I heard the sound and instantly knew what it was. A little dog had awoken in my house and needed to go for a walk before we had another “accident” in the hallway. This little animal had my attention and it was very clear that I was not going to be able to sleep any longer. Like clockwork, nature was calling and she would not be denied. Each morning for the last week, this same routine has played out and either my wife or I respond begrudgingly since this is not our dog and this is not our normal routine. Our day had begun and the dog is charge whether we like it or not.
This little dog named Cheyenne belongs to my parents and most years they leave her with us while they go on vacation. She is pretty well trained, but is now showing her age (thirteen dog years) and the requisite lack of bladder control. So now our days are regulated by the number of hours between dog walks. With the light lasting longer, Deb and I typically find ourselves taking a long walk with her in the evenings and shorter walks throughout the day. Not surprisingly, these times with Cheyenne have provided us with a unique opportunity – a chance to change our routine and begin new habits. While walking the dog may be tedious, spending more quality time with Deb is not and truth be told, I look forward to these daily walks now.
Habits and their formation are a key part of the Christian life, both for good and for evil. In an often-overlooked verse in the Bible, it says that “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.” This decision to break with routine, to stay home from war opened an opportunity for temptation as David walked on the roof of his palace and saw Bathsheba bathing. Not content to avert his eyes, he gave in to the temptation and had her husband killed in the process. He would never be the same again.
This month, Christianity Today Magazine has a compelling feature article about self-control. I loved the cover photo of a donut with a chunk bitten out of it. Given that I love to eat, this caught my attention. Self-control is one of those biblical virtues like goodness that we know is on the list but seems so impossible that we often ignore it. In an attempt to justify this behavior, we talk about it in the same sentence as “works righteousness” and remind ourselves that we are saved by grace anyway. At least that what I normally do when I see a plate of cookies or potato chips that I know I don’t need, but I really want.
Bradley Wright, the author of this insightful article talks about our automated behaviors as an elephant and our controlled behavior as the rider on the back of the elephant who can train the elephant to do what it wants. Spiritually speaking, this elephant is our natural desires that we revert to without even thinking but must be controlled by a rider and in this case, Wright makes a strong case that our Holy Spirit enabled willpower is that rider. At first, I thought this sounded pretty simplistic and almost stopped reading as I considered how ineffective willpower has been in my own life. But I continued reading and loved his wisdom in pointing out the principle that willpower is like a muscle and that it gets stronger as it is exercised more and more. He also pointed out that we are often weakest right after exercising some restraint and achieving victory in some small area of our lives. How grateful I am that in every one of these moments, I am not alone and that I have a counselor, the Holy Spirit, who gives me the power to resist in the first place.
As we have been walking the dog this week, I noticed something. The more we did it, the more it became a part of our routine and no longer such a burden. In fact, looking for the dog leash as soon as we walk into the house has become second nature. I guess this is how good habits begin, one dog walk at a time. What am I going to do when my parents get back? I guess I’ll just have to grab Deb by the hand and go for a walk anyway, but maybe not so early each morning.