On the occasional morning when we have a little extra time before school, my son often recommends that we stop for a donut. Today was one of those mornings, and so we rummaged around in the console of the car and found the donut gift card that had a few remaining dollars on it. The donut shop is on the same street that I need to turn on of to get to the school, and as we came to the road I would normally take, I put on my blinker and started to make that right-hand turn. “What are you doing?” Cyrus said. “Aren’t we getting a donut?”
Once again, I’d been on auto-pilot. I’d made that right-hand turn so many times, I didn’t even have to think about it. My mind and my body were just conditioned to head that direction—toward school, not to the donut shop. We are creatures of habit. We establish patterns of behavior that are constantly reinforced, and it becomes difficult to break that pattern, even when it’s not really the way we want to go. We all get tired with paying such close attention, and making so many decisions about this or that, it’s only natural to just create a habit that allows us to act without so much conscious thought. But what do we do when the habit we create is not one that pleases God?
In Romans 1, Paul talks about the patterns of behavior that sinful humanity often embrace. In verse 28, he says that since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. Their pattern of behavior is marked with every kind of wickedness. According to Paul, that wickedness is the habitual pattern of those who reject God. Paul recognized that this was a universal condition, that all people—to one degree or another—have chosen sin so frequently that it becomes their instinctive response. Wickedness of one sort or another is where their auto-pilot takes them. And it’s not just the egregious wickedness we’re talking about, but all the stuff we’re more dismissive of—strife, craftiness and insolence are right in there with murder, deceit and sexual immorality.
Paul even sees this in his own life. Later on, in Romans 7, he talks about the way he knows what is right, but does what is wrong. In verse 15, he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He recognizes that patterns of behavior are not easy to break. It takes the transformative power of the Spirit to become the new creature God wants us to be. This transformation is mysterious, God’s power often is. We don’t always understand what God is doing behind the scenes, and we are certainly dependent on God to become all we are supposed to be. But I think it would be a mistake to think that we have no role to play in this transformative process. It may be minimal, but it’s still important.
See, God is not going to break habits that we don’t want to be broken. God is not going to overrule our will and force us to do the right thing. We have to surrender our will—willingly. So the first step in this process—the first one we have to do—is to recognize that what we are doing is not what we want to do. Paul illustrates this a little further along in chapter 7 of Romans. Beginning in verse 22, he says: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He recognizes that what the “law of sin” is leading toward is not what he wants. He wants to do the right thing—he delights in the law of God. But the old patterns are still strong.
Second, after recognizing that change is necessary, we have to want to change. For those who complain that they never seem to be able to break these patterns of sin, I would ask—“Do you really want to break them?” Is there some part of us that doesn’t want to let go of those habits? As destructive as they are, are they still more familiar and comforting to us than what God may have in store? I suspect the first step in breaking away from sin is to recognize it as wrong and the second is to want something better. I’m not saying that breaking these sinful patterns is simply a matter of willpower—if it were, we’d have been a lot more successful at it over the years. But we cannot be transformed unless we are willing to turn from the old way. The will of God is that we be healed, and so we need to align our will with God’s for any healing to happen.
The Spirit of God is powerful. There is nothing that cannot be accomplished with the Spirit’s power. So why is transformation so elusive? Maybe it’s as simple as this—transformation is elusive and old sinful patterns so persistent because it’s what we want. Maybe we’re less willing to be transformed than we claim. Sure, sometimes we genuinely are on auto-pilot, and we act without thinking. It’s hard to stop a pattern that we’re unaware of. But the Spirit of God convicts as well as equips, and will reveal to us the patterns we need to leave behind in the old life. Once we know we shouldn’t do it, and we know that the Spirit of God is ready to empower us to do what we should, then the choice is ours. God is more than powerful enough to transform us, if that’s what we truly desire. So what will we choose?