The Right Motivation for Habit Formation

The other day, I was driving my kids to the playground when I almost made a wrong turn. As I corrected myself, I realized what I had done. The route I was driving to the playground went past the road I used to take to my husband’s house, the one he lived in before we got married. I hadn’t driven to that house in over seven years—I’d even lived halfway across the country for some of that time—yet an old habit resurfaced that day.

It was unsettling to be reminded of just how deeply ingrained habits can become and how even a small trigger can resurface habits I thought I had long ago forgotten. Though this was a minor, inconsequential instance, it made me consider how much of our daily lives are influenced by habits, for better or worse. It is vital to build good, healthy habits, which starts with the right motivation for habit-building.

I previously wrote about habits and time management, discussing the importance of building habits that help us manage our time well. Today, I will elaborate on the idea of habit formation and the right motivation for it, which will help us determine the best use of our time.

What is habit formation?

The challenge with habits is twofold. First, habits work in both directions- either for or against you, sometimes both simultaneously. Second, because habits become automatic responses, it’s often hard to be aware of them. This is especially detrimental when we are unable to recognize our own bad habits and how they might be working against us. It then becomes necessary to actively identify habits that need to change and institute better ones.

Enter, habit formation. I define habit formation as the active process by which we create new, healthy behaviors or strengthen existing healthy behaviors in response to our circumstances for the purpose of loving God and loving neighbor. I adopted that last part from Justin Whitmel Earley’s books, The Common Rule and Habits of the Household. In this definition, I think it’s important to also define what it means to love God and love neighbor, but I’ll expand on that shortly.

Colossians 3 informs how I think about habit formation. It is full of exhortations to set our minds on things above, to put away sinful practices and put on Christ-like attributes, to be thankful, and more. This passage emphasizes the active role we take in our spiritual formation. We are responsible for how we respond to our circumstances and the habits we implement each day. It’s not all active, for we do not sanctify ourselves and the Lord is sovereign over our circumstances. However, it is through our activity and responses that the Lord works in us to renew and conform us to the image of Christ.

Likewise, habit formation requires intentionality on our part. Bad habits are almost always bred in passivity or a lack of awareness of the daily choices we make in response to our circumstances. It is easy to excuse a poor choice or behavior as a “one-time-thing” or an exception due to special or unusual circumstances. However, without actively seeking to do differently next time, that poor choice will quickly become the normal response to those circumstances, exceptional or not.

We must do the work of identifying habits that need to change, determining the right habits to pursue, and taking steps to implement good and healthy habits. This takes patience to play the long game—habits take a long time to break and build. We must be willing to seek counsel from others who may help us identify bad habits, willing to be uncomfortable as we pursue new habits, and committed to maintaining good habits. We must not get discouraged or lazy—if we fall back into a bad habit one day, we resume practicing the good habits the next day. If we do this, then over time our good habits will become our norm.

Grounded in the Right Motivation

Implementing good habits starts with the right motivation. Much of what you read about habit formation emphasizes a passive nature of forming habits and reinforces a selfish motivation for building habits. For many, habit formation serves an aspirational, productive, self-improvement purpose. But, as I mentioned above, Justin Earley writes that the believer’s primary motivation for habit formation should be externally focused on the Great Commandment: loving God and loving neighbor.

I think Earley is right, but I would expand his motivations for habit formation to include obedience to the Great Commission. Love for God and neighbor should naturally lead us to this end, but if we define “love” too vaguely, we can’t simply assume it will lead us to live missionally. There are many ways we can love God and neighbor without fulfilling the Great Commission. That’s why it’s important to actively pursue habit formation to this end, rather than assume we’ll just get around to it at some point. But, if our motivation is nested in both the Great Commandment and Great Commission, then the habits we pursue (and consequently, how we use our time), will naturally flow toward this end.

Fostering Love for God

If there is anything I’ve learned the hard way over the last few years it’s this: our hearts go the way of our habits. We can think and say the right things, but if what we actually practice in our daily lives contradicts these thoughts, our hearts will follow right along. So we must ask the question, are my habits (and therefore how I use my time) leading me to love God more or less?

In John 14, Jesus says if we love him, we will obey his commands. It is not legalistic to say this if our obedience flows from a love of God and trust in the Holy Spirit to help us obey. We will steward the gifts he has given us. We will, as Colossians 3 instructs us, fix our eyes on things above. We can build habits that help us in all of these areas. We might also refer to these habits as spiritual disciplines. Through our daily Bible reading and prayer, participating in corporate worship, and memorizing Scripture, we learn how to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That love, then, overflows into obedience as we seek to make disciples of all nations.

Fostering Love for Neighbor

When our love for God increases and strengthens, we then share that love with others—both fellow believers and nonbelievers. The Bible talks about ways that the church should love each other—that Colossians 3 passage lists several ways. We know them as the “one another” commands. We should also love those outside of our church. When we define how to love our unbelieving neighbor, it must include sharing the gospel with them.

So then, we should build habits that also allow us to love our believing and unbelieving neighbors. Participating in corporate worship, prayer, creating regular rhythms of hospitality, sharing meals, serving, and evangelism are all habits that will allow us to love our believing or unbelieving neighbors. Through these, we are also given opportunities to obey the Great Commission as we seek to love others by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

To be sure, there are personal benefits to habit formation such as productivity, self-improvement, and creating space for rest and relaxation. However, our primary motivation for habit formation must extend outside of ourselves and center around love for God and neighbor. I am convinced that the long-term sustainability of good habits will come from these two ends, both of which will allow us to fulfill the mission to which God has called all believers.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash