The Will, The Force of Habit, and Enlightenment

David Brooks started his March 1st New York Times column by saying that

In the 19th century, there was a hydraulic model of how to be a good person. There are all these torrents of passion flowing through you. Your job, as captain of your soul, is to erect dams to keep these passions in check. Your job is to just say no to sloth, lust, greed, drug use and the other sins.

He went on to contrast this to an emerging model of human behavior (I won’t call it morality) built around habit formation.  For years psychologists, sociologists, and advertisers have studied habit formation, discovering tools for the manipulation of behavior that we can use and that others can use on us.  It seems that most of us respond automatically to a three part cycle of cue, routine, and reward.  Charles Duhigg, who just wrote a book about this, uses his own cookie eating habit to describe how this works (see video below).  Every day at around three-thirty he would feel the urge to eat a cookie (cue).  So he’d go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie (routine), and spend about ten minutes chatting with his friends (reward).  But before he started thinking about this process, he didn’t really know what cue he was responding to or what reward he was truly seeking.  He discovered that the cue was time – he always began his trip to the cafeteria at around 3:30.  The reward was harder to figure out.  He tried varying his routine.  Maybe he just wanted to stretch his legs at 3:30.  He tried walking around the block.  That didn’t work.  Maybe he was hungry.  He tried eating an apple.  That didn’t work.  Finally he realized that the reward he was seeking was the chance to socialize after a long afternoon working at his desk.  So instead of trekking down to the cafeteria at 3:30, he would stand up, survey the office, find someone to talk to, and after about ten minutes of chit chat, return to his desk.  And this worked.  He lost eight pounds.

These unthinking habits account for about 45% of our daily choices.  We like to think that we’re morally alert, judging and weighing every decision, but the truth is that we’re morally awake for less time than we are actually awake every day.  And knowing this has to effect the way we think about the Ten Commandments.  Some of them are so stark that only psychopaths and nymphomaniacs would habitually break them.  You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery.  But some of them can be broken habitually.  Advertisements often attempt to train us to covet our neighbors’ cars, clothes, even cleaning products.  Its easy to fall into habits of neglect and not honor aged parents with visits, or not so aged parents with phone calls, or into habits of annoyance, where we visit and call our parents, but only to criticize and berate them (and if you don’t think this is habitual, think of the most tense relationship you have with any other person, and ask yourself why you fall into sniping and arguing with that person so easily).  Misusing the Lord’s name is often habitual.  And idol making is probably the most habitual thing we do.  For me the main idol is my own sense of self-importance, which causes me to check my e-mail every time the little bell dings and to constantly check to see how many hits I’ve gotten on this blog.

If we sleep walk our way through our transgressions, what chance do we have to change them?  I don’t think that the 19th century model that Brooks describes is the right way to go – those captains of their own souls in the Victorian era also managed to exploit child laborers, cudgel poorly paid workers, sanction domestic violence, and lynch African Americans.  They trusted to their own wills, and the human will is a very untrustworthy shipmate.

I know that there are strong advocates for the idea that community ethics should guide personal ethics, that in a Christian community individuals will act in keeping with that community’s ethics because they love the community and don’t want to damage it by behaving badly.  But when, in all of human history, has this ever succeeded?  Consider Ananias and Sapphira, who in Acts 5 break the community’s ethic by refusing to share the proceeds from some property that they’ve sold.  They drop dead when Peter confronts them with his knowledge of their actions.  Shame certainly works to right the wrong.  But it doesn’t work to prevent the wrong.  It didn’t work to keep the Puritans on track, it didn’t work for the Oneida community or any other attempt at utopia, and it doesn’t even always work for the Amish.  And love of community, and the shame that comes from failing in that love, can at times be a bad thing.  The people who resisted the Nazis chose a greater moral good over a love of community.  So did abolitionists who lived in the slave states in this country.  Communities, even those that claim to be Christian, are sometimes wrong.  And it’s foolish to claim that such a model would work in the ideal Christian community, because that community doesn’t exist.  You end up sounding like the mid-twentieth century radicals who kept claiming that communism would work if it was only given a fair chance.  Ways of life that require ideal conditions to prosper won’t help us in the here and now.

