Head Heart Hand
“Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with out bad ones.” James Clear, Atomic Habits, 155.
James Clear’s four laws for creating a good habit are:
- The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
- The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
- The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
- The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
Conversely, his laws for breaking bad habits are:
- Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.
- Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
- Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.
- Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying. (54)
Over recent weeks, we’ve been undertaking analyzing the first two steps with a view to applying Clear’s teaching to sanctification, a large part of which is breaking bad habits and forming good ones. In today’s post we start looking at the third step, Response. Having made a good habit obvious and attractive, how do we make it easy to accomplish?
This is not just about doing easy things. It’s about making it as easy as possible in the moment to do what is right and good. Clear’s rationale is that if we can make good habits more convenient, we’ll be more likely to follow through on them. We’re trying to achieve more with less effort, so that doing the right thing is easier than doing the wrong thing. As Clear says:
“Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.” (155)
So we are looking for two things: ways to make the good easier and ways to make the bad harder. How can we add oil to good and how can we increase friction to the bad?
One of the best ways of doing this is to re-arrange our environment so that it will oil the good and make the bad squeak. Clear’s examples of oiling are:
- Buy a selection of cards (birthday, thank you, graduation, sympathy), so that it’s easy to send when needed.
- Layout exercise clothes the night before your morning run.
- Chop up fruit and veg for an hour and put them into bags so that you can grab a ready-made bag each day of the week.
Some examples of adding squeaks are:
- Unplug TV and remove batteries so that it’s harder to just turn it on and vegetate.
- Leave your phone in another room when working.
- Delete email and social media apps from your phone.
We’d all love to believe that with strong enough cues and cravings, that will be enough to motivate good habits. Clear, though, recognizes that the flesh can be weak even when the spirit is strong. We therefore need all the oil and squeaks we can get to help us.
Where do you need oil and where do you need squeaks? Or, are you maybe adding oil and squeaks in the completely wrong places?
See more Atomic Habits posts here.
If we want to grow in grace, we need to identify a grace and make a plan for how we will grow it.
For example, if my main spiritual goal is to develop and strengthen the grace of patience, I will:
- Listen to sermons on patience
- Read books and articles on patience
- Memorize verses about patience
- Meditate on God’s patience
- Talk to patient people and learn from them
- Think about how to exercise patience in various challenging situations
- Ask my wife how I can improve.
All that is good and necessary. But most of all, I need to simply start practicing patience in everyday life. As James Clear says in Atomic Habits:
“If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it…You just need to get your reps in” (142).
A college photography experiment illustrates Clear’s point. Students were divided into a quantity group and a quality group. The quantity group would be judged on the amount of work they produced. The quality group would be judged on the excellence of their work. The former group would be graded by the number of photos they submitted (100 photos for an A, 90 for a B, and so on). The latter group would need to produce only one photo; but to get an A, it had to be a perfect image.
Which group produced the best photos?
Surprisingly it was the quantity group, the group that was actually out taking photos, while the quantity group spent most of the time studying and planning for the perfect picture.
In Motion v Taking Action
Clear says the difference is between being in motion and taking action. “When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. These are all good things, but they don’t produce a result” (141).
“Action on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome. If I outline twenty ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion. If I actually sit down and write an article, that’s action.” (141)
The quantity group improved their skills through practice, whereas the quality group simply theorized about perfect photos.
Clear’s conclusion is that “simply putting in your reps is one of the most critical steps you can take to encoding a new habit.” That’s because “Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition.”
The most important question, then, is not, “How long does it take to build a new habit?” but “How many does it take to form a new habit?” That is, how many repetitions are required to make a habit automatic? (146).
In sum, whether you want better photos or better patience, the most effective form of learning is practice not planning.
See more Atomic Habits posts here.
Shona and I work out with weights 4-5 evenings a week. We’re not trying to become Mr & Mrs Universe; we’re just trying to maintain our health and fitness in our fifties.
A month or so ago, we realized that we were finding it harder and harder to actually get going at it, and we realized it was partly the way we were framing the workout. Leading up to it, we’d be sitting on the sofa after supper and one of us would look at the other and say, “I’m afraid we have to workout.” The other would reply, “I suppose so. We might as well get it over with.” Then afterwards while we were gasping on the floor after the warm down we’d be groaning and complaining about how hard it was and how glad we were that it was over for another day.
