Approaching Habit Change as a Whole Person

Unrelated photo that made me smile. Thanks to Lex Aliviado on Unsplash.

The things that ought to be done seem the hardest to do. More or less, this is a perennial human problem. The things that don’t need to be done are so much more appealing.

Some of us are perpetual procrastinators. We look at the important things on our to-do list and, almost by instinct, our eyes bounce to the shorter, simpler tasks.

Some of us walk a darker path. Our motivations are trained on the forbidden, and our we find ourselves frighteningly boxed in by destructive habits. But still, we don’t “feel like” changing our ways.

We can say with David, “my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me” (Psalm 40:12). Many have cried out for God’s deliverance and have experienced his help. But often we slip back into our old ways. Or, we have implemented a practical plan for change, but have been unable to sustain the habits.

The new year – and in this case, the new decade — gets us thinking about how we’d like to improve our lives. Now is the time to kick the bad habits and start the new lifestyle we’ve been eyeing from a distance. What is holding you back? What makes it so difficult?

Two worlds at work

The truth is, we live in two worlds, and any succesful approach to change will acknowledge that. We live in the obvious, tangible world around us. But another, less defined but more powerful world influences us as well. It’s the realm of the unseen, the spiritual, the emotional; it’s the person that you are even if your body changes completely. It’s hard to define, although many seek to clarify it.

Solutions for lifestyle changes often emphasize one reality over the other. “Change your environment to make habit change easier” – this seeks to fix the physical world, but ignores the spiritual. “Be set free from the bonds of sin, and your life will reflect your heart change” – this acknowledges the power of the spiritual but minimizes the practical reality.

We tend to feel more comfortable boiling the issue down to one area, especially one area we have not tried to address before. We seek the missing element that has made positive change so elusive.

In truth, our lives are an interweaving of the two realms. They are inseparable and interdependent.

Our thoughts are the intersection

Perhaps the place where the two worlds interconnect most directly is in our conscious thoughts. For this reason, psychology and self-help methods seek to influence our manner of thinking, to access both the unseen condition within us as well as our day-to-day actions.

If you have bounced from one method of lifestyle change to another, trying to find the plan that will work for you, consider a more integrated approach.

You are a whole being: body, soul, mind, and spirit. Your past experiences, your future hopes, and your present environment all infuence your choices.

The chief command in both Judaism and Christianity is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4). We must bring all of ourselves to the table in order to fully love God, love those around us, and live the way we’re designed to live.

How to integrate both worlds

So here are some practical ideas for integrating both the unseen and the seen in your life, whether you’re trying to start a new habit or get unstuck from an old way of living.

  1. Say “thank you” to God for 5 things outside of you and 5 things inside of you. (For example, thank him for providing a home for you, and thank him being with you always.)
  2. Consider the various attempts you’ve made to change in the past. What has worked, even if it was temporary? What has helped you to improve even slightly? Think about how the internal and external world have played a role in those attempts.
  3. Visualize yourself on a journey toward the lifestyle you want. Every tiny attempt you make is a step in the right direction. As you journey, you are growing stronger as a person – this is the unseen realm. You also are learning to use tools to help you – this is the physical realm. Express gratitude for the ways your journey has shaped you and for the tools you’ve gained. Ask God for the strength and the tools you’ll need going forward.
  4. Ask someone to pray for the practical stuff. Often, we keep our prayer requests really vague and make them sound holy. We might say, “I want to honor God with my finances,” but what we really mean is, “I plan to give and save more this year, but I’m a habitual overspender. I need God’s help.” Be specific and honest with trusted people.
  5. Think of the times when you deny yourself or do something hard as little gifts to God or to your loved ones. You can even set a timer and say to yourself, “Because I love God, who made my body, I’m going to wait 20 minutes to let this craving pass.” Or write a note, “Dear God, I wanted to demand an apology from my coworker today, but I let it go. That was for you.”

