One lesson that I have learned from coaching basketball is that the habits we develop in our lives during the moments of relative ease and comfort will shape how we react in moments of challenge and difficulty. Time after time I have seen the players who spend time practicing certain skills and movements outside of games naturally excel in games because they have trained themselves to do the necessary action without thinking. There are tremendous parallels with this in the spiritual journey as well. (Read more about that here.)
It has become increasingly clear to me (mainly from my own experience) that most of what we think are our “actions” are really just “reactions” driven by some deeply embedded habits, needs, or perceptions. The key to changing our lives is to bring change at that deeper level of the subconscious rather than merely try to fight against it on the surface level with our own willpower. This is a daunting task, and one that I am convinced we can’t accomplish on our own. As a Christian, I believe this is an area where we are dependent on the Spirit of God working in us. But that doesn’t mean we are merely passive vessels who have no role to play in the process. A basketball player who stays late in the gym, taking an extra 500 shots to embed the correct form into their muscle memory will, over time, become a better shooter in live games. In the same way, we can “practice” certain activities on a consistent basis, allowing the Spirit to use them to shape us in deep and often unexpected ways.
One “practice” is weekly corporate worship. I know it sounds trite and legalistic to tell you the importance of coming to church on Sunday, but I’ve seen what happens when people do…and when people don’t. Time and again I have seen people who keep coming back, even when church seems boring or irrelevant, weather storms that those who only come when it’s convenient succumb to. There is something that happens to us over time as we weekly develop the habit of worship in the context of a local community. (Read more about that here.) Our repeated practices form habits, and those habits form us. They shape our loves, our wants, our longings and desires. James K.A. Smith writes, “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behaviour flow…discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.” (You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, p.2)
The same is true of other “practices” in life. As we give ourselves to them, whether they be helpful or harmful, they shape our “loves” which in turn shape our actions. In order to change our actions we need to cultivate habits that shape our loves in ways that help us to grow instead of ways that leave us stuck in destructive or debilitating patterns of living. We take “action” to shape our loves in a way that will in turn form the “reactions” that flow out of them.
I think there are two challenges that come along with this truth. (Actually there are many, but I’m going to highlight two.) First, we are far too confident of our own ability. We think that the key to change is just knowing what to do and applying the willpower to do it. How’s that working for you? Even if that does work for you now, I’d wager the family farm that at some point in your life your willpower tank will hit empty and you’ll find yourself doing things you know not to do, despite your won best intentions. Our own self-reliance has to change to humility and we have to begin to embrace the wisdom of practices that have been handed down to us throughout generations. Simple tasks that shape us to be different people. If we aren’t willing to humbly embrace what others point us toward, we will continue to swim in circles, never making progress.
The second challenge is that our instant society wants change to come quickly, and if possible, easily. Love-shaping habits and practices take time. They change us on a deep level, but not quickly. Most people give up before the practices they are participating in bear fruit. Often we don’t even see the fruit until after it appears. That means unless we stick to the practice consistently over time, we often lose the impact of what is happening under the surface before it ever bubbles to the top.
Sunday morning corporate worship is just one of a long list of practices that God can use to shape us deep within our soul. I believe church has to become a place that “trains” people to “practice” these habits that shape them on this deeper, subconscious level. I’m so committed to this idea that I’ve decided to return to school in the fall. I’ll be pursuing a D.Min at ACTS Seminaries looking at how the church can both shift our understanding of how spiritual change and transformation actually happens as well as structure ourselves to help people embrace these and develops this soul shaping habits. I’m telling you this because I am sure that this site will become a place where I think out loud along the journey. Please feel free to weigh in and critique or engage with the ideas I’m presenting. And thanks for reading. I appreciate the mental real estate that you allow me to walk across in your own life.