By Alethia Brewer
A habit is as an unconsciously-acted, learned pattern of behavior.
Great philosophical thinkers such as Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Rousseau, Newton, Hume, and others throughout history have desired to understand people and why they do what they do. A large part of this understanding involves understanding patterns of behaviors: habits. Aristotle began the idea of associationism which views mental phenomena as formed by the association of simple events. Certain pathways of behavior and sensations will be preferred and strengthened if they have been favored in the past. This idea was strengthened by behaviorism which reinforced the idea of association with conditioning. Stimuli and response, and external observables and possibilities, and the idea of rewards, all enforce neurological pathways i.e., habits. Those in the associationism camp tend to view habits as a result of brain function and conditioning.
There is another train of thought on habits called the organicist trend, Kant, Spinoza, Hagel, and Gestalt are major contributors to this view, though all differ in their conclusions. Habits are not seen as the passive result of biological automation working with pre-established ideas, stimulus, or rewards, but as “dynamically configured stable patterns” The more these patterns are enacted, the more they are established. The organicist view treats the formation of habits as relating to the whole entity of an organism: it is not just the brain creating pathways. Habits involve both mechanism and cognitive intentionality creating a framework to ground the individual in his identity.
- Secular Perspective
Habits are positive because they decrease cognitive effort in an individual and often result in saved time because one is not consciously thinking through routine choices such as when and how to brush their teeth. Habits are important in behavior change because those who act on beneficial habits can have an automated means of self-control. Habits create a tangible pathway for change in an individual who wants a new pattern of behavior, achieve a long-term goal, and self-regulate.
Habits are negative because often intentionality is decreased. because there is no desire for a change in behavior if the immediate outcome is desirable. Therefore, they are good in the short term but have consequences in the long term. Habits are can be resistant to change when ingrained in the individual because they are not intentionally considering new information or possibilities, instead, they are acting on automation. Habits can lead to compulsive behavior that is characteristic of addiction which is a sign that it is a destructive habit. Bad habits cause stress and anxiety because they have harmful future effects, but good habits bring happiness because they have positive long-term repercussions.
Habits are biological functions of the brain where it has a preferred tendency to certain behavior as a result of repetition. Neural pathways in the brain have been conditioned by repetition and past performance to an extent where the individual is no longer cognitively acting. Habits are responses of the brain to the environment with little intention involved. Certain social and environmental ques invoke specified reactions in the individual. The environment is not just the people and situations around them but also may be internal thoughts, stress, or motivation. These environments may trigger old habits without intention because the pathways of the brain have not been redone completely.
To change a habit a person must intentionally and consistently work to replace the existing habit with a new one, one cannot just stop a habit. The individual’s brain has been taught by repetition to react and desire certain things. Orthodox ways of changing habits involve education of the negative effects of the habit. One must fully understand the repercussions of unwanted actions. They should evaluate their motivations and think about the positive things that will happen with the new changed pattern of behavior. They should intentionally contrast these side-effects of certain behavior. After this, they should sit down and make a tangible and intentional plan of implementation which involves when they will practice the good habit, ways of making the negative habit easier to do, and situations of avoiding the desire to act on that habit. Habit change involves stopping the unwanted response when activated in the mind. This is only successful if the plan is carried out repeatedly over a long duration. Eventually, this will become a new and healthy pattern of behavior.
- Biblical Perspective
Patterns of actions are not inherently wrong but are sovereign gifts from God, so man does not have to relearn continually. The Bible often speaks of habits, but not with the specific word “habit,” instead it speaks of patterns of behavior and trained ways of responding to situations. Hebrews 5:14 speaks of the formation of a habit by repetition, “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (ESV)” Mature believers have faithfully and repetitiously trained themselves to intentionally practice discernment. Positive behaviors are actions that obey God’s commands, are motivated by his priorities, and bring glory to him, “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” Habits are formed by repetition and practice of God-honoring responses, “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” As a result of training to please God, those in Hebrews now have an automatic skill to critically evaluate situations for their moral repercussions. Positive habits are a sign of a wise and maturing believer who is striving to honor the Lord in their actions.