The idea is to integrate your perception of where change comes from. It’s true that your heart needs to change in order for your life to change. That is the unseen world influencing the seen. At the same time, you are continually influenced by the world around you, no matter how strong you are on the inside.

So as you’re seeking out change for this new decade, resist the temptation to boil down your efforts in one realm or the other. You are a whole person. You have the opportunity to love God with your whole self and to share your whole self with others.

Excuses

The time is always right to do what is right. – MLK, Jr.

I’ve been reading a “how to” book called Sacred Rest. One would think it would be a short book. “Put this book down and close your eyes.” End of story. It’s not that short—there are a bunch of chapters and loads of insights to work through.

The author, Saundra Dalton-Smith, is a medical doctor, but more importantly, she is a Type A working machine by nature, as are most doctors, I would assume. After doing a bit of diagnosing on what kind of rest we’re most in need of—physical, emotional, creative, etc.—and prescribing treatment for each type of rest depletion—a calming walk by a lake for sensory overload, for example—she proceeds to wade through some of the common obstacles we face when trying to get adequate rest.

The issue for most of us has to do with our habits. Habits of routine are things we do without being aware of making the choices we’re making. Habits of thought are inward reactions we make without trying. Changing almost any habit is truly challenging.

This goes for all kinds of areas we want to improve: spending less time on our screens, eating better, lashing out in anger less often, etc. Dr. Saundra links all these things to having adequate rest, by the way. Lifestyle choices are both affected by and affect our level of restedness.

My personality is rather Type A, but as I barely passed high school chemistry, I never considered becoming a doctor. Also I get queasy when people describe the medical procedures they’ve endured. Aside from those things, I think I’m plenty Type A to be a doctor.

I’m always thinking about how to improve my life, and in my better moments, I’m also thinking about how to improve others’ lives. Someone once told me bluntly and without compassion that perfectionism is not of God. That’s obviously absurd because God himself is perfect.

What she meant was that my drive to always improve sometimes need to rest in the grace God extends to the imperfect. Okay, fine, but there is something God-ordered in me that wants things to be right.

Yet I often do the wrong thing out of habit.

One paragraph in Dr. Saundra’s book struck me as very to the point. She asks questions which only the best of friends has the care, time, and guts to ask:

  • What excuses do you make for not living the way you know you should?
  • Why are you making these excuses?
  • What are these excuses preventing you from experiencing?
  • How are these excuses limiting your ability to get what you want?
  • Why are you settling for a life of excuses?

Thinking through the answers to these questions cleared out some of the clutter in my mind. Many of my excuses have to do with procrastination: Next time, I’ll get it right. This time, I’m off the hook.

But Dr. King, who seemed to do the right thing to the very end, makes it simple. What I do next time is irrelevant. It’s what I do this time that matters. It’s always the right time to do the right thing.

“Be very careful, then, how you live, not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:15-16

What some days are like: raw edition

“The inbound train is an express train and it will not stop.”

I hear the station’s announcement system over the piano and strings playing in my earbuds. Sure enough, the train shuttles through quietly. At the intersection of the tracks and the road, red and white bars have previously lowered themselves without ceremony. Lights flash on and off without sound.

The piano in my ears arpeggiates in rolling consistency, almost in time with the chug of the train. It’s a short train, just a few cars of busy people who live in the far out suburbs of Chicago. They ride the express to their high-paying jobs while it is light in the morning. On their way home, their seats on the train will be lit with a greenish glare, revealing their heads bent down at 45 degrees, both absorbed and bored by their cell phones.

Behind the train rises a clutter of litter. One piece of white something rises above, caught in a current. It whips around with surprising grace, tracing after the route of the train until it passes out of my view.

The violin and cello rasp in their comforting earthy way, and tears freeze on my cheeks.

After my dad died, I felt like I had been shouting at a locomotive. The will of God would not stop for me and my childish voice. The sovereign path of the Almighty was predecided and nothing I could say would change that.

