Making big and lasting changes in our lives is never easy—whether it’s changes in the way we relate to others, the way we manage our time, the way we use our money, the way we do our work, or the way we treat our bodies.
Whenever we want to improve or change something, we usually start out with great enthusiasm and hopeful expectations, but over time, those feelings fade, and so does our resolve. That is why the key to long-lasting success is to develop habits—new, positive habits that replace our self-defeating behaviors. The Bible speaks of “putting off our old self and putting on a new self,” which includes our habits (see Ephesians 4:22).
Our habits control our lives. We shape our habits; then our habits shape us. If I asked you to make a list of all your bad habits, you would quickly identify them. You already know what they are, and you know that they aren’t helpful. In fact, many are harmful.
So why haven’t you replaced them? What makes breaking bad habits and creating new ones so difficult? Here are four of the most common reasons:
You’ve had your unhealthy habits for a long time, so you’re comfortable with them. Regardless of whether you are overweight or anorexic, whether you overeat or have any kind of eating disorder, whether you are out of shape or don’t have enough energy, you didn’t get that way overnight. It was likely a long, slow decline in your health.
Many of your adult habits were developed in your childhood. Some of your unhealthy habits may have been survival tactics for unmet emotional and spiritual needs that you experienced early in life. Other habits you developed out of fear. Some habits are developed to soothe negative emotions such as loneliness, anxiety, depression, or feeling unloved.
You identify with your unhealthy habits. Anytime you hear someone say, “I’m always late” or “I’m a worrier” or “I can never resist a dessert,” that person is identifying himself or herself with a bad habit. We often confuse our identity with our habits, but the truth is, habits can be changed! Habits are things you do. They are not who you are! You have weaknesses, but you are not your weaknesses.
You are a unique creation of God, flawed by your nature and choices, yet deeply loved by God. No man or woman will ever love you as much as God does. His love for you is not dependent on your habits.
Your unhealthy habits have a payoff. In the long run they cause pain, but in the short term they seem easier and more rewarding. And whatever gets rewarded gets repeated. The addicting taste of junk food, the short-term high from carbohydrates, or the pleasure of loafing around instead of exercising gives immediate gratification. We want to feel good now, not later.
God warns of this when he said, “There is pleasure in sin for a short time” (see Hebrews 11:25). Most of the social problems we see in our culture today are the direct result of our unwillingness to delay gratification. To overcome this, you must see the greater payoff and rewards of making healthy choices.
You have an enemy who wants to discourage you. Not only do you have to fight against your natural inclinations, but Satan—whom the Bible calls the Deceiver and the Accuser—is actively working against you every moment of your day.
Since Satan cannot hurt God directly, he tries to hurt God’s children. Satan does not want you living a healthy life because that honors God. So he is constantly suggesting negative thoughts to keep you stuck. He loves to plant seeds of doubt in your mind: “Who do you think you are? You’re never going to change! You have never been able to change in the past. What makes you think this will be any different? It’s hopeless, and you’re hopeless. So don’t even try!” (In the chapter on Focus, we will have more to say about replacing negative thoughts.)
With these four elements working against us, it is no wonder that most attempts by people to develop healthy habits end in failure. Again, you need more than just good intentions and willpower to change. You need God’s plan for change