From Habit to Slave

Will Penner

“We are creatures of habit,” said my friend, emphasizing the importance of little choices that gradually become habits. Most people repeat behaviors because they either create pleasure (eating ice cream, playing video games, sleeping late) or alleviate pain or anxiety (taking hot baths, drinking alcohol, smoking). When we begin, our choices about how we behave are most often conscious and we can choose to continue or discontinue a behavior at any time. However, when we repeat a behavior long enough, it becomes a habit.

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I brush my teeth twice a day, not because I actively choose to do so, but because I have been brushing my teeth morning and evening for so long that I don’t think about it anymore. With repetition, any behavior can become a habit.


The vast majority of our behaviors continue to work for us, creating pleasure or avoiding pain. When they stop working, we make new choices. If a new choice involves replacing one habit with another, we may falter a few times; but if the reward for success or the consequence of failure is meaningful enough, we push through the discomfort and make the change.

Unfortunately, not all of our habits can be broken by strength of will. Sometimes, even when we know better, we persist in destructive habits. I find comfort in knowing that even the apostle Paul struggled with similar issues: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15, NRSV).

An addiction is a compulsive behavior that reason cannot overcome. No matter how detrimental the behavior may be, we are somehow drawn to it. An addiction cannot be overcome by outsmarting it. It can only be overcome spiritually.

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One part of overcoming an addiction is recognizing that we are always slaves to something. The questions are these: To what or to whom do we want to be a slave? Do we want to be a slave to alcohol, gambling, sex—or to the life-giving power of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Twelve-step recovery programs are based on the principle that if we begin to practice new, spiritually-based habits (such as prayer, self-examination, and making amends), God will help us remove destructive habits from our lives and liberate us from their bondage.



Some addictions aren’t so bad (going to bed at a certain time). Others rob us of time and energy (video games). Still others destroy our dignity and relationships (gambling, porn) and even cause death (alcohol, drugs). The recovery process is the same for all of them: We admit we can’t solve the problem; we trust that God can; then we take steps, with God’s help, to remove the problem.

What are the destructive habits in your life that have become or are bordering on becoming addictions? Begin to free yourself of an addiction by instituting new daily rituals:

  • Start each morning asking God to remove your addictive compulsion.
  • Find one trusted adult who will keep you accountable for your new choices; check in with that person every single day.
  • Join or start a support group for people struggling with the same addiction; meet with the group as often as possible.
  • Begin replacing your negative habit with at least one positive new one.
  • End each day by thanking God for all the day’s blessings.
Will Penner is a husband, dad, teacher, speaker, author, editor, and minister. He is grateful that God has removed destructive addictions from his life and marvels at God’s continuing faithfulness and grace.

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