It’s been four and a half years since I sat on the steps in my backyard and mentally watched the locomotive go by. And I told God I felt like he hadn’t heard me.

It only took a few months for me to see myself as a passenger on the train again. Maybe I didn’t have the authority to call for a stop at any given station, but I was en route to where God was going. I knew my work as a missionary had purpose and my goals were more or less seated in the expectation of his Kingdom advancing.

I still expect the Kingdom to come, but without explictly working for that end, it’s hard to know where I stand, or sit, or ride. Getting off the missionary train has meant that I sleep more, spend more time with my kids, and feel a lot more confused about my life.

Today, I know less than ever. I’m like the white something fluttering noiselessly behind the express train. God is going somewhere. I want to go too.

Untitled, for now.

Today I noticed the little nest is gone. Outside the kitchen windows of our rental home, there are three wooden perches built for birds to nest in. This summer, when we moved into this home, our whole family watched attentively as a robin settled into a prebuilt nest. She spruced it up a bit and laid her fabulously fragile eggs. She hovered obsessively over them, and after they hatched, she fed them with religious consistency. After a week or two, the baby birds would stick out their necks and circle their heads around wildly in search of food until their mother fed them and sat on them. Then one day, the birds were gone.

This fall, my ten-year-old son and I have enjoyed the antics of a particular squirrel who frequents the now barren bird perches. One day, the squirrel sat there shivering with his tail draped inadequately over his back. John couldn’t stand watching him without offering him succor. He wanted to get him a blanket, but I told him there was no way it would work. The squirrel would run away before letting a human put a blanket on him.

Last week, I noticed the squirrel had placed a few bulky nuts in the dried out nest. I told John about it when we were headed off somewhere in the van. “It’s like he said to himself, ‘oh what a nice little basket for my nuts.'” John chuckled with appreciation at my humanizing the squirrel’s inner monologue. And I felt this: who else in my whole life would have found that funny? It was a moment of friendship.

Today the nest is gone. It probably toppled out of its perch, unable to hold onto the oversized nuts. I feel a little regret, because I’m not sure if John got to see the squirrel’s little basket.

I will try to remember to ask him. I will try to remember how the chuckle sounded when I told him and the way his shoulders shook a little. He’s almost a preteen and more often than not, his reactions seem chosen. Like there is a shelf of ways to laugh, emphatic expressions, and disinterested shrugs. They are the right ways to act when one hears something funny or epic or lame.

He has always desired what is right. And I know he has to obssess for a while about being thought of as “right” by his peers, whose acceptance is a discombobulated puzzle. Please God, let him have seen the funny little basket of nuts so we can both remember the simple squirrel and the mama bird who knew when her babies were grown.

Getting personal with Thanksgiving

THANKS to Myriam Zilles from Pixabay for this photo 🙂

one in ten gives thanks

One day, Jesus was walking along and heard in the distance people shouting to get his attention. “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us!”

He saw several men standing off aways, wrapped in the tell-tale lepers’ bandages. They were following Jewish protocol by avoiding contact with those who were healthy. But they had heard of Jesus’ powers and compassion and knew he could heal them too.

Interestingly, Jesus mirrored the attention the lepers were paying to the Jewish law. He replied to their requests by telling them to go show themselves to the priest, who would verify their healing. This was according to instructions given for lepers in Leviticus. Jesus honored the respect that the lepers showed for the law.

Heading out to find the priest before they were actually healed would have been an act of faith. But these guys had nothing to lose. As they were obeying Jesus’ instructions, they were healed. One of the former lepers turned around and ran back to Jesus, thanking him profusely.

I imagine Jesus laughing in agreement with the man’s overwhelming joy. This particular man was a Samaritan, and Jesus noted that he was the only one who came back to give thanks, even though he was a “foreigner.” In other words, the Jewish men had forgotten to thank Jesus because they were focused on following the rules.

