How do I get my life together when it seems like a mess?” That is how I translate Psalm 119:9. Most English language Bibles use something similar to the NIV’s translation of “How can young people keep their way pure?” However, I am no longer a young man, and the word “pure” does not seem to apply to all of the ways that I feel like I stumble. For me, the word “pure” sounds like it has more to do with a priest in the book of Leviticus getting ready for a ceremony. I am also not an ancient Israelite priest. Instead, when I think of the ways I fail in my own life, they are more akin to what Paul describes in Romans 7, when he says, “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
Fortunately, the Hebrew word translated as “pure” is zakah, a somewhat general word. Zakah does mean clean or pure, but some English translators also use the words balanced, justified, blameless, counted, perfect, or exemplary, in other places in the Old Testament. So, verse nine is not merely asking a question for a specific type of person. It is asking an age-old question that all of us can relate to in different parts of our life, “When I am sick of messing up, how can I make sure I do the good things I want to do?” Obviously, this question does not just apply to young men, and neither does the answer the Psalmist gives.
The answer is the Bible. However, it is not just about reading the Bible. The Psalmist, traditionally believed to be King David, tells us to treasure Scripture, recite Scripture audibly, delight in Scripture, meditate on Scripture, enjoy Scripture, and remember Scripture. He describes a list of repetitive actions that will help make Scripture the most critical influence in our life. In other words, if we want to live a “clean life,” as the Message translation of Psalm 119:9 says, we need our relationship to the Bible to be habitual.
One of the primary roadblocks against making reading, treasuring, reciting, delighting, meditating, and remembering Scripture habitual is the existence of other habits in our life. This is because there are no neutral habits. There are good habits and bad habits, and what makes a habit either good or bad is how effective it is at accomplishing a goal. If having strong and healthy teeth is my goal, then regularly brushing and flossing are good habits while eating sugary food would be a bad habit. The Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith calls habitual practices liturgies, and he argues that just as there are Christian liturgies, like daily prayer, scripture reading, or musical praise, there are secular liturgies. That is, there are habits that will make us more Christian and habits that will make us more secular. In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, he explains that,
“Our actions… are habits we’ve acquired through the practices we’re immersed in. That means the formation of my loves and desires can be happening ‘under the hood’ of consciousness. I might be learning to love a [purpose or goal] that I’m not even aware of and that nonetheless governs my life in unconscious ways.”
When we mindlessly scroll through social media, keep the TV show on in the background while we clean up the kitchen, or listen to music while we’re working, we might think that we are in a neutral posture, but we are actually always engaged in some kind of practice that is either bringing us closer to God or pushing us further away. This knowledge changes the question posed by Psalm 119:9 to, “how do I get rid of the bad habits that make my life a mess?”
If the highest goal in our life is, as the Westminster Confession says, to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then good habits are those that draw us closer, and bad habits are the ones that push us away from him. Yet, that is only half the story. Habits do more than just help us make progress towards or away from specific goals. Our habits can also have a degree of influence on shaping what our goals are. “Our habits,” Smith says, “constitute the fulcrum of our desire; they are the things that ‘turn’ our heart, our love, such that it is predisposed to be aimed in certain directions.” We like to think that we first need to make up our mind about our goals and then implement the practices that will build good habits to help us achieve them. The more we practice the bad habits in our life, the more we start falsely believing that they are good or necessities in our life. Thankfully, the opposite is true of Christian habits. They help us see and know the truth.
I realize that up until now I’ve only discussed the idea or concept of habits and how they might work in our Christian discipleship. So, perhaps we should consider two specific habits and the kinds of effects they can have on both our daily behavior and the values that we form. Let us look at the culture of consumption and our relationship with our smartphones. It is no secret that we live in a unique era when it comes to advertising and consumption. We are inundated with marketing that says certain products can fix us. Likewise, there is a product suited and marketed for just about every facet of our life, from health, food, education, and even companionship in the form of dating and friendship apps. As we unavoidably participate in this culture and economy of consumable commodities, how does this affect the way we understand our own identity and our relationship with God? Are we training ourselves to look for quick fixes to our discontent? Are we teaching ourselves to value the things we can order online and have delivered the next day more than what we were designed to love? In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, pastor, and theologian Tish Warren said, “Christian worship, centered on Word… reminds me that my core identity is not that of a consumer: I am a worshiper and an image-bearer, created to know, enjoy, and glorify God and to know and love those around me.” When we repeat Christian practices, what Smith calls liturgies, like treasuring, reciting, delighting, meditating on Scripture, we can undo some of our consumer obsessed culture’s brainwashing.
When we think about our smartphones, it is tempting to believe that they are just neutral tools. However, this is not quite the entire story. Our smartphones are not designed to be neutral instruments. The popular documentary The Social Dilemma does an excellent job of reminding us that our phones and the apps on them are consciously designed to make us spend more time on them. This means we need to be conscious of the habits we create and implement when it comes to our phones. In his book The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, Justin Whitmel Earley urges us to remember, “We can’t use [our phone] the right way without habits that protect us from the wrong way. When we do nothing, they tilt us toward absence. This is why we must cultivate habits that resist absence—because we were made for presence.” One tactic may be to replace some of the time we would normally spend on our phones reading the Bible. However, even just implementing a practice of consciously turning our phone off for planned periods of time will help de-habituate our automatic phone use, leaving us free to practice a litany of life-giving practices. As Earley says, “Cultivating the daily habit of turning your phone off for an hour each day is the keystone habit that can change the way you think about your phone and spark new daily routines that usher in a life of presence.” Habitual phone use can diminish our ability to be present and aware of the immediate world around us, where God has placed us. Yet, as Earley reminds us, intentionally and habitually putting our phone down helps us to open our eyes to our immediate surrounding, so we can see and participate in the work God is doing in our families and communities
Part of what makes dismantling bad habits and practicing good ones difficult is that the stickiness of certain habits is different for different people. Some habits are more challenging to adopt or let go of. Thus, it is essential to remember that in Christ, there is no guilt for bad habits. As Romans 8 reminds us, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.” The point of cultivating good habits is not to earn God’s love. God loves us, even when we have bad habits. Practicing good spiritual habits helps us glorify God and keeps our spiritual lives zakah, or exemplary. It is also one of the most Biblical and practical forms of evangelism. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates 1 Peter 2:12 in words that bring this point home. “Live an exemplary life in your neighborhood so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.”