Isn’t a habit simply something we do regularly and automatically? One of the things I do every day is brush my teeth, and I don’t ever think about it. I do not every morning pause to consider the pros and cons of personal dental care, and then finally after careful deliberation make a decision on whether or not I will brush my teeth that day. No, I just brush my teeth. It is a habit, and so I waste no time thinking about it. This does not mean there are not good reasons for the habit or that I have never thought about it at all. My mother taught me to brush my teeth, I learned in school that it was a good idea, and painful drillings at the dentist have reinforced those lessons, convincing me to take care of my teeth in order to avoid future drillings. I have long ago thought about this and I have decided to brush my teeth regularly, and so I do that now out of habit. It is a good habit done for good reasons, and I have never heard of anyone being criticized for brushing their teeth merely ‘out of habit.’
What is your approach to going to church? Is it a similar habit? Or is it an option, a matter of choice each week to be thought about, discussed, argued over by all members of the family, and then thought about some more? Those who are in the habit of worship are there every Sunday. Those not in the habit will often find reasons to be absent. I have a theory about this, based on what I have seen as a parish pastor. My theory is that once attending worship becomes a weekly option and not a habit, the battle is lost, and it is only a matter time before the inconsistent worship dwindles down to no worship at all. For some people this happens in a year; one year they are active and always in church and the next year they are never there. In other families, this drift away from church may take a generation or two or even three, but it will usually happen. I have never seen a study on this, but I have often seen it happen in just this way.
The Bible gives the solution to this problem. It is in the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” There is nothing there to suggest that this does not mean every Sabbath Day. The commandment does not suggest this as an option, but rather it commands a weekly habit of worship.
Jesus said ‘the truth shall set you free” and one truth is that disciplined and consistent habits are very freeing. Many families waste no time at all on Sunday morning debates, discussions, or arguments about going to church. Everyone just knows they will be in church every Sunday. And just because they do not think about it every week, does not mean it is done without thought. The thought has already been done.
A wise person has said, “Discipline is remembering what you want.” A swimmer wants to go to the Olympics, and the remembrance of that goal keeps her disciplined enough to swim six hours every day. We want to keep the faith, we want to pass on the faith to our children and grandchildren, and we want strong and healthy congregations. We also want stable marriages and families that love each other, we want good schools, goodwill and fairness in the workplace, communities that work together, neighbors that can get along with each other, and neighborhoods that are safe. We all want all of that, don’t we? And we want good government and justice for all, we want everyone to have enough to eat, and we want peace in the world. These are things that we all want.
But as the sinners that we all are, we know that none of that comes automatically. We can see by looking around us how far short we fall on so many things. We have to remember what we want and we have to remember that it is God who gives such gifts– that is, if we obey God’s commands and do not ignore him. God gives us his Word as the way to salvation and as a guide for life now, but how can God work in us if we won’t even pay any attention to what he says and don’t love him enough to obey him? Weekly worship is a necessary part of making happen all those things that we want to happen; not by God simply dropping good families, communities, etc. into our lap, but by us becoming the kind of people that make those things possible. God works in our hearts as we hear his Word, and as we respond to his goodness with our worship, praise, and thanksgiving. The disciplined habit of going to church, therefore, is a way of ‘remembering what we want.’ The thought has already been done. The goal is already in our mind. The decision to obey is in our heart. The habit is what makes the desired action automatic. Discipline is remembering what you want, and what we want to ‘Remember’ is ‘the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,’ and by remembering the Sabbath Day, we remember God.
If you want to learn to play the piano, the discipline of committing yourself to regular practice is ‘remembering what you want.’ If you want to build character, strength, love, compassion, wisdom, and keep the faith, you will want the disciplines of prayer and worship to keep you in touch with God, the giver of all that is good. But since we tend to neglect such opportunities to keep in touch, we need to discipline ourselves to structure in times and places to remember God and hear his Word. We want to keep the faith and grow in wisdom and obedience. Discipline is remembering to do those things that lead to what we want. This takes time and may not be as entertaining as many of the other options available for our free time, but “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 2:11).
My Lord Jesus Christ, you are indeed the only Good Shepherd, and I, alas, am a lost and straying sheep. I have fear and anxiety. I would gladly belong to your flock and be with you and have peace in my heart. I hear from your Word that you are as anxious for me as I am for you. I am eager to know how I can come to you to be helped. Come to me, O Lord. Seek me and find me. Help me also to come to you and I will praise you and honor you forever. Amen.