About a month ago my wife reorganized our kitchen shelves. They are certainly much better now than they were. Except – I still habitually reach where the gum and candy used to be instead of where it now is. I have a feeling it’s going to take a while to build a new habit. It’s brought to mind other scenarios from my past. In high school, for example, one of my teachers covered the classroom clock for a week – and I realized on Friday that I was still looking at it just as often as I did before he did so. I also recall the time I changed the location of my shampoo and tub spray cleaner in my shower because the sizes of each dispenser had changed. It seemed simple enough – except for the power of habits. After several years of automatically reaching for shampoo on the ledge, I found it was difficult to automatically reach up for it from the shelf. That means, of course, that on more than one occasion I almost sprayed my head with shower cleanser! I was amazed at how long it took me to get to the point where I automatically reached up for the shampoo.
These repeated scenarios center on the power of habits. Habits, whether good or bad, are established over a period of time. And once ingrained they are automatic and therefore hard to break. That’s why God repeatedly told the Israelites to form good habits. In Exodus, for example, God gave them the 10 commandments, the habits by which to live. In Leviticus He laid out worship and sacrifice habits to provide a framework for holiness. In Deuteronomy 6: 5-6 He commanded them to establish teaching habits: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.”
So it is really not surprising that when His people started letting go if these habits, they began wandering into the land of disobedience and walking further and further away from Him. So God sent the prophet with a message “This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).
He told them to return to the proven ways, the tried and true habits, of their ancestors. In other words, “When you’re in need of a habit, look to your habits.” These habits were the paths that would return them to rest and renewal.
Centuries later Jesus taught the same thing about habits. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30). Knowing the heart of people, knowing the tendency of humans to lose self-discipline and therefore to wander, Jesus invited His followers, and us, to take up His yolk, His habits, His way of life. “When you’re in need of a habit, look to your habits.”
Habits were the core of Jesus’ life. Time apart – alone – with his Father and seasons of prayer led to days of ministry and holy living. Then again came time apart – alone – with his Father and seasons of prayer. Should our habits be any different? Whenever we feel we’re wandering away from God, whenever we feel apart from Jesus, when life is tiring us out it’s time for a time out. It’s time to get back to basics, to return to our habits. “When you’re in need of a habit, look to your habits.” And the more firmly entrenched our habits become, the harder they will be to break. And the amazing truth is these habits do not constrict us. As the Psalmist wrote “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free” (Psalm 119:32).
Whether in the kitchen, the classroom or the shower, ingrained habits are hard to break. So make sure the habits you diligently develop are good ones. Perhaps, just perhaps, this quarantine time is God’s gift to us – He’s giving us time to develop some healthy spiritual habits, to establish some practices that will be habitual when life returns to its new normal. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”