Why Routines are Not Always Ruts

A while back I lost hearing in one ear. I made an appointment with my doctor and suggested the problem might be sinus pressure. He corrected me: my problem was earwax. After the physician removed the blockage, my hearing instantly returned.

But a strange thing happened: I was now hearing all sorts of things. When I walked, I could hear the fabric of my pants rubbing. I heard birds and trucks and high frequency noises that I didn’t remember hearing before. After a few days, my experience returned to normal and I heard just as I had before.

What happened? The answer is that my mind selectively targeted what to focus upon and what to blot out. It did this by habit.

Let me share two major advantages of habits, routines, and unwritten rules.

First, routines, habits, and unwritten rules bring order. If it were not for routines, habits, and protocols, our lives would be filled with chaos. If we had to give attention to what sock we put on which foot every morning, or how many times we agitated our toothbrush on each tooth, we would be completely stressed out by noon. The decisions would wear us out.

Second, routines, habits, and unwritten rules help us get along with others. You are waiting in a long line at Aldi. What would happen if you cut in front of someone else? They would get angry and it might not be a pretty picture. Or take this scenario: a person in back of you has one item to purchase, and you have a shopping cart filled with food. You allow the person to go ahead of you, but she doesn’t bother to say thank you and virtually snubs you. What will happen if she is behind you the next time? Would you allow her to go ahead of you? Probably not.

To deal with this subject in detail, we would need to write a book—and some have! A very good secular one is the best seller, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Although written for the secular market, its principles transfer to institutions, clubs, and yes, churches.

These are not merely secular concepts, however. Habit, routine, unwritten rules—these are concepts relevant to our walk with God, our sanctification, and working with others in our church (or other groups). Let us survey how this is so.

2. The Importance of Routine in Our Walk With God

Zeal and faithfulness are not enemies, nor are they mutually exclusive.

Faithfulness is an extension of faith; sometimes the same words in the original language translated “faith” are also translated “faithfulness,” depending upon the context. (Habakkuk 2:4 is sometimes translated as, “the just shall live by his faithfulness.”)

The idea of faithfulness is that of constancy, dependability, staying the course. And, often, faithfulness shows itself in habits and routines. Think about the routines that have helped you mature in the Lord: personal Bible reading and study, group Bible studies, prayer, church attendance, Sunday School, serving in a ministry, etc.

We see routine in the life of Jesus. In Luke 4:16 we read, “And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.”

The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to avoid the habit of not attending church.

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

The writer to the Hebrews also suggests we need routines to train us.

“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14)

Notice godly Daniel’s routine in Daniel 6:10.

“When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.”

Faithfulness can be a way to maintain zeal (which should never be confused with adrenaline or emotional highs). But beyond that, faithfulness sets up routines (I call this a mechanism) to make godliness and spiritual maturity happen.

Mechanism for maturity

Doing something for a while based upon an emotional charge cannot substitute for faithful routines that nurture our souls and help us to love God and to love and serve others. A bug in your ear might wind you up to preach a one-time impassioned sermon, but faithfulness will keep you teaching the same Sunday School class for decades.

On the other side of the coin, there are times in life when we are especially pliable before God. God can use a change in marital status, having a child, launching into a career, relocating, a sudden decline in health, losing a job, a death, a wayward or sick child—or a potent moving of the Holy Spirit—to reformulate your life. This reformulation—if genuine—will show itself in new routines of faithfulness.

2. The Importance of Routine in the Realm of Self-control/discipline

The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) resembles much in Scripture: we are confronted with the paradox of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Although the fruit of the Spirit is joy, we are commanded to “rejoice.” The first section of fruit mentioned is “love.” Yet how many times are we commanded to love God and love one another in Scripture? If the fruit of the Spirit were automatic, why would we have such commands?

A better understanding is that as we walk in the things of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), we evidence the depth of our walk by varying degrees of the Spirit’s fruit. These are the sorts of things that evidence we are growing in the Lord, not that we exemplify them completely.

