Why Good Intentions are Bad Practice

Habits and Goals

Have you noticed that good intentions never bring the deep change we long for in life?

I might hear a good talk one Sunday and feel challenged about growing in certain areas of my life. But then I don’t grow. I come back next Sunday realising nothing has changed. Why is that? After hearing that talk, I really did want to change!

The problem is that the best of intentions don’t help us one bit when the pressure is on. Sunday is done. Mondays come. And then as soon as the moment of crisis or temptation comes, we inevitably do what we’ve always done. This often leaves us feeling stuck and disappointed when we don’t do the good we want to do – we love Jesus, we want to live the better story, and we want to change.  What’s going wrong?
Dallas Willard in his book, Spirit of the Disciplines, writes,

“It is part of the misguided and whimsical condition of humankind that we so devoutly believe in the power of effort-at-the-moment-of-action alone to accomplish what we want and completely ignore the need for character change in our lives as a whole. The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. This is the feature of human character that explains why the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality.”

We intend to do what is right – it’s true, we sincerely want to follow Jesus from the heart – but we avoid the life that would make it reality.  So what kind of life do we need to live to change deeply?  

The Kind of Life Jesus Lived

When we look at Jesus’ own way of life, which he was modelling for his disciples and for us as his disciples, we see in him a life of incredible devotion to God and to others. There was lots of pressure to be busy and to attend to every need, and yet Jesus made space to be with God so that even when crowds of people were flocking to meet him, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Lk. 5:15). Jesus made space to disengage from the voices competing for his attention to be with his Father.

At the same time, Jesus was incredibly generous in his attitude of service, and in his generosity and hospitality to others. He washed his disciple’s feet (Jn. 13:3-5), he dined with “tax collectors and sinners” (Lk. 5:30-31), and he offered blessing when others shouted curse (Lk. 23:34). It wasn’t hard for Jesus to do these things because they were a natural expression of who Jesus was on the inside.   

How to Grow as Disciples of Christ

When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, he was calling them to imitate his way of life. And we too, as disciples of Jesus, are called to walk the path he walked and live the life he lived. Jesus is our Saviour and Lord; he’s also our Teacher and Guide. He is the perfect Son of God who lived the life we could never live, but by his Spirit we are being conformed to his image (Rom. 8:29).

Jesus never said that change would happen overnight. It’s why Jesus spoke about listening to his words and putting them to practice. In fact, he warned about those who hear his words but don’t do anything about it.

“But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”  (Luke. 6:49).

To change deeply takes time. And it takes practice. The good news is that we can become a different kind of person on the inside if we’re intentional about training our hearts by committing to certain habits.

In 1 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul talks about “training for godliness.”  

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8)

The word, “training”, is where we get our English word, “gym”. Paul isn’t telling people to quit going to the gym – physical training is of some value! But how much more valuable is training for godliness?  
But notice that Paul doesn’t tell us to try to be godly; he saysto train ourselves to be godly. Unfortunately trying to be godly is what we all easily slip into – we do our best, we exercise our efforts, but then feel disappointed when we can’t seem to change. The key point is that we need to train, not try.  
Trying is what we do in the moment of decision, when temptation is there and we know what we probably should do, but we don’t really want to do that. So what do we do? We do what we want to do – which is the opposite of what God wants us to doBut training helps us to do what we presently cannot do by direct effort.

Habits Help

This is what habits are all about – committing to certain kinds of practices that become ingrained and change our hearts, replacing old habits that deform with new habits that transform. Habits are a wonderful way that God has designed the human body, that there are things that we can do without thinking about it.

It’s certainly a comforting thing when I go to the dentist. When I go to the dentist, I’m glad if the person operating the drill has had some practice. I don’t want my dentist coming at me with a sharp tool if they need to consciously think about every step required to correctly operate the tool. I can sit a little more comfortably in the chair knowing they’ve done this before, probably a thousand times, and what they will do with the drill is exactly what they’ve trained to do.

When we practice something, it gets ingrained deep in us, it becomes muscle memory – a habit. Our lives are already filled with habits that we practice consciously but more often unconsciously. We repeat a phone number to commit it to memory (actually, who really does that anymore?), we eat certain foods and refrain from others to improve our health, we commit to an exercise regime to improve our fitness. Likewise, habits also help to train our spiritual muscle.

NEXT STEPS: Determine your goal – Commit to habits

Habits are a means towards growth, they train us and form us to be the people God has made us to be. So it is important to begin with the end in mind – to have a vision for the kind of person you could be under God, and to write down a goal that is concrete and specific. Remember that change takes time, so your goal needs to be realistic. You might ask someone you trust to reflect if they think your goal is realistic. Once you’ve set a goal, consider committing to one habit that seems a natural fit for who you are, and also one other habit that will stretch you a little.

Take some time to reflect on these questions below. Pick a time where you can slow down your thoughts, and where you can be silent and sit still. Pick a place that is quiet. Pray to God, and ask him:

  • Where am I most tempted? What idols are taking root in my heart?
  • Where do I feel disconnected? Distracted?
  • Where do I have struggles in my relationships with others?
  • What habits do I need to replace because they’re deforming not transforming?
  • Set a goal: Reflect on your own life with God…where might God be challenging you to grow?
  • Write down your intention…how would you like to grow?
  • What are the means (habits) to help you grow?
  • For example,
  • ‘I think God wants me to stop taking responsibility for things I can’t control.’
  • I intend to become a person who doesn’t need to take control of everything’
  • By habits of daily solitude and silence, where I’m resting my heart in the presence of God, and daily journaling where I write down my thoughts and feelings to better understand what triggers my anxiety.

1) I think God wants me to:

2) I intend to:

3) By: