One of the last assignments given out by my friend George before his release was the speaking assignment I am now trying to fulfil, in the e-mail it reads:
‘Please try hard to encourage us, the congregation, to put away bad habits and replace them by good habits.’
Mark Twain said, “Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.” George, I just wonder whose habits you had in mind as you thought of this talk. Or maybe, to your surprise, someone revealed to you some habits you may have that need reforming. It is so easy to see the bad habits other people have, especially when you are an ex driving instructor.
Comte de Buffon who lived 1707 – 1788 was a French naturalist who wrote 36 volumes on Natural History during his lifetime. It has been said that "Truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century".
However. Notwithstanding the great results achieved by him in natural history, Buffon, when a youth, was regarded as of mediocre talents. His mind was slow in forming itself, and slow in reproducing what it had acquired. He was also constitutionally lazy; and being born to good estate, it might be supposed that he would indulge his liking for ease and luxury. Instead of which, he early formed the resolution of denying himself pleasure, and devoting himself to study and self-culture. Regarding time as a treasure that was limited, and finding that he was losing many hours by lying in bed in the mornings, he determined to break himself of the habit. He struggled hard against it for some time, but failed in being able to rise at the hour he had fixed. He then called his servant, Joseph, to his help, and promised him the reward of a crown every time that he succeeded in getting him up before six. At first, when called, Buffon declined to rise—pleading that he was ill, or pretending anger at being disturbed; and on eventually getting him up, Joseph found that he had earned nothing but reproaches for having permitted his master to lie in bed past six o’clock. At length the valet determined to earn his crown; and again and again he forced Buffon to rise, notwithstanding his entreaties, expostulations, and threats of immediate discharge from his service. One morning Buffon was unusually obstinate, and Joseph found it necessary to resort to the extreme measure of dashing a basin of ice-cold water under the bed-clothes, the effect of which was instantaneous. By the persistent use of such means, Buffon at length conquered his habit; and he was accustomed to say that he owed to Joseph at least three or four volumes of his Natural History. (From Self Help by Samuel Smiles)
So the lessons learnt from this story are – if you want to begin a new habit or be rid of a bad one – get the help of a trusted servant and pay him enough to make it worth his while! Which I guess is a very popular method when it comes to eating habits, e.g. Weight Watchers, Slimming World etc.
Elder Delbert L Stapley said:
‘We are not born into this world with fixed habits. Neither do we inherit a noble character. Instead, as children of God, we are given the privilege and opportunity of choosing which way of life we will follow—which habits we will form.
Confucius said that the nature of men is always the same. It is their habits that separate them.
Good habits are not acquired simply by making good resolves, though the thought must precede the action. Good habits are developed in the workshop of our daily lives. It is not in the great moments of test and trial that character is built. That is only when it is displayed. The habits that direct our lives and form our character are fashioned in the often uneventful, commonplace routine of life. They are acquired by practice.’
David O’ McKay often quoted the following
Sow a thought, reap an act
Sow an act reap a habit
Sow a habit, reap a character,
Sow a character, reap an eternal destiny.
So the habits we acquire at some stage are determined by our thoughts, by a choice we make. These choices may seem harmless, they need not be sinful, but however trivial they may seem, they do determine our character.
In my research on habits I have come across a man named Samuel Smiles (1812-1904,), a Scottish author and government reformer. He is most well known for writing a book called Self Help, (Free on Kindle by the way) This book elevated him to celebrity status: almost overnight he became a leading pundit and much-consulted guru.
I like this edited quote from him on habits:
‘Wherever formed, habit acts involuntarily, and without effort; and, it is only when you oppose it, that you find how powerful it has become... The habit at first may seem to have no more strength than a spider’s web; but, once formed, it binds as with a chain of iron. The small events of life, taken singly, may seem exceedingly unimportant, like snow that falls silently, flake by flake; yet accumulated, these snow-flakes form the avalanche. Self-respect, self-help, application, industry, integrity—all are of the nature of habits, not beliefs. Principles, in fact, are but the names which we assign to habits; for the principles are words, but the habits are the things themselves: either benefactors or tyrants, according as they are good or evil. It thus happens that as we grow older, a portion of our free activity and individuality becomes suspended in habit; our actions become of the nature of fate; and we are bound by the chains which we have woven around ourselves.’
So what do the scriptures teach us regarding our getting rid of bad habits. In the Sermon on the Mount, we read:
And if thy right eye aoffend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into bhell. And if thy right ahand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
And the gospel of Mark includes your feet as well.