From the human standpoint, many factors affect self-control. Judges give more lenient sentences early in the morning (after breakfast) or immediately after lunch. Why? Blood sugar. When your blood sugar level is at the proper level, it is easier to control your emotions and think more equitably.

Ever notice how people are grouchy (and you are probably among them) when they didn’t get enough sleep? Sleep affects your self-control. You can make better choices when you are well rested. Stress can do the same thing.

Do you know why grocery stores place candy bars and magazines at the checkout? Because after making decision after decision about products to buy, your self-control has been worn down. You are now open to follow your whims. Decisions wear out self-control.

This last point is crucial. If we develop the right routines and patterns in our lives (and we all do this to some extent), we do not need to make as many decisions. This means we can save our self-control (which is a limited resource, much like energy, time, and money) for where it really matters. If, on the other hand, we are constantly reinventing the wheel, getting picky about the unimportant, or live in unstable surroundings (as some children do in dysfunctional, ever-changing homes), we are more prone to be driven by feelings—or take the path of least resistance.

We all know people who are strapped by routine because they are afraid of change, and we may know folks locked into routines because they are not very creative. This is different from people who appreciate routines out of wisdom and observation.

We all need variety, and some of us need more of it than others. I love the freedom I have to be creative, and I express it in many ways. But even creativity and variety—if kept within boundaries—is a routine.

Although routines, habits, and unwritten rules can be our enemies, they are more often our friends, especially in the realm of self-control.

3. The Importance of Routine and Unwritten Rules in Getting Along with Others

Sometimes you don’t discover an unwritten rule until you step on a hidden landmine. We have all done it, whether at work, school, or even within our own families.

Most of us—if we are fairly socialized—recognize most unwritten rules or agreements that exist in general. Some people do not, and they need to be taught each specific. We need to be patient with such people and help them understand.

The Bible is filled with examples of unwritten rules. When Abraham went to buy a field to use as a family cemetery, he was “offered” the field for free. But, in that culture, such an offer was not genuine, but part of being polite. Abraham insisted on paying for it; had he not, he would have made enemies (Genesis 23:10-16).

Good hosts offered their guests water with which to wash their feet. In Old Testament times, travelers would settle down near the town square until a resident noticed them and offered them lodging, which was expected.

Routines and unwritten rules help keep us civil, reduce conflict, and assure that proper procedures are followed. The larger the group, the more the rules. They create security, institutionalize respect and kindness, and help individuals integrate into the whole.

Not all of these rules are good, however. Some are outmoded, and others run contrary to the Scriptures. For example, the conversation Abraham had about buying land really involved institutionalized lying. It is not the way believers should relate; instead, we are to kindly tell one another the truth (Ephesians 4:15). But we should not expect lost people to embrace such distinct Christian ethics.

A good place to begin is to first understand the written or unwritten rules, figure out what purpose they serve, and then determine if they really need to be changed.

Here is an example. I know of a church where the pastor had to show up for a Wednesday night prayer meeting, even though no one usually came. The unwritten rule was that a church could not surrender a scheduled event, even if the event is brain dead. The thinking was that having a prayer meeting on the schedule was viewed as having a praying church, even though no one (or occasionally one or two people) prayed. If they prayed during Sunday School or at home meetings, that did not count.

Taking a dead ministry off of life support required educating people about the difference between image and substance. What mattered was that people prayed, not that they prayed on Wednesday night at a scheduled meeting. The goal then became to get people praying more, not keeping a dead meeting at an unpopular time afloat.

Conclusion

We need to recognize that developing good, godly habits is an important key to genuine spiritual maturity. Habits, routines, or patterns of behavior serve us well, freeing us to concentrate and focus upon the many things in life that cannot be addressed by routine.

Routines can become empty routines, but we are foolish to dispose of the baby with the bathwater. If it were not for habits and routines, for example, I would not have written this article!

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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There are 9 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The more I age, the more appreciate the good habits my parents built into me when I was young and didn't see there value or "believe in" them. Sometimes we need to trust, and only understand years--maybe decades--later.

