What Do Habits Have To Do With Assurance?


I know, at first glance, this sermon’s title sounds like we are mixing apples and oranges.  It looks like we are trying to join human works with God’s grace and call it salvation.  Something like telling Jesus at the pearly gates: “Thanks for saving me, but don’t forget what I did!”


I know that you have heard all this argued out before until you feel punch-drunk!  On one hand, you are uncomfortable with the thought that human works could ever be good enough; yet, you are also uncomfortable with the thought that our assurance of salvation rests solely on believing that Jesus did it all on the Cross.  And all this leaves you in the fog of not being sure of your salvation.  Am I right or wrong?


Let’s step back and look at the big picture.  The goal of the plan of salvation is to restore in you everything that sin has damaged—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  God’s plan for you is to make you safe to save.  God’s plan for the universe is to take out of this world men and women who can be trusted with eternal life.


Jesus helps us in many ways to see the big picture. Let’s listen to Him as He finished up His sermon on the mount: “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in Your name?”  And this I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’  Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mind, and does them, I will like him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.  Now everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat on that house; and it fell.  And great was its fall.” Matthew 7:21-27, NKJV.


These are very chilling words!  Imagine, for years being recognized as a good church member; in fact, a very good church member who contributed at least a double tithe, and recognized as an exceptionally bright student of the Bible.  In fact, known around town as a faithful Sabbath-keeper, never caught cheating anybody.  More than that, known for a record of giving many Bible studies and for leading many into the Adventist Church.


Then to hear from Jesus, “I never knew you for what you said you were.  Your life record, I admit, looks wonderful except it was built on sand—just a sand castle that, sooner or later, did not hold up under pressure.”


Here are those who thought they were saved, living with presumptuous assurance. Their lives were based on principles that were primarily self-centered.  They did their good works to impress themselves or others, either their friends or God Himself.  Their lives amounted to only beautiful sandcastles to be washed away by the restless sea.


In practical terms, what was the difference in the lives of those with presumptuous assurance (sand castles) and those with genuine assurance (rock-assurance)?  Sounds like the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids!  What was going on in the neural patterns of each group that made them think and act the way they each did?


Let’s first ask—what does it mean to build on the rock?


Ellen White gives the answer better than anything I could say: “We build on Christ by obeying His word. It is not he who merely enjoys righteousness, that is righteous, but he who does righteousness. . . .  Religion consists in doing the words of Christ; not doing to earn God's favor, but because, all undeserving, we have received the gift of His love. Christ places the salvation of man, not upon profession merely, but upon faith that is made manifest in works of righteousness. Doing, not saying merely, is expected of the followers of Christ. It is through action that character is built. . . . As you receive the word in faith, it will give you power to obey. As you give heed to the light you have, greater light will come. You are building on God's word, and your character will be builded after the similitude of the character of Christ.” MB:149, 150, italics supplied.


It would be hard to misunderstand these two paragraphs!   Our question is: how is this done?  How does it happen so that “through action . . . character is built”?  In my life and yours?


That is a powerful concept.  Not through words only, not even through Bible study and prayer only—but through “action character is built”!  So, the big question: How do actions affect character?


The key word is “habit.”  Those who are eventually redeemed will be habitually “keep[ing] the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12, present tense, “making a life-habit of keeping”).  So let’s talk about habits!


Habits can not be measured like muscles or observed on a electrocardiogram.  “Habit” is a word that describes what happens when thoughts or acts are repeated. Habits are truly good friends!  Think of the time we save (without taking time to think as we once did) when we tie our shoes, drive cars, use the typewriter or computer, etc.!    Remember the hours and weeks it took to develop these skills that we no longer have to consciously repeat, over and over,  just to get it right! Habits are our built-in anti-stress kits


 I like the way Ellen White put it: “The power of self-restraint strengthens by exercise. That which at first seems difficult, by constant repetition grows easy and right thoughts and actions become habitual.” MH:491


Habits have lasting consequences: “Actions repeated form habits, habits form character, and by the character our destiny for time and for eternity is decided.” COL:356.  Habits do determine destiny!


