Habits of the Heart, Part 1

Why routine spiritual practices are still a good idea

Two years ago, our family traded our suburban conveniences for city life. We moved from our Chicago suburb to Toronto, and I remember all the clumsiness of those first several months, especially when it came to errands as simple as returning library books or getting cash from an ATM. I recall my conspicuously poor attempts at parallel parking and my awkward maneuvering of public transit, all my visible ignorance of parking meters and parking signs. Oh, how I pined for the land of drive-thrus!

It's been only two years now that we've lived in Toronto, but the troubling sense that everything is new and different and that I am awkward and ignorant has finally ceded to a consoling familiarity. I realized this even more distinctly weeks ago, when we were back in the Chicago suburbs visiting friends and family for spring break. I was turning left at a stoplight, and although there was no pedestrian within sight, I inched my car forward with an instinctive slowness, hesitating to turn, waiting for the inconspicuous someone to dart in front of my car.

I guess I've learned to drive like a city girl. And although this isn't something I have consciously practiced or rehearsed (notwithstanding, of course, the scores of times I've backed into an impossibly narrow spot in front of my favorite butcher), two years of navigating city streets and Toronto's brazen pedestrians have formed in me a sensibility about the road that is now instinctive.

Much of our human behavior, it turns out, is subconscious and unreflective. Psychologists are now discovering just how many of our responses are conditioned by habit. It seems that only about 60 percent of the time do we actually think before we act. This should give us pause to consider what models of spiritual formation we propose.

"How many of you have ever asked God to help you love him more?" the pastor asked of the congregants in the church we were visiting.

"That's not how you should pray," he continued. "You'd never, for example, ask your husband or your wife to help you to love them more. That's your job! And likewise, you shouldn't be asking God to help you to love him more. Instead, you should be praying, ‘God, help me to know more.' Because the more we get to know God, the more we will automatically love God."

I agree that knowing God more can inspire a deeper affection for him, yet this isn't exactly how I'd coach someone in her attempts to pray. A merely cognitive approach to spiritual formation misses—well, the heart of the matter.

None
June 13, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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