We eventually realized how draining this kind of talk was. It was creating dread, delay, and discouragement. So we decided to change up the way we were viewing it and describing it. Before exercise I now say to myself, “I now get a chance to strengthen my body and improve my physical/mental/emotional/spiritual health.” Or, “I get to extend my life now.” Afterwards we high-five and celebrate another completed workout and its benefits. We’re now much more motivated, it’s far easier to get started, we work out far harder, and there’s far greater post-exercise satisfaction.
I didn’t know at the time, but having read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, I now know that what we did was “reframe our habit.”
“Reframing your habits to highlight their benefits rather than their drawbacks is a fast and lightweight way to reprogram your mind and make a habit more attractive” (131).
Clear gives examples of how to reframe the painful sacrifice associated with saving — “I get to increase my future purchasing power and financial freedom.” Instead of saying “I am nervous” before a big game or a big presentation, we say, “I am excited and getting an adrenaline rush to help me concentrate.”
How many other spiritual activities could we reframe to make them more attractive?
From “I have to pray,” to “I get to enter the presence of God today and speak to him as my Father!”
From “I have to witness to my neighbor,” to “I get to tell my neighbor how to be eternally happy.”
From “I have to give money to the church,” to “I get to support God’s ambassadors bringing the good news to the world.”
From, “I have to suffer Christ,” to “I rejoice that I am counted worthy to suffer shame for Christ’s name” (Acts 5:41).
See more Atomic Habits posts here.
Many depressed people is that they lose their ability to make decisions. They spend much of their days in a fog of uncertainty and indecisiveness, not knowing what to do next, or not being able to execute what they know they have to do.
I’d always thought it was impaired thinking that caused this, the impact of depression on the mind, but James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, identifies a closer connection with our feelings. Here’s a summary of his argument:
1. A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state.
2. Desire is the difference between where you are now and where you want to be in the future.
3. Even the tiniest action is tinged with the motivation to feel differently than you do in the moment.
4. Our feelings and emotions tell us whether to hold steady in our current state or to make a change. They help us decide the best course of action.
It’s here that he makes the connection with depression:
“Neurologists have discovered that when emotions and feelings are impaired, we actually lose the ability to make decisions. We have no signal of what to pursue and what to avoid.” (129)
So the loss of feeling in depression, the dullness of emotions, is one of the major factors in contributing to indecisiveness and uncertainty in depressed people. Without emotions, it’s very difficult to know what to do next. There is no desire to change their internal state because they have little or no feeling.
That information not only helps us to understand depression better, it hopefully will also increase our sympathy for those with depression. We will condemn them less for their dithering and patiently wait for counseling, and possibly meds, to eventually restore their feelings and thereby their executive ability.
In the meantime, we often have to make decisions for them, we have to be decisive in the absence of their ability to do so. This kind of interventionist leadership takes great wisdom so as not to crush a person. Their input should still be considered, and the person helped to understand the decision, and even asked to approve it. This “team” or coached decision making, can give a sense of worth and value, and so also contribute to the healing process.
“Every behavior has a surface level craving and a deeper, underlying motive.” James Clear, Atomic Habits, 126.
Clear argues that every human desire or craving is just a specific manifestation of a deeper underlying motive” (127). Here are his examples of the deepest human motives and a corresponding surface level craving:
- Find love and reproduce = Using Tinder.
- Connect and bond with others = Browsing Facebook
- Win social acceptance and approval = Posting on Instagram
- Reduce uncertainty = Searching on Google
- Achieve status and prestige = Playing video games.
As Clear says, our habits “are modern-day solutions to ancient desires. New versions of old vices. The underlying motives behind human behavior remain the same” (127).
How then do we change our habits. Let me offer a Christian adaptation of James Clear’s approach:
Step One: Ask, “What underlying desire or motive am I trying to satisfy?” “What am I trying to achieve by this activity?”
Step Two: Which of these underlying desires are legitimate? Which are approved by God and permissible and which are forbidden and to be repented of?
Looking at Clear’s examples, I would argue that winning social acceptance and approval is forbidden. Of course we are to work at being cooperative and helpful to others; the problem is when the approval and acceptance of others becomes a foundational desire that takes precedence over seeking God’s approval and acceptance.
From a biblical perspective, I’d also want to mortify the deep desire to “achieve status and prestige.” That does not only need to be re-directed; it needs to be repented of.
Step Three: What additional motives does the Bible commend? What biblical desires do we need to build into our lives? Really, this is about constructing a Christian worldview. Some samples would be:
- A desire for the glory of God above all else.