Jesus affirmed the Jewish men’s observance of the law by healing them in a way that worked in concert with what they had been taught. But he also affirmed the way the Samaritan remembered that his healer was a person, not a system.

cultural norms Jesus affirms

All cultures have their protocol. For U.S. Americans, Thanksgiving and the weeks leading up to it is chock full of unconscious cultural norms. Many of these, I believe, are customs that Jesus would affirm.

  • Spending more time with family and friends
  • Expressing gratitude for the good things in our lives
  • Baking and cooking for each other
  • Appreciating the beauty of the changing seasons
  • Planning on overeating (not sure Jesus would get behind this one, although he was certainly into feasting!)

Most cultures around the world have some form of harvest festival, when joy is shared over the provision of the year’s crops. So it’s not like Americans came up with Thanksgiving as a purely Christian concept. But a general sense of acknowledging God pervades the “I’m thankful for…” conversations and Facebook posts this time of year.

Like the one Samaritan leper went along with the 9 Jewish lepers, we can participate in Thanksgiving customs by joining in what everyone else is doing. And there’s a lot of value in that.

stepping away for a moment

We get a peek into Jesus’ personality in this parable. He appreciates tradition. But he also appreciates people going beyond what’s expected and acting with sincerity. The Samaritan treated Jesus like a real person, not an icon.

It’s almost like the automatic nature of cultural norms makes it hard to do them with full consiousness and sincerity. We participate in traditions because they feel right or because people are expecting us to do them. But like the Samaritan former leper, we can step away from the pack for a moment to bring a deeper level of sincerity to our traditions.

What would stepping away to thank Jesus look like for you? How can you acknowledge that Jesus is a person who has healed you and given you all these things? The answer will be different for all of us. But here are some ideas:

call Jesus by his first name

When you have the chance to state publicly what you’re thankful for, dare to include Jesus’ name in your thanks. It’s culturally normative to say, “I’m thankful for”… but not specifying to whom you’re thankful! It’s also usually acceptable to say, “I thank God for…” But identifying Jesus specifically is often going a little far. So try stepping aside from what’s expected by acknowledging him in front of others.

use your imagination

In a quiet moment, employ your imagination to bring to life in your mind the scene of the former leper thanking Jesus.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.

Luke 17:15-16

Imagine this scene happening right in front of you, in your living room or wherever you are. Now put yourself in that healed person’s place. You are standing in front of Jesus, or kneeling or bowing. What profuse thanks does he deserve? What has he done for you that no one else could do?

The truth is that Jesus is always with us, and imagining him standing in your living room is not that far from reality.

make a meaningful list

Pick a number that’s significant to you. Maybe it’s your age or the number of years you’ve been married. Maybe it’s the number of months since you lost someone you loved or the address number of your new house.

Now, make a numbered list either mentally or on paper of things you’re thankful for associated with that thing. The larger your number, the more specific and creative you’ll have to get.

Writing down your list gives you the opportunity to save it and reflect on next year. But the list approach is also handy for occupying your mind in a constructive way when writing it down is impractical. If you’re having a hard time falling asleep, a thanksgiving list is more interesting than counting sheep! Other opportunities for a mental list are when you’re standing in a long line or when you’re feeling especially grumpy (which may be due to standing in a long line! Black Friday, anyone?)

Let’s make the season of Thanksgiving personal this year. We can get creative and intentional as we give thanks to the person of Jesus, who has so generously transformed our lives.

What grief and abiding with Christ have in common

I’m just going to lay out here some of the reasons this post has been getting stuck in the pipeline of my brain: 

  • Abiding with Christ is supposed to be a positive thing, so it doesn’t do to compare it with grief.
  • Abiding with Christ is not really a neatly packaged idea in the Bible. Is my shorthand way of referring to this concept appropriate? 
  • Grief can come from so many places, some of them villainous toward God and his people. Will it be confusing for people who are taking into account the destructive potential of grief when I compare it to abiding with Christ? 

