Old Habits, New Habits

For most of my work life I have not had to “punch the clock,” meaning clocking in and out daily at a time clock. I’ve either recorded my time on a paper form on a weekly or bi-weekly basis or entered the number of hours I worked through a company timekeeping application.

So when I began a new job that required me to once again use a time clock, it was difficult to remember that my first stop of the day should be to clock in. I don’t really have trouble remembering to clock out to go to lunch and back in when I return, nor do I have trouble remembering to clock out at the end of the day.  But clocking in each morning has become a frustrating exercise for me, because I keep forgetting and have to ask my supervisor to clock me in.

You see, even though my supervisor is very gracious about clocking me in when I forget to do it myself, I feel that it should be my responsibility. This is a new, necessary habit I should be developing.

So, that got me to thinking, what exactly is a habit? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has several definitions of the word habit. Let’s look at just two:

  • An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary
  • An addiction

In the spiritual realm, humans by nature tend toward addiction. Our natures compel us toward sin. We are addicted to sinning and nothing short of divine intervention can change this habit of sinning. However, let’s keep one thing in mind regarding addiction: it is necessary that the addicted one makes the choice to end the power addiction has over his or her life. It may not be possible to end it without outside help, but the addiction cannot be overcome until the addicted one chooses that the addiction will no longer have control over them. Remember also, that while an addicted person may no longer choose to allow their addiction to have sway over their life, the addiction itself remains and can regain control without daily, determined effort on the person’s part.

Spiritually our natures are wicked. The Bible says this repeatedly:

“All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3 NIV).

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that He had made human beings on the earth, and His heart was deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:5, 6 NIV).

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matthew 15:19 NASB 1995).

“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue has muttered perversity. No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity. … Their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths” (Isaiah 59:1–4, 6, 7).

Until we recognize what we are and choose to no longer allow sin to have domination over our lives, we will continue to sin. But understand this is not like choosing to wear red socks or blue socks today; once you make the choice, you wear those socks. This choice is an ongoing effort. I am afflicted with this spiritual habit of sinning. I can choose to change this habit, but it is rare that one chooses to change a habit (going cold turkey) and then tomorrow or next week or next year, there is no future temptation.

Let’s look at our first definition of habit – an acquired mode of behavior. Acquired suggests doing or having done something: learning, developing, gaining, or achieving as a result of one’s choosing until it becomes completely involuntary; until we do it without thinking or because to not do it would be unthinkable. Let’s look at some examples from the Bible of individuals who cultivated/achieved the habit of doing what was right.


“Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days” (Daniel 6:10). [Emphasis supplied.]


“Now from among those of the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. To them the chief of the eunuchs gave names: he gave Daniel the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abed-Nego.

But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the chief of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself” (Daniel 1:6–8). [Emphasis supplied.]

After being threatened with death in the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the golden image, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up’ ” (Daniel 3:16–18). [Emphasis supplied.]


“Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand. So Joseph found favor in his sight, and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority. So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field. Thus he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate.

“Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast longing eyes on Joseph, and she said, ‘Lie with me.’ But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, my master does not know what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand. There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ ” (Genesis 39:1–9). [Emphasis supplied.]


“Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’

“Then He said, ‘Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you’ ” (Genesis 22:1, 2).

Imagine Abraham’s agony and confusion. God doesn’t require child sacrifice. Isaac was the child of promise. How was Abraham to do this thing? Could you sacrifice your child, if God asked it, if you had not developed a lifelong faith in and habit of obedience to God?

“So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ Then he said, ‘Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ And Abraham said, ‘My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’ So the two of them went together” (verses 6–8).

Notice, Isaac does not refuse. He understood what was being asked of Abraham and himself, and still he did not refuse; he did not run away which he easily could have done. He submitted with complete trust to His father.

‘Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

“But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ So he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me’ ” (verses 9–12). [Emphasis supplied.]

Why were all these men able to do the right thing? Do you think they woke up on that particular morning and said, “Today, I’m only going to do what’s right.” I think there are a lot of people who think doing right works just that way. Today I will be better. Today I’m not going to sin at all. What did Daniel do? He purposed in his heart.  What did Joseph say? I cannot do this thing. The three worthies said we will not bow down.  These are statements of commitment, the kind of commitment developed over a lifetime.

We’ve all heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, and her team did a study on just how long it takes to form a habit and published her findings in the European Journal of Social Psychology. The study included 96 subjects studied over a 12-week period. Each subject chose the habit they wanted to develop and “reported daily on whether or not they did the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt.” In short, this is what they found:

  1. It’s supposed to take time to form a new habit.
  2. Making mistakes is okay, but develop a strategy to get back on track quickly.
  3. It’s a process, not an event.

(taken from How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) written by James Clear)

Spiritually, the first and third findings can be combined and applied to the habit (addiction) of sinning. Living like that cannot be changed or broken except by choosing to allow the Holy Spirit to transform the life. We can ask as did David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). While the original creation, in which God had perfect material to work with took only a few days, after 6,000 years of sin, change is just going to take time. And then there is that second finding, the one that says we’ll make mistakes. We are, after all, sinners by nature ever able to choose to sin, no matter how truly committed we are not to.

David is referred to in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart,” and yet David, when he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof, rather than turning away and seeking God’s deliverance from the temptations that were assailing him, he lingered (see James 1:14, 15). He began a not-so-secret relationship with Bathsheba. She became pregnant and in an effort to hide what he had done, he had her husband Uriah killed. Even worse, David’s sin with Bathsheba came nigh to spiritually destroying the children of Israel. He made a mistake, but didn’t utilize that strategy to get back on track mentioned in the second of the study findings.

Peter walked and talked with Jesus for three and a half years during His earthly ministry. Peter committed himself to be ever faithful to Jesus. He refused to believe that he would ever deny Christ and yet, he did three times, just as Jesus said he would (Matthew 26:33). The problem for Peter, and I’d say David and us as well, is that he didn’t know himself as well as he thought he did; so sure of himself that he didn’t know what he really lacked. As the sound of the final denial disappeared into the night, it was then that Peter recognized what he was: a sinner in need of a Saviour. “Peter denied his Lord in the hour of trial, but Jesus did not forsake His poor disciple. Although Peter hated himself, the Lord loved him, and after His resurrection He called him by name and sent him a loving message. Oh, what a kind, loving, compassionate Saviour we have! And He loves us though we err.” That I May Know Him, 285.

Yes, the idea that forming habits takes time and is a process, not an event, reminds us that the development of a Christian character is described in the Spirit of Prophecy as “the work of a lifetime.” My Life Today, 267. The Bible calls this process sanctification – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Sanctification is accomplished by our willingness to be transformed and then through the power of the Holy Spirit being transformed day by day.

Sometimes, even when we have fully made the commitment for the Holy Spirit to work this process of sanctification in our lives, we may still make mistakes. But by recognizing what we are and what the remedy is, we know that we can confess those mistakes, repent and be forgiven.

However, we should be keenly aware of how important sanctification and character building are. Ellen White says, “A character formed according to the divine likeness is the only treasure that we can take from this world to the next. Those who are under the instruction of Christ in this world will take every divine attainment with them to the heavenly mansions. And in heaven we are continually to improve. How important, then, is the development of character in this life.” Child Guidance, 161.

“It is your work to advance toward perfection, making constant improvement, until at last you are pronounced worthy to receive immortal life. And even then the work of progression will not cease, but will continue throughout eternity.” In Heavenly Places, 186.

I’m working hard every day to develop the habit of clocking in, but am I working as hard to commit my life to the formation of a perfected character by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit?

“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. …

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. …

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:1, 2, 7, 10, 11).

(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)

Judy Rebarchek is a member of the LandMarks team. She can be contacted at: judyrebarchek@stepstolife.org.