- A desire for acceptance with God and approval by God.
- A desire to be like Christ.
- A desire to be a blessing to others by being used in their salvation and sanctification.
- A desire to strengthen and expand the Church of Christ.
- A desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
- A desire to serve God in my vocation.
- A desire to honor God with my money.
None of these desires come naturally to us. We need God to reconstruct us with these fundamental building blocks.
Step Four: Ask, “What legitimate activity can I engage in to satisfy these desires, to meet this need?”
This involves thinking of new activities for the new motives, but it also involves thinking of new activities for the old underlying desires that are good.
As I think it’s relatively easy to find activities that satisfy the additional motives highlighted in Step Three, let’s take some of Clear’s examples again and suggest some alternative actions that satisfy the deep motives and desires far better:
- Find love and reproduce = Marry a godly spouse and raise children for the Lord.
- Connect and bond with others = Join a local church.
- Reduce uncertainty = Trust God’s sovereignty.
So much of good biblical counseling is focused in this area. We are trying to help people get to “heart issues.” What are they really trying to achieve by their actions and words? And how can we help them identify wrong motives that must be repented of and right motives which are being pursued in the wrong way?
It’s about making the tree good and therefore making the fruit good (Matt. 12:33). We often say these words but don’t give people any help in achieving them. That’s where I found Clear helpful and challenging, although his incomplete system needs Biblical adjustment and supplementing.
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Kindle editions of Word Bible Commentary series are on sale. I have the whole set on Logos and always consult them. Although some of them are rather dry, and others are too concessive, for pastors with a good theological foundation, there are usually good insights into the biblical languages.
Seasons of Waiting: Walking by Faith When Dreams Are Delayed by Betsy Childs Howard $2.99.
Many of our habits result from imitating (consciously or sub-consciously) the habits of three social groups identified by James Clear in Atomic Habits (116-121). I’ll summarize them below with a couple of spiritual applications and implications underneath each one. And I’ll add a fourth influence that is sometimes the most powerful of all.
1. The close: The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits.
- Increase awareness of how your family and friends influence you.
- Although we cannot chose our family, we can chose our friends, and we ought to do so carefully.
- Stay close to Christ.
2. The many: When changing your habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive; but we can use a godly tribe to help us change our habits for the better.
- Be especially sensitive to the impact of “majority opinion” on your judgment and opinions on truth and morals.
- Join a church community that will provide a weekly boost to godly habit formation via the impact of a godly tribe.
3. The powerful: Many of our daily habits are imitations of people we admire. We try to copy the behavior of successful people because we desire success ourselves. (121)
- Beware copying someone (unthinkingly or deliberately) just because you admire them.
- If you are a leader, remember how influential you can be in people’s lives, both for good and evil, and steward this ‘talent’ well.
4. The heart: As Christians, we also want to identify the influential source of the sinful values and desires in our own hearts. Indeed, usually it is the most influential force.
We cannot just blame outside sources for our problems. But outside forces can certainly spark, ignite, and enflame these internal forces. We therefore need to be on guard both for the enemies outside and inside.
16 Truths About Digital Time and Real Friends
Here’s a good list for your refrigerator if you want to build real relationships more than digital ones.
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Fighting Satan: Knowing His Weaknesses, Strategies, and Defeat by Joel R. Beeke $3.99.
Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting by Dave Furman $2.99.
Over the past few weeks we’ve been studying Atomic Habits through the lens of a Christian worldview (see list of previous posts here). His approach to habits can be summed up in his four step analysis of good habit formation (to break bad habits, just do the opposite):
- The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
- The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
- The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
- The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
We’ve been primarily focused on the first these laws: Make it Obvious. Now we want to move to the second: Make it Attractive. As Clear puts it:
“If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it attractive…Our goal is to make our habits irresistible.”
Various experiments with the neurotransmitter dopamine have helped us to better understand the role of desire in behavior. While previously scientists thought that dopamine was released only when we experienced pleasure (hence it being called the happy chemical), it’s recently been discovered that it’s also released when we anticipate pleasure.
“Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act. It is the anticipation of reward–not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action. Interestingly, the reward system that is activated in the brain when you receive a reward is the same system that is activated when you anticipate a reward” (106).
Which explains why looking forward to a vacation is often as enjoyable (if not more so) than the vacation!
