How to Form Christlike Habits

January 6, 2019 ()

Bible Text: Galatians 5:16-25 |

How to Form Christlike Habits | Galatians 5:16-25
Del Fehsenfeld | January 6, 2019

Well, good morning, everybody. Good to see you. My name is Del, for those of you who don’t know me, and it’s good to be back. I’m honored to be here this morning with you. Pastor Brian will be back next week. I talked to him this morning, and I know we’re all looking forward to that.

I think the world is divided up into two kinds of people: those who put people into categories and those who don’t - no. Those who make resolutions, New Year’s resolutions, and those who hate them. I’m sure if we were to take a poll this morning we would be divided. I’m one that likes to reflect and to commit going forward.

But regardless of whether you make those resolutions or not, we all long for transformation. We all want to move beyond the places that we are where we’re stuck, and we want to move into more life and more goodness, and we believe that in Jesus Christ that’s our hope and our destiny, right?

So, whether you’ve made those resolutions and have already broken them or never got up for the attempt so far in the New Year, we have to wrestle with the question, why is it so difficult? Why is it so hard to change? So we’re going to talk about that this morning, and we’re talking about habits and how they function in our lives, good and bad; and also the vision for becoming like Christ, the vision of transformation to develop Christlike character and the freedom of his life in us. So, that’s where we’re going to be this morning. Our key text will be in Galatians 5, if you want to find that, but we’ll be moving around a bit as we discuss this.

So, I’ve had the experience with teenagers of going through this, and they go through it differently, teens do, but the whole prospect of driving, right? Think about it for a second. You probably remember this yourself: you got in the car originally and someone showed you, you know, “This is the ‘go’ pedal, this is the ‘stop,’ this is the steering wheel; don’t get them confused,” you know, that kind of thing.

Do you remember the incredible effort it took to keep all that straight? “Which is my right foot, which is my - what am I supposed to push, and which way is which?” Sometimes you pass these kids in driver’s training (and admit it, some of you like to mess with them a little bit, right?), but they’re gripping the wheel, and it’s almost like sweat’s coming down their brow. It’s requiring so much effort and concentration to keep that car inside the navigational buoys and to make it to the destination, right?

Now, fast forward five or ten years, 15 years. Isn’t it a common occurrence that you’ll get behind the wheel of a car, and maybe you’ve just come out of a meeting at work or you’ve just had a test at school or a conversation with a friend, and your mind really isn’t on what you’re doing, you know? I’ve had the experience of actually arriving home, you know, in my driveway, and thinking to myself, “Oh my goodness! I don’t remember the trip!” Right? I mean, you were so absorbed in some sort of thought experiment or whatever with yourself that you - you know, how is it possible that you didn’t die?

Well, what happens, you know, in that process as a simple, everyday thing is an example of how we’re hardwired as human beings to automate behavior. So what happens is, things that we do often and repetitively become automatic. So that example of driving, we both concentrate and yet we don’t. We have the ability to do more than one thing at a time because of the wonders of our brain and our body that automate our behavior.

So, we might say that, you know, 40 per cent, actually, of our daily activities and decisions are carried out by our bodies on auto-pilot. Did you know that 6 out of every 16 hours of your waking day you engage in behaviors that are automatic? So, your brain is one massive auto-pilot system, and in fact, your brain is doing this for a reason. It’s wanting to save valuable energy (which is not unlimited; it’s limited) for the things for which you need it most. If every task in life had to be conscious - think about if driving was that experience of 100 per cent intense effort and concentration - if every task was like that in every aspect of your life, you would be utterly exhausted and ineffective, unable to bring your best to the things that are actually the most important.

So, habit-making, or automation of behavior, is something that God has given human beings to save us energy, right? Now, this is awesome, this ability to convert everyday choices into habits, it’s awesome, it’s a gift, it’s except when it’s...not. The behaviors that we automate, that become automatic for us, are not only the functional, good things; they’re also the dysfunctional and sinful patterns of life. So all of us struggle with what we would consider to be automatic behaviors that we regret, right, that bring us shame, that bring us guilt. We hurt people with those behaviors, we hurt ourselves, we limit ourselves.

And yet, this is part of the reason they are so difficult to change, because we can look at something that we know we’ve been doing for months and years, we know that it’s not Christlike, we know that it’s not functional, we don’t even like it, and yet what? It has a grip on us. It has a grip on us.