So, how are habits made or unmade?  Wise Solomon said that as a man thinks, “so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). We think with our brain cells.  Brain cells lie about an inch behind our forehead.  These brain cells are the capital of the body, the power center for all that happens to every nerve and muscle.  The brain’s  messages are sent “electrically” at astonishing speeds that scientists have not yet been able to replicate on the most advanced  computer.  And we have some computers today making billions of decisions every second!


Just this week we all learned that  IBM is building two supercomputers to be completed by 2004.  The ANCI Purple will complete 100 thousand billion (17 zeros) calculations per second—a speed known as 100 teraflops; the Blue Gene/L will  be three times faster.  Although they will lack consciousness and the capacity for thought, they will be approaching the speed and power of our brains, so say the computer scientists!


So how do our brains work?  The entire brain operates on 10 watts of electricity.  Each brain cell has many fibers called dendrites which receive all kinds of information constantly.  One long fiber called the axon transmits messages between cells. 3T:369


The microscope shows us that on the end of the axon are tiny enlargements called boutons (French, for “buttons”).  These boutons secrete chemicals (ACH and GABA) which stimulate the next cell to send a message down the nerve path to whatever muscle or organ is to be activated. But there is no direct connection between the axon and the next cell’s dendrites, only a tiny space, called the synapse.  How does the message get across this synapse?  Through the chemicals of the boutons.


Here is where it gets interesting.  Some axons have more boutons than others.  Why? Because that axon has been stimulated more than others.  More stimulation, more boutons.  With more boutons, the easier it is the next time for similar messages to flow along that particular pathway. Habits are forming!


How are boutons formed?  Any thought or act forms a bouton.  Thoughts and acts often repeated build more boutons on the end of that particular axon so that it becomes easier to repeat that same thought or act when the same situation is again faced. Just like cutting across the lawn eventually wears a worn path, so repeated thoughts actually produce physical and chemical changes in our nerve pathways.  Thoughts don’t vanish into thin air, they are etched into a biochemical pattern that we call habits.


The good news and the bad news is that boutons never disappear.  Right!  Frightening, as well as assuring!  For example, recovered alcoholics tell each other that they “are always” alcoholics.  So they avoid friends who drink and places where alcohol is likely to be served   Chocoholics and those involved in “fatal attractions” with the opposite sex, never lose those boutons that make it easier  for them to “cave in” the next time temptation stares them in the face.[1]


But the good news is that the bad-habit boutons can be overpowered by good-habit boutons.  Those who find it easy to be angry, to be lazy or self-centered, can believe that with the right set of the mind and the power of God, new habits of self-control, industriousness, and caring can be established firmly.  Solomon is right: We are what we think.


Sounds too easy?  Here is how we build more yes or no boutons, whichever is appropriate for the occasion.  For example, when we are used to saying ”Yes” to bad choices, we must build “No” boutons.


Research indicates that we can change most any habit in a matter of weeks—some say 21 days!  Remember Paul’s counsel to Titus: “For the grace of God has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No” to ungodliness and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives . . . while we wait for the blessed hope.”( 2:11, 12)  In other words, when we choose to resist temptation, when we say, “No!”,  GABA is secreted at the synapse.  GABA puts the brakes on and keeps that cell from firing.  With repeated resistance (repeated “No’s” when before, the choices were “Yes’s”), more “No” boutons are formed..  With more “No” boutons on the end of that axon that had formerly led to inappropriate sexual behavior or quick anger, GABA (the brakes) becomes even more powerful, making it virtually impossible to do wrong in that particular situation again.


Sound too simple?  There is a warning.  The GABA secretion does not function well, most often not at all, when we lose sleep or get fatigued for whatever reason, good or bad.  GABA (the brake on our decision making) is affected by fatigue much sooner than ACH (the accelerator on our decision making).  That is, when we are tired, we find it easier to do and say what we please, we have lost our braking power.  That is why committee meetings in the evenings, Saturday night flings, and night-time confrontations with others (children, spouses, etc.) most often turn into regrettable experiences.  When we are tired, the go-for-it, tell-it-like-it-is, have-fun attitude has no GABA to say no!