In fact, our brain has far more neurons allocated for desiring pleasure (wanting) than for experiencing it (liking)! Scientists have discovered that 100% of the brain’s nucleus accumbens is activated during desiring pleasure, while only 10% is activated in experiencing pleasure. Clear’s conclusion:
“Desire is the engine that drives behavior. Every action is taken because of the anticipation that precedes it. It is the craving that leads to the response” (107).
This all raises the question about whether or how God uses this system and these chemicals in regeneration and in spiritual formation. Does he simply override all of this in spiritual life and progress, or does he use it? Although in spiritual matters, God works primarily in the soul, to some extent he also uses the biological structures and systems he designed and created.
Consider, for example, how God uses the brain to reach the heart; he uses the physical part of us to reach the spiritual part. It also goes the other way in that the brain is involved in rendering spiritual obedience and worship to God.
So why would God not use the dopamine system for spiritual purposes as well? Let’s think this through a bit further in three areas.
Prior to regeneration, we have no desire for God. In other words, there is no dopamine spike when we hear about God or think about God. No matter how many external or internal cues there are (e.g. Christian witnessing, preaching, conscience), there is no spiritual craving produced. As a result, there is no response, no pursuit or seeking of God.
In regeneration, one of the things (not the only thing) God may do to bring us spiritually alive is to use our spiritual life to stimulate dopamine spikes when we hear about God or think about God. Where previously there was death in this system when it listened to sermons, now there is life (and dopamine). By God’s gracious and sovereign intervention, cues now create cravings.
Does God use dopamine to make us love what is holy and hate what is evil? Why not? When we were unconverted, we saw a sinful cue and our dopamine spiked with desire for the sin. But now, that chemical factory is dead and still (or, at least, is now “understaffed” and working only “part-time”). Whereas previously when we saw a cue for godliness, dopamine was dead, now, when we see someone or something holy, we desire it, we want it.
When we pray to hate sin and love holiness, does God perhaps answer that prayer by working through the soul to tamp down dopamine when faced with temptation and to amp it up when we are called to godly living?
Communion with God
The book of Psalms repeatedly connects longings and yearnings after God with spiritual joy (e.g. Ps. 63). The Song of Solomon is one long poem about the beauty of relational desire. John Piper highlights how, in Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis said that joy is the experience “of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction….[so that] any one who has experienced it will want it again,” something that he would not exchange for all the pleasures in the world. Or as Lewis put it in The Pilgrim’s Regress:
“The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. . . . This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth.”
Lewis calls this intense longing ‘joy’. Is it not possible that part of this is created and experienced through God’s use of our dopamine system?
In the light of the science, especially its alignment with biblical revelation and Christian experience, it’s fascinating to me that John Piper’s ministry, Desiring God, is all about Christian hedonism. Although Piper does not come at this subject from a physical or biological angle, the physical and biological angle confirms the connection between desiring and pleasure, and specifically desiring God and spiritual pleasure.
Now, let me raise some caveats to avoid misunderstanding. I’m not saying that physical processes are all that’s going on in a person’s spirituality. We must not reduce all that is spiritual to physical explanations. I am saying that at least this is going on. There is far more than dopamine in Christian desire and pleasure. But there’s at least some dopamine.
Neither am I saying there is no pleasure in actually finding God and in being godly (the response and reward steps of habit formation). Unlike purely physical habits, the habits of godliness not only have pleasure in the desire but in the response and in the reward too.
Lastly, will there be dopamine in heaven? Why not? We will still have bodies, though glorified. Is it not conceivable that part of our glorified bodies will be a glorified dopamine system that perfectly aligns with our perfect souls, and in turn perfectly aligns with Christ in his perfectly glorified body? The spiritual and the physical pleasure systems will work in perfect harmony forever!
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Very much looking forward to this. Sign up to pre-order and receive bonus material.
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Here’s a list of all the posts so far about James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. And there are more to come!
You started last year with a tankful of gas — overflowing with energy, motivation, joy, and optimism. Twelve months on, you were empty, running on fumes, joyless, and dreading the new year. You wonder if you can even go another day, far less another year. Three questions are on your mind:
What went wrong?
How can I get refueled for this year?
How do I make this year different than last year?
You may have had no control over some of the life events that drained you dry last year. Your gas tank was punctured by holes not of your own making: the loss of health, of a loved one, of a job, of your marriage, of a friendship, or of a dream. For many of us, though, our emptiness is of our own making. Either we forgot to keep refueling with God’s word and grace, thinking we can live by our own wisdom and strength, or we put multiple holes in our own tanks through our own choices.