Sometimes it’s risky to think in new ways. So bear with me as I explore this topic without giving parenthetical comments at every turn. I recognize that every person’s experience with both of these topics is unique — aha! Our first similarity! 

Both grief and abiding with Christ are happening in the background while life goes on 

Whatever its source, grief resists being segmented into one moment of our lives or another. I remember driving to work one morning and a tender song came on the radio which turned my thoughts to my dad, who had passed away 9 months prior. It happened to be my parents’ wedding anniversary, and as I drove, I opened my heart to God. 

I grieved the loss of my parents’ marriage as old folks.I expected them to forever be strolling on the beach together, walking more slowly as time wore on, but always together. Heart disease took my dad early. Now my mom takes walks on the beach by herself. 

When I arrived at work, I was nowhere near composing myself. I tried to stuff my heart back in and get a hold of myself, but it was not happening. I ended up texting my team to let them know I needed a little time. I just went ahead and told them I was having a hard morning “because of my dad,” which they understood. I miss that team. 

Truly it only took 15 minutes or so for me to find my emotional bearings and get to the meeting. But the tension remained underneath my sincere interest in my work: my family has lost something we’re not getting back. 

Now, four years after my dad’s passing, that tension remains in my heart. I don’t always feel it, but it’s always there, pulling at my insides, reminding me that life is not what it should be. 

Weirdly, abiding in Christ works this way too. 

On another instance when I was supposed to be heading into a meeting with that same team, I had been reading Revelation in a quiet library. I found myself wrapped up in wonder about Jesus revealing himself in glory. I was crying as soundlessly as possible, and although I had somewhat composed myself for the meeting, I just had to share with the team when I got there. (My team was made up of other believers in ministry with me. Quite a luxury!) I was obnoxious and loud about it. I imagine they had no idea what to say, because I wasn’t being very socially predictable. And then it was time to go on with our meeting. 

For the rest of the day, I carried around this burning in my heart that our Lord is risen and real, and that one day my imagination will be proved paltry in comparison with his actual glory.

You may have ascertained that I am an emotional person. 

But even for those of us who live more in their heads than in their hearts, the truth is that we’re all living in two realities at once. 

Grief reminds us of this as often as we think of the person, place or thing which we have lost. There is a reality in which that good thing was present. And there is also the reality in which that good thing is absent. Two realities carry on inside of us. 

The truest reality for Christians is that we are always abiding in Christ. We are seated with him in the heavenly realms. [What?? What can that possibly mean?] It’s impossibility of being fulfilled in this tangible reality means that there is another reality in which we have a chair next to Jesus.

(Can you imagine? You’re seated next to Christ at dinner and he asks, “how was your day?” Then he offers to pray for you after you’ve poured out your heart about your hopes and difficulties. I want to go to that dinner where somehow everybody gets to sit next to Jesus.) 

If grief creates a layer of tension in our lives, held taut between this life and the one we’ve lost, then abiding with Christ is another layer of tension, held between this life and the one we’ve been promised. We become multilayered people.

Both grief and abiding in Christ add a layer of tension to our lives

If we want to be healthy while living a multilayered life, we have to give focused attention to the hidden layers at times. If we do, they will support us and become part of our fabric. If we don’t, they will unravel and make us dis-integrating people. (Our position with Christ doesn’t change even if we let that layer unravel. But our awareness of it, our appreciation of it, and the extent to which it influences our daily lives can disintegrate, which creates a whole mess inside of us.)

This focused time needs to be characterized by a few common elements, in my observation:

  1. Free from distraction, 
  2. Respected by those who love us (free from unnecessary interruption), 
  3. Marked by honesty with God, (free to say or feel the “wrong” things)
  4. Free to be emotional or not. 

