The prophet Jeremiah said, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23).
A year ago we removed an old trash compactor from our kitchen and replaced it with a set of drawers. Into one of those new drawers we moved our silverware. It was a big improvement. However, ever since I have been going to the old drawer to get my silverware–only to find hot pads! Each time I do this I feel rather foolish. An old habit has me trapped.
What is a habit? It is any action (physical, emotional or mental) which we carry out under a particular set of circumstances without having to consciously think about it. We develop a habit by choosing to repeat it over and over again under the same set of circumstances. When we carry out that particular action without conscious thought it is a habit. Habits are the autopilot of our lives.
Of course, we all have good and bad habits! Habits are actually a tremendous blessing to us. They make life efficient. If we did not have the ability to form habits, we would not accomplish much in life. We would still be trying to get dressed, eat without spilling the food, or learning to drive!
So often we consider habits a curse, because they cause us so much trouble when we try to change them! It seems as though they bind us with steel chains.
When we consider habit, we also need to think about another closely related concept–instinct? Instincts are specific actions under certain circumstances that are built into the hardware. They are inborn “habits”. When a newborn kitten meets the first dog, it hisses with all its tiny might–not because it has learned by repeated action to respond that way, but because it is born with that instinct!
The good news is that habits can be changed, instincts cannot. All habits are learned–and they all begin with our choices. Instincts do not involve our power of choice.
An examination of the animal world reveals the vast majority of their lives are controlled by instinct. However, human life is primarily controlled by habits we have formed! Humans are born with few instincts. If a newborn baby is removed from its mother’s breast by even a short distance, can it find its way back? Yet a newborn kitten can.
From a recognition of the difference between habits and instincts we see new glimpses God’s love for us. He could have created us so we are primarily controlled by instincts to only do good. If He had we would not have any freedom of choice. We automatically would be good robots!
By giving us freedom of choice, God also gave us the mechanisms to change habits, and become better human beings! Praise be to God! When I grab a spoon from the new silverware drawer in my kitchen, I know there is hope for other more important changes in my life!
God does not leave me alone in the pursuit of change, either! My choices combined with His help will result in permanently changed behaviors. (But I Don’t Have Any Willpower.) “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12).