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Heart and Habits

Truth in Love 327

God regularly and predominantly uses our habits to bring about greater spiritual maturity.

Sep 6, 2021

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I am grateful to have with us, Dr. Greg Gifford. Greg holds a PhD degree in biblical counseling from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently an associate professor of biblical counseling at the Master’s University in California, and he’s an elder at his church, Faith Community Church. He’s also certified with us at ACBC for several years and he is now a fellow of our organization. And he has a recent book that I want to talk about today. I’m so delighted to talk about this. The title of the book is Heart and Habits, and I think this is an important subject. As we dive in, I’m going to let Dr. Gifford describe some of the things from his book. So Greg, if you will, introduce us to where that title came from and why this is a significant topic for us to talk about in biblical counseling. 

Greg Gifford: Thank you for having me. Thanks for letting me speak to this. The title Heart and Habits is something that came from the content of the book. I originally even wanted to divide the book into two parts with the first part being heart and the second part being habits. The intent is that I wanted to provide a theology of habits that got it right, and got it right by focusing on the heart, the inner person, and also on the outer person, or the actions, the habits. So when Heart and Habits—as I started writing heart and habits started to become the theme. It wasn’t just habits and it wasn’t just a focus on the heart, that it was this symbiosis of how your habits affect your heart and then also how your heart informs the habits that you should develop.

Dale Johnson: I love that because now we’re talking about the person as a whole. It’s definitely a more holistic approach. It’s easy for us, even in biblical counseling, to become somewhat myopic and want to be reductionistic, if you will, to some degree on just the heart and we certainly don’t want to exclude that. But it’s important for us to talk about behavior as well. So, what I want you to do, Greg, if you can, is to help us to understand maybe some of the reasonings for, why this book? Why was this an important topic? Think about it from big-picture perspective. What were some of the goals here? 

Greg Gifford: I actually think it’s bigger than biblical counseling, but some of it was born as a practitioner. So, as you guys may know, I worked as a full-time biblical counselor. And during that time, I started to see the importance of godly habits unfold in the lives of counselees. And when I say godly habits, I just mean things like attending a local church, Bible reading, Bible meditation, prayer. Those habits are so necessary for spiritual maturity with an individual. And so what I began to just wonder was, you know, hey, what is it that our habits do? How do our habits practically work and affect us? So that’s what piqued my interest and then as I began to study it theologically and then historically, I began to find it. There is this great precedence for an emphasis on developing the right kind of habits for the sake of being more like Jesus Christ. In biblical counseling, obviously, we do that in certain forms, but that’s really a bigger walk with Christ or just Christian living issue. How do your daily frequent practices facilitate you being more like Jesus? 

Dale Johnson: That’s outstanding and ultimately that’s the goal, right? Now, as we talk a little bit further about this, I want to make sure we catch up all with of our listeners. I’m quite familiar with the content that you’re describing here. A lot of this comes out of some of your PhD research. I had the opportunity to supervise Dr. Gifford through his PhD research. You know, when you hear PhD research, most people think, you know, this is ideological and heady and it certainly is, but it should never be divorced from the practical. So what about your PhD research really helped you to understand this issue of habits better?

Greg Gifford: So that was the research question, how do our habits affect us? And that was actually just impossible to wrestle to the ground in a dissertation, and I think you were the one that told me that. So what I began to do is to approach it from a historical, theological perspective of, what have others said about the importance of habits? What has the Scripture taught? And then what have others said the Scriptures have taught? And so I really isolated that to the English Puritans, in part because they spoke the most about habits. It allowed me to kind of get my arms around a historical theology of habits, based off of what the Puritans were doing. So the aim with that was to just help inform modern-day theology of habits so that I can know like, hey, I’m way off base in what I think might be true here, or hey, I hadn’t even considered that, or hey, I’m right on track. There is something here, we just haven’t talked about it in a while. So what I found in that research is that what Jay Adams said of habituation and the importance of developing habits was actually very similar to what the English Puritans had said. The difference is that no one else was talking about it. When Jay said it, it was almost prophetic because there was this sense of, we should talk about habits more, but yet no one else did talk about habits more. So, it gave me great comfort that Jay was also right and then that’s where I hoped to step in and to kind of pick up the mantle and say, yeah, let’s talk more about a theology of habits. Jay was right and let me show you where some of the English Puritans would agree with him and how they use the Scripture to support their conclusions. So that was the big picture. And then whenever I wrote this book, I really had to kind of dump all of that from the dissertation and rewrite it from the perspective of just the lay person, someone that has no exposure to maybe the Puritans, or no exposure to biblical counseling, and yet write a work for them that they could pick up and learn from in a way that they didn’t get lost in the details. 

