We think that the mighty change of heart is going to mean an immediate mighty change of habit.
The truth is that there is a distance to go between the heart, which is the seat of our desires and willingness, and the brain, which is the seat of our habits. We often say that the spirit (the heart) is willing, but the flesh is weak. The flesh isn’t weak, actually. It’s very strong. That’s why it takes effort and some degree of suffering—even longsuffering, if necessary—to wait upon the reprogramming of our flesh.
Actions create pathways through the neurons of our brains. Repetition of those actions create stronger, wider pathways. Picture driving through a field. One trip through bends the grass and makes a path that quickly disappears. But if you drive that same path day after day, it wears away the grass, first creating track marks, then eventually a rutted road.
Or imagine a figure skater doing a figure eight in the same spot on the ice, around and around, keeping the figures as identical as possible. A rut soon develops.
Once a rut is formed, whether in a field or on the ice, everything tends to run that same direction, taking the path of least resistance. It takes time and effort to jump a car from a rut or to skate free of a pattern. It takes even more time and effort to fill in the old rut and to create a new path.
So it is with our behaviors. It takes time for the change in our desire to bring to pass the change in our neuropathways.
The Lord knows that. That’s why He judges us according to the desires of our hearts, according to our intent. If He looks into our hearts (our spiritual self) and sees the desire burning strong and bright to live a certain way, He knows that given enough time we will eventually leave the habitual paths behind and develop new ones.
Abstinence is the tool for developing new habits. It is the lever that pulls us from the rut. It is the shovel that fills in the pattern. It is the scythe that cuts a new path. All it requires is time.
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