We live as those who live not knowing what the next day will bring. We are also creatures of habit, and that works both ways. Once we have developed certain habits, be they good or bad, it is not altogether easy to break them. As we seek to meet together again as a church, this will be something to consider. It is right and good that we take reasonable precautions not to become sick nor to spread any sickness, but the world has always been a risky place. The son of the great missionary to India, William Carey – whose name was also William – married a woman called Mary. He was ordained in 1808 but hesitant about the dangers associated with where he would serve. Carey senior chided him: ‘There is much guilt in your fears, dear William. Mary and you will be a thousand times safer committing yourselves to God in the path of duty than neglecting duty to take care of yourselves.’ Where to draw the line may not be easy – caution is good, fear is wrong; courage is commended, recklessness is foolhardy.
Nevertheless, this issue of habit will be one to face. It can be seriously detrimental, as Jeremiah pointed out: ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil’ (Jer.13:23). Jeremiah accused Jehoiakim, the ungodly son of godly King Josiah, of not listening to God’s Word, adding ‘This has been your way from your youth’ (Jer.22:21). Even an ox can get into bad habits, and so be culpable (see Ex.21:29)! It is not at all easy to extricate oneself from bad habits. Ask any smoker!
Habits, however, are not invariably bad. The Psalmist made a habit of morning prayer (Ps.5:3). Not to be outdone, the Psalmist in Psalm 119 declares: ‘Seven times a day I praise You for Your righteous rules’ (Ps.119:164). When Darius the Mede forbade anybody to call on any god or man except Darius himself, Daniel simply maintained his habit of prayer. Before his open window facing Jerusalem, ‘he got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had previously’ (Dan.6:10). It almost cost him his life as he was thrown into a den of lions.
Jesus too went to the synagogue each Sabbath, ‘as was His custom’ (Luke 4:16) and He would habitually get away into desolate places in order to pray (Luke 5:16). As in sporting contests, momentum is significant. We need not only to do what is righteous but to be trained in righteousness (2 Tim.3:16). We are urged not to neglect meeting together, ‘as is the habit of some’, in order to encourage one another (Heb.10:24-25).
When the time comes that we can do that in the way we were used to is not entirely in our hands, and each may answer differently to his neighbour. Nevertheless, the Zoom world, good as it is, is not the same as being together. There are some things in Scripture that we cannot obey fully unless we are together. Even a greeting at the door can be used by God to point someone to Christ. And believe me, after three months of preaching to the bricks on the back wall, and a little plastic dinosaur that some wag left on the camera in front of me, it is wonderful to be able in person to open the Word of God to human beings who are present.
Whatever we do, we need to make sure we are on top of our habits. For good reason, the Puritans were also called Precisians, while the eighteenth century Methodists obtained their name because of their methodical approach to the Christian life. Habits can be the driver of heightened affections, of love for God and of our neighbour. Let me conclude with some words from Calvin: ‘We must drive ourselves to prayer whenever we feel cold and careless. It is not enough to recognize a failing; we must remedy it.’ Strive for sanctified good habits.