What Went Wrong?
What choices puncture the gas tanks of our souls? Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to counsel many Christians whose gas tanks looked more like sieves. They had holed themselves repeatedly by their own lifestyle choices. These were not caused by life events they had no control over, but were the result of their own free decisions. The most common decisions that caused the most damage were sinful habits (especially pornography), excessive working hours, sleep deprivation, refusal of God’s gift of a weekly Sabbath, and technology addiction. Often they came as a package.
Whether you were drained by holes that resulted from events outside your control or by those you made yourself, the question is the same, How can I refuel, and regain the joy I lost? Before we try to refuel, we must at least attempt to repair the holes we made ourselves. There’s no point in putting premium joy-fuel into our tanks if it’s just going to run out unrepaired holes.
We can’t deny the laws of gravity or of our humanity. We cannot flourish if we continue in sinful habits, or if we fail to wisely steward our bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships for God’s glory. Start welding these self-inflicted gashes with repentance for sin, with reduced working hours, with increased sleep, with a weekly Sabbath, and with a digital detox.
How Can I Refuel?
Assuming that repair work has begun, let’s now focus on the joy-fuel that God has provided to reenergize us for the new year.
Read the rest of this article at the Desiring God website.
“I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.” James Clear, Atomic Habits, (94).
That’s pretty blunt isn’t it! He explains his conclusion in a chapter entitled, “The Secret to Self Control”:
“You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it. Once the mental grooves of habit have been carved into your brain, they are nearly impossible to remove entirely—even if they go unused for quite a while. And that means that simply resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy” (94).
That’s pretty hopeless isn’t it!
A Reason for Hope
But it’s not. First, because, even if it’s true that bad habit grooves are engraved in our minds, we can often change our negative environment. Clear highlights research into the people who appear to be the most self-disciplined and self-controlled. Their secret?
It turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations” (92-3).
That gives us all hope doesn’t it?
“The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment” (93).
The secret to self-control, says Clear is, “Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible” (95). And the Christian does this, of course, in dependence upon God for guidance and decisiveness.
A Second Reason for Hope
But there’s a second reason for hope, and that is Romans 12v2: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
As other science has confirmed, our brains are remarkably “plastic” and can be re-wired, re-grooved, or renewed not only by psychological training but by spiritual training. And if anyone has reason to hope here, it’s Christians. After eleven chapters of filling the mind with the most sublime truths, the Apostle Paul says his great point is mind transformation and the great aim is proving, or demonstrating in practical ways, what God’s good will is for us in this world.
This doesn’t guarantee that God will eradicate all the old grooves of sinful habits. He may leave some traces of these to remind us of our past, to humble us, and to keep us dependent upon him for daily deliverance. But it does mean that as we absorb and imbibe God’s truth, we can expect not just internal but external transformation.
The secret to self-control, therefore, is truth-control.
One of my mentors sets apart a special chair for personal devotions. He told me that when he goes to his study every morning to read his Bible and pray, he always does it in a chair that he reserves for that purpose.
He found that if he sat in his desk chair, his mind was distracted and pulled towards the work that he had to do that day. He could get no peace to settle on seeking the Lord for his own soul. He therefore got an armchair for his study and always uses that for the one purpose of personal devotions.
This means that when he sits in that chair every day, all the sensory cues prompt him to get into personal devotions mode. There’s no internal argument or discussion. The chair “automatically” puts him in the mood and mind for this indispensable foundation of personal spirituality and ministry faithfulness.
I’ve also found this to be true in my own spiritual life and I’ve usually had my own “personal devotions chair” (or sofa) in my study. My personal devotional life is always much better when I’m at home and in my routine, but it’s much more of a struggle when I travel or go on vacation.
I’d never fully understood this until I came across James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. He explains how “over time our habits become associated not with a single trigger but with the entire context surrounding the behavior” (87). He goes on:
“We mentally assign our habits to the locations in which they occur: the home, the office, the gym. Each location develops a connection to certain habits and routines. You establish a particular relationship with the objects on your desk, the items on your kitchen counter, the things in your bedroom.” (87)
The implication is clear; we can train ourselves to link a particular habit with a particular context.