Negative habits are actions that are not honoring to God. When behavior does not honor God, it may have a short or long-term consequence, but also may seem positive but is still a negative in the eyes of God “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Negative habits are the result of heart patterns that have overflowed into detrimental or unwanted behavior. These are reinforced by repetition and create standard responses in an individual. An example of this is in 2 Peter 2:14 “having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children! (NASB)” This person has a habit of never ceasing to look with lust which is a result of a heart trained in greed. This word, γυμνάζω (to train), has the idea of an athlete training rigorously and consistently. Habits are actions, responses, and as seen here are thoughts that have been trained into the heart and mind of an individual.
All behavior, including behavior that seems to be unintentional flow from the heart of an individual. Though these patterns may be established neural pathways in the brain, the habit is not what motivates a person to act in a specific way. Instead, the person’s actions are dictated from the desires of their heart, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” In the heart of the person lays what he treasures most. This treasure drives thoughts, and actions and is the ultimate reason why people do what they do (Proverbs 4:23).
Patterns of behavior can and must be changed in the life of a believer. It may be hard, but with discipline and practice “unbiblical habits can be unlearned, and biblical habits can be learned and strengthened.” Lasting change is rooted in the hope of Jesus Christ, “and such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The previous verses in the passage spoke of those whose patterns of behavior were unpleasing to the Lord, but they no longer are conformed to those habits, they have been changed by the power of Christ! Change comes from an intentional choice to discern what they are worshiping in place of God and put this off, renew their minds in Christ and the promises and commands that are in God’s word, and then put on the new, God-honoring pattern of behavior as outlined in Ephesians 4:22-24. This involves intentionally working and guarding the heart against sin and submitting one’s evil thoughts to Christ (Proverbs 4:23, 2 Corinthians 10:5). Learning proper behavior is dependent on mind renewal and obedient responses to real life. This can be practically done by facilitating homework based on biblical principles that involve application and practice by forcing the individual to concretely understand the biblical principle and act upon change.
- Recommended Books
Christian Counselor’s Manual by Jay Adams
How People Change by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Trip
How to Help People Change by Jay Adams
Addictive Habits: Changing for Good by David Dunham
- Recommended Articles
- Recommended Homework
Addictive Habits: Changing for Good by David Dunham
Doing Wonderful Things (DWT) Worksheets
-2 Corinthians 10:5
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 Lucas Carden, Wendy Wood, Habit formation and change, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Volume 20, 2018, Pages 117-122, ISSN 2352-1546, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.12.009. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154617301602)
 Jager, W. (2003) Breaking ’bad habits’: a dynamical perspective on habit formation and change. in: L. Hendrickx, W. Jager, L. Steg, (Eds.) Human Decision Making and Environmental Perception. Understanding and Assisting Human Decision Making in Real-life Settings. Liber Amicorum for Charles Vlek. Groningen: University of Groningen.
 Schwartz, Jeffrey, and Rebecca Gladding. You Are Not Your Brain: the 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life. Penguin Group, 2012.
 Dean, Jeremy. 2013. Making Habits, Breaking Habits : Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=nlebk&AN=512402&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Chapter 3.
 Quinn, Jeffrey M., Anthony Pascoe, Wendy Wood, and David T. Neal. “Can’t Control Yourself? Monitor Those Bad Habits.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36, no. 4 (April 2010): 499–511. doi:10.1177/0146167209360665.
 Master’s College. 2005. Counseling: How to Counsel Biblically. Edited by John MacArthur and Wayne A Mack. The John Macarthur Pastor’s Library. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson.
 2 Corinthians 5:9 ESV
 Titus 2:12 ESV
 Romans 14:23 ESV
 Matthew 12:34b-35 ESV
 1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV
 Adams, Jay E. 2010. The Christian Counselor’s Manual : The Practice of Nouthetic Counseling. The Jay Adams Library. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=nlebk&AN=1524925&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Chapter 19.