The Subtlety of Behavior Modification

IN the journey of faith there is a value of seeing and experiencing the transformed life—- in this journey the Christian battles against turning sanctification into a list of works.  In the book of Romans, Paul confronts us with this reality of how easy it is for us to fall into that trap…he asks that if I have faith should I go on sinning so that grace may abound?  MAY IT NEVER BE!

We are challenged to live lives of faith that are marked by a certain set of behaviors…but the question that arises is this…

THE QUESTION: In that journey, how do we shift our actions towards positive behaviors or how do we eliminate ugly habits that we do not want in our life? aka behavior modification.

I was listening to a podcast with Andy Stanley and Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit and here is the answer he gives:

 THE ANSWER: Cue. Behavior. Reward.

Duhigg calls this the HABIT LOOP…

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP

He asks us to assess the cues in our life that lead to a certain behavior and then create a rewards system that allows us to change those behaviors.

On the surface I like a lot of what he is saying.

What I Like About what he says:

Once you know a habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it . . . others have done so . . . That, in some ways, is the point of this book. Perhaps a sleep-walking murderer can plausibly argue that he wasn’t aware of his habit, and so he doesn’t bear responsibility for his crime, but almost all of the other patterns that exist in most people’s lives — how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly spend our time, attention and money — those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp and the only option left is to get to work.”

The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”

He is making the case that there are routines in our life that dictate a lot of what we do.  In order to shift you cannot simply stop smoking “cold turkey” or simply stop biting your nails or in a positive sense give to the poor or pay it forward by saying kind encouraging words to others.

You can’t STOP something….you need to change it or REPLACE it.

All of this is nice and rosey until you press Duhigg to explain how that process works.  The response that he will give is logical, but cheap.  It may work…but removes the thinking and the depth of real change.

This example he gave reflects his argument…

Foaming is a huge reward,” said Sinclair, the brand manager. “Shampoo doesn’t have to foam, but we add foaming chemicals because people expect it each time they wash their hair. Same thing with laundry detergent. And toothpaste—now every company adds sodium laureth sulfate to make toothpaste foam more. There’s no cleaning benefit, but people feel better when there’s a bunch of suds around their mouth. Once the customer starts expecting that foam, the habit starts growing.”


Did you catch it?  TRICK YOURSELF! into believing a lie and make that your reward for your good behavior.  The fact that your hair is clean isn’t enough…the fact that your teeth are clean isn’t enough…instead, and Andy Stanley wants to know as well…”What is the tangible reward”!

Great question Andy but I do not like the answer he gives!

The answer he essentially gives is settle for a less satisfying reward beyond healthy hair or clean teeth.  Look for the foam!

In the podcast he says we all know that the virtue alone isn’t enough.

On some level, do I really care about clean teeth or healthy hair?  Not really…It is easy to check the boxes of those good things (clean teeth) and create ways to stop doing bad things (not brushing teeth).

The gravity of this philosophy shifts when I consider deeper matters of life.  If you began giving me these same instructions for spiritual disciplines for the pursuit of God… the formula is strongly lacking.

Micah 6:6-8 gives me a clear picture of the value of works that are empty and cheap.

Micah 6:6-8

With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

The lesson he wants us to understand is the value of reward in this process of changing behavior.  I LIKE THIS! The issue that doesn’t make sense to me is his dismaisal of the “virtue” as the highest reward.

If we are seeking to change behavior it may make sense for less habits to shift as a result of lesser rewards, but if I am seeking the highest habit- namely the pursuit of God- I cannot be satisfied with lesser rewards!

I must pursue God because of the reward of himself.  I must pursue God because he is valuable….not because I get chocolate after reading the bible or I get to have a beer with my friends because I went on a fast.

Experiencing GOD is the reward of pursuing GOD and to attempt to provide a lesser reward is to diminish the value of the greatness of GOD!

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