Heart-Shaping Habits

“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

— Mark Twain


Matthew 16:13-28 – Read >>


“Get behind me, Satan.” That is just about the strongest rebuke that Jesus gives to anyone in the gospels. And he doesn’t direct it to the Pharisees, or the chief priests, or the callous Roman governor, Pontius Pilot; he directs it to the head apostle, Peter. Peter, who he had just commended for recognizing that he is the Messiah. Why was that?

Well, even though Peter recognized Jesus as Messiah, his refusal to believe that Jesus’ role as Messiah would include suffering and death, revealed that he was still a long way from understanding the gospel. In fact, it revealed that Peter was dedicated to another gospel all together. He’s been listening to the sermons, but he’s not yet living the message.

Does that sound familiar? Why is it that we, as Christians, can give an enthusiastic ‘amen!’ to a sermon we hear on Sunday, but then find it nearly impossible to apply those lessons in our life the very next day when we’re back at work or school?

Why is it a common occurrence that youths raised in the church go off to college and lose their faith? A kid who was a leader of the youth group and champion of Bible trivia goes off to college, doesn’t plug into a new church there, and six months later a few questions from an intelligent skeptic blows their faith apart. Why? Is it a lack of teaching? A lack of information? A ten-minute Google search could provide them with a myriad of thoughtful Christian responses to any of the common skeptics’ questions.

Why is our faith so fickle? There are certainly a number of reasons in each individual case, but let me suggest one general answer you might not have thought of. The reason our faith is fickle is that the church is great at training brains, but we forget to train hearts – because we somehow think that the heart is submissive to the mind. But it isn’t.

When I was a new Christian, I went to a church that had fantastic teaching, and that was almost all the worship service consisted of – four songs and a great sermon. And people would show up late so they didn’t have to sing all the songs. And there was this sort of sense in the community that discipleship was primarily about getting all the right gospel information into your head. But the only problem was that it didn’t work that well.

My mind was convinced, but my heart was in the driver’s seat, and it could still shoot off in the wrong direction should the right temptation come along – and they often did.

Thinking about hearts and minds reminded me of an episode from high school. I took a tech class where we each built a rocket from a kit that included a cardboard tube, a cone for a nose, some flimsy cardboard fins, and a real, live solid-fuel rocket engine. In an effort to stand out, I put the fins for my rocket on backwards, and it looked pretty cool.

Later, we all went out into the parking lot with the rocket pad, and one by one, the cheap little rockets blasted off high into the sky. Then came my turn. When I set the rocket on the launch pad the teacher seemed impressed by the design. But when I hit the launch switch, the fins were immediately torn from the body, it shot up thirty feet in the air, spun rapidly in circles, then zoomed back down toward the crowd.

That story came to mind as a good analogy, because you can point the fins of the mind in whatever direction you like, but if the heart is still blasting powerfully in another direction, you will not end up where you intended to go.

There’s a Christian philosopher, named James K. Smith, who has been an influential thinker for our bishop and many of the pastors in our diocese.

Smith argues that our modern church culture tends to understand the human person as primarily a thinker – I think therefore I am. But our deepest core orientation is not a matter of what we think, but what we love. What do you most value? What do you prioritize? What ultimate vision of human flourishing and “the good life” is your heart set on?

The answer to those questions, Smith says, is found not in your intellectual opinions about the issues, the answer is found in what you habitually do. I might say I love exercise, but if all my time is spent in habitual TV watching, then clearly my true love is elsewhere.

And the scary thing is that habits don’t just reveal our loves, they shape our loves!

I might want to put into practice a great sermon message about loving my neighbor that I hear on Sunday morning. But as soon as I leave church I find that all the habitual actions of normal American life do not leave much room for neighbor love. I drive to the supermarket and compete for a parking space. I push my cart around and fill it with the abundant produce from an army of laborers who I will never meet. I avoid eye-contact with other customers, and the only verbal interaction with another human I have is the 90 seconds I spend checking out (if I don’t self-checkout). Finally, I drive home to a neighborhood, where I and all my neighbors live parallel lives that require almost no interaction.

Compare that to the experience of someone who lives in a country like India or China, where you ride a packed bus to an outdoor marketplace where you barter with multiple shopkeepers and then go home to a family compound or apartment building where you are forced into almost constant interaction with your neighbors.

