The Power of Habit
February 25, 2018
Dt. 30:15-19; Rm. 7:18-20
Choose Life; “That which I do I should not and that which I should not do, I do”

Two of the foster children that we had when our children were little lived in an abandoned bus in Elizabeth just before they came to us. Both of them were very withdrawn when we first met them because they had spent so much time alone that they appeared puzzled by how to interact with other people.
From what we could later piece together, their parents were loving, but they had been addicted to heroin long enough that the drugs had taken them over. They moved quite often, with their father being fired from his mechanics job every few months. Their mother had been arrested several times for prostitution. As infants and toddlers, we think that their parents would shoot up, turn on the tube, nod out and leave them to essentially entertain themselves at much too early an age. One of them barked more than they spoke and we speculated that they spent most of the time alone with the dog that they thought they could speak “dog”.
Her older brother grew up dealing with issues of subterranean rage that would surface every once in a while. Sometimes he would get more and more frustrated playing soccer and suddenly he would almost set up a confrontation that would lead to a fight. Other times he would overreact to some friendly wrestling with one of our boys and it would get out of hand. Or he would throw tantrums and break things.
As he got older, he had to regularly work on his deportment. He would become sullen, surley and somewhat withdrawn in public. He had a hard time looking people in the eye.
His adopted family, my sister and brother in law, worked with him especially on becoming responsible during his teenage years. He has had more challenges than the ordinary kid. He’s had trouble showing up at work consistently and has had to be fired from several jobs, despite the fact that these same people went out of their way to go to bat for him. He’s had trouble calling in to work and taking responsibility for his actions. Unfortunately, when that happens, he is regularly tempted to hang out with other kids that manifest the same attitude, and these kids also take serious narcotics, repeating the cycle for another generation. I hope he can break the cycle but the odds are against him.
Then you read about kids that grow up in the very same dysfunctional homes, with the very same personal issues that they have to struggle within themselves from the get go but they join the Marine Corps. They go through boot camp, their entire day structured, no exceptions, no qualifications, one standard and one simple path for success and reward.
I remember going to see the graduating ceremony for our son Ian after he finished Army basic at Fort Benning, Georgia. The kid I could never get to engage in study or get out of bed, standing at attention for nearly an hour. His gear tight packed, uniform perfect, following the rules down to the minute –“Dad don’t drive 37; it’s 35.” I called my wife on the phone and said “Honey, I have good news and bad news.” She said, “well what is the good news first.” I said, “Uncle Sam was able to do in 12 weeks what you and I were unable to do in 18 years.”
It is amazing. And the soldiers will tell you themselves. “The training has changed their lives. It taught them how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, how to master their emotions. Most crucially, it taught them willpower.”
And here is the wonderful thing about willpower. It functions pretty much like a muscle. We can exercise it and make it stronger. This is something in your life that you can control. And the stronger your willpower is, the more spiritual charisma you will feel in your life, the more of the sense that you are directing your life.
Christians have long sensed that this was so important in our lives that it was something of an end in itself. That is why we have had so many monastic centers where you can strengthen your will through fasting and prayer. They are following after the example of Jesus whose life gives every indication that he was principally oriented around strengthening his soul power.
Throughout his life, he retreats periodically for prayer. And his prayers are increasingly focused on “Not my will, but Thine” O God. He comes face to face with challenges and he has to draw on a divine strength to increase his strength of will, to do for him what he couldn’t do simply by himself.
And the challenges keep getting bigger until finally he is pretty aware that the Roman authorities are going to arrest him and he withdraws to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. The story in Mark says that he prayed so intensely it was like ‘drops of blood’ formed on his forehead. And he prays a powerful prayer that most of us will have to pray at some point in our life when we are in a boundary situation, often of our own life and death. He says, ‘let this cup pass from me’… And then he follows that with, “Not my will, but thine.” I want to take the higher, harder way. It will entail more suffering. It will need more soul power, the Holy Spirit covering us and making us stronger.”
In the bible, the word ‘demonic’ (daimonia in Greek) literally means ‘to be controlled by others’, ‘to be controlled by outside forces’. Romans believed that the world was filled with curses and hexes that could bind us in different ways. Today, we might think of it in a slightly different way like addictions in our lives. Anyone who has seen movies like ‘Spun’ or seen Mickey O’Rourke’s many crystal meth head characters. Anyone who has had friends or relatives subsumed by Oxycontin, Crank, Heroin or Cocaine (or alcohol) knows that there comes this point when people pass over from running their own lives to being ‘controlled by the drugs’. As the Japanese proverb puts it so well. “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink; then the drink takes you.’
Spiritually, they feel possessed. When people are in this condition, spiritually, they feel very weak.
And, by contrast, we have a number of studies right now that are pointing towards an emerging consensus that having strength of willpower may be the single most important indicator of success broadly defined.
