Although we begin our new Christian life with enthusiasm, we quickly learn that overcoming isn’t easy. Why is it so difficult to make permanent changes?
There’s a lot of material available about the challenge of changing our behavior and thought patterns—breaking old (bad) habits and establishing new (good) habits.
Books such as The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, published in 2012, and a more recent book (originally published in 2018) by James Clear, Atomic Habits, offer helpful insight into why it’s so difficult to make permanent changes in our behavior and thoughts.
An Internet search on the phrase changing behavior will provide links to dozens of articles on the subject, offering advice on how to make a change permanent, as well as explaining why it’s so difficult.
The authors of these articles and books write about behavior change in a general sense—how to stop the habit of biting your fingernails or how to permanently change diet and exercise routines. We might want to make those kinds of changes too.
But, as Christians, we look at the most important permanent changes in behavior from a different perspective. The changes we see the need for are of a spiritual nature—eliminating sinful habits and developing godly character.
Logically, it would seem that once we understand that a way of thinking or behavior is sinful, we’d be motivated to immediately make the necessary change. But it’s never that simple.
A slave to sin
The apostle Paul begins his vivid summary of our struggle in Romans 7:14: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.” From the outset, Paul points out that our natural human mind is fundamentally incompatible with God’s law. God’s law is spiritual; we are flesh. It’s as if sin owns us—we are “sold as a slave to sin” (Frank Gaebelein, ed., Expositor’s Bible Commentary).
Paul introduced the analogy of being a slave to sin in chapter 6. Through baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit, we can be freed from that bondage and instead become “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). But freedom from sin isn’t won easily—there is a battle for the control of our mind, which Paul eloquently describes in chapter 7.
Paul is referring to deeply entrenched habits and attitudes, and our innately selfish human nature that we all struggle against. It’s some consolation to know that even Paul fought that battle, but it doesn’t make our struggle any easier.
Repentance means serious, permanent change
Repentance is the first step toward conversion. When God grants repentance (Romans 2:4), it leads to baptism (Acts 2:37-38), which begins a process of change and personal growth that will continue for the rest of our lives.
To permanently modify behavior, we have to break the cycle—we need to intercept the cue, control the craving and link the cue to a different behavior that produces a different result.The Greek word metanoeo (Strong’s #3340), translated “repent,” means “to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness . . . Though in English a focal component of repent is the sorrow or contrition that a person experiences because of sin, the emphasis in μετανοέω [metanoeo] . . . seems to be more specifically the total change, both in thought and behavior, with respect to how one should both think and act” (J.P. Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 1988, 41.52).
Notice that the “sorrow or contrition” for our sins causes remorse and regret that lead to a “total change, both in thought and behavior.” In 2 Corinthians 7 Paul refers to this as “godly sorrow,” which leads to permanent change, and he also describes the powerful emotions that are part of genuine repentance (verses 10-11).
The difficulty of a “complete change of thought and attitude” is emphasized in Scripture. Jesus used the analogy that new wine must be put into new wineskins, teaching us that when we begin to follow Him we must live a completely new life.
He used graphic language in Matthew 5:29-30, saying, if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out, and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. “Of course, the words of Jesus are not to be taken with crude literalism. What they mean is that anything which helps to seduce us to sin is to be ruthlessly rooted out of life” (William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew).
This isn’t simple, and it’s not about making a few cosmetic changes. Jesus means we have to dig deep and completely remove sin. Ultimately, we need to accomplish a total transformation of thought and behavior (Romans 12:2)—a complete mental and spiritual makeover.
In this verse the Greek word translated “transformed” is metamorphoo (Strong’s #3339). It means “to change the essential form or nature of something . . . In a number of languages the equivalent may be ‘become completely different’” (Louw and Nida, 13.53).
In Jesus’ message to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, He promises the gift of the Kingdom of God to those who overcome. The Greek word translated “overcome” means to conquer. We have a fight on our hands. Clearly, Jesus expects us to be victorious in our battle against sin.
While it can be frustrating and sometimes confusing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that such a complete change in behavior and thought takes time and a great deal of effort. Paul concluded in Romans 7:24-25 and Galatians 5:16-17 that our only hope is in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
How habits are formed
Much of the behavior we need to change is based on deeply ingrained habits. A habit is defined as a routine behavior that happens subconsciously. A habit is something that we have practiced so much that we can repeat it without thinking.
Living on autopilot might be fine for many of the routine aspects of life. But there are times when thoughtful awareness is necessary so we can make right choices.
Since a habit is something we’re so familiar with that we do it without consciously thinking, changing a habit requires focused and concentrated effort. According to Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, a habit is a repeated action or thought built by a three-step mental loop.
