I am generally in the habit of not drinking caffeine. So when I went by McDonald’s because the family was thirsty at 10:30 last night, I was shocked to find that I was drinking a caffeinated drink that I had not ordered. Because I react strongly to caffeine, I thought that because I had drunk a little, I might just as well drink the whole thing. True to form, I then did not sleep. At least not until 5 a.m. It reminded me of the days when I would caffeinate myself regularly in order to get more hours out of a day. However, I could feel that my brain was not functioning in ways which I wanted it to. I was beginning to get a headache. Rather than lure me back into the habit of a morning cup of java, the experience confirmed my desire to be free from the false high which I have had in the past.
I desire to sleep well, spend time with the children, and eat regularly with my wife. However, I have habits which get in the way. Good habits lead to a general sense of well-being. Poor habits lead to a shutting down of my system and poor reasoning and retrieval. Why do we sabotage ourselves? It’s usually because we have some kind of belief that is unhealthy and stands in opposition to our good habit. For example, I believed that if I didn’t have caffeine I would miss out. Not only would I miss out on the high of being caffeinated, but I would miss the fun of the extra hours spent playing computer games or partying with friends.
Habits are a pattern in life. The book of Proverbs really helps us see what these patterns might look like in daily living. They weave together to compose a way of life. The way of wisdom has healthy patterns, but the way of the fool is marked by wrong decisions and wrong habits.
Let’s look at Proverbs 13 together.
Intelligent children listen to their parents;
foolish children do their own thing.
2 The good acquire a taste for helpful conversation;
bullies push and shove their way through life.
3 Careful words make for a careful life;
careless talk may ruin everything.
4 Indolence wants it all and gets nothing;
the energetic have something to show for their lives.
5 A good person hates false talk;
a bad person wallows in gibberish.
6 A God-loyal life keeps you on track;
sin dumps the wicked in the ditch.
7 A pretentious, showy life is an empty life;
a plain and simple life is a full life.
8 The rich can be sued for everything they have,
but the poor are free of such threats.
9 The lives of good people are brightly lit streets;
the lives of the wicked are dark alleys.
10 Arrogant know-it-alls stir up discord,
but wise men and women listen to each other’s counsel.
11 Easy come, easy go,
but steady diligence pays off.
12 Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick,
but a sudden good break can turn life around.
13 Ignore the Word and suffer;
honor God’s commands and grow rich.
14 The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,
so, no more drinking from death-tainted wells!
15 Sound thinking makes for gracious living,
but liars walk a rough road.
16 A commonsense person lives good sense;
fools litter the country with silliness.
17 Irresponsible talk makes a real mess of things,
but a reliable reporter is a healing presence.
18 Refuse discipline and end up homeless;
embrace correction and live an honored life.
19 Souls who follow their hearts thrive;
fools bent on evil despise matters of soul.
20 Become wise by walking with the wise;
hang out with fools and watch your life fall to pieces.
21 Disaster entraps sinners,
but God-loyal people get a good life.
22 A good life gets passed on to the grandchildren;
ill-gotten wealth ends up with good people.
23 Banks foreclose on the farms of the poor,
or else the poor lose their shirts to crooked lawyers.
24 A refusal to correct is a refusal to love;
love your children by disciplining them.
25 An appetite for good brings much satisfaction,
but the belly of the wicked always wants more.
When we are children we don’t think too much about the habits that we have unless our parents tell us. “Don’t put your feet on the sofa!” “Shut the door behind you!” “Make sure you do your homework before you play!” The most intelligent children pay attention to these healthy patterns, even when they sound like nagging. However, many children have absent parents or abusive parents. Does the passage above apply to them? As an adoptive parent I am aware that parenting is more than bringing a child into the world. Some people parent by just standing in the place that a parent has vacated or abused. It is good for us all to have a parental influence in our lives, even if it is not a biological one. Then we can learn patterns or habits from them. Proverbs assumes this kind of relationship and motivates every person to develop a healthy pattern of living which becomes a way of life.
