“You either love Jesus or you love your sin.” It was a true-ish statement, but it was so simplistic that it was dangerously unhelpful. My friend had said it of himself, but with a sense of desperation. He wasn’t sure he was a Christian because, after all, Christians don’t love their sin. In reality, the believer’s struggle with sin is not so simple. The ways in which we confront sin within the body of Christ need to recognize the complexities of habituation.
What we love often determines what we do. This common understanding has permeated many Christian circles, particularly counseling circles. Our desires drive our behaviors, we say, and so we must help people reorient their hearts towards their “first love.” When we love Jesus more, we will love sin less. The statement is true, and yet fails to recognize the inverse is also true: what we do shapes what we love. Our habits form our desires in ways that we too often overlook. James K.A. Smith has exposed this relationship in a very compelling way. In his new book You Are What You Love he states:
The reminder for us is this: if the heart is like a compass, an erotic homing device, then we need to (regularly) calibrate our hearts…It is crucial for us to recognize that our ultimate loves, longings, desires, and cravings are learned. And because love is a habit, our hearts are calibrated through imitating exemplars and being immersed in practices that, over time, index our hearts to a certain end. We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love. These sorts of practices are “pedagogies” of desire, not because they are like lectures that inform us, but because they are rituals that form and direct our affects. (20-21)
Habits are exceedingly powerful. They shape us in thousands of little ways and make the transformation of our behavior, indeed the transformation of our desires, exceedingly difficult. This is an important feature of our humanity that we need to keep in mind as we seek to help one another grow as Christians. We are required, mind you, to help one another grow. The various “one another” commands of Scripture involve us in one another’s spiritual health (Rom. 15:14; Gal. 5:13; Gal. 6:2; Col. 3:13, 16; 1 Thess. 5:11). How we help one another grow, however, needs to keep in mind the complexity of change and the power of habit.
Three Important Factors When We Confront One Another in Love
- Be sensitive to the challenges involved in change. Paul warns us in Galatians 6 not to think that we are somehow special (v. 3). No change is easy. It is likely that you have experienced the challenges of giving up sinful or simply undesirable habits. Maybe you don’t have an addiction to pornography, maybe you’re not an alcoholic, maybe you aren’t prone to angry outbursts, It is likely that you know something about how hard it is to break free of some habits. Be sensitive and demonstrate both sympathy and empathy as you seek to help your friend make progress in their struggle.
- Identify specific impediments to change. It is not enough simply to say, “Stop.” Nor is it enough to chalk failure up to a desire for sin. We need to evaluate what specifically makes change difficult. Is temptation a constant presence? Is there any accountability? Are there any alternative actions available to the person? Perhaps the person desperately wants to change, but in the throes of temptation finds themselves unprepared for the battle. Do more evaluation with your friend to help them identify what makes change in their lives so difficult.
- Begin implementing alternative micro-habits. If we can develop unhealthy habits that drive us towards sinful desires then it is possible to develop healthy habits that drive us towards godly desires. Map out several simple, repeatable, practices that engage the person in godly activity and move them towards godly desires. They must be simple and repeatable to have staying power. The impact will be slow at first, but in the long-run, you will see differences. Take only a few at a time, but once a habit has stuck add another.
These three factors take seriously both our responsibility as brothers and sisters in Christ and the complexity of change. It does not simply rebuke people for faulty loves but encourages them to develop and cultivate new loves through the development of godly habits. Habituation makes a difference in change, don’t forget that as you confront and care for one another.