“Habits thrive under predictable circumstances like these. Focus comes automatically when you are sitting at your work desk. Relaxation is easier when you are in a space designed for that purpose. Sleep comes quickly when it is the only thing that happens in your bedroom. If you want behaviors that are stable and predictable, you need an environment that is stable and predictable. A stable environment where everything has a place and a purpose is an environment where habits can easily form.” (90)
Let me give you an example from the ministry. The same mentor who has his “personal devotions chair” also encouraged me to think of my study as a sanctuary, as a tabernacle in which I meet with God and work for God.
As I was thinking about this again recently, I realized that, over time, I had moved away from this principle and that I was also now using my office to read the news, check social media, book vacation flights, and so on. Not like for hours and hours but even just 5-10 minutes a day (and during my break times!).
However, I feared that this had changed my mood and mindset somewhat when I was working in my study. It was no longer a place exclusively dedicated to being with God and working for God. It was no longer a tabernacle. It was now a contextual mixture of cues. I, therefore, used Covenant Eyes to block access to these sites on my work computer, and now only do these things at home, usually using my home iPad
The result was an almost immediate change in my mindset and spirituality when at work. I am not only more productive, but I believe I am closer to the Lord. When I enter my office or open my computer now, the environmental cues are all saying, “David, you are entering a tabernacle, a sanctuary, and the presence of God.” That changes me and my work.
Did you know that the human body has about eleven million sensory receptors and that about ten million of them are dedicated to sight? That gives a whole new meaning to Jesus’s teaching that, “The light of the body is the eye” (Matt. 6:22). By some estimates, half of the brain’s resources are dedicated to vision.
What we see, therefore, is a huge influencer of what we do and what we are. That’s why James Clear devotes so much time in his book, Atomic Habits, to the importance of filling our environment with productive cues and removing unproductive ones. He urges conscious attention to redesigning our environment for our good:
“Environment design is powerful not only because it influences how we engage with the world but also because we rarely do it. Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.” (87)
Clear is primarily concerned with behavior. As Christians, we also want to focus on thoughts and desires. We want to redesign our environment and control what we see in order to maximize good thoughts and desires and minimize evil ones. That may even require us to flee from certain environments and find newer healthier ones.
This isn’t an argument for Pharisaical separation—the Lord can keep us and our eyes even in the midst of multiple tempting visual cues. However, it is a warning to recognize the power of our environment and the influence of our eyes.
And, if we are unavoidably in environments which contain multiple cues to sin, this must prompt us to pray for the Lord to intervene between our eyes and our minds/hearts; to place an obstacle between what we see and what we desire. Otherwise our minds and hearts will be overwhelmed with fighting for purity and peace, and we will inevitably and eventually cave.
But let’s think about this more positively as well. It’s not just, “If your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness,” it’s also, “If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light” (Matt. 6:22-23).
That should encourage us to feed our 10 million visual receptors with all that is true, and beautiful, and good. That may be the true, beautiful, and good words of God. Or it may be the true, beautiful, and good people of God. Or it may be the true, beautiful, and good worship of God. Or it may be the true, beautiful, and good creation of God.
Let’s change or re-design our environment and flood our eyes with light. Then our whole bodies will be full of light!
I’m teaching a Doctor of Ministry course this week at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, so the Check out posts may be a bit sporadic.
5 Actions a Counselor Can Take In-Between Meetings: The Counselor’s Homework
“In biblical counseling, we often talk about the pastor/counselor collaborating with the counselee to develop “homework” assignments for the counselee. What can the counselee do in-between sessions to keep the change going? However, we much less frequently discuss the counselor’s homework. What could we be doing in-between counseling meetings with a counselee in order to prepare for our next session with them? Here are five activities I engage in the week in-between meetings to prepare for an upcoming counseling meeting”
Homeschooling Parents in Germany Lose Right to Educate Their Children
“A European court ruled that German authorities are allowed to forcibly remove children from their home if the parents homeschool. Could that happen in the United States?”
What Is the Opposite of Homosexuality? Why Marriage Is Not My Mission
“Holy sexuality consists of only two paths: chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage — as defined by God to be between a husband and his wife. Chastity is more than simply abstention from extramarital sex; it conveys purity and holiness. Faithfulness is more than merely maintaining chastity in marriage and avoiding illicit sex; it conveys covenantal commitment.”
What Has the Lord Been Teaching You From His Word? – Tim Challies
“Earlier in the week, eager to be encouraged, I put this question out to Twitter: What has the Lord been teaching you from his Word recently? The responses were quick, plentiful, and encouraging. Here are a few of them.”