The patterns define people. We see above what the bully does when compared to the good. Good people are in the habit of helping others around them. Bullies manipulate to get their own way. They can bully by beating people down, or they can bully by strong emotional manipulation. In many cases the bully and the good person will not know their habits and so they get exposed in honest conversation with a parent or friend. The earlier in life these conversations happen, the easier it is to accept changes. However, an emotionally manipulative mother who bullies her adult children will find it hard to accept that their needs are best met elsewhere. They will probably continue to make pleading phonecalls filled with guilt and shame rather than let their kids find freedom. The contrast would be the mother who is available for her children and wishes for their best. She sees clearly what might benefit the child, but she does not feel anger or inordinate sadness if her children do not follow the advice they have asked for.
The verses above show habits of thriving, commonsense, reliable, diligent people. They also show the habits of arrogant liars. The two roads in life are highlighted by two lines in each verse. Many of the verses show the life of success lived with God in one line and the life of failure, living for self in the other line. Jesus adopted this same dichotomy 1,000 years later. People who I have been in conversation with recently think that this dichotomous morality is too simple. They think that with sexuality in particular we see a plethora of choices because people are born with a spectrum of dispositions. To be gay, to be bisexual, to be transgender, to be queer, to be straight, are all options for living. Christianity, so they say, is out of date because it says that heterosexual attraction is the only one sanctioned by God, and so it creates two easy categories which exclude many people. However, the Bible tends to be simple in its categories in one sense but it is very complex in its laying out of the details. Although there are only two paths, one with God and one without God, there are many habitual ways to live within those paths. If a person is born heterosexual or homosexual, or queer or bisexual in their orientation, the question is whether their habits show a desire to justify self or a desire to pursue God. A lot of the fighting on both sides of the issue seeks to justify self rather than pursue God. The first habit, which is actually pulled from the passage above, is to try and be helpful in our conversations rather than bully others through berating them or shaming them because they think differently. No-one is going to hell because they are gay, for example. Just like a hell-bound heterosexual, people go to hell because it is the natural continuation of the path they have chosen. They have chosen alienation from God in this life and that pattern will continue.
The book of Proverbs acts like a spiritual health check. It shows us the habits that we have developed and we can see where we are in life. When we see ten proverbs, for example, we can see how the righteous live and how the wicked live in each of those ten proverbs. Let’s then say that we are living out 7 of the 10 directives for the righteous. Then we can say based on those proverbs we have scored 7/10 on a measure of our path toward righteous living. There are more proverbs than 10 and many of the principles are repeated. Also, the proverbs do not make us righteous, Jesus does. Our 7/10 is not based on our own work, so there is no room for pride or boasting. The 7/10 shows how we are doing in living out the righteousness that Jesus has purchased for us.
Although the righteous behaviours and rewards are clearly laid out in Proverbs, they are not prescriptive or promises. What I mean is that they are to be thought about and applied carefully to life. Not all the proverbs are applicable in every case. For example in one proverb it says to answer a fool according to their folly and in another proverb it says not to answer a fool. The aim of Proverbs is not to tell you exactly how to answer in each case, it is to get you to think how you answer the fool. The habit with regards to the fool is to think whether it is wise to answer. Also, when Proverbs encourages the habit of training and disciplining your children it indicates that they will not depart from the life of the wise when they get old. This is not a promise, it is just a generalisation. In general, if you are in the habit of disciplining and teaching your children, they will turn out better. There is also the very slight possibility they will reject the path of God and sell themselves into prostitution for drugs. We don’t get to dictate the future by our habits, we just live life in line with the way God intended. Then the probability of sin ruining the system is diminished.
Healthy habits include reading the Bible regularly. This is not a machine-like devotional time that gets checked off in the morning. It is an intimate time of reading a love-letter from your Creator. It is the habit of spending time with God so that our lives are continuously transformed. I know I hit a wall with Bible study in my late teens where I wasn’t getting much from it. In my late twenties this was reinvigorated by reading commentaries where wise people showed me the insights and the questions raised by the Bible I was otherwise missing. I went to Israel and gained some geographical context. I look up terms in a Bible dictionary and see the richness in the word choices. If you are not reading the Bible regularly, you are doing life wrongly. If you are bored reading the Bible, there is something wrong too. If you never read the Bible with a group of people, you are missing out. The Bible transforms our minds and in so doing it shapes our lives. It patterns us after God.
