This weeks Tribe conversation focuses on the question: how do we go about creating and establishing new habits? For our community, it is the perfect time to being having this conversation as we seek to align our lives with our revitalised vision of living the way of Jesus. Tim Day starts off by highlighting that this topic is huge. We could spend 20 weeks on it and still not do it justice. Luckily for us, the above video takes less than 40 minutes!
The New Testament Concept of ‘Flesh’
He then launches into a quick biblical exploration of the concept of ‘the flesh’ and desires. In the New Testament, Paul uses the word ‘flesh’ in a particular way. It is when our desires, shape our thought patterns, which then turn into habits that run our lives. He suggests that there are two kinds of desires: 1) Anger, plus other emotions, that often result in panic attacks, anxiety and fear, and 2) Sexual drive/desires – where we want comfort or pleasure. When our desires grip us, they can often result in heightened states which cause us to freeze, turn to flight or to fight, and perhaps even to flirt. Often our patterned behaviours or pathways become ruts and so Paul makes some suggestions on how we get out of these ruts to live a different way. In Ephesians 4 and 5 Paul talks about getting rid of all anger, being kind, forgiving each other – it’s a radical approach to forgiveness and grace. He shares about not having a hint of sexual immorality or greed, along with not getting drunk on wine but instead being filled with the Spirit.
Ultimately, Paul, in the New Testament, teaches that if we are serious about forming new habits we should:
- Receive grace and offer freely to others
- Get real with someone you can trust and can help
- Embrace God’s desire for us which is to experience genuine connection, compassion and have courage in being authentic
- Join a celebrating community that enjoys grace and helps us learn a better way
- Develop healthy habits by having the support of loving, open relationships that help us develop new emotional and lifestyle patterns
The New Testament’s vision for us is that we are continually being transformed into healthy and thriving humans, one step at a time, in an unconditionally loving and authentic community.
We can then tease out how we actually go about doing this with the help of some developments in neuroscience and psychotherapy.
Neuroscience and our Inner-Drive, Sensations and Heightened States
There is a lot of broad agreement with what these scientific approaches suggest and what the New Testament teaches. Perhaps the most important and crucial thing to understand is that habits respond to goals. Whenever you do a thing that responds to a goal you have set you get a squirt of dopamine/serotonin and it makes you feel good. The more you do it, the more you feel good, which reinforces the behaviour, and it becomes easier and easier to do. The circuitry in our brains become stronger, stronger the more we do something that aligns with our goals. What Paul says about the physical side of our inner-drives, sensations and heightened states, what he terms the ‘flesh’, neuroscience is able to label the physical process that actually occurs.
Our Society and Unhealthy Brain Circuitry
Our society drives us towards disconnection and really unhealthy brain circuitry and habits. We are are all getting so busy. We are the most obese, medicated, in debt and addicted society in human history. Our ‘busyness’ helps us to feel like we are achieving our goals, but it just becomes a way to numb our pain, to not face the reality of ourselves. The more we numb, the less we connect authentically with others. The less we connect authentically with others, the harder it becomes to share our real selves with others. We hide our pain, we feel shame, and we lose our ability to connect with others and the self. This fear leads to isolation, and our shame leads to disconnection. So we chase the good feelings through distractions, increasingly disconnecting ourselves, and trying to find ways to self-soothe, and we get hooked and addicted to a myriad of different habits that aren’t healthy and don’t help us become the humans God designed us to be.
Phases of Addiction
There are three different aspects of addiction. The first phase is the intoxication or binging phase. This is where we get a particular thing and have a great feeling. The second phase is the negative/affect phase. This is a stress response, where whenever we’re feeling stressed or out of alignment or anxious we go back to that thing that gives us the great feeling. The third phase is the anticipation and compulsion phase. This is where I start hanging out for and looking for where I am going to get my next hit. This three-phase cycle becomes a feedback loop. The more we complete these steps, the more we reinforce the circuitry in our brain, the easier it becomes to resort to these behaviours, and the more we need to get the same kind of payoff. These behaviours have diminishing returns, the more habituated I am, the more desensitised as I am, and the less dopamine I get. I need to do more and more and more to get the same kind of feeling.
How do I get out of ruts?
The question then becomes: how do I get out of these ruts?
The answer, according to both neuroscience and the New Testament, is in community and authentic relationship. We have an innate need to belong and be accepted. This need can be used to either reinforce healthy or destructive habits. When I am in a community that affirms positive habits and will affirm me when I am performing these positive habits, then I am more likely to set goals that result in positive outcomes. Likewise, if I know that I’m doing something that is not healthy, and I know that my community and my relationships are not going to think it’s a great idea, then I’m less likely to do it. The potential guilt and shame become powerful motivators for me to do what is good. Most of the time this projected guilt or shame leads us to withdraw and disconnect from relationships, but if we can see the value of authenticity and get to a point where our commitment to community is unconditional and outweighs any shame I might think I might feel, then community can become the space that serves to correct our sliding into destructive and addictive habits.
In our next conversation we’ll be exploring how in God’s economy healthy habits are fused with healthy relationships.
- What unhealthy habits do we see in our society today?
- What need do you think each of these unhealthy habits is trying to meet?
- What is a more healthy way to meet those needs?
- What unhealthy habit does God want you to replace with a healthy habit?
- What is the real need embedded in that habit?
- What is a healthy way to meet that need?
- Who can join me on this journey of life change?
- Who do I need to support as they start their journey of life change?