Okay, I do not think that cutting of your hand, your foot or plucking out your eye should they offend you, or removing any other body part involved in a bad habit, be taken literally, but that we should take our habits, particularly those that may be sinful, very seriously.
Wise Solomon gives good advice with the regard to raising children.
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Note the word train – teaching and training are not the same things. Talk to my wife Eileen about becoming a dancer or one of my piano playing children about becoming a pianist and you will learn that training your body, your hands, your feet, your eyes and ears, is not the same as being taught. Hours of daily repetition are required to achieve the skills required to be proficient and should you learn poor technique, bad habits, it is doubly difficult to re-train. I remember when at primary school learning the recorder. No one noticed that I was playing it left handed. Rather than re-learn I gave up – for about 30 years!
We may fall into the trap and think that habits can be compartmentalised, as in our eating habits, hygiene, how we dress, our speech, work, driving etc and that some habits matter more than others, which undoubtedly is true, however, the truth is that all habits to a greater or lesser extent determine our character and affect us spiritually.
I have observed that good times to make new habits and lose old ones are times of change, NOT new years day, but times of real change, like when we start a new job, move house, receive a new assignment, make a new friend or start a new anything. Times of change are times of great opportunity, for example: last year I seriously took up canoeing on the coastal waters where we now have a holiday caravan. The tidal currents, the winds and the waves can be anything from absent to very strong, but whatever the conditions I put on buoyancy aid, just in case. So far it has not mattered. Habits are like that, especially when doing something that could be dangerous, like driving a car. Using the mobile phone while driving, eating or drinking while at the wheel, not preparing the windows of your car before setting off; if we never do these things, when it matters, we may save injury or even life. So begin something new. You may find that by doing so a bad habit that has been a chain for years will melt away. Like when I was 17 and decided I wanted to be baptised into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but had to give up smoking first, the challenge to make that big change made it easy..
In my searching the internet for some useful tips on breaking bad habits, I found very few. For example:
An unfortunate thing about this world is that the good habits are much easier to give up than the bad ones.
Most people don't have that willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they talk like victims.
Why does a woman work ten years to change a man's habits and then complain that he's not the man she married!
However this is a good one:
A prominent habit-changing therapist once told me a great way to nuke bad thinking. Anytime you feel yourself thinking negatively about yourself, use the word “but” and point out positive aspects. For example you may say, I am useless at speaking in public – but someday I may get better!
In the scriptures if I interpret habits as fruits, then there is plenty of advice on the fruits to acquire and how, in Galatians we read:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
And how do we acquire these fruits? John chapter 15
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.
Repeat: 7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
We can have the enabling power as we abide in Him, feed our inner lives with the sweet words of our Saviour and ask for his help. We still have to make an effort, but if we are patient and persevere, with His help, we can overcome all obstacles and bad habits.
But I have really come to enjoy reading from Self Help by Samuel Smiles. I finish with some quotations from his book. First remember, we are trying to build character that will determine our eternal destiny.
“As daylight can be seen through very small holes, so little things will illustrate a person’s character.
Man, it has been said, is a bundle of habits; and habit is second nature. Metastasio entertained so strong an opinion as to the power of repetition in act and thought, that he said, “All is habit in mankind, even virtue itself.”
And how do we cultivate good habits that build a noble character, simply by exercising our will which includes asking for help, if we need it. I quote:
“It is will,—force of purpose,—that enables a man to do or be whatever he sets his mind on being or doing. A holy man was accustomed to say, 'Whatever you wish, that you are: for such is the force of our will, joined to the Divine, that whatever we wish to be, seriously, and with a true intention, that we become.'
Each individual feels that in every practical sense he is free to choose between good and evil—that he is not as a mere straw thrown upon the water to mark the direction of the current, but that he has within him the power of a strong swimmer, and is capable of striking out for himself, of buffeting with the waves, and directing to a great extent his own independent course. There is no absolute constraint upon our volitions, and we feel and know that we are not bound, as by a spell, with reference to our actions
In every moment of our life, conscience is proclaiming that our will is free. It is the only thing that is wholly ours, and it rests solely with ourselves individually, whether we give it the right or the wrong direction. Our habits or our temptations are not our masters, but we of them.”
So, in summary, if we want to break bad habits or take up new ones,
1 – Get help and pay for it if need be
2 – Feed the spirit, abide in Christ, and get help from above
3 – Make the most of times of change or when starting something new
4 - Remember, although we may be creatures of habit, where there is a will, there is a way
5 - Finally remember, we are building a character that will determine who we are,
not just for this life but for eternity.