The logic of ‘thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13) can be thought to run deeper in the context of Christianity. To ‘kill’ someone is to harbour negative emotions towards them (see Matthew 5:21, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”).
The better response is to let go of those negative emotions (‘forgive those who have trespassed against you’) and then to express goodwill or love towards the object of those emotions instead (‘love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you’).
One prayer format for this is fairly simple. The first thing is to find a moment in the day when you will have several minutes where you won’t be interrupted, and relax and quiet your mind. Reach out to God. Then, with a specific person or situation in mind,
- Let go of any negative emotions that come up with regard to a specific person or situation. This is literally to ‘forgive’, or let go. The important thing here is to feel this letting go.
- Replace that with goodwill or love towards that person. Again, it is important to actually feel this love or goodwill towards the person. See harmony, good, and so on, for this person.
- Now see harmony, good, love, and so on, for the situation in general.
In some cases, doing this once is sufficient. The negative emotions are released, and replaced with better ones. In some cases, however, it requires repetition. When Jesus was asked how many times one ought to forgive, he said ‘7 and 70’.
“Jesus commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only.” Mark 6:8-9
The point here is to get going, and then rely upon God. Once you get clear direction from God, it’s easy to dawdle, thinking you need to prepare more, get this or that in order, and so on.
If the instruction is from God, the right thing to do is get going. Part of getting going is realizing you can ‘travel light’, not depending on yourself but on God. This applies not just to physical stuff, but to mental stuff. You might think you need to get a Ph.D. before you can start teaching, or study every book before you can utter a word.
But if God is calling you, just get going. Those sorts of steps might happen along the way, but it’s easy to lie to ourselves about what needs to happen next.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3)
1. Before you criticize someone else, look to yourself. Scour your conscience, and see if you do what you are about to criticize them for.
2. If so, first ‘cast out the beam out of thine own eye’. This means working to change your own behavior first.
3. Once you have changed your own behavior, return and help the other person through constructive criticism, or whatever is relevant.
So the habit is to reflexively look to oneself before criticizing, and honestly search to see if one does the thing one is about to criticize someone else for.
It is easy for us to have blindspots about our own behavior, so this has to be an honest search. Take at least 1 minute to search.
The basic pattern is “this person is wrong about x” -> “do I do x in some way, shape, or form?” -> put in the work to change one’s own actions -> use that experience to help the other person.
The human impulse to blame others is at the base of scapegoating, which in turn is responsible for much of the problems in our own lives, and in the world in general. So, first look to yourself! This not only decreases the negative emotions in one’s life, it is ultimately empowering, as the spark that used to lead to blame begins instead to lead to an inner transformation that helps you and, ultimately, can help the person you’re about to blame.
Many things can distract from a relationship with God. An aspect of the walking with God habit is to set aside time during the day, but it helps if this time is free from distractions, so you can focus on God. The internet, phones, even other people, all can act as distractions.
Just before Jesus began his public life, he went into the wilderness or desert for an extended period, and fasted. This place is characterized by an absence of distractions.
So, the ‘go into the desert’ habit is to set aside time each day, and longer periods of time at intervals, and create an environment that is relatively free of distractions, in order to cultivate your relationship with God.
Walks, hikes, time spent on an island away from regular busy-ness – all these things can be ‘going into a desert’, and can catalyze your spiritual life.
So, write down one thing you can do on a daily basis to create time with fewer distractions (perhaps turn off your phone while out on a walk), weekly (perhaps go for an hour-long hike), and then perhaps seasonally (for example, rent a cottage without the usual distractions nearby), and where you can spend that time focusing on God, such as the ask-listen-act cycle or opening up your heart.
“And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” – Matthew 18:9
This extremely important habit is the habit of avoiding negative influences. Jesus here uses hyperbole, as he does often, to make the point memorable.
In an age of unprecedented media influence, this habit is highly important. In many cases, it is literally images entering through the eye that offend (which here means to make one worse off). The habit is to routinely
- Identify sub-optimal influences.
- Take action to remove or reduce them.
- Notice if that action is working, and if not, modify your approach.
- Repeat until you have removed or significantly reduced the influences.
This applies to all sorts of things, such as television, internet, or people. Jesus’ point is not to hesitate to remove it completely (don’t just remove it but also cast it from you). It is easy to underestimate how difficult it is to remove such negative influences, and how much of a benefit accrues from filling your day with better influences.
You can ask yourself what are the top 3 negative influences in your life right now? Write them out. Then think up one action to remove or reduce each of them. Then take the first step to implement that action.