I Lost Mom, but I’ll Never Lose the Church
“It’s not hard to find articles pointing out the church’s shortcomings. Our reading streams are inundated with digital fingers pointing out her stains and failures. And yes, the church is frail and frequently falls short of her calling. Yet in all her missteps and imperfections, she met me in my sorrow, and she was exactly what I needed.
It doesn’t get any better than this. Three Greidanus books for $12!
Preaching Christ from Daniel $3.99.
There are holy habits and there are unholy habits. How do we tell the difference? Usually it’s pretty obvious, but sometimes there may be uncertainty. How can we tell if a particular habit is good or bad.
In Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, James Clear proposes a question to help us classify our habits.
“Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?” Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good. Habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad.” (65)
From a secular perspective, this is helpful advice. Obviously there’s going to be discord and dissonance if a person’s habits conflict with their actual or desired identity.
From a Christian perspective also, it’s helpful to ask whether our habits conflict with our Christian identity. Do they cast a vote for or against our identity? Do we turn from those that don’t and to those which do?
But, as Christians, we also want to insist that both our identity and our habits are defined by a source external to ourselves. We don’t just make up our identity and then choose habits which work with rather than against that. And we don’t just decide what habits we want and then form an identity from them.
Rather, for the Christian, the Bible is the ultimate source of both our identity and the decision about what is a good or bad habit. And we can be sure that whatever habits God commends in his Word will be consistent and harmonious with our God-given identity. This removes a lot of the guess work and also builds a clear and strong identity. We can say:
God gives the Christian a clear identity in Christ and clear guidance on what is good and bad. When this identity is embraced and this guidance is followed, they will not only multiply each other, but will produce unparalleled inner coherence, harmony, security, and peace.
3 Reasons to Study the Biblical Geography of Israel
Having visited Israel for the first time last year, I can Amen this article
“When we don’t know the land, we don’t really know the whole story. It’s like watching a play without a backdrop or props. Geography drops you right in the middle of the setting of God’s grand narrative and brings it to life. Here are three specific benefits of studying biblical geography.”
5 Leadership Practices Churches Should Adopt From Chick-fil-A
Mark Miller, vice president of high performance leadership for Chick-fil-A, recently addressed a group of pastors and denominational leaders at LifeWay’s Church Partners Summit. Based on his decades-long career at the successful franchise, here are five pieces of advice he gave on how to create an environment where existing and emerging leaders can flourish.
Shelter in the Shame Storm
“Helen Andrews’s essay on online shaming, featuring in the forthcoming January issue of First Things, is the kind of piece that can genuinely change readers. It is a stunningly powerful meditation that is simultaneously personal and sweeping. I can’t even choose a passage to excerpt without feeling like I’m under-representing the quality of writing, so please; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go read Helen’s essay.”
Church Planter, Redefine Success and Seek Emotional Health
“”Can you brothers pray for me? I’m mentally, physically, and emotionally depleted from pushing all week despite being sick. I’m so discouraged I don’t even want to go to our gathering today, let alone preach.” This was a text I sent a few dear brothers several weeks ago. Gripped by anxiety and physically zapped, I sat in my car and sobbed uncontrollably an hour before our worship gathering began. I’d hit a wall. Most church-planting training doesn’t prepare you for these moments.”
The Art of Dying
I love the moving story at the heart of this article.
A Sympathy for Empathy
Good to see Reformed writers exploring the emotions more:
“May we who know the Lord Jesus mature in our faith such that we are willing to draw close to the heart of the one who’s come so close to us. May we take advantage of the means God has given us toward that end. May we have open eyes and hearts to every image-bearer bearing the pains of life in a fallen world, and understand and experience with greater empathy the healing, life-saving work uniquely accomplished in this world by the Word incarnate, the only begotten son of God. ”
An Open Letter to the Student at the Start of a New Semester
“How do we faithfully approach a new semester as Christian students? How do we steward our studies well and honor Christ without idolizing this vocation?”
Let’s quit brainwashing kids that it’s a college degree or nothing | Chicago Sun-Times“I’ve recently read through a few books to study the topic of stewardship. In the process of reading about the use of time, I was helped by a few resources. I’ll share them below with a brief explanation.”
Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?
When liberals start warning about pot use, it’s time to be really worried. And here’s another at Mother Jones: This Reporter Took a Deep Look Into the Science of Smoking Pot. What He Found Is Scary.
