“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15, NRSV)
Change is hard—especially the changes that have the word "should" or "shouldn't" attached to them. Your doctor says, "You should lose weight." Your spouse says, "You shouldn't spend so much time watching sports." Friends say, "We should get more involved in helping other people." Like the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, most of us know what we should and shouldn't do. Knowledge is not the problem. Believe it or not, motivation isn't even the problem, although some people try to guilt us into change by saying, "If you wanted to change, you would." The challenges we face in making lasting changes lie in our neurological wiring. Through understanding how our brains work, we can adapt the choices we make to live a healthier and better life.
In theological terms, Paul says the struggle we face in doing the right thing is rooted in the conflict between the desires of the "flesh" and the desires of the "mind." For Paul, sin resides in the flesh, and the law resides in the mind. He sees these as two competing forces in the quest to do the right thing. The key to overcoming this conflict is by retraining our affections and turning desires that are barriers to the life we want into healthy and constructive desires. We do this through habits, practices, and spiritual disciplines that rewire our neural pathways.
Like the way an athlete consistently trains in preparation for a competition, we can prepare for the best life possible. Training involves developing habits and practices that contribute to the outcomes we desire. Old habits are difficult to break, and developing healthy behaviors is often harder than discarding the old ones. Behavioral patterns we repeat most often become etched into our neural pathways. The good news is that, through repetition, it's possible to develop—and sustain—new habits. These intentionally-developed habits become automatic responses, and the outcome results in the life we've always wanted. For centuries, Christians have understood the power of developing spiritual patterns and practices that form and reform our lives in significant ways. With the Holy Spirit's help, we can tap into the spiritual disciplines and other practices that will improve our lives and create meaningful and sustainable change.
Over the next several weeks, we're presenting a series on "Atomic Discipleship." We intend to help you develop patterns and practices in your daily life that reinforce the kind of life you want to live. We're not going to shame you. We're going to build a case for achieving the best life possible through attention to the small things that reform and reshape our lives in incremental ways, ultimately resulting in the significant changes that will make our lives more meaningful and satisfying. Don't forget to join us for the Facebook live stream at 10:45 am on Sundays or catch the messages on First Worship, a pre-recorded service posted on Sundays at 8:30 am.