Habits are patterns that have been practiced so many times that they develop high-speed connections in the brain—up to 200 times faster than connections forged through normal thinking. Habits of faith improve character and have three requirements: (1) practice, (2) engagement of character-formation systems in the brain, and (3) a godly pattern.
Practice is easy to understand, but engaging the character-formation system is not so simple. This system stays behind a “firewall,” where access is allowed only for relationships that involve attachment love. The processing of ideas and beliefs reflected in what we’re reading, sermons we’re listening to, and conversations we’re involved in—indeed, most things we think about—does not get past this relational firewall. Character habits form only when relational attachment love is activated.
The best of both divine and human love is called hesed in the Hebrew Scriptures and describes the quality of steadfast or enduring love. Hesed love attaches itself and does not let go. Current brain science uses terms borrowed from gluing two things together (such as bonding and attachment) to describe the strongest, most enduring love the brain can feel—attachment love. The concept of gluing ourselves to God first appears in Deuteronomy 4:4, where Moses tells the Israelites that those who had glued themselves to God were saved from death!
Not all things glued together stay together. Both brain science and Scripture describe 12 ways to ensure a good attachment. Brain science tells us that healthy bonds . . .
1. connect us to sources of life (i.e., food and drink);
2. form unique attachments with no substitutions—one mother or baby (loved one) cannot be exchanged for another;
3. enable two people to see each other as their special possession (“mine”);
4. are built with someone who is delighted to be with us;
5. provide both with joy and rest (peace);
6. develop a shared mutual mind (knowing and understanding one another in real time);
7. grow stronger by moving both closer together and further apart;
8. grow stronger by sharing both positive and negative emotions;
9. help all parties feel stable and act like themselves;
10. provide both freedom and connection;
11. stretch limits and capacities slightly to promote growth; and
12. create an enduring people (families, tribes, and nations).
Let’s see how Scripture treats the 12 practices that build attachment love. Does the following list reflect how you build godly character in your life of faith?
1. Attach to the source of life. Jesus said that our first birth was to a human mother and that our second birth brings new life (John 3:6-7). Peter later said, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2, nasb). We are to attach as “babies” to our new lives in Christ. Jesus said that He is the Source of Life, our food and our drink (John 6:35). We are fed by milk, bread, wine, and every word that comes from God (Matthew 4:4).
2. Allow no substitutions. God wants to be recognized and expects our attachment to be unique to Him. We should not mistake anyone else for our God. Like a loved mother or father, no one else will substitute. We should know His voice (John 10:27-30).
3. Experience God as special and “mine.” God sees us as special and calls us His own. The ancient way for showing someone they were special was to extend grace. Grace, which is special favor that we did not earn, is a gift—yet it’s not without reciprocity. Grace is always given with the expectation of grateful attachment by the recipient. We experience God as special, unique, and ours (Titus 2:11-14).
4. Build on relational joy. Life with God is built on joy. Jesus said He taught His disciples to abide in Him so that His joy would be in them and their joy would be the greatest joy possible (John 15:11). Isn’t life with God so joyful exactly because He is with us?
5. Receive joy and rest. “Come to Me . . . and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, nasb). The wicked strive, but the righteous receive joy and rest from God. He repeatedly offers us this kind of peace; there are too many instances in the Bible to consider them all!
6. Develop a “mutual mind.” Paul said, “We are His workmanship [poiēma; Ποίημα], created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2: 10, nasb). God’s design for us is called poiēma—from which we get the English word poetry. Hebrew poetry is a rhyming of thoughts rather than sounds. Our thoughts must rhyme with God’s so we can do the works He prepared for us. Through attachment with God, we share a “mutual mind” with Him that changes our character, identity, and spontaneous responses (1 Corinthians 2:16).
7. Be strengthened by moving both closer together and further apart. Just as we learn to walk by holding someone’s hand, then letting it go, we develop character when we alternate times of staying close with times of doing things on our own. Didn’t Jesus call His disciples and then send them out (Mark 6:7)? Feed a multitude and then go up a mountain to pray (verses 40-46)? Send His disciples away in a boat, only to follow them later (verses 45-51)? Spend time on Earth, then depart to prepare a place where we cannot yet go (John 14:1-3)?
8. Handle both pleasant and unpleasant experiences relationally (Genesis 4:6-7). God is with us in both joyful and difficult circumstances. Jesus began His ministry by creating joyful times, healing people and feeding crowds. The test of attachment came when He spoke of his disciples picking up their crosses (Matthew 16:24-26). The strength of their attachment began showing at that point. Our character is built when we experience Jesus’ presence in hard times.
9. Stably be yourself (2 Timothy 1:7). The more secure our attachments (“nothing can break our relationship”), the less our character changes under pressure from feelings, emotions, desires, relationships, threats, and world cultures. God’s Word (and our own experience) affirms that stable Christlike character is the mark of those who deeply love God.
10. Feel both connected and free (1 Corinthians 9:19). Bonds that provide both freedom and connection might be one of the hardest to describe, but we know it when we experience them. For example, a friend reaches out to us even when we’ve been out of touch. When we’re securely attached to God, we can we be curious, explore, develop, grow, change, make mistakes, fail, have a will of our own, and even go fully “prodigal” and yet return to find that God is still there for us.
11. Stretch yourself to grow (Philippians 3:12-14). God is steadily stretching us so we have more trust, clearer faith, stronger character, better understanding, and the ability to take on harder tasks, steward responsibility for more people, and face bigger problems. Didn’t God stretch all the major figures in Scripture?
12. Identify as a group (people). “You once were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2:10). Bonding creates a group identity in the brain. God creates people groups: couples, parents, families, clans, tribes, and nations. God expects His disciples to form a family characterized by love and attachment.
Note: Ways these relational practices can build godly character in church communities can be found in Appendix A of Renovated.
Dr. Jim Wilder is a neurotheologian who has trained leaders and counselors for nearly 30 years on five continents. The founder of Life Model Works, he is an expert on the intersection of theology and brain science. He is the author of Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms and coauthor of Rare Leadership and Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You.