Do you watch TV? Like, a lot of TV? I know I am not the only one who frequently finds myself coming home, sitting on the couch, and turning on Netflix (or Hulu, or Disney+, or YouTube—you get the idea). Here is the scary part: I usually do it without even thinking. And I am willing to bet that you do this, too.
Maybe you are not a big TV-watcher, but you probably do have a few compulsive habits just like me. Maybe it has to do with social media, or food, or video games, or even reading. Neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists say that more than 50 percent of our lives are made up of habitual behavior. We constantly do things without even thinking about it. Destructive or healthy, this is just how we live. Habits are inevitable—and they’re either destructive or life-giving. Like a train on its tracks, our habits drive us in one of two directions. The sad fact is, we all have a lot of pretty destructive habits.
As youth ministers, we observe the power of habits in our students as well as ourselves. What can we possibly say to the high school sophomore who is addicted to pornography, and has been for 3 years? Or to the senior who constantly lies with no remorse? Or even to yourself, as a leader in the church—what are you supposed to do when your own habits lead you astray?
The Bad News (it’s worse than you think)
In Matthew 15:11 and 18, Jesus says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth… What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (ESV). Essentially, being defiled means deserving separation from God. And since God is the very source of life, being separated from him is the greatest danger to all of humanity.
The logic behind Christ’s words in Matthew 15 is also found elsewhere in Scripture, particularly in Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (ESV). The NIV says, “everything you do flows from it.” In other words, the state of our hearts determines how we live. Actions are never the source of defilement, our hearts are. Spoiled actions always flow from a spoiled heart.
Most people Jesus was speaking to (and most people today) assume separation from God comes from a lack of religious activities. Instead, Christ took the focus away from our religiosity and onto the state of our hearts—and no one’s heart is righteous (Jer. 17:19). This teaching is so inclusively damning that only Jesus himself can meet the standard required to avoid being labeled as defiled.
This helps to explain why we struggle with so many bad habits (gossip, laziness, sexual sin, judgmental attitudes, and more); our hearts are separated from God to begin with! Even if we manage to do something positive or religiously significant, if our hearts are spoiled, we will only be scratching the surface of what God requires of us—like being satisfied with a glass of water when God intends for us to experience a flowing river. A defiled heart is categorically unable to be in relationship with God and therefore unable to live the flourishing life for which God designed us. No wonder the Pharisees were so upset with Christ’s teaching, and not just angry but actually offended (Matt. 15:12). Since we can’t help but have defiled hearts, we will all continue to be separated from God no matter what we do.
The Good News (it’s better than you think)
Jesus taught that we don’t need superficial changes or behavioral modification; we need new hearts. To the unrepentant, Christ’s words are offensive and damning, but to the repentant his words bring radical hope: “You can’t get a new heart because you’re not capable. Only I can give you one. Only I can heal your relationship with God.” Thank God for Jesus—he is offering us new hearts! The gospel is not a band-aid for a surface wound; it is a total renovation of the heart.
So, if you and your students are anything like me, you have some bad habits. And, if you are like every other human being, your bad habits are flowing from a defiled heart. There is no hope for any of us unless our hearts are made right—and the only hope for that ever happening is through Jesus. This is the hope we need to administer week in and week out in our youth ministries and churches—and equally to ourselves. The gospel is not just theoretical; it is immensely practical. The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection changes us from the inside out.
Three Hopeful Practices for Habits
Here are some recommendations, both for ourselves and as we disciple the students in our care.
First, take inventory. Slow down and consider the state of your heart next time you pull out your phone and mindlessly open up Twitter or Instagram. Which heart are you listening to? Your old, sinful, and defiled heart? Or the new heart, with its desires for righteousness and communion with God, that Jesus has given you? The first step is to simply be aware of the direction of your desires, asking God to help you want what he wants.
Second, affirm your new identity. We all struggle with identity issues, and who we think we are directly affects the state of our hearts. But we need to see ourselves the way God sees us; his opinion matters most. Therefore, every morning we ought to remind our hearts who we truly are. We are God’s children! Our students are not bound by the identities their peers push onto them, and neither are we. We are adopted sons and daughters of the King. As we hold up our God-given identity above all other identities, we will start to see our habits reformed.
Third, flex your spiritual muscles. Our hearts’ desires pretty much determine what we do. How do we change our sinful desires? Well, we can’t. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live into stronger desires! We can urge our students to actively listen and follow their God-given heart desires (to follow Christ and commune with him) even if it is hard to hear under the screeching of your old heart.
As we encourage our students to put these practices to use, we need to lean into them ourselves as leaders, remembering the Good News of God’s grace: That those who have been made new by Jesus are invited back to him no matter how far our hearts may wander.