So, this has massive implications for our lives. The habits that we build, whether good or bad, how to break the ones that are sinful, dysfunctional, and how to rebuild the ones that we actually want in our lives. Unsurprisingly, the Scripture as a source of wisdom, Christ as our example, is not mute on the subject. It uses older language than what I’m using here, but I believe it’s very relevant. So we’re going to look at this from the Scriptures today, and we’re going to look at it around three main points here.

1. Character is seen in your automatic responses to life

So, the first thing I want to tell you: I’ve been talking about autopilot. Another word that we might use is that all of us have patterns, generally automatic responses to life. Now, what we might call our big patterns, our general tendencies or our automatic responses to life, you could say this is your character. Character is the things that you do most automatically and regularly. It’s not that you never do the right thing or the wrong thing in a certain situation, but your character is your track record, basically, of your automatic responses to life.

Jesus talked about this. He told us that you can know a tree by its - what? By its fruit. So he says [to] look, actually, at the big patterns. Don’t look just at what people say about themselves; actually look at their fruit, because by the fruit you can identify - what? The root, the tree.

So he was teaching us this wisdom of this idea that what comes out of us, the fruit, actually is rooted in what’s on the inside of us. This is why he moved all of his teaching about what change and transformation was going to be from just simply behaviors to the inner self, to the heart, to the character, right? He was concerned about transformation that went beyond behavior, that went down to the identity, and he said you need to trace fruit back to - what? To roots, okay?

Now, in the teaching of Jesus and then those who follow him (for example, the apostle Paul), he picks up on this in a massive way, trying to explain the fundamental change, first of all, that needs to come to every human being that wants to become like Christ and to realize their full potential identity and destiny. It’s rooted in Christ. But he explains this in this way.

So I want us to look at Galatians 5, and we’re going to read five or six verses. We’ll begin - I have up here 17, or 19, or whatever, but let’s actually move it all the way back to 16 for a second, and I think what I have up on the screen might be New Living, and I’m realizing now that we use ESV, I have an ESV in my hand, so if you’re following there, we have it. So, Galatians 5:16,

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

Now, here’s the thing that I want you to just take home on this first point: that your character is what you do automatically. Habits of good and evil are at work inside of all of us. If you’ve come to Jesus and you’ve put your faith in him, according to Jesus and his words there has been a powerful, miraculous thing that has happened to your spirit; it’s been made alive by the power of the Holy Spirit, a resurrection, literally, from spiritual death to life, so that you have inside of you the capacity to actually feel and know the desires and heart, the inclinations, of God himself.

The Scripture tells us that that happens and starts small. It starts like a baby being born into the world, full of all the potential of a living human being, yet not developed to capacity. In the same way, our spiritual life, the Spirit of God in us through the new birth, as we put our faith in Jesus, does begin small, and it has to be formed in us.

2. Your body must change, not just your mind 

At the same time, we have this other part of us that the Scripture here refers to as the flesh, or the sinful inclinations. The habits of mind, of attitude, and also of body; things that have been formed by years and decades, reinforced by repetition, they’ve become automatic, that are also in us, and at war, the Scripture says here, with the Spirit, so that we cannot do - what? What we want. We are people inherently conflicted.

Don’t you have this experience in life? You look at what your intentions are, what the renewal of your mind, what the destiny of your life is in Jesus Christ, what you hope to be, what your dreams are, and then you look actually at your experience on a daily basis, and don’t you feel the conflict? Don’t you feel the conflict sometimes, when you’re staring at things that you’ve been down these pathways hundreds and thousands of times, you’ve done it again, you’ve responded this way again (in anger, you’ve given over to lust, to your worst self, to your appetites, to all these things), and you are conflicted, because there is, at the nature of this, the Scripture says in verse 17, a war going on between the newness of life in Christ and the rootedness of sin that is in - where? It’s inside of your body. It’s in your habits. It’s been automated in the same way that you’ve learned to drive.

So, having come to Christ and experienced that newness of the Holy Spirit does not automatically, since we’re using that word, wipe out - what? The formation, the rootedness of sin that is in your body. So, here’s the second thing I want to say to you, then, about this. When we think about what it actually means to change, what it means to transform; your body must change, not just your mind. Your body must change, not just your mind.

I don’t know if this has ever puzzled you, but has it ever been just a confusion, because you think, “Why did I do that again? I don’t even believe in that! That’s against my values! I see the pain that that’s causing me and others; I hate that!” And yet, at some other level, that behavior is functional, it’s rewarding, right, it’s been reinforced, it has power; and yet you don’t stop.

