As I mentioned last Friday, I want to spend some time looking at the importance of things like rituals, habits, rhythms and practices for spiritual formation. Eventually, I will provide definitions for those terms…but for today, let’s start here digging into the idea that you are what you love.
Imagine signing up for a gym membership. You meet with a trainer who asks, “do you believe exercising and eating well will improve your health and enable you to potentially live longer”. You acknowledge that you do, and over the next few weeks, you begin listening to podcasts from the gym about the importance of exercise. You look at the picture of the recipes they suggest you eat. And they do look good. If only you had someone who would come to your house and do all of your cooking, you would gladly eat them instead of your standard fare.
Jump ahead 12 months. With all that you have learned about the importance of eating well and exercising, how many healthy new habits do you imagine you would have begun practising regularly? Probably not too many.
You may have learned a few things about a healthy lifestyle, but if you have not changed your practices and habits, you are not likely to be much healthier than you were a year ago.
If you have ever gone to a gym that provides a trainer, you recognise that those meetings don’t work like that. The trainer will ask you what areas you want to work on. Endurance, cardiovascular, strengthening your core…whatever. Once you’ve agreed on that, they’ll ask a few questions about you…such are “do you currently have healthy practices or are we starting from square one.” Once they have all that info, they will begin to outline a program for you to follow.
While they may encourage you for a while, any change happens because you decided to trade out some old habits/patterns/rituals for some healthy ones. And not just showing up to the gym and using the equipment. It could be walking to the store rather than driving. Eating a piece of fruit during a break instead of a doughnut. You get the idea. If you want to see long term changes, you have to change patterns and habits. And while the changes feel forced and unnatural at first, there will come a time when you do them without even thinking.
Most people typically gain all of the weight back (and more) after going on a diet. The reason is that to lose the weight, they lived in an unsustainable way for a while. Then when they reached their goal, they started back on all of the habits that previously led to their needing to lose weight.
But alas, this is not a weight loss blog.
We Are All Being Formed
In many ways, we are a collection of habits, rhythms, and patterns that we practice repeatedly. These habits, practices and rhythms form us. They can’t help but form us.
In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard points out that spiritual formation is not simply something that happens within a religious context. Instead, it is a process that happens to every individual regardless of what type of person they are. He adds,
“We each become a certain kind of person in the depths of our being, gaining a specific type of character. And that is the outcome of a process of spiritual formation as understood in general human terms that apply to everyone, whether they want it or not.”Renovation of the Heart (pp.19-20)
Think of people who struggle with addiction issues. And while some of us are more genetically and environmentally predisposed to certain types of addiction, we can’t fail to recognise the power of habit. Something was done the first time. And it was repeated. And eventually, it became a habit. And that habit is formative.
When talking about addiction, that is usually obvious to us. Yet when we meet generous or kind people, we don’t always recognise that they did not become generous and kind overnight. They may have been more predisposed to it, but they had practices, habits, and rhythms that, over time, formed them into a certain type of person.
Why are We Resistant to Spiritual Practices?
One of the negative side effects of the Reformation was that faith and works were pitted against each other. There was such an emphasis on the importance of salvation being by faith…something that was entirely God’s doing, and not something we earned through good works, that good works, for many became optional at best and often discouraged.
The result is that we in the West have inherited a Christianity that can often be reduced to “just believe the right things, and don’t mess up too bad”. (Which Willard in another book calls “the gospel of sin management.”) In this model, Christlikeness is irrelevant. And often, it is warped to the point where we simply make a Jesus that looks like us.
So, what’s the problem?
Believing the right things does not change you
In his book You Are What You Love, James K A Smith claims that people (that would include you and me) do not act based on what they believe; they act based on what they love.
For example, I may decide today, “I’ve watched too much Netflix lately. Tonight I’m going to read a good book.” But I get home after a long day and settle in on the couch. Am I more likely to reach for the book or the remote?
Most likely, I will do what I habitually do. And what I habitually do will be based not on what I believe is best for me but instead on what I love. In the moment, I will do the thing that brings me joy.
This isn’t a judgement that one is good and one is bad. I am simply pointing out that our behaviour moment to moment is shaped not by what we think is best for us. It is shaped by what we love…what we desire. What brings us pleasure and joy.
Now, I need to say this because of the churches some of us were raised in. Desire, joy, and pleasure are not bad things. God created us as creatures who desire. He created us to experience joy and pleasure. The problem arises for us when our desires are oriented towards things that are “deforming”. Things that, as we participated in them, make us less human, not more human.
That’s why we can know facts about eating, exercise, saving money, avoiding debt, and the importance of exercising your brain (and the list goes on) and yet still not do them. We may be able to list all the reasons that we should be doing them…but that necessarily doesn’t translate into action.
So to wrap this up for today, here are two questions: What is something you are good at? How did you become good at it?