Around thirty years ago, much of the American Christian merchandise culture centered around four letters, WWJD. There were bracelets, books, t-shirts, and albums to buy with those four letters. In case you are unaware, WWJD is the acronym for the question first introduced in Charles Sheldon’s book from the 1800s, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? On one level, I am completely supportive of the call to consider what Jesus would do. It is a decent first question of discipleship, but I believe it is also an indication of the thin understanding of discipleship that plagues much of American Christianity today. If we must stop and ponder what Jesus would do, are we not demonstrating how little our nature has been conformed to his?
The goal of Christian discipleship ought not to be to get people to stop and deliberate about what Jesus would do in every situation and then act accordingly. Rather, the goal should be to be people who instinctively know what Jesus would do. I believe that the less we must give intentional thought to being like Jesus, the more being like him is second nature to us. The process of developing a second nature is what we call habit. Allow me to illustrate what I mean.
March 30, 1981 is a date that changed the lives of many people, including me. It was the day that Ronald Reagan was nearly killed. I had not lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Kennedys, so as a young person, I was shocked that this could happen. After that day, my world seemed a little less innocent and safe.
While the assassination attempt unsettled me, it also fascinated me. At the time, I was enamored by badges, blinking lights, and sirens. I remember watching the video on the news that evening and being amazed at the speed with which several of the men in suits near Reagan suddenly had automatic weapons in their hands. The guns seemed to appear out of thin air. As exciting as that was, with the passing of time the focus of my interest about that day has shifted from the men with the guns to the ones who did not draw theirs.
Tim McCarthy was a 31-year-old Secret Service agent at the time. When the gunfire began, Tim stretched out his arms and legs to make himself into the largest barrier he could. Tim’s actions to shield the President resulted in Tim being shot in the chest.
Agent Jerry Parr was there that day too. He and Agent Ray Shaddick were the ones who pushed Reagan into the limousine. Jerry then dove on top of the President to protect him as the car sped away. Tim, Jerry and the other agents not only saved Ronald Reagan; they also demonstrated what was possible through practice.
One of the most basic of human instincts is self-preservation. When we feel anxious and threatened, our bodies constrict. Every six months, I leave fingernail marks in my dentist’s examination chair demonstrating this point. This instinct to constrict is what causes us to duck at sudden loud noises. When the gunfire started on March 30, nearly everyone ducked, including the DC Metro Police officers who were present.
There is nothing wrong with ducking. Ducking at gunfire is not a sign of cowardice. It is what all humans who are not frozen in fear and confusion instinctively do. The question is not why weren’t those who ducked brave? The much more intriguing question is, why didn’t everyone duck? How is it possible that people can be trained to overcome the most natural reaction to the most dangerous situation? How can someone be trained to do something that is not merely contrary to our most basic instinct but diametrically opposed to it?
Not only were the actions of McCarthy and Parr contrary to the most basic human response; it was as if their natural instinct for self-preservation was replaced with a new instinct. John Hinkley fired his gun six times in 1.7 seconds. This means that there was no time to consult a Standard Operating Procedure manual or to check-in with their supervisor (What Would Boss Do?). In fact, from the moment the first shot was fired, only .4 seconds elapsed before Jerry Parr began pushing the President into the car. Jerry Parr and Tim McCarthy were able to act as selflessly and quickly as they did because months and years before that day, they had made their response to this kind of situation second nature.1 The process of making a particular way of acting second nature is called habit.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the concept of habit from a theological perspective and to discern ways that a more robust understanding of habit may contribute to our becoming more like Christ. Prior to beginning our task in earnest, we should be clear on a few matters. The first is the relationship between habit and salvation. Given the attention that this paper gives to the human effort of cooperating with God, it would be possible to make a wrong inference about a connection of habit to the initial stage of salvation, what we often call justification. This study offers no suggestion that a person can be made right with God by human effort or apart from God’s grace. Rather, this paper is addressing the second stage of salvation, or what Christians often refer to as sanctification. The last issue to note before we begin is to understand that in the pursuit of a theology of habit, this study relies significantly on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. This is because no one in church history has examined habit as thoroughly or as theologically as he has. Let us see what we can glean from Aquinas.
- Those who rushed towards Hinkley in spite of the gunfire could be remembered here as well.