Parents of young children notoriously struggle to find this kind of time, but God’s grace is abundant. He can do so much with just a few moments of time. Also, one way the Church can be a family to one another is enabling time like this to happen for parents and other caretakers of young ones. Our children will be well-supported by healthy, multilayered parents. 

Two differences

One of the big differences between grief and abiding with Christ is that our attention to grief tends to be on an as-needed basis. And many believers seek to pay attention to our abiding with Christ on a daily basis.

An even more significant difference is that grief will one day be resolved, but abiding with Christ will become all there is. The tension will be absorbed in the reality we’ve been longing for. That which was will become part of the beauty of that which will be forever.

The truest truth

The truest thing is the one that will be true the longest.

A tongue twister for the brain: Some things are true today that will not be true tomorrow. Those those things are less true than other things that are true today but will also be true tomorrow. The things that are the truest are the things that will be true forever.

Relativism has been seen as a butcher’s knife to the systems of western religion. “What’s true for you might not be true for me.” “The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.”

But Christians could gain from the postmodern reassessment of truth. Indeed, we’ve worked hard on repackaging the ageless truth of who God is and what he wants from us without diminishing the gift of what’s inside the package. These efforts are laudable. Unfortunately some of our response to relativism has been to wield a butcher’s knife of our own, and seek to shred this opposing worldview into pieces.

Relativism is based more on experience than on logic. Logic in itself is not Christian, but Christianity can mostly be explained using logic. What if Christianity can also be explained using relativism? I know I may be freaking some people out. I’m still on the orthodox team. I’m just exploring ideas.

There are some things that are true today that will not be true tomorrow. It is raining. (That’s why I’m writing and not taking my morning walk.) Tomorrow it may not be raining, so it would no longer be true to say, “It is raining.” (Logic would insist that it is still true that it was raining on Saturday. But relativism focuses on experience, so if I am not presently experiencing rain, the important thing is that it is not raining.)

The trouble comes when we give equal weight to the truths that are true today compared with the truths that have always been true and will always be true.

Does that make sense? Here are several truths: It is raining today. God rewards the faithful. I have 27 things on my to-do list. My children are entrustments from our heavenly Father. We made plans to hang out with friends tonight.

Flattening out all those truths means I’m giving them the same level of attention and basing decisions on them equally. Treating them all as similarly significant to me at any moment is to forget that some truths are truer than others because they last longer.

There are at least two ways that remembering the relativity of truth can help us walk in the light of eternity :

#1. Assigning hierarchy to truth. It is true that there are 27 things on my to-do list. (I like detail, okay?) It is also true that my kids are an entrustment to me. The latter is more significant than my responsibility to my list.

Some of the items on my list reflect how valuable my children are to me. But which truth will be a weightier influence on my mentality and focus today? I say to myself, “It will be a good day if I get all 27 things done.” But what if I measured my day this way: “It will be a good day if I care well for my kids”?

#2. Turning jealousy on its head. Jealousy is based on the truth of the moment. “Why does she get to [fill in the blank] while I’m here doing [fill in the blank?]” The disparity between our lifestyles or opportunities is very real right now. But the question based on the longest-standing truth is, “What will eternity look like for each of us? Will my Father reward me in the long-run for serving him patiently here and now?”

Side note: we often are most jealous of the life we thought we’d be living. Discontentment is born when our present reality doesn’t meet our expectations. The thing is not that our expectations are ill-founded and unreasonable. They’re just ahead of the game! The truth is that there is a time when Christ will be all in all, he will make everything right, and he will reward the faithful.

The truest thing is the one that will be true the longest. That’s why, after losing his family at sea, the hymn writer could say, “It is well with my soul.” I’m sure his feelings were about as stormy as the waters that wrecked his loved one’s boat. But he anchored himself in the truest of truths.

Our days on earth are like grass;
    like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone—
    as though we had never been here.
But the love of the Lord remains forever
    with those who fear him
. – Psalm 103:15-17