So, just having mentally affirmed our faith in Jesus Christ and his way doesn’t solve the problem. There has to be a transformation that goes beyond my mind actually into my body parts, so that I can have congruity, I can begin to sync who I am as an embodied person and all the choices that I make with what I know to be true from the Scriptures and from the gospel and from the Holy Spirit’s presence. Okay?

So, can we just say this? If transformation is going to be a reality, our body must change, not just our mind. You with me?

Now, look at this text. If they put it up here I’ll just read it off the screen. Now, Romans 7 is a dense theological passage with many nuances that Pastor Brian will be glad to explain to you. I only have one thing that I want to draw out of this; it’s an observation, and I’m speaking as a counselor more than a theologian. Okay? But I don’t think I’m out of whack here. Let’s read this.

“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my - ” what? “ - my body another law waging war against the law of my - ” what? “ - mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells - ” where? “ - in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

So, when I say transformation has to go through not just your mind, it has to go through what? Your body. Now, this is getting close to what I want to say to you this morning. Do you have a strategy for this? Just knowing the truth is so important; not the same as actually having it fully developed, having it worked through my habits, having it reform my automatic processes. Now, how do you do that? How do you do that? (My family’s laughing at me, so I must be doing something weird.)

3. Transformation is the Spirit-empowered process of forming Christlike habits

Okay, so, here’s the third point: transformation, then, whatever we’re going to say about change into Christlikeness, is this: it is the Spirit-empowered process of forming Christlike habits.

Look at me for a second. Did you know that having come to Christ by faith, having been filled by his Holy Spirit, having been forgiven and transformed into the kingdom of God, into his family, that as awesome and as fundamental and as essential as that is for becoming like Christ, it does not mean that you have become like Christ. Your identity has changed, but your character still has to be formed.

So look at this. Again, I’m not making this up. In Galatians 4:19 Paul writes to these Galatians, “It feels as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives.” I think the ESV actually says “formed in you.”

So Paul’s writing to a group of people who are believers, they’re Christians. They’ve put their faith in Christ, they’ve been filled by the Holy Spirit, they’re on their way to heaven, they’ve been forgiven of their sins, God is not imputing their guilt against them because of Christ’s work on their behalf; but what is he concerned about? He’s concerned that their bodies, their character, their automatic responses to life, what happens in their members, actually becomes like who? Christ!

We know from Romans 8 and other places that this is the will of God for every single person! This is his vision and destiny, that every human being is restored to their full humanity by becoming like Christ, actually not just getting there when you die and enjoying disembodied existence; actually developing holiness in the body. Yes! That’s God’s vision, and he’s concerned about that.

He’s saying right here that this is a process, that this does not happen automatically, this does not bypass our volition and our choice; it is the project for which we were made to engage with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, right now. To see all of ourselves made like Christ. This is not simply a matter of believing the right things. Theology is awesome, believing the right things is fundamental; but it is possible to believe all the right things and not be developed, not be formed into the character of Christ. Do you see what I’m saying? This is embodied theology.

Okay, so...can you tell that I like this? I could be here all day; I really have to get going here. Let me just show you one more place where this - again, Paul - I don’t know, can I say Paul the psychologist? Ephesians 4:20-21. I don’t have this one up on the screen, so let me just read it to you.

You’re asking the question, “How do I actually get holiness from my mind to my body?” That’s what you’re asking right now, right? “How do I get holiness from my mind to my body?”

So, Ephesians 4:20, he’s addressing people who are like, “Oh, what does it matter what you do in your body?” You can read the first part of that. He says, “That is not the way you learned Christ!” To say what happens in your body doesn’t matter and it’s just a matter of your theology and your position, to the people who were saying this doesn’t matter. “Assuming you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

So, here’s the big pattern in the Scriptures of how this works: we have to actively interrupt the automatic patterns of our old, sinful self. We have to interrupt it. We have to put it off. Okay? And then the other part of this is that we have to actively begin to put on the likeness of Christ. So there are going to be new habits, new behaviors, new things that have to be reformed in us that are not automatic. Do you follow what I’m saying? This is like swimming upstream. This is painful.

In fact, Paul in other places talks about this like a death of kinds. He says you actually have to put to death some things. It’s going to feel really bad. It’s going to feel a lot like saying no to yourself. It’s going to feel like status quo is not acceptable. It’s going to be strategies of basically blowing up life as you know it, and that feels really bad; it feels like death. Do you know what death feels like? I mean, I don’t exactly, fortunately, yet.