Dallas Willard says that we must have VIM to change our habits. The V stands for Vision. If we just want to quit a bad habit, we will lack power unless we see clearly what quitting the pattern will bring for us. A person who sees the benefits of a healthy diet clearly will be more likely to eat well. A person who sees the vision of a stable relationship is more likely to cease the habit of one-night-stands. The I stands for Intent. The person may see the vision, but they may not be motivated. An unmotivated person will not change. We have to be honest about how we are motivated and then cultivate a desire for change. Sometimes we need to heal from our sources of apathy before we can engage in the passion of the pursuit of a life of wisdom. Finally, the M is the Means. Do we have the means to pursue the new habits? If I believe that I should eat more organically, but I don’t have the budget to buy the foods I may have to downgrade my vision for now. Alternatively I may need to incorporate a bigger income into the vision.
We all have habits, like cleaning our teeth, which are good for us and we do without thinking. Before condemning ourselves for our bad habits, it is good to recall all of the things that we do well. We might get up at a regular time to read the Bible, we may attend church regularly, we may compliment our friends. These are all wise ways of living in the Kingdom of God. The bad things that we do like our addiction to sugar, our excessive playing of computer games, or our constant surfing of social media can be dealt with. We just need to bring those habits into the light. We need to agree with God that we are still making consistent choices for wrong and we need to expect him to work out the good in us like he has in other areas. It is then that we need to identify why we do the habits. What benefits do we think the bad habits bring to us? What are our assumptions that the habit that harms us is based on? By challenging those assumptions habits change. By challenging those assumptions we walk into the light.
Complete the following observation questions:
- What do intelligent children do?
- What do bullies do?
- What do careful words achieve over time?
- What habit pays off in the end?
- What happens to those who ignore the word?
- What is contrasted with a reliable reporter?
- What does a good life bring?
- What happens to those who refuse discipline?
- What is equivalent to a refusal to love?
- Which verses have two lines which express the same idea in different words?
- Which verses have two lines which show a contrasting idea or outcome?
- Which verses have two lines, the second of which just continues where the first one left off?
Complete the following interpretation questions:
- Proverbs is written as poetry. In Hebrew poetry two lines are put together in parallel. Using your answers to 10-11 in the previous section describe how lines of Hebrew poetry differ from the poetry that is popular in the West.
- Which verses describe a pattern of living and which verses just express something that is generally true about life?
- What kind of habits did ancient people think were wise? How are they the same or different to today?
- Would a wicked person practice all the bad patterns of living or just some of them?
- Can a righteous person practice wicked habits?
- Marcus LeShock once described Proverbs as an explosion in a fortune cookie factory. Why do you think some people see Proverbs that way?
- How should the book of Proverbs be read so that it makes sense?
- Are Proverbs promises from God? How would a person who expected life to be controlled by living the Proverbs be disappointed?
- How do the Proverbs develop healthy habits?
- How do the Proverbs identify bad habits?
- If we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, why bother working on changing bad habits?
- How are good habits related to God’s creation? How do they connect with the world God made before it fell?
Complete the following application questions:
- How would you rate your love of poetry (1-10)?
- Do you have a habit of using a commentary or Bible dictionary when reading the Bible? Why? Why not?
- Why do you think that many Christians have given up regular Bible study?
- How would you describe the consistency of prayer in your life?
- How do you deal with pain and conflict? Do they lead to healthy habits or to bad ones?
- How would you describe the way that you regularly talk with others?
- Are you in the habit of accepting correction? Is there someone who responds well to correction from you?
- How well have you done in keeping a good habit going for a long time?
- Do your habits primarily serve you, others, or God?
- How do you think new habits are formed? Have you watched anyone with a strong habit, like smoking, change that habit?
- Dallas Willard writes that we need to have a clear vision, we need intention, and we need the means to follow through on our intention. This is called VIM. Do you understand what this means? Do you have VIM for change?
- Identify a habit that you have which is good for you. Identify a habit that you think God would want to work on. How would you embrace more wisdom by changing your habits.