At the University of Pennsylvania, a study of 8th graders singled out willpower and self-discipline as the biggest correlate among students that made better grades, got into more selective schools. Interestingly, they also had fewer absences, spent less time watching television, spent more time working on homework. This sentence got my attention. “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable. Self discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not…. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”
These findings will undoubtedly start to make a major impact on how we do education in the near future. Character not only counts, as Franklin elementary school remind students weekly, it turns out, character is critical.
And here is the other thing about willpower that everyone should know, it is largely controlled by our habits. Paying attention to our habits is actually more important than any other single thing, partly because our habits run in the background of our lives and we don’t really notice them until we have to. [Look down]. We all have an ‘O my’ moment where the Doctor or our spouse or a dear friend holds up the proverbial mirror. ‘O my’.
As it turns out, habits actually drive about 42% of all of our daily activities. Wake up, turn off alarm, get coffee, shuffle out to get the paper, feed dog, return to bed, give wife the New York Times because she won’t read the Wall Street Journal, read over her shoulder and make snarky comments about the headline news, brush teeth, shower- all on auto pilot- until I have to make the first actual decision of the day ‘open collar or tie’. It’s a big decision! Tie loses again.
It is amazing just how much of our daily commute, our daily routine, is defined by these habits that run in the background but they are very important as you only realize standing at Starbucks in Penn Station realizing that your daily Grande Latte is actually packing on 450 calories that a black coffee would not.
So, Aristotle used to say that what we need to develop throughout our lives is ‘Self-control’ (Sophrosene in Greek). We need to break our existing habits and form newer ones, better ones. Even in ancient Greece, the Athenian philosophers prided themselves on their freedom of thought and their philosophical prowess. But they knew that when it came to habits, the Spartan soldiers had them beat for self-discipline. If habits are the background processes that are operating all the time below the radar, almost 50% of our total actions, they are very important to control.
Our researchers today are bearing this out. We’ve figured out that it is critically important to develop keystone habits in our lives. They can make all the difference. Citing one example, James Prochaska, says the keystone habit of …” exercise spills over. There something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
“Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence. Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. (You making your bed? You?) It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. ‘but somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.”
And in our era, habits are probably going to become more important than ever and being aware of will be as well. As Socrates used to say, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. He said that because you are not in control of forces that you are not aware of and we can only become self-directed and free if we reflective about these controls.
In our era, as are starting to become aware, big data is conspiring against us rapidly. Perhaps you saw the New York Times Magazine article recently that begins with a quote from the former chief scientist at Frito-Lay, summarizing the marketing leaps that have been made in the past decade. He said, “I feel so sorry for the public” because we are like putty in the hands of a team of researchers using algorithms.
The article is an expose of almost everything you buy in pre-packaged food in the grocery store from the most obvious like cheetos right down to foods you think are healthy kid alternatives like gogurt and how they are loaded with sugar and other additives that create cravings and/or turn off sensors in our brain that normally signal that we are full.
The science of taste and craving has improved dramatically in the past decade and a half. Says Mr. Moss, “It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort… to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.”
On one level, we’ve known this for a while but while we were yet sleeping, these guys have gotten much better at using the sophisticated taste spectrometer, mixing this base taste with that texture range, sliding in salt, replacing fat with high fructose corn syrup and packaging it so that you think you are buying a natural Marinara sauce (which is actually loaded with sugar that makes it so tasty).
The deck is rapidly stacking against and we aren’t even aware of it. You don’t have to be the Nanny of Gotham, Michael Bloomberg, to figure out that science which manipulates our cravings and creates bad habits makes us spiritually weaker, physically unhealthier, and ultimately not as fulfilled or directing our lives as we would like.
And it won’t be limited to just food either. In the era of Big Data, marketers will shortly figure out how to get you to do all sorts of things with enough information about your history, your tastes, your involvements. They will be able to predict for you like the type-ahead suggestions you use on you your search engines.
All of which is to say that intentionally forming our habits and intentionally forming our character is already far more important that we have given voice and it is going to get more important in this next chapter of our lives.
To really live in freedom, we’re going to have to become more and more aware of how the habits that we have developed below the radar are developing unhealthy consequences that need to be managed. We are going to have to understand how habits work and get better at making new habits to replace ones we inherited from our past. And we are going to have to figure out how keystone habits impact other smaller habits.
Socrates and Jesus were both right that free women and free men control their habits rather than their habits controlling them. St. Paul was pretty right when he observed that his internal life felt like a war. “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Today we can show you on a MRI screen that when you are thinking about what you should do, the frontal cortex of the brain lights up that controls logic and future planning and when you impulsively reach for that cookie in the middle of the night, the amygdale, the primitive part of the brain in the lower cortex, lights up. We can have all the great insight we could possibly want to have, but if we can’t translate that into changed habits, nothing significant will happen.
My brothers and sisters, find your freedom and become intentional about your habits. And may we strengthen one another in our life together, giving each other encouragement and a vision of a more rigorous but a better life. May we stumble on the magic equation that combines discipline and love.
Amen.