To get even more practical, most of life is a matter of conflicting choices—shall I, or shall I not?  One brain cell says, “Why not? Go for it!”  The other says, “No, you’d better not!” Which one wins?  The one with the most boutons built up by habit! One brain cell sees the extra piece of scrumptious pecan pie or the banana sundae; or the possibility of getting a better grade by cheating because everyone is doing it; or habitual eating between meals and skipping breakfast; or undue familiarity with the opposite sex, etc.  However, another brain cell now becomes activated; it sees the same temptations and says, “No, there’s a better way.  I choose to abide in Christ and all those negative choices will keep me from my full potential. I want to honor my parents (or my spouse, or my God).  I want to be trusted.”


All this choosing (mental activity) takes electrical energy.  When negative temptation of any kind says “Go for it!  Looks good, take a piece;” or, “Go for it, no one will ever know”—30 millivolts, shall we say, of ACH energy surges into your action cell.  But your better self says (if you are not in fatigue), “Hold it, there are consequences down the road I don’t want to live with.  Don’t fire!  [that is, “Don’t cheat,” “Don’t take that extra piece, etc.”].”  If the better brain cell has more boutons, GABA jumps into action with 40 millivolts, shall we say, of electrical power, saying “No!”  Because it takes only ten millivolts for a cell to fire, the brain cell with the most boutons wins![2]


The scenario, of course, can be reversed.  If the brain cell saying, “Go for it!” has the most boutons, ACH wins.  Especially if the brain cells are tired and GABA, our brakes, are not functioning.


This is how habits are formed. More boutons (because of the same thoughts and actions repeated often) equal more electric current to say “No” or “Yes” at the proper times.  The more boutons producing good  habit pattern, the more spontaneous, habitual, and natural will be the ability to make right decisions in the future. That is how right decisions form right habits that form right characters.[3]


However, Christians should be realists—negative habits are always there in the shadows, because all boutons remain in place.[4]  We may repent and set our feet in right paths but the familiarity with the former temptations is a crease in the paper that can not be completely ”uncreased.”[5]  That is why wise Paul could say, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).


At this point, at this crucial knife edge of each person’s future on which all else balances, we must be very clear and honest unto ourselves: Will power, no matter how strong a person is, will never be sufficient to build enough boutons so that we will be above temptation.  We live in a very dynamic universe and evil forces beyond the human are impressing us constantly (Ephesians 6:12, 13).


But God does stand aside and merely watch us develop good habits.  He has provided for us the personal intervention of the Holy Spirit, the Eternal Energy of the Universe, who prompts us to make right boutons and to assist us whenever we choose His help in putting the right boutons along the right axons.  But God does not make the right boutons for us—if we do not choose His way.  This choosing, this response to the prompting of the Spirit, is the first step in making new boutons.  God does not choose for us any more than He does our breathing for us! [6]


The good news is that He has wired us to succeed with a neural system that defies human imagination or duplication.  All He wants from us is our choice.  Each right choice becomes another bouton, until the “weight” of good boutons forms a strong and good habit.


The next question is: How can we make healthy brain cells every day?  First, make sure that we are feeding them with rich, pure blood. How do we do that?  By eating food that is healthful, such as fruit, nuts, vegetables, and grains.  By avoiding animal products that send cholesterol and other undesirable elements zinging through our blood stream.  By drinking plenty of water daily. By breathing deeply in fresh air.  By exercising  daily so that all that water, good nutrients, and fresh oxygen is hurried through the blood stream, feeding those brain cells minute by minute!


When brain cells are not fed properly, we doze at the wheel of our car, for instance. Or, in our classes. We are setting ourselves up to make poor decisions; we become lazy, grouchy, and miserable.


But brain cells are even more important than helping us to think clearly and quickly.   They are not only where habits are formed.  Brain cells must be kept healthy because the brain is the only place in our bodies where the Holy Spirit connects with us.


