While sorting through some computer files on Friday, I ended up in the folder that contains all the messages like this one that I’ve ever sent since I started writing them back in 2015. As it would go, today’s message will be the 400th one sent. That’s quite a few, I’d say. Being conservative with the total word count for each, I’m guessing I’ve written at least 480,000 words along the way. Well, what can I say? I’ve spoken clearly over the years regarding my writing illness. For me, it’s an itch, one that, if I don’t scratch it, would likely drive me mad.
Or perhaps it’s better described as a routine. Apart from all the other things I regularly plink out on this keyboard, I’ve tapped through this Sunday morning message so many times for so many years that it’s become a habit. It’s something I just wake up and start doing. I’ve been asked over the years if I worry about finding myself in the moment with nothing to share. I suppose, on occasion, I’ve experienced writer’s block. Still, the short answer to the question is no. When I can’t think of anything to say, I take a quick look around me—whether that means reading an article, reexamining the past week’s events, or just looking out the window. In the end, I always find something worth considering. Once an idea is revealed, I just start typing. Again, it’s second nature—an exercise in the force of habit.
Habits are strange things. Some take a deliberate effort to form. Others seem to happen on their own. Of course, both kinds have the potential to become good or bad. Understanding the gravity of habit, Mark Twain said that to reform one, a person must first realize they are “not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” In other words, if you want to change—if you’re going to overcome and do better—it’ll take steady and deliberate mindfulness.
I used the words “second nature” a few sentences ago. I think there is a reason habits are often referred to in this way. A second nature implies a first nature. A first nature is a primal one. It’s what we’d be if the second nature weren’t laboring to outpace it. Admittedly, I have plenty of first-nature impulses that I suppress with second-nature behaviors. Some of these habits aren’t so good, and I’m working to coax them down the stairs. Other habits I’ve formed serve to help not only me but others, too. One I’ve probably shared with you before is the habit of searching my immediate environment in situations of conflict for cruciform things. By cruciform, I mean cross-shaped. Most of the time, I find something. But sometimes I don’t. Either way, the habit itself is a trained recollection of the Gospel. It’s a reminder that the person on the warpath before me is someone for whom the Lord died. In heated moments, remembering that Christ met me as His enemy and, by His gracious sacrifice on the cross, did what was necessary to make me His friend, the way I handle conflicts changes. It doesn’t mean I’m always successful at diffusing them. Still, I rarely leave such situations regretting what I’ve done or said, mainly because I deliberately tried to steer both of us toward Christ. Without this second nature overpowering my first-nature inclination to win at all costs—an inclination my wife and children know very well from our time together playing games—things would unfold much differently, and it wouldn’t be pretty.
Nevertheless, for this effort to become second nature, it took discipline. I actually had to practice it. Now it just happens.
When it comes to habits, I suppose Christians have the upper hand compared to the world around them. This is true because we know so much more about the first nature—the Sin nature (Romans 3:23). We know that we are innately corrupt and that apart from faith, even the good we might think we do is soiled (Isaiah 64:6). That being said, we also know the Gospel has changed us. The Gospel reveals God’s merciful first nature located in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:8). It brings us the life-altering message of what He has done to save us from our first nature of enmity. This same message—endowed with the Holy Spirit’s power for faith and its fruits—establishes a second nature, a new nature (Colossians 3:9-10). This new nature is ever mindful of the first nature’s dangerous capability and, as a result, works intentionally to outpace it. In other words, it practices spiritual discipline.
Fully aware of Sin’s dreadful grip, Saint Paul wrote straightforwardly:
“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25b).
Paul can write this way because he knows the power of what Christ has done for him on the cross. Naturally, he attributes his ability to wrestle with the Sinful nature to that same power at work in Him. It’s the same for all Christians. We know that because Jesus has defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:26), the first nature of Sin and its poison-filled tendrils have no rightful claim or permanent grip on us. As a result, we see the Law of God in an entirely new light. Like Saint Paul, we delight in it as preeminently useful in the struggle against the first nature. We actually delight in its strictness, counting it all joy when God commands us to observe the routine boundaries of the Ten Commandments. They’re incredibly preserving, so we acknowledge them as useful in the spiritual battle.
We can learn still more from Saint Paul in 1 Cor. 9:24-27:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Employing the verb ὑπωπιάζω (translated as “discipline”), Paul sets before the reader a visceral word that quite literally means to “strike beneath the eye.” It implies struggle. Paul tells the reader he’s doing something essential—sometimes severe—to keep something else “under control” (v.27). He’s taking his new nature in Christ very seriously. He’s actively employing it physically to enslave his first nature to something better.
By the way, maybe you noticed how Paul acknowledged in verse 27 spiritual discipline’s corporate effects. I did. I hope other pastors recognize it, too. Paul wrote plainly that his habits affect others, and if he doesn’t feed the good ones while fighting the bad ones, his work as an apostle could very quickly become of little use not only to himself but to the body of believers to whom God sent him.
Being summertime—a time when worship attendance tends to trend lower—I find Paul’s encouragement toward spiritual discipline to be reminiscent of the habits haunting texts like Hebrews 10:24-25, which reminds all Christians to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Three habits, in particular, appear in this sentence. Those in the habit of attending worship are urged to make a habit of reaching out to those who’ve fallen into the habit of skipping church—which is to say, be in the habit of helping others out of their spiritually bad habits.
I suppose to wrap this up, I’ll simply say I appreciate the piety of habit. Routines born from God’s Word that help to keep one’s heart, soul, and mind set on Christ are good things. It’s one reason I appreciate making New Year’s resolutions. Good habits need a beginning. While I’m at it, I’ll say it’s also why I prefer the historic liturgy to other, more contemporary forms of worship. There’s something to be said for engaging in worship styles that some might categorize as habitual. They involve people saying and doing the same things over and over again. In this case, the habits are centuries-long. And why? Well, they’ve stood the test of time for a reason. For one, the thing about a habit is that it can steer without much help. In one sense, the biblically substantive rites and ceremonies—the communal habits of God’s people—have helped to steer Christian communities through some dark theological days. Looking at all the flighty nonsense today that passes as Christian worship, I appreciate the habit of historic liturgy that much more. It makes it possible for God’s people to go to a church and hear a really screwed-up sermon but still walk away, never missing out on solid biblical teaching. The historic liturgy is designed to keep God’s people immersed in the promises of Christ, no matter the failings of the one leading it. When we mess with this, we mess with an excellent habit.
As one called to lead in such habits—someone who is more than capable of falling short—I’m glad for the second nature of the liturgy. Suppose the government one day decides to snatch away all of our worship volumes (as they’re doing in China), I’m guessing the very first time you gather with fellow Christians in worship to discover you don’t actually need a service book because the liturgy has become habitual, you’ll agree, too.