Smith calls these patterns of life “cultural liturgies.” These are habits engrained into everyday life shape and are largely shaped by our culture’s values. Without even thinking about it, the liturgies of the supermarket or the neighborhood or the workplace change the way you see yourself and the world, and point you toward a certain goal for life.

The Christian college freshman who loses her faith after six months at school does so not because the arguments of their new skeptical friends or professors are so good. Her faith evaporates because she has become part of a community whose daily practices are crafted around an alternative story to the gospel – one that trains her heart to love the American ideal of the self-made striver, rather than the Christian ideal of the self-less follower.

The world is a formative place. And the trouble with our hearts is that they aren’t primarily trained by thoughts; they are trained by habits.

I love sushi. But that wasn’t always the case. I grew up a long way from the ocean, almost never ate fish, and when I first tried sushi I found it revolting. But I didn’t learn to love sushi by listening to my friends’ repeated assertions that it was delicious. I learned to love it by eating it again and again for ten years, until one day I was surprised to hear myself say, ‘sushi sounds really good right now!’

Habits train our loves – whether we want them to or not. So, a central question for our Christian formation is what habits are we engaging in?

Think again of the example of Peter. Peter had spent years following and learning from Jesus. But he had been trained in the habits of pharisaic culture since birth. Over and over, day-in and day-out, the patterns of pharisaic way of life had etched their vision of salvation into Peter’s heart. So much so, that they continued to shape Peter’s expectations for the Messiah long after he had mentally rejected the Pharisees’ teaching.

And you can see that in Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. Jesus basically says to him, ‘Peter, you are living in the wrong story! And in trying to force me to fit into that story you become like Satan to me, tempting me to deviate from God’s plan for the world.’

And look at this, what does Jesus then tell Peter to do? Does he tell him to sit back down and listen to more teaching? No, he says, “get behind me.” Which is to say, ‘Peter, don’t try to lead me; let me lead you. Follow me. Do the things I do, love the people I love, feed my sheep, and then you’ll start to taste and see that the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Messiah is the sweetest salvation story of all.’

And this prescription from Jesus isn’t for Peter alone. At the end of this Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples the great commission – the mission for the church.

And that is a teaching mission, but it is not merely a head knowledge mission. The mission is to make disciples. The Greek for disciple means an apprentice to a master craftsman. This is hands-on training. Jesus says, teach them to observe all my commandments. In other words, teach them to follow me and do what I do, just as you have done.

My point is not that we should abandon theology and bible teaching. Those are vital. My point is that teaching our minds must be paired with habit-forming, heart-shaping practices. Teaching and practice are like the rudder and sails of a boat; they must be oriented together in order to take us where God wants us to go.

And we need to recognize that we are sailing against cultural winds and currents that constantly threaten to pull us in the wrong direction. That’s why it’s so vital for our Christian practices to be powerfully formative, reshaping us constantly in the gospel.

And that fits with what we see in the story of the early church in Acts. The early Christian community spent a lot of time in proclaiming and teaching the word, but it also developed a new set of Spirit-filled communal activities, which applied the gospel teaching and brought it viscerally into the lives of the new believers.

They practiced sacraments and ate inclusive communal meals. They shared lavishly with one another to serve the poor and needy among them. They allowed women and children to attend worship services. They read Scripture and spoke in tongues and prophesied and prayed and endured persecution with great courage.

Those Spirit-inspired practices were innovative and powerfully counter-cultural, and they turned a ragtag band of misfits into an insuppressible movement that would eventually transform the face of the evil empire that oppressed it.

And thanks be to God, that those powerful practices were handed down and developed by the Church under the influence of the Holy Spirit through the centuries and entrusted to us.

And now we arrive at the topic of our second week of examining the Anglican way: liturgy.

At St. John’s, we don’t practice traditional liturgy because we’re nostalgic and hate novelty. We embrace this liturgical tradition because it is deeply formative. Each piece of it is designed to bring us into the biblical story. It invites us into a drama in which we encounter God together, relive the gospel, and then are sent out again into the world to love and serve our Lord.

We do it over and over again until it starts to shape us. We taste the good news of the gospel again and again until we develop a taste for it.

BUT, we don’t hold to these practices for their own sake – much less do we use them to build up merits for salvation or count ourselves better than any other Christian church. We do them in order to experience the fruits of the salvation which Christ has won for us. It is only by his grace and the power of his Spirit that we are shaped by them into his likeness.