Dale Johnson: There are so many things that I love about this and Greg you just brought up like a thousand things that really I want to dive into. First of all, the English Puritans. There is something significant here. Part of what you mentioned is, there’s been a gap. Why are we divorced so much from church history? Not just the Puritans, but this wonderful treasure trove of history in the way the church has dealt with different issues, particularly in our case, soul-ish issues. You’re right, the Puritans talked so much about this issue of habits, but somehow in the modern sense, we’ve sort of divorced ourselves from that. Maybe we can talk just a little bit about, why has that happened? You mentioned Jay and the way people, you know, responded to his ideas of rehabituation, dehabituation—that they sort of described that he was some behaviorist or whatever. So there’s a reason. Historically, there was a gap and then when he begins to talk about habits, he’s more associated with a behaviorist than our rich church history talking about this issue of habits. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Greg Gifford: Yeah, I can. And I think the term behaviorism is actually one of the great deterrents from speaking about habits and rightfully so. When we hear behaviorist, that’s the last thing we want to be accused of, just focusing on our actions. But one of the things I say in the book is that we have to focus on behavior modification, but not only behavior modification. So this is more of a working hypothesis and it goes something like this. If we are accused of being behavioristic, then what we do is we stop talking about that thing that made us seem as if we were behavioristic. And so Jay was somewhat ridiculed for his position on habituation and dehabituation, but I would argue that he was right about his kind of pastoral insights on the importance of habits. But yet, if you say that you’re focusing on behavior only and it’s behavioristic, then oftentimes we’re cautious to engage in it. Frankly, some of the ways that habits have been approached by seculars have been behavioristic. There’s no talk about what you’re motivated by. There’s no talk about the inner person. It’s just all about do this. Don’t do this. Wake up at this time. Eat this type of food. So how did that gap come about? Well, the English Puritans were obviously these just astute, thorough, practical theologians and then you have this whole onslaught of psychology that comes that takes place at the end of the 19th into the 20th century. And then you have a lot of habituation theory coming from psychological camps and not from theological camps. So there just wasn’t a lot out there, to be honest. So, where did the conversation go? I would argue, it just went dark primarily because of behaviorism and a misunderstanding of the importance of focusing on behavior modification with heart motivation. So it’s a both/and, not an either/or.

Dale Johnson: That’s important and I’m grateful that you sort of reach back into our good christian heritage to borrow from some of the ideas of the Puritans. And they were writing, of course, long before we have our modern idea of secular psychology. Now before people start to think this book is heady, sort of lofty in ideas, it’s actually quite practical. You’re talking about habits and the ideas of motivations from the heart, and your counseling experience has certainly contributed to it, which you’ve alluded to already. But what I want you to do if you can is give us some examples of what you mean by the heart habit dynamic. Maybe even use some sort of specific habit to help us to understand the practicality here. 

Greg Gifford: Meeting with a student—this was back in November during covid and things were pretty constrictive of what was open, what wasn’t—and they just sat down with me and they were what they described as kind of like in the depth of depression. So I got to just talk with them and it was surprising how little spiritual disciplines were happening in their life. They were not actively involved in a local church. They had no meaningful forms of fellowship. Their time in the Word was almost nil and the time that they were in the Word, it was really like more of an accusation, you know, like they were on trial and that God was there to judge them and so it was kind of this one-dimensional focus in their Scripture reading. So, I met with them. I just gave him a couple of heads up. Kind of forgot about the situation and then they came back later and said, hey, things are just getting worse. I might have to withdraw from school. This is a really bad situation. I said, well, why don’t you consider this, you know, I teach a small group on Thursday nights. I attend Faith Community Church. Why don’t you consider this—why don’t you just step into fellowship, just step into active body life, and just get engaged in the Word. You’re going from nothing to just stepping into something. It was also part of this understanding that if this student, unbeknownst to themself, if they would just start to practice certain things, they will begin to see change. But if they just stay in that same position of not going to church, not engaging in the Word, not serving anyone else, then they’re not going to see any of this darkness lift in this particular situation. So as they began to re-engage in fellowship and practice some of those spiritual disciplines, I knew the theology of habits, but I never told them about it. I just said, hey, here are some of the things you need to consider doing. And as they started doing it—I had breakfast with him three times over the past month and it’s just been phenomenal to see how God has used his frequent practices to change his heart. And that habit of church attendance is a habit that we develop, but God uses that habit to help change our inner person. So if we’re not engaging in a local church in any significant capacity, then it shouldn’t surprise us that it greatly hinders our spiritual maturity. And in this particular case—I would love that every case of depression and every time a person is just really in the depths of despair, that just attending church was the key ingredient. I know that’s not the case, but yet in this particular case, it was a major ingredient in that engaging back until life in the body of Christ was central to this young man’s restoration. So that was a habit, a habit of attending church that had failed to take place, and whenever it started taking place, no shocker to me, God began to use that to help restore this young man to a place of fruitfulness. So now I would consider him a friend. He’s finishing school. He’s engaged in fellowship regularly at our church. It’s just a blast to see how God has worked through his habits to help bring about heart change. 