So what chance do we have to actually be moral?  I think that the main error that those 19th century captains-of-the soul made was to believe that their own willpower would suffice.  What is important here is not our own will, but God’s.  There’s a reason why God comes first on the list of commandments, and that loving the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul is the first clause of the Great Commandment.  The first step in acting ethically for a Christian is to humble oneself before the Lord and submit to the will of God.  And in truth, aligning oneself to this morality is very simple.  You simply ask God to enter into you every day.

About a month ago, I was reading a book about ancient forms of prayer (Rodney Werline’s essay “The Experience of Prayer and Resistance to Demonic Powers in the Gospel of Mark,” which can be found in Inquiry Into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity).  The author suggested that, for the Jews of Jesus’s time, the soul was a battleground where God engaged in struggle against the world’s many demons.  To pray was to invite God onto this field of battle, to invite God into the soul.  I realized, after reading this, that my form of prayer has always been something akin to a visit to a high school guidance counselor.  I would lay out my problems and worries and ask for guidance, but in the end I would retain my right to choose.  My will was still the abiding concern, and God was just there to occasionally nod and make quiet suggestions.  But what if I tried praying in this other, more ancient way?  I began to spend just a minute or two in the morning, inviting God to enter into me and engage in my daily battles.  And I began to find that I had much more resistance to all my usual sins.  Because I couldn’t pretend that I was making choices by myself anymore.  I couldn’t pretend that I was alone in those choices, and safe from prying eyes as I made them.  If God has really entered into me, and is really present during the day, then there is no place that I can go to hide from God.  Some of this is about shame.  But a lot of it is also about joy – knowing that God loves me and is willing to inhabit my soul, even though that soul is vastly imperfect.

A self and a world that is inundated with God calls us to action.  The psalms describe this world, although we don’t often think of them as poems about morality.  “The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.  More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey from the comb.  By them also is your servant enlightened.” (Psalm 19)  These are songs about setting one’s own will aside, and accepting God’s will.  In the end, that is the habit that Christians must try to cultivate.  That’s why Jesus put it first, when he gave the Great Commandment.  “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart and all your mind and all your soul.  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The second clause is dependent on the first.  To submit to love of God is to submit to love of neighbor, because  if God loves us in our imperfections, God loves our neighbors in their imperfections, as well.  If we are to think of the world in terms of habit, this habit of daily enlightenment is the one that matters most.  Love God and feel grateful for the world and the life that God has given you (cue).  Invite God in to fight on the battlefield of your soul (routine).  Find yourself acting morally as you go about your daily life (reward).

5 thoughts on “The Will, The Force of Habit, and Enlightenment

  1. Our perspectives are very different, but I find your efforts to interpret Christian moral psychology in terms of current neuroscience and psychology fascinating. I am sure you have heard of him, but you might want to check out the work of Jonah Lehrer.

  2. Karl,
    This is awesome.
    Thank you so much.
    So Now I am thinking about this in terms of Lent – and isn’t Lent a season when God through the Church (community) in theory invites people to examine our lives, the habits, to change old habits that break or harm our relationship with GOd /ourselves/each other (community) and create new habits instead.
    And it seems that your blog works – that in Lent, we decide/hope/feel called to center more on Christ. So we ask, what is keeping me from centering on Christ? For me, it was making coffee first thing in the morning, before I prayed, which was totally distracting me from prayer. For Lent, I gave up making coffee first thing in the am, and instead, doing nothing but go straight to morning prayer. And it’s been very blessed. (mostly) and I do feel more connected to my faith community b/c I am praying more consciously on their behalf, in the morning, and throughout the day.

    I wonder if Lent could also be practiced as a faith community – that as a community there is one thing we intend to do, or not do, that will deepen our relationship as a community?

    Or is even my faith community of 80 people too large? Is this where small groups come in, as perhaps a more possible experience of authentic Christian community?

    Having a hard time letting go of community 🙂

    But I think you are right – that before everything is God, and God’s will.

    thank you, again, Karl.
    Much peace,

  3. Laurie, this presents a really interesting idea. What if small churches decided to take on the same Lenten discipline? I’m thinking about a television movie I saw in the late-seventies, early-eighties about an entire town that decides to quit smoking, and which is led in this effort by the Methodist minister (I think the movie is called Cold Turkey). But I’m also thinking about what it would be like for a whole community to decide to pray together, wherever they happen to be, at a set time of day. Or to supplement, refocus, or alter their habits (preferably the ones they never think of, that they don’t even know are habits until someone points them out). But I would always be worried that the will of the community would be mistaken for the will of God. I don’t know. Interesting possibilities.

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