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In Charlotte Mason circles, we talk a lot about habits: how God made our brains to form habits automatically through repetition; what kinds of motivation work best; how long it takes to form a good habit; how to replace a bad habit with a good habit. All of this is important, because good habits give us smooth and easy days—in our home schools and in life.
We want our children to grow up with an endowment of good habits that will help them run smoothly into their adult lives. And we, as adults, need to continue to cultivate our own good habits to help eliminate the jolts and delays that bad habits can bring. That’s why I wrote Laying Down the Rails for Yourself, to encourage teenagers and adults to work on instilling good habits for themselves based on Charlotte Mason’s principles and modern scientific findings.
The other day I received a great question about laying down good habits. Here is what Janelle wrote:
“I am nearly finished with reading “Laying Down the Rails for Yourself,” and am contemplating buying “Laying Down the Rails for Children” next. I love the idea of establishing better habits in all our lives, but I am wrestling with “Where does the power of the Holy Spirit fit?” How can we change our bad habits, except by His strength? . . . I know that God commands us by His Word to obey, to be kind, to use kind words, even to do things in an orderly way. But there’s a part of me that feels torn, like to just “lay down rails” is to attempt to do these things a bit in the flesh. And we know that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I know that even those who are not believers can and do change their habits. But I want us to be more like Him because we’re with Him, to glorify Him, and by His strength. Please help!”
These are important questions, and usually if one person asks, there are several others who have the same question. So let me share some thoughts.
Because God made people’s brains to form habits automatically, both believers and nonbelievers can put that natural law to use. I think there are four main differences between the two, though, and these differences highlight the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
- Why You Want to Form Good Habits — For a believer, all of life should be God-centered and gospel-focused. So two main reasons to form good habits, or replace bad ones, are to adorn the gospel of Christ (Titus 2:1–10) and to avoid or set aside anything that hinders our glorifying God and working for His kingdom purposes (Hebrews 12:1 and 1 Corinthians 10:31).
- Who You Depend on for the Desire to Form a Good Habit — As you mentioned, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Believers must depend on the Holy Spirit to give us the desire to do right even when we don’t feel like it. Philippians 2:13 talks about depending on God’s work within us both to desire to do His will and to have the strength to follow through and do it. We need both. Which brings up another difference . . .
- Who You Depend on for the Strength to Perform the Good Habit — We cannot depend on our own strength. Every believer needs to couple every step of habit training with prayer. So when we approach a new day, we ask God to help us glorify Him by doing the new habit that He has laid on our hearts. Later, when the thought crosses our mind to remind us about doing it, we thank God for that reminder and ask for the strength to act on it even if we don’t feel like it. And when we do act on it, that highlights the fourth difference . . .
- Who Gets the Credit When You Perform the Good Habit — We know that the strength to perform that habit didn’t come from ourselves, and so we thank God for giving us that strength. When we see the fruit of that good habit in our lives, we thank God for doing that work within us. We don’t take the credit for ourselves, because we know that without Him we can do nothing (John 15).
So every step of the habit process is focused on God, Who is at work within us and through us. He gets all the glory.
Charlotte Mason recognized the importance of depending on the Lord for strength even as you take steps to intentionally work on good habits. In relation to replacing a bad habit, she said,
“Above all, ‘watch unto prayer’ and teach your child dependence upon divine aid in this warfare of the spirit; but, also, the absolute necessity for his own efforts” (Parents and Children, p. 176).
And she also touched on the idea of being intentional in training our children and careful that we don’t allow habits that will hinder their ability to glorify God and their work for His kingdom:
“This kind cometh forth only by prayer, but it is well to clear our thoughts and know definitely what we desire for our children, because only so can we work intelligently towards the fulfilment of our desire. It is sad to pray, and frustrate the answer by our own action; but this is, alas, too possible” (Parents and Children, p. 289).
May your personal habit training and the habits you cultivate in your children bring glory to God and cause all of you to grow in your relationship with Him.