The Strength of Waiting
“2019 just might be another year of waiting for you. As you ride in the passenger’s seat of life, practice the secret of strength and rehearse the promises of God. You will not be ashamed. God will renew your weary soul with an enduring strength you thought impossible. He will show you more of Himself. And He will powerfully act on your behalf in the perfect time and with the perfect means.”
Improving Sleep Quality: How is Sleep Quality Calculated?
“It’s no surprise that the amount of sleep you get plays a role in determining your overall health. However, it’s not as simple as assuming that if you were in bed for 8 hours, your sleep is having a positive impact. The quality of that shut-eye also plays a role in a person’s wellbeing; in fact, sleep quality relates more strongly to overall health than sleep quantity. To measure your sleep quality , consider these questions related to the way you fall asleep and how often you wake up during the night. ”
How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation
Long but important article that helps to explain the epidemic of anxiety and depression among younger people.
Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes by Nancy Pearcey $0.79.
The Privilege, Promise, Power & Peril of Doctrinal Preaching by Thomas J. Nettles $1.99
If we want to increase our success in forming good habits and breaking bad ones, we need a specific plan about the what and the where. As yesterday’s article explained, the key sentence to complete is:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
But if you want to move from the Bachelor’s to the Master’s level of habit change, you need to use what James Clear calls habit stacking. He explains,
“Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit” (74).
The habit stacking formula is: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
In other words, it’s using the existence and practice of a current habit to cue a new habit. Using yesterday’s examples, it might look something like this:
- After showering, I will read my Bible in my bedroom.
- After supper on Saturday evening, I will pray for my pastor.
- After getting home from church on Sunday, I will teach my children the Shorter Catechism for 30 minutes.
- After getting into bed, I will read for 30 minutes.
The secret is to use something you do anyway to cue the desired behavior. Here are some examples from Clear’s book:
- Exercise. When I see a set of stairs, I will take them instead of using the elevator.
- Social skills. When I walk into a party, I will introduce myself to someone I don’t know yet.
- Finances. When I want to buy something over $100, I will wait twenty-four hours before purchasing.
- Healthy eating. When I serve myself a meal, I will always put veggies on my plate first.
- Minimalism. When I buy a new item, I will give something away. (“One in, one out.”)
- Mood. When the phone rings, I will take one deep breath and smile before answering.
- Forgetfulness. When I leave a public place, I will check the table and chairs to make sure I don’t leave anything behind. (77)
Get the idea? The key is to identify your current habits and then choose the right habit upon which to stack another habit.
Once the new behavior is established, it can be used to cue another habit, and so the momentum and the stack grows. Think of how many blessed stacks and chains of spiritual habits could be formed with this method.
Postpartum Depression and the Christian
“In some women, however, despair lingers and takes root. Up to 13 percent of mothers suffer from postpartum depression (PPD), which the American Psychiatric Association defines as an episode of major depression during pregnancy or within four weeks following delivery (although many clinicians make the diagnosis within a year postpartum). The effects of clinical depression, heavy on the heart under any circumstance, can prove especially shattering when heaped on top of the strains and expectations of motherhood. ”
Why You Can’t Think Straight When You’re Sleep Deprived
“Sleep deprivation… disrupts levels of chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol, that affect thought, mood, and energy. leaves key areas of the brain in an “always on” state of activation. activates genes that interfere with optimal brain activity.”
American Psychological Association Claims ‘Traditional Masculinity’ Is ‘Psychologically Harmful’
“An influential psychological organization claims that “traditional masculinity” can be psychologically harmful. But in criticizing masculinity they reveal the danger of androgyny.”
How Biblical Doctrine Makes Us Beautiful
“The Reformation was intimately tied to beauty, goodness, and human flourishing because the Reformers were seeing—through Scripture—God’s glory shine. And as God’s glory is made known, it’s in that light that we are saved. It’s in that light of God’s glory that human lives flourish. It’s in seeing the beauty, goodness, and the truth of God that we come more fully alive. ”
Mental Illness and the Church
“These issues can feel overwhelming, but they are an important part of loving the people we serve well. We should be committed to seeking out the best training we have access to so that we may love people in truth. Let’s intentionally seek out ways we can be more effective hands and feet to those struggling with mental illness in our communities.”
Only one book today but well worth getting.
Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method by Sidney Greidanus $3.99.