by doing one thing—by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself.”
To become an athlete, you need to live the way an athlete lives: dedicating hour after hour each day to practicing mundane physical actions. Submitting your desires for food, for entertainment, and for sleep to your true desire to become a great athlete. You need to develop the habits of an athlete.
To become a musician, you need to live the way a musician lives: dedicating hour after hour each day to the practice of mundane physical actions. Sacrificing time with family and friends to study music theory. Committing to spend more time practicing music this year than you did last year. You need to develop the habits of a musician.
And to become like Jesus, you need to live the way Jesus lived: dedicating serious time each day to the studying of Scripture. Sacrificing time that you could be spending doing something really good to go off by yourself to pray.
To become like Jesus you and I need to develop the habits of Jesus.
Habits and Ritual
Spiritual disciplines are good works. They are the type of things we are called to do as followers of Jesus. When we structure our lives to include these good works on a regular basis, we are developing habits that God uses to make us more like Jesus.
At this point you might be on board with developing habits that make you more like Jesus. This is great. What I’m worried about is all of this becoming ritualistic.
If this is your fear, I have good new and I have bad news.
So here is the bad news first: If you develop these habits the way the Bible commands, it will become ritualistic. But the good news is that this is actually good news.
Rituals are simply prescribed and communal habits.
They are prescribed, meaning that someone else came up with them. You and I didn’t invent the habit of reading Scripture daily, or feeding the poor, or fasting. When we participate in these habits, we are being incredible unoriginal. This is one of the beauties of Christianity: it is a revealed religion. We are not left on our own to wonder what God expects of us.
Rituals are also communal. When a community of Christians commits to practicing these habits together, they are participating in a ritual.
Behind your initial concern about these practices becoming ritualistic is a valid caution: like anything else in life these habits can become empty. This is a real concern — one that will be addressed throughout the book.
But let’s be honest. Our problem is not that we are faithfully living out the Christian life and have found these practices empty. If that is the case, you are reading the wrong book. Our problem is that we know we should be developing these habits, and on one level we wantto develop these habits, but we simply don’t.
If this is you, keep reading.
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