The Bible’s Viewpoint

Is It Possible to Overcome Bad Habits?

AUTHOR Mark Twain once quipped: “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Twain’s wistful remark no doubt strikes a responsive chord in many people. While they may fully appreciate that certain habits are morally wrong and even harmful, they also know that resisting and overcoming them is another story. Habits can become deeply rooted over the years and can be extremely resistant to efforts to change them. Trying to curb such cravings can be exhausting and even painful.

Dr. Anthony Daniels, a physician who works at a prison, observes that offenders often claim they are hopelessly enslaved to their obsessions and base desires. Once a man is addicted to something, they argue, “he is in the grip of a terrible compulsion, which he is powerless to resist.” If such reasoning were true, we could hardly be held responsible for acting on our compulsions. But is it true that we are helpless victims of our inner drives and desires? Or can bad habits actually be overcome? To get an authoritative answer, let us see what the Bible says.

Desire Versus Action

The Bible makes it plain that God holds us responsible for our actions. (Romans 14:12) Also, he requires that we live up to his righteous standards. (1 Peter 1:15) As our Creator, he knows what is best for us, and his principles condemn many of the habits common to this world. (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10; Galatians 5:19-21) However, he is also realistic and compassionate in what he expects from imperfect humans.​—Psalm 78:38; 103:13, 14.

The psalmist thus wrote: “If errors were what you watch, O Jah, O Jehovah, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3) Yes, Jehovah knows full well that “the inclination of the heart of man is bad from his youth up.” (Genesis 8:21) Our genetic heritage, inbred weaknesses, and past experiences make it impossible for us to avoid all bad thoughts and desires. So, lovingly, Jehovah does not demand perfection of us.​—Deuteronomy 10:12; 1 John 5:3.

However, this consideration on God’s part does not absolve us of our responsibility to control bad desires. Though admitting that he himself had a struggle against bad desires, the apostle Paul did not give up. (Romans 7:21-24) “I pummel my body,” he said, “and lead it as a slave.” To what end? That “I myself should not become disapproved somehow.” (1 Corinthians 9:27) Yes, self-control is essential in combating our wrong inclinations and habits and ultimately prevailing over them.

Change Is Possible

Behavioral scientists say that bad habits, like good ones, are learned and developed over time. If that is correct, then bad  habits can just as surely be unlearned! How? “Think about the benefits of breaking the old pattern,” say the authors of a book on stress management. Then, “make a list of how changing your behavior could improve your life.” Yes, focusing on the benefits of changing our negative behavior can motivate us to change.

Consider the apostle Paul’s admonition for us to be ‘made new in the force actuating our mind.’ (Ephesians 4:22, 23) That force is our dominant mental inclination. You transform that force by drawing closer to God and by cultivating an appreciation for his standards. Knowing that you are pleasing Jehovah helps spur you on to make needed changes.​—Psalm 69:30-33; Proverbs 27:11; Colossians 1:9, 10.

Of course, ridding ourselves of bad habits that may have dominated our lives for years will be difficult. We should not underestimate the struggle ahead of us. There will certainly be setbacks and failures. But rest assured, things usually get easier with time. The more you work at it, the more your new behavior will become a part of you.

One who loves God can also be assured of his help and blessing. “God is faithful,” promises Paul, “and he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but . . . he will also make the way out in order for you to be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) Soon now, Jehovah God will destroy this wicked system of things and all its base temptations, desires, and cravings. (2 Peter 3:9-13; 1 John 2:16, 17) All imperfect humans who survive this event can in time be completely and eternally healed of all afflictions​—physical, mental, and emotional. “The former things will not be called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart,” God promises. (Isaiah 65:17) Among these “former things” will no doubt be troublesome yearnings and desires. Is this not a grand reason to do our utmost today to resist and fight against bad habits?

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1. Recognize and admit bad habits. Ask yourself, ‘Do I really benefit from this habit? Is it annoying to others? Does it affect my health, financial status, well-being, family, or peace of mind? How much better off would I be without it?’

2. Replace the bad habit with something positive. For example, do you spend too much time on the Internet, perhaps looking at unwholesome material? Then schedule that time for wholesome reading, study, or exercise.

3. Monitor your progress. Each day reflect for a few minutes on your progress. If you have a relapse, determine what circumstances led up to the problem.

4. Enlist the help of others. Tell friends and family that you are attempting to break this habit, and ask them to remind you when you seem about to fall back into it. Talk to others who have successfully beaten the same habit.​—Proverbs 11:14.

5. Be balanced and realistic. Do not expect immediate success. Some habits that took years to develop may die hard.

6. Pray to God. With God’s help you can break any bad habit.​—Psalm 55:22; Luke 18:27.