Flawed as I am, I'd be so, so much worse w/o that appreciation for the power of routine.

pvawter's picture

Thanks for this thoughtful article, Ed. I appreciate the reminder.
Paul

Anne Sokol's picture

yes, and amen!

I think Dallas Willard has good things about habits (like even making your responses habitual---fruit of the Spirit, etc), in Divine Conspiracy (I wish that book were better named).

Charlotte Mason says a lot about habits with kids, too.

A very powerful force, habits are.

Jim's picture

Routines I find helpful in my own life:

  • We never stay up late. We are in bed by 10:30 and sometimes by 10:00. I am normally asleep in 5 min.
  • We read the Bible together (husband and wife) every night after dinner. Two chapters a night ( now in 2nd Chron). And discuss. Followed by prayer
  • We get up early. I am out of bed by 6:30 except on Saturday
  • My wife and I have a prayer list of family,church and friends that we go through every morning
  • We have an auto savings plan where money is transferred into an online savings bank - every Thursday
  • I pay every bill as it comes in and I pay the credit cards off every week on a Friday night
  • We worship every Sunday 
  • I touch base with almost every family member at least once a week. Some by email or text, most by phone, and some by Facetime
Ed Vasicek's picture

Jim wrote:

Routines I find helpful in my own life:

  • We never stay up late. We are in bed by 10:30 and sometimes by 10:00. I am normally asleep in 5 min.
  • We read the Bible together (husband and wife) every night after dinner. Two chapters a night ( now in 2nd Chron). And discuss. Followed by prayer
  • We get up early. I am out of bed by 6:30 except on Saturday
  • My wife and I have a prayer list of family,church and friends that we go through every morning
  • We have an auto savings plan where money is transferred into an online savings bank - every Thursday
  • I pay every bill as it comes in and I pay the credit cards off every week on a Friday night
  • We worship every Sunday 
  • I touch base with almost every family member at least once a week. Some by email or text, most by phone, and some by Facetime

Those are some great habits!

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Jim's picture

  • I literally have not run the washer or dryer in 40 years. Clueless
  • I don't know how to start the dish washer
  • I haven't used the stove in more than a decade
  • But I can warm up food in the microwave
  • I dispute this, but Kathee says I don't pick up my dirty clothes. 
Ed Vasicek's picture

Anne Sokol wrote:

yes, and amen!

I think Dallas Willard has good things about habits (like even making your responses habitual---fruit of the Spirit, etc), in Divine Conspiracy (I wish that book were better named).

Charlotte Mason says a lot about habits with kids, too.

A very powerful force, habits are.

 

Good thoughts, Anne.  Sometimes, though, automatic responses create what I call the "teflon effect."  Some people do not seem to understand the gravity or depth of what has been said.  It does not seem to penetrate because understanding it will not match a learned response.  So they ignore much of it and listen to only that which matches a response in their database.  It might be better if they simply admitted, "This does not compute!"

"The Midrash Detective"

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I enjoy routine. I don't understand people who want to constantly 'mix it up' - it sounds exhausting and chaotic. I even eat the same things all the time, and have very few clothes because I don't like spending time thinking about what to wear. Ken and I have been getting up at 5am for years, and spend at least an hour talking and drinking our morning coffee before starting our work days. When this doesn't happen (usually because one of us or the kids are sick) we both miss it very much and feel off-kilter until we get back to it. 

IMO many routines are a healthy way to allow us to focus on the kind of change that is necessary - the development of our character and intellect, nurturing our relationships, and the care of our spiritual well-being. 

I agree that routines need to be examined occasionally to see if they are serving their purpose. There's a sort of strange idolatry of "the good ol' days" and "the old-fashioned way" without considering why those ways were necessary at the time, and whether or not they are beneficial now. Watch out if you change one of these beloved traditions, because that is compromising . . . something. Truth, Justice, and The American Way, perhaps? 

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