All of us form habits. We set down repeating rhythms for our lives, whether we realize it or not. It is these patterns that shape us into the people we are. Naturally, you would think then if you developed good habits, you would be a good person.
Suppose I wanted to be a good Christian, for example, and was careful to develop the habits of church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, faithful adherence to the rituals of the liturgical calendar, giving to the poor and the like. How could I be anything but a good Christian?
If only it were so simple.
Throughout the Bible, we discover that it's the experts of religious habit keeping that receive the greatest condemnation. It is these most astute practitioners of habitual religion that draw out of Jesus his most venomous reproach.
So what gives? Should I focus on the development of good habits or worry that they will lead me astray?
Many years ago, I had to stop working out in the gym. I had developed a weightlifting habit in my football playing days and had carried on with it. My muscles were big; I felt strong and in shape. So why did I stop? As my muscles grew, so too did my opinion of myself. It became a problem. It was almost imperceptible at first. 'This is me with greater confidence,'; I concluded. The truth was it was me with an "I'm bigger so I must be better" chip on my shoulder. As my biceps grew, the value of the people around me shrank. I started noticing how incompetent and weak people were becoming. I began to let them know. Then one day, after a rather aggressive dressing down of a friend who had become my lesser, it dawned on me what was happening.
The good habit of physical fitness had become the conduit through which I had been led astray. Similarly, the good habits that practitioners of faith develop can also become the noose through which they hang themselves.
How does this happen? One ancient prophet put it this way. "They honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" Where did their hearts go? The Christian vision of the good life has our hearts going upwards in love and affection towards God. The habits of our lives are formed toward that end. Unfortunately, the human heart effortlessly, instinctively and frequently pulls U-turns and moves back in on itself. The love and affection intended for God descends upon the self. In the blink of an eye, good habits become rhythms of self-glorification. Tinges of guilt push back against this new master, but they are quickly squashed when we begin to compare our good habits with those that fail to live up to our standards. I pray better than them. I give more than them. I stay faithful to my Bible reading program more than them. I don't participate in sinful activities like them. I keep the rituals of the church calendar more than them. If ever the word "them" flops out of your mouth accompanied by a bitter condescending taste, you know right away that your heart is travelling at light speed away from God. You've fallen into a noose that is tightening around your neck through the practice of your own good habits!
As crazy as this sounds, some of us might need to take a break from our religious practices for a while. They might be doing more harm than good! Scandalize your congregation - miss a Sunday and go on a long walk in the woods. As the fresh air fills your nostrils and the crisp fall leaves crunch under your feet, try to remember why you go to church for in the first place. Stop doing all the right things for a little bit and take whatever time you need to remember that the spiritual rhythms of your life are designed to be upward movements of your heart towards a mysterious and wonderful God whom you long to know and love.
As the years went by, I managed to find other ways to stay in shape besides my biceps' enlargement. Methods that weren't as showy. Maybe that's another big part of healthy spiritual practice. We don't develop our habits for show. Our spiritual life is not a talent competition. Surely this must be why Jesus says things like
"But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you."