But this is the language of violence. It’s like a war and a fight and a battle, and some things are going to live and some things are going to die, and some things are going to survive and other things aren’t. Follow what I’m saying? This is not a group of people in a circle around a fire singing “Kum-Ba-Yah”! This is earthy, raw - this is a slugfest with yourself. Okay? Some things have to be interrupted and other things have to be reformed if you want holiness to move from your mind to your body.

Now, with that in mind, I want to show you a secular video about the way that habits actually work. Do we have that?

[Link to the video “The Power of Habit”:]

Alright. So, you heard it here first; come to Redeemer, we eat more chocolate. No!

What I wanted to emphasize here is this idea that we tend to focus on behavior, and we don’t think about cue and reward. So, think about the things that you’re trying to stop right now, in Jesus, by the help of the Spirit. Isn’t it sort of like you wait until the moment of temptation, and then you try really, really hard not to do what you find, for some reason, at that moment you really want to do. And then you fight that for awhile; sometimes you succeed, most of the time you succeed for a little while and then you fatigue and fail, right, and then you’re back to the shame and guilt cycle, and then you come here and get absolved and then we start again. Right? No.

I want to suggest some strategies for you, I think in the way of the Lord, that can help us cooperate with the Holy Spirit in remaking our bodies, remaking our character. I’m going to give you a few things here, and we’re almost done.

(1) Okay, so the first one here is this: we need to identify the triggers, the cues, that are launching us into our automatic routines. You saw the example there of the cigarette, but think about this in other forms.

Here’s the big secret - I don’t have time to develop this very far, but let me just give you a little acronym called HALT. Have you heard of this before? H-A-L-T? Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Many of your even sensual habits, like overeating - you know, the ice cream thing or the porn thing or whatever it is - a lot of those things are not simply about physical gratification. There’s a physical component, right, that’s certainly reinforcing. But oftentimes they are also meeting deeper emotional needs.

When you are hungry, when you are angry, disappointed, whatever; when you are lonely, when you are tired, guess what you are? You’re being cued out - those are triggers, emotionally, for all kinds of behaviors, many of them very destructive and very sinful.

So, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the people around you (we’ll talk about this in a minute), how about rewinding your sin pattern beyond waiting for the moment of temptation and trying hard not to? What if you begin to become a student with the Holy Spirit of your inner life? What do you turn to automatically when you’re hungry, when you’re angry and lonely and tired. Do you even know, or has that been so automatized that you don’t even recognize it until you are five or six steps down the road? What would it look like to capture every thought, as the Scripture tells us, and to begin to introduce Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and others into the pattern earlier? Do you follow what I’m saying?

According to the brain research here (and, I believe, very consistent with the Scripture), what it looks like to move holiness from a theory to your body is going to involve this. If you’re going to put off, you’re going to have to interrupt, you’re going to have to understand. Your behaviors are serving a function, even the really negative ones. Do you know what they are? Have you invited God into that? Follow what I’m saying?

This is a - so you get some homework. It’s like a self-study with the Holy Spirit to begin to interrupt the things that are automatic and to then reintroduce different strategies to reform your character.

(2) Secondly, you have to cut the source. When Paul says, “Put to death” - do you remember when Jesus says, “If your hand sins against you, cut it off; and if your eye, tear it out,” and you’re like, “Huh?!” People say, “Well, he was speaking metaphorically,” you know.

I think the point is this: he was saying [that] if you’re going to interrupt automatic processes in your character, you’re going to have to be pretty ruthless. You’re going to have to be willing to go to the mat over some things.

Let me give you - this is so basic, because it blows my mind, because we play games with ourselves. If binge eating is your thing and you know what you binge on, keeping three gallons of ice cream in your freezer is not cutting the source. Do you follow what I’m saying?

If you’re a porn addict, and you have to ask yourself, “I’ve never seen anybody on porn in church…” So there’s something about context, right? So where do you get the porn? Follow what I’m saying?

If you’re going to interrupt that pattern - it doesn’t mean that you’re holy just because you don’t have access, but it sure is the beginning, right, to cut the source? Follow your patterns back. Be honest with yourself. The Scripture says, “Don’t make provision for your sin.” Where are you doing that? I have to do this with myself! This is the only way to do this work with the Holy Spirit.