The point is to make actions 1.-4. into a habit – until it becomes a reflex to notice sub-optimal influences about you, and then remove them.
As you do this, you will begin to notice that the tenor of your days begins to change. You can then take it the next step, and search out influences that are good to replace the negative influences with.
A note on the opening your heart (intro and details) practice. If you have long been separated from God, then opening your heart to Him can be like the scene in the story of the prodigal son.
When the prodigal son, having been long absent from his father, comes home, the father runs out to greet him, and then orders a great feast and celebration.
So, if you have long been absent from God, opening your heart in a sincere and heart-felt way might have explosive results experientially! This is known in Christianity as ‘baptism by the Holy Spirit’.
Having covered the 3 arch-habits (ask-listen-act, open your heart, walk with God), we can now get to more specific habits that will lay the psychological foundation for a full way of living (‘I have come that you may have life, and have it fully’). But first, it’s important to get a bit more clear on what tangible benefits we can expect from this full way of living. We know Christian habits will lay the foundation of our ‘house’, but is there more than just this long-term goal?
The benefits of living fully in Christ are the ‘fruits of the Holy Spirit’. That is, significant changes in the tenor of our day-to-day living that come about from implementing the arch-habits and the other more detailed ones Jesus suggests. These benefits are
As you can see from this list, these benefits of living ‘in Christ’ are very important indeed. So, let’s get going! As we do, after some time you should notice these attributes, on average, increasing in abundance in your day to day.
There is another arch-habit before we get into more specific habits, and that is to walk with God.
In the story of Noah (Genesis 6:9), Noah walks with God, and it is this walking with God that allows him to save humanity in a time of a disaster. So, walking with God is very important in this story.
To walk with God is to make time to be with Him, and to follow his way.
So, first, make time to walk with God. This can be any part of your day, but you need to make time to focus on your connection to God. It is in this time that you can cultivate the sense of God’s presence in your heart and mind.
Once you’ve made time, you reach out your heart and mind to sense his presence. Internally, this is being quietly open to God. It is in this state that you can ask and listen, again being open to God’s guidance.
This then leads to acting based on the inspiration you receive not only at this time, but also that this time allows you to receive later on. So, this leads to following His way.
One way to ‘walk with God’ is to literally walk with God. To go out on a walk, and during that time, to open up to God’s presence. This can be done with many other activities, and this practice can then be extended to more and more time during the day. This is the prayer that ‘never ceases’, a continual practice of walking with God throughout your day.
Here I discussed the habit of opening up your heart. Let’s get into some more details on this core habit, including more details on just how to do this.
Here is a diagram showing the basic relations surrounding this practice.
You can see that God’s love flows into you because you have an open heart, and that results in God’s presence in your heart. This then flows through you to others in your actions.
When God is present in our hearts, we are temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the archetypal temple of the Holy Spirit, and made this clear when he told people that if they ‘destroyed this temple he would raise it up in 3 days’. In ancient Jewish tradition, God was present in the temple (a building), but Jesus is saying here God is present in him.
So in Christianity, buildings are temples -> people are temples. We become a temple by letting God into our heart. A simple way to do this is by saying
“God, please enter into my heart, fill it with your goodness and love.”
The words here are not as important as the feeling or sentiment – the sincere movement of the will and heart towards this.
Once we are acting as a temple and God’s love is present,the next step is to let that love flow out into the world. When Jesus gives the parable of the talents, he says “To those who have much, more will be given.” The talent (a kind of coin) was connotative of the presence of God, and it is this cycle he presumably had in mind.
The more you open yourself to God’s presence and let His love flow through you, the more it will flow into (and through) you.
The ask-listen-act cycle is central to Christian practice, but before or simultaneous with that cycle is another habit that is very important. This habit is
Open up your heart, ask God to come.
Opening up your heart to God can lead to experiencing the presence of God, and to cultivating the live connection between you and Him. It therefore helps in all of the ask-listen-act habits. In a way it is an arch-ask-listen-act habit, as you are simultaneously opening your heart and mind, and asking God to come into your heart, life, and day.
It is only by having this live connection, this concrete sense of God, the feeling of God in your heart, that much of other Christian practice makes sense. For example, thanksgiving and loving God make more sense when you have a large number of experiences of God’s presence, which involves a sense of His love.
God’s spirit is often described in Christianity as the ‘living water’ – the more you allow Him to flow through you, the more He flows through you. This virtuous cycle starts with opening your heart to God, and asking him to come.