Sermon illustrations


Bourdieu’s Habitus

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it this way. Each of us has what he called a habitus: a set of dispositions to respond more or less spontaneously to the world in particular ways, without much thought. Your habitus is trained into you starting from childhood. Parents tell you not to speak with your mouth full, to sit up straight, not to touch your food with your left hand, and so on, and thus form table manners that are likely to stick with you all your life.

Once they are inculcated, these habits aren’t consciously associated with an identity: middle-class English people don’t consciously decide to hold their knives in their right hands in order to act English, any more than Ghanaians use only their right hands to eat in order to display that they’re Ghanaian. But these habits were nevertheless shaped by their identity.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, Liveright.

Choose Your Rut Carefully

I read somewhere that in the early days of the Alaska Highway, tractor-trailer trucks would make deep ruts in the gravel as they carried construction equipment to boomtowns up north. Someone posted this sign at the beginning of the road: CHOOSE YOUR RUT CAREFULLY, YOU’LL BE IN IT FOR THE NEXT 200 MILES.

Philip Yancey, Finding God in Unexpected Places: Revised and Updated, WaterBrook Press, 2008.

Consider your Habits, They Make up 40% of Your Life

A 2014 study by Wendy Wood found that approximately 40% of people’s daily activities are performed out of habit.  According to Wood, “an important characteristic of a habit is that it’s automatic…We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals.

We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response.” While we often think of ourselves as independent thinkers, the research proves that we often don’t think much at all while undergoing regular activities throughout our day. As followers of Jesus, we may want to reconsider forming the kinds of habits that enable us to draw closer to God and neighbor.

Original material adapted by Stuart Strachan Jr., source material by Wendy Wood, Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “How we form habits, change existing ones.” Science Daily.

Defining Habits

The definition of the word habit, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a usual way of behaving: something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way.” In the American Journal of Psychology it is defined as “a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience. Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed in persons exhibiting it, because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when undertaking routine tasks.”

You see, that negative practice that you go back to again and again isn’t merely a quirk, a tic, or an occasional blip on your emotional-psychological radar screen. In many cases it’s as much a part of you by now as your hair color—although at least that’s easy to change. Think of your negative behavior as a semipermanent tattoo, one that is stuck on your skin but not etched into your body. You can get rid of it, but it will take some work.

Paul Williams & Tracey Jackson, Gratitude and Trust, Penguin Publishing Group, 2014, p.26.

Habit Loops

According to the groundbreaking book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, his research tells us that cravings drive our “habit loops.” Some of us crave escape or relaxation through the habit of a glass of wine after work. Others crave companionship and have the habit of saying yes to social opportunities as avoidance for being alone.

Maybe you crave having the last word and are characterized by the habit of speaking first, before listening in love. Most of us crave certainty and possess the habit of polling friends, researching options, borrowing money, overspending, or using nostalgia as the measuring tool for assigning value in the present. Making something happen rather than waiting on God is to create faux peace that is temporal.

Shelly Miller, Searching for Certainty: Finding God in the Disruptions of Life, Bethany House Publishers, 2020.

How to Make a Sacrifice

How do you define what it means to “make a sacrifice?” We say we sacrifice for our family, or sacrifice for our careers. We speak of Jesus sacrificing himself so that we can experience eternal life. Augustine of Hippo, the great North African bishop, defined sacrifice as “the surrender of something of value for the sake of something else.” Which begs the question, what are we willing to sacrifice, and for whom or what?

Every day we make decisions based on our priorities, and those priorities sacrifice one thing for another thing. Sadly, we often fall into habits, where we no longer can recognize our selfish, self-centered priorities. If sacrifice is, as Augustine once said, “the surrender of something of value for the sake of something else,” then what are you surrendering for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom?

Stuart Strachan Jr.

I am Done with Great Things

In one of his letters, the philosopher and psychologist William James shares a conviction regarding his focus not on big, grand things, but with the small “almost invisible” decisions:

I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.

The Letters of William James, ed. by his son Henry James (Boston: Atlantic Monthy Press, 1920), 2:90; letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman, June 7, 1899.

The Surprising Truth about Habits, Happiness, and Self-Control

As a writer, my great interest is human nature, and in particular, the subject of happiness. A few years ago, I noticed a pattern: when people told me about a “before and after” change they’d made that boosted their happiness, they often pointed to the formation of a crucial habit…

Habits were the key to understanding how people were able to change. But why did habits make it possible for people to change? I found the answer, in part, in a few sentences whose dry, calm words disguised an observation that, for me, was explosively interesting.

“Researchers were surprised to find,” write Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in their fascinating book Willpower, “that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did.… people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.” In other words, habits eliminate the need for self-control. Self-control is a crucial aspect of our lives. People with better self-control (or self-regulation, self-discipline, or willpower) are happier and healthier. They’re more altruistic; they have stronger relationships and more career success; they manage stress and conflict better; they live longer; they steer clear of bad habits. Self-control allows us to keep our commitments to ourselves.

Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before, Crown, pp. 4-5.

Unstoppable Growth

The following illustration, taken from Ronald Rolheiser book, The Holy Longing, can be applied to the idea of bad habits, that they often have a way of returning, no matter how hard we try to kill them. The solution, perhaps, is to replace one habit for another.

A friend of mine relates how, after buying a house, he decided to get rid of an old bamboo plant in his driveway. He cut the plant down, took an ax to its roots, and, after destroying as much of it as he could, he poured bluestone, a plant poison, on what remained.

Finally, he filled the hole where the plant had been with several feet of gravel that he tamped tightly and paved over with cement. Two years later, the cement heaved as the bamboo plant began to slowly break through the pavement. Its life principle, that blind pressure to grow, was not thwarted by axes, poison, and cement.

Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, The Crown Publishing Group.

Virtues and Vices: Acquired Moral Qualities

How are vices and virtues distinguished? How is a vice different from sin?…Although most references to the lists of seven use “vice” and “sin” in a roughly synonymous way, distinguishing the two turns out to be important. A vice (or its counterpart, a virtue), first of all, is a habit or a character trait. Unlike something we are born with—such as—an outgoing personality or a predisposition to have high cholesterol levels—virtues and vices are acquired moral qualities. We can cultivate habits or break them down over time through our repeated actions. And thus we are ultimately responsible for our character.

By way of an analogy, think of a winter sledding party, in which a group of people head out to smooth a path through freshly fallen snow. The first sled goes down slowly, carving out a rut. Other sleds follow, over and over, down the same path, smoothing and packing down the snow. After many trips a well-worn groove develops, a path out of which it is hard to steer. The groove enables sleds to stay aligned and on course, gliding rapidly, smoothly, and easily on their way.

Character traits are like that: the first run down, which required some effort and tough going, gradually becomes a smooth track that one glides down without further intentional steering. Of course, a rider can always stick out a boot and throw the sled off course, usually damaging the track as well. So too we can act out of character, even after being “in the groove” for a long time. In general, however, habits incline us swiftly, smoothly, and reliably toward certain types of action.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, Brazos Press, 2009.

See also Illustrations on Actions, Decision-Making, DisciplineLittle Things, Routines, Training

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Habits. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

Follow us on social media: