Posted on May 31st, by Doug Ponder in God, Life. 4 comments


Written by on May 31, 2013

Acting without Thinking

Have you ever found yourself doing something without realizing that you were doing it? Or have you ever considered how you are able to do complex tasks without having to give them much thought? For example, experts on the human body say that it takes more than twenty distinct movements to get into your car. Thankfully, we don’t have to say to ourselves, “Duck your head, lift your leg, shift your weight, maintain your balance, slide into place…” We just get in, sometimes while talking on a cell phone held between our head and neck as we eat a sandwich with our other free hand. Doing all of that at once is actually quite impressive, if you really think about it.

We take this ability for granted. We forget that many of the complex tasks that we now do without a second thought were once something that required a great deal of concentration and effort. For example, learning how to speak took years of patient practice and correction. Yet for those who have been speaking since childhood, speech is now like second nature. It’s as if God designed us to be able to do such things  on “autopilot.” If God hadn’t done so, we probably couldn’t make much progress in life. Too much of our time would be spent concentrating on the most basic of actions.

This sort of “autopilot” mechanism is not only true of motor skills, but also of behaviors. The word we use to talk about “behavior on autopilot” is habit. As the dictionary will tell you, a habit is “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.” In other words, habits are like a bridge between the thought of doing something and the act of doing it. The ability to form habits is good, since they are a potential help for doing what is right. But as with so many things, what God intends for good we abuse for evil.

Of Vice and Virtue

In the world of morality, habits are related to virtues and vices. A vice is a habit that inclines you to sin, while a virtue is a habit that inclines you to behave in accordance with godliness. Just like habits, vices and virtues are the product of repeated acts of a certain kind, either good or bad. Once formed, the vice or the virtue reinforces the original act itself. Allow me to illustrate.

I once bowled in an especially rundown bowling alley. (I have to say “especially,” because I’m not sure that I’ve ever bowled in an alley that wasn’t at least a little rundown. Must they all smell like cigarettes and cheap beer?) One of the lanes at this alley had a slight groove that altered the path of any ball that fell into it. It was like having a mini-gutter right in the center of the lane, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that it doesn’t lead to a strike. I’m not sure how the groove was formed, but I like to think that a pasty man with pudgy fingers hurled a boulder of a ball down that lane so many times that, eventually, the floor gave in to his demands.

If that bowling lane were your life, the groove would be vice and the ball’s distorted path would be sin. Rolling the ball in the same place (sinning) had created that groove (vice) over time, and once it was formed, the groove virtually took over, its curves guiding the ball exactly where it had gone so many times before.

Of Vice and Men

After years of reinforcement, vices can get such a strong grip that we find it very hard to repent of (“turn from”) certain sins. This is even true when the sinner truly wants to be rid of a certain habitual sin in their lives. Perhaps we mistakenly believe that if only we were really sorry enough for our actions, then we would finally be changed. But it doesn’t seem to work. Maybe we weren’t sincere enough? Maybe we didn’t hate the sin enough? No, our real problem is that we have reinforced the “groove” of a certain vice for so long that we can easily, thoughtlessly, effortlessly, sink back into the old sinful paths. They have become like second nature to us, and it is always easier to give in to gravity than to resist it.

I’ve seen this happen in my own life. I spent over a decade eating whatever I wanted, sleeping whenever I wanted, and playing video games for as long as I wanted. Over that span of time, I developed an appetite for excess. I formed a habit of overindulgence. To use an old school word, I cultivated the vice of gluttony. (Though we often associate gluttony only with an overindulgence of food, it is much broader than that. Gluttony is the excessive love of pleasure, in various forms, such that one’s total well-being is hindered.)

By the time I got to college, the groove of gluttony was very deep. So, with the additional “freedom” that college life afforded me, I gained upwards of fifty pounds in just a few semesters. It was easy. I didn’t have to think about it. The vicious grooves in my soul basically did the work for me.

Now, I’m not saying the sin wasn’t my fault. It was. It’s just that years and years of sinning in that way made it easy to operate on autopilot. It took grace-enabled effort to stop sinning like that, but it took almost no effort to keep doing it.

Virtue Formation: Part 1

You can only combat vice with virtue. (You must fight fire with fire.) But where do virtues come from?

Virtues spring from the inside out. They never seep from the outside in. This is why Jesus harshly rebuked the scribes and the Pharisees for trying to purify their hearts by cleaning up their lives. He said they were like “whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity” (Matt. 23:7). Instead of cleaning from the outside in, Jesus told them, “First clean the inside of the cup, so the outside of it may also become clean” (Matt. 23:26). But there are many who have followed in their footsteps. To paraphrase one pastor’s warning, they have covered the polluted core of their pride with a milk chocolate morality. But developing good habits can never cure our hearts. The river of our heart will continue to send trash downstream in our lives because it is polluted at the source.

What are we to do then? Jesus says, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit” (Matt. 12:33). According to Jesus, we need to become a new tree from the roots up and from the inside out—what the Bible calls receiving a “new heart” or becoming a “new creation.” But how? Through the mercy of God, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-7).

God gives us new hearts by the power of Spirit when we look to Jesus in faith, loyalty, and submission. His Spirit takes up residence in our lives, giving us both the desire and the ability to do what pleases God (Phil. 2:13). That is why Paul calls virtues “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23), for they are the outcome and the evidence that God’s Spirit is at work in our lives. Incidentally, Paul calls vices “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19), because they are the natural byproduct of our sinful nature.

Virtue Formation: Part 2

If the Spirit of God lives in every Christian, then why don’t we all bear the same degree of fruit? Because, as Paul shows, virtues are not formed automatically. They are formed in us as we “walk by the Spirit” and refuse to “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). We must “work out” what God “works in” (Phil. 2:12-13). In other words, we must put into practice the gracious commands of God through Spirit-enabled obedience. After all, God’s grace isn’t opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action (cf. Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, 61).

What kind of effort does God call us to? In a phrase: trusting obedience. The transformation that changes hearts and replaces vice with virtue comes through the work of the Holy Spirit as we follow Jesus in faith and do what he says. The Spirit gives us the desire and the ability to “put sin to death” (Rom. 8:13), and to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9-10). It’s not a matter of “meeting God halfway.” It’s a matter of taking the new desires and new abilities he has given us freely, and practicing obedience in the power of the Spirit. Or as one pastor has put it, what we need is a long obedience in the right direction.

But we’re not very patient, and that’s a big part of our problem. We expect the ditches of vice we dug for years to be filled with the holy dirt of virtue in a matter of days. How foolish we are! Instead, God calls us to keep entrusting ourselves to our faithful Lord and Savior, Jesus, who transforms us by his Spirit as we humble ourselves, trust him in faith, and obey him in love. Like discipline, obedience may feel unpleasant in the moment, but those who don’t grow weary in doing good will reap “a harvest of righteousness and peace” if they don’t give up (Heb. 12:11; Gal. 6:9).

Recommended reading: After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N. T. Wright

Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.