As human beings, over the course of time, all of us have developed many habits, some of which are good and some bad. Many of both kinds have been instilled by our parents; others we have adopted from our own preferences or from the society we live in.
Spiritually beneficial habits are developed as a result of obedience, either to our parents if we are children, or to our spiritual guide if we are monastics, or directly to God if we are adults in a parish.
If a child is brought to the holy services every week, is taught to prepare to receive the Holy Mysteries at each Liturgy and to pray each morning and evening and before meals, then he will become so used to these practices that to miss a service or to skip his prayers will be foreign and disturbing to him.
But even if we had the advantage of pious parents, we all have to struggle with temptations and bad habits because we have sinful inclinations, and we live in a fallen world where the evil one constantly wages war against us.
Developing good spiritual habits is absolutely essential for an Orthodox Christian. When we grow old and approach the end of our lives, it is the habits of piety and holiness that we have developed which will support us at that time and which we will take with us into eternal life.
Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston recently sent around an article about the practice of the Jesus Prayer in which he quotes the following from the book The Elder Joseph of Optina: “The Elder said that the Jesus Prayer grants great benefit to the one who says it. One ought by all means to get accustomed to saying it, so that it will be a comfort, especially in times of illness. If someone is used to saying it all the time, then he will say it in times of illness also and he will not be so bored, for the prayer comforts him. But if a man, when he is healthy, does not occupy himself with the prayer, then, when he falls ill, he will not be in any condition to pray, since he has not acquired the habit; thus it will be difficult for him. It is necessary, therefore, to learn and to become accustomed to the prayer while one is healthy, and to say it often.”
In old age, when our mental capacity could fail and we might even have some form of dementia, our dear Father Seraphim Johnson observed that we might not be able to control our thoughts and actions, but our lifetime habits will come to the fore and may even be intensified. For example, if we have been wont frequently to criticize others, then that constant criticism is what people will hear from us in our old age. But if we have learned Christ-like love, then that love will be the essence of our personality.
This certainly provides an impetus for us to repent and to acquire new habits. Saint John Chrysostom speaks about habits as follows: “Habit is a difficult thing, and it is hard to break and hard to avoid….Therefore, the more you understand the power of a habit, the more should you endeavor to be rid of a bad habit and change yourself over to a good one.”
The first step toward developing a good habit is the realization that a change is necessary. We ought to pray that God give us such moments of realization with regard to our bad habits, because through these moments of realization we understand that something is not right, and this leads us to contrition and to repentance.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is an example of such a moment of realization. The prodigal was wasting away his life in a foreign land with his father’s money, thinking everything was great. But when things got difficult, and he found himself with the swine eating the husks of corn, he realized that something was wrong, and he remembered and longed for his former life with his family.
Of course, one must not just remain miserable after such a realization; one must repent and humble oneself and determine to make a change. We must realize that a struggle is necessary, and with God’s help we must make a good beginning. Saint John of the Ladder writes: “All who enter upon the good fight, which is hard and close, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire, if they expect the celestial fire to dwell in them.” And as we keep the goal before us, we must remain in constant communication with our Saviour because nothing can be achieved on our own. Alone we amount to nothing.
I recently read an Orthodox article in which it was stated that scientists have established that it takes about 40 days to acquire a new habit, and the author noted that 40 days is a significant number in Christianity and is also roughly the length of two of our fasting periods when we are encouraged to work on acquiring new habits. But one should not wait until the fast, but should arise and make a new beginning immediately, as soon as God reminds us that it is necessary.
The author went on to speak about the need for self-discipline, having a goal, and putting our good intentions into action. We must also remember that we cannot acquire godly habits on our own. This reminds me of what Father Seraphim wrote concerning the spiritual life:
There are basically two approaches we can use to developing our spiritual life. One method is to draw closer and closer to the Lord through prayer and true obedience to Him; in time more and more of our actions and words will be transformed and we will become new creatures in Him. Our old, sinful actions will fall away as we are transfigured into His image. The other method is to work hard to obey the rules for Christian behavior, to deny ourselves, and in general to force ourselves to speak and act as Christians should. Over time these behaviors may become habits, and we will see our actions and words changed into those befitting a Christian.
Now, the problem with these two approaches is that the first one is the way our Lord Jesus Christ set out for us and is also the only way that really works. The second approach is basically that of the Pharisees and of human religious systems, and it does not work. In the first method, we are being transformed by God’s love for us and our love for Him into what He wants us to be—the image of His beloved Son Who obeyed His Father in everything, even unto death. This, and only this, is humility. In the second method, we are using our own will-power to act like Christians (or Jews or Moslems or whatever religion we are following); but the end result is not to produce a person who obeys God, but rather one who has strengthened his own self-will. And this, of course, is pride. So the results of the two methods are diametrically opposed.1
But both methods result in our beginning to behave like good Christians. So what is the difference between these two approaches that lead either to humility or to pride? Basically, the difference has to do with the motivation for our struggle. Why are we doing it? Are we just forcing ourselves to follow the rules, thinking that if we succeed, we will have salvation? This is like a Jew or a Moslem or a Pharisee, for as Father Seraphim goes on to say, “As soon as we relax our self-control, we will see our hard-earned ‘virtues’ disappear, since it is beyond our fallen human ability to change ourselves by our own efforts.”
No, the motivation for our struggle must be that we love (or want to love) our Saviour in response to His love. “We love Him because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). We know we are weak and can do nothing on our own, but we want to be like Him. As Father Seraphim has said, “God doesn’t want us to be good; He wants us to be holy.” We must not become good by using our own self-discipline to follow the rules, but we must become God-like by relying on God to instill in us holy habits, especially the habit of love for Him and our neighbor. The habit we most need in the end is the habit of love. “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing” (I Cor. 13:3). We must acquire this habit of love which will accompany us into old age and lead us into the Heavenly Kingdom.