Dale Johnson: Amen, I mean that is critical and I think it’s a great example of what you’re describing. It is important for us to consider understanding these ideas of habits from a Biblical perspective. So in your experience, when you think about this issue of habits—and again, I get the idea that in our modern culture we sort of think of that in terms of an aversion—you’re not just arguing simply for habits. Your argument, coupled with, from a holistic perspective from the heart—you go into a lot more detail in that in the book. But one of the things I want you to do now is just help us to understand from a counselors perspective how you see people, even in the counseling room, whether they focus more on heart or more on habits.

Greg Gifford: You know, I think that question is an isolated question, according to my experience. It seems that in my spheres, and I would include part of just counseling as that as well, that those that maybe tend towards a more academic faith, one that’s very heady and knowledge-based—so I’m a professor at a university so I’m surrounded by a lot of those individuals—that our focus tends to be on the heart. And we need to acquire some type of new desire, a new piece of knowledge, and then that will unlock all of this spiritual maturity in our life. I do know that knowledge is an integral part because God reveals through His Word Himself, His will, and so forth. But yet there’s also a lack of emphasis on practice and so what we can do is we can overemphasize this heart motivation and underemphasize the habits that just practically need to be developed. It can’t be an either/or, but if I stood back and just assessed, is it heart that people typically are emphasizing, or is it habits? In my sphere, its heart 100%. And sometimes we have flagrantly unwise habits that we’re practicing and we’re hoping God will bring about spiritual transformation and its insanity to me. We have to be willing to say, God help me by faith and through the empowerment of your Spirit to walk obediently to you, and may you use that to transform my heart, just like Philippians 2, 12, and 13 speak of. 

Dale Johnson: Or Matthew 7, when Jesus is finishing the sermon on the mount. Not just hearing to gain knowledge, but also understanding which leads to the practice of faith, right? The doing of the Christian faith, and I think this is an important dynamic. And listen, we tend, in history, to swing the pendulum to points of emphasis and I think what you’re trying to do is to help us to bring both of the beauties of these aspects of our humanity together as we see it in the Scriptures. So, a couple of further things as we sort of close this down. Help our listeners to understand how you practically implement this as you’re working with people. 

Greg Gifford: In the counseling room, every good biblical counselor is finishing their session with homework. Now, there might be the one-off situation or maybe you’re getting close to graduation and there’s not as much homework, but that’s what we do. That’s why we practice. And that homework is driven by the understanding that we can’t just be a hearer of the Word, we have to be a doer. So this James 1, like you just mentioned this Matthew 7, that there is blessedness in keeping God’s commands. So, as a biblical counselor and practitioner, we have to understand that we can inform people. We can try to guide their heart motivations, but the way that transformation takes place is through frequent practices. That God regularly and predominantly uses our frequent practices to bring about greater spiritual maturity, as opposed to a road to Damascus moment where God knocks you off your horse and zaps you. That is not the experience of most. Our progressive sanctification typically looks like, one day at a time we are growing and meditating on the Word. And now before long, we begin to think like God according to His Word. So as biblical counselors, how do we practically do that? It’s primarily through homework. We’re assigning Scripture reading. We are assigning Scripture meditation. We are assigning church attendance. We are assigning practical activities to do the conference table for a married couple. And all of those are frequent practices, dare I say habits, that we’re hoping this individual or this couple gets into that will affect their heart. So how does it land practically for us as counselors? It lands practically through implementation and homework. 

Dale Johnson: So what particular areas—and maybe this will be the last thing we talk about during this time together—what are some of those particular areas of life where you see this dynamic of heart and habits may be most applicable in life?

Greg Gifford: I think it’s bigger than counseling. In the book, I talk about different spheres of your life. The outermost being social, but the innermost being the spiritual sphere. So if I just had to say, what’s the most predominant, pertinent, relevant aspect of this? It’s as you think of your spiritual disciplines, might be the word that we would use. So spiritual disciplines just being, if you don’t have a habit of being engaged in a local church, that is going to shatter other spheres of your life. If you don’t have a habit of engaging in the Word in some way—reading, meditation, memorization—then that’s going to shatter other spheres of your life. So those are the most fundamental habits and they’re key to your growth, your functioning, your performance, and other spheres of life. So, I try to make a case where I don’t want a person to become more vocationally apt if they’re not engaged in a local church because I think the long game is messed up at that point. So just to finish that thought, I would say starting with your God Word relationship, the spiritual sphere of your life. It’s ensuring that you have your spiritual habits, your spiritual disciplines, that you have those squared away. You’re focusing on them. You’re cultivating them. And then you’re letting those propel you out into other spheres of life where you do need to develop other habits. 

Dale Johnson: Greg, this is all been very, very helpful. And man, I can’t wait for your book to get out into the hands of many, particularly of our counselors. I know this dynamic is going to be really really helpful for them to keep the pendulum from swinging too far in one direction or another. You’re going to help to keep them on track. I love the way that you’re describing that this is a whole life issue. It’s not just a counseling issue. This is a way we think about the dynamics of their life as they attempt to serve God in every sphere of life appropriately.

Helpful Resources

Heart & Habits: How We Change for Good by Greg Gifford.