(3) “Replace” is easier that “stop.” Remember the story that Jesus told about the demons; you know, he throws these guys out of the house, the guy’s like, “Oh, look, my house is clean!” He does nothing, and then, I don’t know, a couple days later, the demons are looking for some place to go and they go get all their friends and they say, “Hey, there’s an empty house.”

What’s the point of that teaching? That we’re not made, we’re not wired to just stop things. We’re made to be full. We have to have a full house. So, if you’re going to remove things, the point of the removal is the replacement. We’re wired for joy, so you have to pursue joy to fill your house. Does that make sense?

(4) Discover the "yes." Knowing the why - okay, this is so stupid, but I listened to this motivational talk, and the guy’s like, “Before you even begin a new behavior, write down all the benefits of this change that you would make in your life.” I’m like, “That’s stupid. I know the benefits.”

But I actually took one behavior and started to write down all the benefits, and first of all, there was a lot more cost associated with my not doing this thing than I realized, and a lot more joy on the other side of it. Just remembering the “why” of that created motivation, because that’s the way we’re wired to live.

Now, think about this as a Christian. We have eternity in view. We have the presence of Jesus Christ. We have the ability to decide with everything that is good and right in the world. We have the model of Jesus, who was not only God, but embodied perfect humanity so that we know what it even looks like. He said it’s possible for you and me. We have the biggest “yeses” ever over our lives, and yet, when we’re in the middle of sin, guess what we forget? We forget the why. Do you have the why nailed down in your heart and visible on the things that you’re battling?

(5) Copy role models. I like to find people who have developed an aspect of Christlike character, and I just ask them, “How’d you do that? What is the story behind what I see?” Jesus said, “Follow me,” and then Paul said, “Follow me like I follow Christ.” This whole Christianity thing is not a solo sport; it requires us gaining and living through the wisdom of others. Do you have a wisdom network in your life to pursue the things that you actually want to see embodied in Christ?

(6) You know the old adage, “Practice makes perfect.” I don’t have time to go into it (it’s kind of obvious), but the way muscle memory - think about a baseball player. The reason his swing is fluid is because - what? It wasn’t his first time at the plate. They say 10,000 repetitions, right, before something is actually embodied.

By the way, part of what this means is you don’t wait until you feel like it. Your feelings will follow training, will follow behavior. If you follow your feelings, your feelings are oriented in what has already been formed. So if you’re doing a change project, of course you’re not going to like it for parts of it! Sure it’s going to feel awkward until you get the repetitions, right?

So, we persevere, basically, in this. Let me just tell you (I really will stop, I promise), this guy in Celebrate Recovery, who’s a recovering addict (and I have his permission to share this story), he decided that, you know, “I learned, battling my chemical addiction, that temptation doesn’t remain at the same intensity over time.” He said, “What I actually found for myself is that I have - I call it the five-minute rule. I learned that I was closer to victory than I really realized. It was five minutes, because I needed to learn to persevere through the worst of it for five minutes, and it was going to start to de-intensify.”

I don’t know if that’s completely scientific, but there is some basis for that principle, that there are going to be times when you need a strategy for just surviving the worst five minutes. Does that make sense? Do you have one?

(7) And then lastly, people-source it. So, this is where we get all of our Christian disciplines, like accountability and prayer and confession. This is why you come to church and why you’re in a small group and why you’re - on and on. It’s not to earn brownie points at Redeemer; it is to become like Jesus. Do you follow what I’m saying? This is how this stuff works, and it simply does not work otherwise.

Okay. Here’s the awesome thing: in Jesus Christ, your life is not determined; it’s been set free. You are not simply the product of what has been, you do not simply have to be the product of what will be. You can join Jesus and his Holy Spirit in this incredible project of becoming yourself. To become fully alive, to be caught up in life that is really life, and to find that joy that is ahead of us actually can come back into the presence as we join him in this incredible project not only to become like him, but to serve his purposes, which is others, right, in the world.

I believe that this is possible. Will you join me? Let’s pray.

Lord, I know all of us have stories (I have them myself) where the hope that I just expressed feels so far away. Lord, we’re asking you right now to solidify in our hearts truths from your Scripture that will help us to move the things that we know in our head about you to be true to our bodies and to transform us, as you say your will is, into your Christlikeness day by day, as we take on your character, more and more your automatic responses to thinking and to feeling and to behaving. We ask this in the strong, powerful name of Jesus Christ, Amen.