Teaching Old Dogs: New Research Says You Can Learn New Tricks!

As a physician and a biblical counselor, I can tell you that I have heard just about every excuse known to mankind when it comes to changing old bad habits. I have listened to an amazing litany of reasons for continuing to smoke such as “it will keep me from gaining the weight my coconut cream pie might put on.” Or, “you just have to understand that I have a really bad temper and accept me the way I am!”  I have never been much convinced by these arguments.

Paul told his friends at Corinth that they could change! “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2Co 5:17) Change is to be expected in the life of a Christian. When Paul wrote to his friends at Ephesus he laid out the plan.

“In reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” (Eph 4:22-24) Paul gave us a process for change that involved laying aside old bad habits, finding in scripture what the new ones were supposed to be, and then putting on the new behavior.

The whole process is powered by the grace of God that works in the lives of those have believed in Christ as Lord and Savior. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph 2:8-10)

It is always good when secular research confirms something we have known to be true from scripture.  Recent research reviewed in Science Daily has outlined the process of changing habits[i] and it looks just about like Ephesians 4:22-24.  Wendy Wood presented a paper at the American Psychological Association meeting that detailed the process that occurs in the brain when we make habits. It starts with the behavior under the control of fully engaged intentional mind which would occur in the frontal cortex and motor areas of our brains. As we repeat the behavior the control of the event moves to the sensory and motor portions of the brain.

In an interesting experiment that looked at eating popcorn in a theater, the researchers found that after you develop the habit of eating popcorn during the flick, it doesn’t matter if it is stale or fresh. Most people will gobble it down out of habit triggered by the sensory cues associated with the theater and the smell of popcorn. People eat the stale popcorn because once it becomes a habit the whole process operates outside of our conscious thought. We don’t think about it. We just eat.

Important to changing these habits were the cues that we learn that set us down the habit trail. For the popcorn eater it is the smell and the theater. If the habit of eating stale popcorn is to change, the authors said first you have to change the cues, then you need to make new ones, then you must repeat the new behavior at great length. The study said also that it take from 15 to 254 days to change a well ingrained habit as they have observed it.  I suppose if you want to quit eating stale popcorn you need to hand your wife your billfold before you enter the theater and ask her to buy nachos instead.

So there we have the process of change as the world sees and it is very much like what we might say from a Biblical counseling perspective. But, it is also very different and that difference is grace! So Paul says to the Philippians, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Phi 2:12-13)

The Christian has an enormous advantage in the game of change. First God has granted us the privilege of choosing good behavior over bad. As Paul told us in his letter to his friends at Rome, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Rom 6:16) We get to choose!

And, the choice is powered by God! God is working in us to do His good pleasure. So, yes we need to change our cues when we have unbiblical habits and put off the old man. And, then we need to pick the new behavior that is biblical from scripture and then put it on. And, by God’s grace we need to keep practicing it and doing the things we know we should.

So there, think about it before you eat that popcorn next time!


[i] Society for Personality and Social Psychology. "How we form habits, change existing ones." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 August 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140808111931.htm>.

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