This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it refers to is Psalm 32.
A habit is something you can do without thinking; which is why most of us have so many of them.
Not my witty observation, I’m afraid; but nonetheless very true. Modern life is complex, with all sorts of information coming at us, and us needing to make a high number of decisions quickly and at short notice; the more we can cut down on the mental overload by having habits and routines, the more most of us find that helpful and even, to a degree, liberating. (Like, for example, the corporate executives who have multiple versions of the same outfit, so they never have to think about what to wear).
Forming habits – habits of behaviour, of speech, of thought – is part of how we human beings cope with life, and that is not, in itself, a bad thing.
But anyone who’s ever made a new year’s resolution knows how hard it is to change bad habits, or even to establish new good ones. What carries us along very comfortably once it’s established, is not nearly so easy when we’re trying to make it part of the pattern of life.
This is just as true even of our sinful habits.
So what I want to talk about a bit this morning is the psalm, but not so much the text of the psalm as the way Christians in the west, in particular, have tended to use this psalm; and that is, as a circuit breaker for sinful habits.
You see, what happens all too often for us goes a bit like this; we recognise that we have a habit of doing something wrong. Maybe we focus too much on money; or maybe we ignore our spouse in favour of our own entertainment; or maybe we are prone to nasty outbursts when we’re upset; or whatever, it doesn’t really matter what the sinful habit is. But we recognise it, and we realise that it’s bad for us and our relationships, and we want to do better. We might even ask God to forgive us and be assured that God does, in fact, forgive us all the things we struggle with.
So far, so good. But wanting to do better, by itself, seldom makes much difference. Even solemnly committing to do better only gets us so far. Most of us find, within a humbling space of time, that we are, in fact, back in the grip of our bad habit. Because the patterns of thought and behaviour, the neural connections in the brain that feed that habit, are so well-established that they happen without us even having to consciously decide that they should.
In order to change our habits, those patterns need to be disrupted in some way. Something removed or something new brought in. This is – in case you hadn’t realised – exactly what Lent is designed to do. By fasting, by doing things differently in prayer and study, and so on, the aim is to scramble the pattern enough, to disrupt the sinful habits enough, to break them by Easter.
And one thing many Christians, over the millennia of the church, have done with that sort of purpose is pray today’s psalm. Look how, over its twelve verses, it takes you on a bit of a sight-seeing tour of the sin cycle; the person does something wrong (we don’t know what, but in a way it doesn’t matter; because we can all fill in the blanks with our own pet sins, then!), they suffer the consequences; they seek and are given forgiveness, and they receive from God support, protection, instruction and wisdom; and ultimately come out into a place of renewal and joy.
And the support, protection, instruction and direction from God are really important; because they’re the bits that change things enough to break the habit. (Even the suffering is helpful that way, because it disturbs our comfort enough to motivate change; but over and above that, the psalm describes God providing resources and resilience enough to allow the person to really change; to embrace new habits and let go of old ones).
So this psalm – along with some others, including the one we looked at in Bible study last week – would often be prayed by people needing exactly that kind of change. Whether it was in the very early church, and this would be done publicly after being excommunicated; or whether it was in the medieval church and done privately as individual penance after confession; or whether it was in the reformation era and done as a kind of personal pious devotion, this psalm has been seen by Christians for centuries as both a guide to repentance, and as a useful resource in the process of changing hearts and minds.
So – where does that leave us?
Let’s start here. All of us sin. All of us fail in love for God and for those around us, habitually.
Those habits of sin are unlikely to change just because we recognise them for what they are (although that’s a necessary first step), or even because we know God forgives us for them (though that’s important, too). Habits change over time, over a process of disrupting the thought and behaviour patterns of the habit and replacing them with new ones.
And while God’s grace and the Holy Spirit are at work in us, too, usually they don’t operate in a way that’s separate from everything else going on in our heads.
Praying this psalm might not be just the ticket for everyone in that kind of process of sinful habit-disruption; but the fact that using it that way has been so persistent in Christian history gives us some pointers for what to look for in our own process.
Where am I suffering? How does that suffering relate in any way to my own choices? (Note: not all suffering is the consequence of our own personal sin!) Should I pay attention and let it help me recognise where I need to change?
Have I been honest with God about my own sin and my need to change? Do I need to set aside some time for that kind of prayer?
Do I really believe that God forgives me? Do I hesitate, believing I don’t deserve forgiveness? What would help me to be assured that God’s loving care for me has not been withdrawn?
What do I need to put in place to disrupt this habit? Some people work well with accountability partners; others physically change their surroundings, others change their daily or weekly routine; the mention of instruction and direction in the psalm suggest to me that it’s not just about stopping the old thing but about allowing positive input into something new, as well. But this is a very individual thing, and I can’t tell all of you – from the pulpit – what support or resources you need! (As an aside, this is why private confession can sometimes be helpful; because it does allow for that personally tailored guidance, counsel and encouragement). But it’s worth reflecting on; we know – because the psalm tells us – that God offers us support, protection and guidance in our time of need. So what do we need, knowing that God is ready and willing and waiting to give it to us; what would we ask God for? (And on that note, do let me encourage you to visit the prayer station set up in the oratory; because it’s there for exactly that kind of prayer request that God would help us grow).
And finally, where’s the joy? I might be a work in progress, but there’s plenty to celebrate, in God’s goodness in getting me to this point, and in the goodness I can trust is still to come. What do I have to celebrate? How might I actually allow myself to enjoy that?
That last part isn’t an afterthought, by the way. Allowing ourselves to give thanks and celebrate – rather than always being focussed on what is bad and wrong – also helps sustain us on the way. It’s why we have fasts and feasts; the feasts encourage us during the tough times.
Looked at that way, it’s a very robust process, this business of penitence. Let’s take it seriously, so that we can live up to being God’s people who, in the words of the psalm, are true of heart.