Let the following quotation sink in: “The brain nerves that connect with the whole system are the medium through which heaven communicates with man and affects the inmost life. Whatever hinders the circulation of the electric current in the nervous system, thus weakening the vital powers and lessening mental susceptibility, makes it more difficult to arouse the moral nature.” [7]


Think about it!  Anything we do to improve our general health makes it easier to hear the Holy Spirit!  When I discovered that principle some years ago, I surely paid more attention to what I ate, how I exercised, and when I rested.  The thought also occurred to me that when I violated simple health rules, I was tuning down the Holy Spirit and thus not getting the confirming Voice of assurance that I want to live with day by day (1 John 3:24).


Imagine that!  How I treat my physical body directly affects my mental and moral sensibilities and where I spend eternal life. That sounds very much like “doing” the will of God (Philippians 2: 13) and building on the rock that Jesus talked about. (Matthew 7:21, 24).  This is the rationale for the Adventist emphasis on health principles.


Through it all, God holds before us, day and night, the reasons why we should choose His way of making sense out of our lives.  He never wearies.  He is always ready to  provide the electrical energy that jump-starts our electrical system whenever we choose to plug into His power.  And He never gives up on us, even if we fail again and again in the self-correcting process of reaching our goals.  He is already there to jump-start us again with more energy to make more boutons of the right kind.  That is what Paul meant when he said, “God is at work in you, both to will and to do His good pleasure.” Phil 2:18


Remember the big picture: Whether we want to believe it or not, the day is coming when those prepared for the Lord to come will have settled “into the truth, both intellectually and spiritually, so they cannot be move.” Or, more settled into self-centered, envious, hateful persons, so they too cannot be moved!.


This is powerful good news!  We don’t have to be grouchy, stingy, self-centered, or angry forever.  Not when the Holy Spirit gets to work!  This is God’s way of making us safe to save so that the angels and unfallen worlds will be confident that we can be trusted with eternal life.  This is why Jesus ended His sermon on the mount talking about the habits of professed Christians and so will I: Those who build their lives on bad habits will hear those awful words, “I never knew you for what you said you were.”  Those who build their lives on good habits will survive every storm and will hear their Lord say, “You loyal ones, you can be trusted with eternal life.”


© 2002 Herbert E. Douglass.  All rights reserved.  douglass@starstream.net





















[1] “Let none flatter themselves that sins cherished for a time can easily be given up by and by. This is not so. Every sin cherished weakens the character and strengthens habit; and physical, mental, and moral depravity is the result. You may repent of the wrong you have done, and set your feet in right paths; but the mold of your mind and your familiarity with evil will make it difficult for you to distinguish between right and wrong. Through the wrong habits formed, Satan will assail you again and again.”—Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 281.

[2]Elden M. Chalmers and Esther L. Chalmers, Making the Most of Family Living (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1979), pp. 61-67

[3]The power of self-restraint strengthens by exercise. That which at first seems difficult, by constant repetition grows easy, until right thoughts and actions become habitual. If we will we may turn away from all that is cheap and inferior, and rise to a high standard; we may be respected by men and beloved of God.”—The Ministry of Healing, p. 491.

[4] “We should not be slow in breaking up a sinful habit.  Unless evil habits are conquered, they will conquer us, and destroy our happiness.”—Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 654.

[5] “What the child sees and hears is drawing deep lines upon the tender mind, which no after circumstances in life can entirely efface. The intellect is now taking shape, and the affections receiving direction and strength. Repeated acts in a given course become habits. These may be modified by severe training, in afterlife, but are seldom changed.”—Child Guidance, pp. 199, 200.

[6] “While these youth [four Hebrew youth in Babylon] were working out their own salvation, God was working in them to will and to do of His good pleasure. Here are revealed the conditions of success. To make God's grace our own, we must act our part. The Lord does not propose to perform for us either the willing or the doing. His grace is given to work in us to will and to do, but never as a substitute for our effort. Our souls are to be aroused to cooperate. The Holy Spirit works in us, that we may work out our own salvation. This is the practical lesson the Holy Spirit is striving to teach us.”—Ellen White Comments, SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 1167.

[7] Education, p. 209.