Good Habits as Common Grace

We don’t think about what we’re doing, generally speaking. Most of what we do is built into us through habituation. As I type these words, I’m not thinking about the movement of each individual finger. After practice, I’ve gotten to the point at which I can just think the words and decide to type them as they come to mind. Other human activities are the same. We learn patterns of behavior and embody them more or less automatically.

I’ve been reading Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love over the past few weeks. I enjoyed the book; it’s worth reading. The main point is that humans are primarily creatures who love, rather than creatures who think. Thus, faith is not just about affirming a set of propositions about God; rather, it is about being transformed so that we can love God, which is our true purpose. This transformation takes place through embodied practices that eventually become second nature to us.

Many of these practices take place in church. By celebrating holy communion, we keep Christ’s passion before us, constantly. We remember that he died for our sins and was raised from the dead. When we baptize people into the Church, we are reminded of our own baptism and God’s faithfulness in keeping us in Christ’s Body. The remembrance that takes place when we celebrate these rituals isn’t cerebral, but existential. We are not merely calling the grace of God to mind; we are incorporating it into the fiber of our being so that we simply cannot forget.

There are a bunch of activities which we take part in outside of church, though. These shape us as well, for better or for worse. Reading Smith has encouraged me to think about the kinds of habits I’m forming, and whether they are directing me towards God or away from him.

A sacrament (like communion and baptism) is a means of grace. You participate in the sacraments, but at a fundamental level, the sacrament is not your act. You are being acted upon by God himself. I think that habits can be considered in the same way. When you form a habit, you are allowing something to act upon you and to shape your character. When you form a good habit, something is shaping you for the better.

The formation of good habits is somewhat of a mystery to me. When you’re a kid and your parents basically make you do stuff that you’re supposed to do, it makes sense that you’d be able to pick up good habits. But how do we form habits that are contrary to our inclinations when no one pushes us to do so? The question becomes even more pressing when I try and fail to form a good habit, or when I end up forming a bad one.

To me it seems that this is fundamentally the same question as the question of how our faith originates. It seems that my faith needs to be my own, but I know that I am incapable of producing it. God must be the author of my faith. But if God is the author of my faith, then how can it be my own? Likewise with works. I lack the will to do what I know is good. Yet sometimes I do what I know is good. This I consider to be the work of God, and yet the works are mine as well, even though I cannot take credit for them.

The grace of God is a mystery. The more I consider it, the more I realize that God’s grace permeates every aspect of my being. My sins and bad habits remind me that, were it not for him, I would have no reason to boast, because my righteousness is not my own, even though he considers me as if it were. Thank God for all those moments when, by some miracle, I desire and will what is good instead of what is evil. Were it not for him, I would not and could not do so.

 

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