- First, there is the cue—a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic response mode.
- Second, there is the response—the routine—an automatic action that results from the cue. The routine can be mental, physical or emotional.
- And, third, there is the reward—the sense of completion, pleasure or satisfaction based on the execution of the habit.
In Atomic Habits author James Clear adds one more step to that loop—cue, craving, response and reward. In his model the cue causes a craving or a desire for the reward that will result from the action.
Because it’s something that has been repeated often, this all happens subconsciously and usually very quickly. Much of our behavior isn’t guided by conscious or active thought; it’s a practiced and immediate reaction to a trigger or cue.
One reason a habit is difficult to modify is that it is literally part of our mind. A habit is formed in the basal ganglia, which makes new neurons that connect a cue to a desired reward. The more often we repeat a behavior, the stronger the connection becomes until it is literally and physically “wired” into the brain.
Once a habit is established, whenever we receive a specific cue, it leads to the desire for a particular result, which comes about through a specific action. As it’s repeated, the habit becomes deeply embedded in our brain.
To permanently modify behavior, we have to break the cycle—we need to intercept the cue, control the craving and link the cue to a different behavior that produces a different result. If we do that consistently and often enough, we build a new pathway in our brain, which establishes a new (presumably better) habit.
Old habits don’t die
The time from a cue to the behavior it triggers can be almost instantaneous. That means in a moment’s time, we need to recognize a cue that triggers a craving for an undesirable behavior so we can choose a different action.
With God’s help, we can reprogram our natural mind, take control of our thoughts, patterns and habits, and work toward becoming a new man, spiritually created in the image of God.This is difficult because of how quickly it all happens and because the existing habit produces a result that we find familiar and/or pleasurable. If we successfully intercept the cue and choose a different behavior, it will produce a different result (reward). The new reward must be worth the effort or else we will revert to the previous behavior. To break the negative cycle, we need to be alert and highly motivated so we can respond properly to the cue, choosing a different response.
In other words, we create a new habit. But the old habit never really goes away—the neuron pathway is still there, even after we build a new habit. When challenged by a cue, we sometimes find it easier to choose the old response and the familiar reward.
That’s why it’s so easy to fall back into old habits. If we have the awareness and self-control to consistently choose the new response, it can eventually become the dominant habit. But people often fail to make a change permanent because they slip back into the old response and reward. They can then get discouraged and give up on trying to change.
Temptation gives birth to sin
James warns that the old habits of sin are always there to tempt us. He wrote, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (James 1:14-15).
The temptation is the cue that leads to craving, which draws us into an action that is sinful. His implicit warning is that we need to stop the habitual cycle where it starts—with the initial temptation (cue).
As we strive to control our thoughts and habits, sometimes we’ll be caught off guard and fall back into old habits. While it’s discouraging, we can recover from our mistakes and continue the battle (Proverbs 24:16). As long as we’re willing to renew our efforts, God will bless us and strengthen us (Psalm 37:23-24).
Putting off the old man and the creation of a new mind
Realizing that our behavior patterns are hard-wired into our brain helps us understand why permanent behavioral change is so difficult. We have to rewire our brain. This kind of change can only take place over a period of time and with a great deal of conscious thought and effort. We have to be highly motivated and willing to fight for control.
As we conquer sin, we are programming a new set of behaviors and habits—putting off the old man.
As Paul noted in Romans 6, we can be freed from bondage to sin through baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit. We’re assured in 2 Timothy 1:7 that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (emphasis added).
The Greek word translated “sound mind” means a mind that is disciplined or self-controlled (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words) or “to behave in a sensible manner, with the implication of thoughtful awareness of what is best” (Louw and Nida, 88.93). Both of those definitions of a sound mind imply the self-control and awareness we need to change our habits.
We start with the carnal mind Paul mentioned in Romans 7:14. But with God’s Spirit working in us, we can become a “new man,” with a renewed mind and new habits. In his epistles Paul refers to this transformation.
- Philippians 2:5: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” The mind we’re to develop isn’t our natural mind. It isn’t the way we would typically think or behave. It’s a mind that is trained and disciplined to respond as Jesus would.
- Ephesians 4:23: We are “to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (New International Version). By rewiring our responses and habits, we will be a “new self.”
- Colossians 3:10: “Put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.”
Overcoming bad habits
The battle to overcome will continue. One way to understand that struggle is to recognize the power of habit. With God’s help, we can reprogram our natural mind, take control of our thoughts, patterns and habits, and work toward becoming a new man, spiritually created in the image of God.