Greg Gifford, an associate professor of biblical counseling at the Master’s University, writes this book to show his readers “that God uses habits to accomplish His purposes in your life” (p. 8). Good habits, Gifford writes, will glorify God, will bless others, and are good for us (p. 9). Yet later he states that “your habits aren’t about you. They’re about glorifying God and doing good to others” (p. 74). While the author seems confused at this point, what is important to understand is the role the heart plays in habit formation (p. 18). Habits have three-overarching effects: shaping our desires, shaping our character, and helping with daily function (p. 10). Habits can be defined as “regular, frequent practices that seem almost second nature” (p. 19).
Gifford offers helpful discussions concerning the relationship between human effort and the Holy Spirit (pp. 38-41), the hyper-grace (let go and let God) trend (pp. 45-46), and involvement of the body as well as the environment in habit formation (pp. 77-83). Also of value are good self-discovery questions (p. 34) and habit inventories, including habit and heart worksheets which would aid counselors as well as individual readers (pp. 121-141).
Throughout the book, the author struggles to resolve the tension between the heart and personal effort in habit formation, without much success in this reviewer’s opinion. He believes that at conversion God changes one’s heart (p. 29), defined as “composed of mind (what we know), desires (what we love) and will (what we choose)… it is the control center of our lives” (p. 31). This is true, but Gifford never addresses Scripture’s description of our hearts as deceitful and sick (Jeremiah 17:9), and more importantly, no discussion is found of the battle with the flesh in the life of the believer (Galatians 5:16-25). That the Spirit changes our hearts at conversion and that we are now new creatures with new desires are marvelous truths, but the desire of the flesh still lingers. A lack of thorough understanding of the flesh and its power leads Gifford to conclude that the believer cannot continue in long-term sinful habits (p. 29) because God changes what you want (p. 34). This statement both contradicts reality and Scripture. Christians, sadly, can be controlled for years by sinful habits, even when they deeply desire to change.
Gifford thinks that no one has engaged in a significant conversation about habits from a biblical perspective since the Puritans in the 1600s (pp. 18, 71), and his book is unique today on the subject. I think many would take exception to this statement. Be that as it may, it is perhaps because he draws heavily upon the Puritans, strangely and often from Aristotle (pp. 11, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 55), and even more strangely from Williams James (pp. 20, 24, 25) and Aquinas (who was a “buddy” with Aristotle regarding habits (p. 23)), that Gifford loses his way trying to explain both the role of the heart and that of behavioral modification in habit formation. For example, he repeatedly highlights lasting change as coming from the heart (and rightly so), (see p. 65), but speaks of the necessity of behavioral modification (p. 16): “A fear of behaviorism,” Gifford writes, “has kept good Christian authors from developing resources on habits” (p. 17). His view on behavior modification leads the author to some questionable conclusions such as, “Godly habit development is God’s kingdom coming on earth” (p. 28). What does this statement even mean? More importantly, he turns the heart/habit discussion on its head and often views our habits as changing our hearts, rather than the biblical teaching that our hearts will shape our habits. What we do forms our character, Gifford insists, an understanding drawn from the father of psychology William James (pp. 25-26); our character is formed by our habits (p. 26); our habits shape our desires (pp. 51-52) and develop character (p. 55). Even the Grinch’s heart was transformed because he had changed his behavior (p. 95). This is pure behavioral modification. I am not sure we should be looking to the Grinch (or Aristotle or James for that matter) to inform our understanding about habits. Basically Gifford gets the proverbial cart before the horse and ends up with our habits transforming our hearts instead of the other way around. Gifford closes his book with some odd observations concerning higher education’s value lying not in what we learn but in habit formation (a highly debatable concept on several fronts) (p. 136) and an encouragement to hire a professional coach to help in habit development (p. 139), without describing what kind of coach he is referencing. The bottom line is, although some helpful insights and practical resources are to be found, the problematic issues in Hearts & Habits outweigh its values.
by Greg E. Gifford (Krest Biblical Resources: 2021), 142 pp, paper $12.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel