The Formation of Habits*

Guest Writer Sabine Baring-Gould

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

There is a district, high up in the Black Forest, where the ground is full of springs. It is a plain some nine hundred feet above the sea. Thousands upon thousands of little springs gush out of the soil; you seem to be on the rose of a vast watering-can. Now, from this great source flow a good many rivers, and they flow in very different, nay, opposite directions. There rises the Danube, which runs east and dies in the Black Sea, and also the Neckar and a hundred other tributaries of the Rhine, which flows west, and fall into the North Sea. A little thing on that plain—a slight rise or fall in the ground, this way or that—decides the direction in which a river shall run. You can easily make a little stream run this way and feed the Rhine, or that way and swell the Danube; but after a few miles all control over the stream is gone. It runs on, and will run on to the end in the direction you have given it, or which it took by chance when it started.

It is the same with children. All these little springs of vigorous life are bubbling up round us, and where will they flow? to the right or to the left? to Life or to Death? We can give them their direction now. A few years hence, and all power over them will be gone.

As a habit is formed in early youth, so it remains to old years.

We take our children and we train them for God. God has given them to us for this, to train them as citizens of His kingdom. We neglect our duty if we neglect this. He placed the flexible little characters in our hands to bend this way or that, expecting us to make them grow upright and not crooked, to look to heaven, instead of trailing on earth. They are a solemn trust for which we must give account.

It would have been one of the chief woes of hell to Dives, if he had his five brethren there to reproach him for having set them a bad, selfish, luxurious example. Think how bitter your future state would be, if your children in the outer darkness were to be forever reproaching you, “You brought us up to the world and not to God, you fed our bodies but not our souls, you set before us the transitory life as the one thing to care for, and did not teach us to lay up treasure and toil for the life eternal!” Think, also, how it will increase your happiness to have your children in Life Eternal, and to receive their blessing, and experience their gratitude for having so taught them, by word and example, that they have through life walked in the narrow path that leads to the gates of heaven.

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” You teach your children obedience, in order that when young they may form the habit of submitting to rule. When they are old, they will not depart from it. God has His laws. God exacts their obedience. They learn now to bow to the commands of a teacher whom they can see, they will obey afterward the invisible Divine Teacher. You teach your children order and method when young, that they may live an orderly life when they grow older. You teach them self-control now, that they may be able to exercise it in greater matters hereafter.

Habits of obedience, and order, and self-control, acquired in childhood will be confirmed in manhood, and will remain to the end of life. A man of business, who has spent his youth and manhood in looking after his shop, or attending to his office, is miserable in old age when he gives up his business and retires; he misses the old routine, he would be happier if he could go on in the accustomed round till he drops. The days hang heavy on his hands. The relaxation to which he had looked forward, and for which he had worked, palls on him. And these are habits of industry. Bad habits retain a stronger hold on man. A bad youth and a bad manhood make a vicious old age. Many an old man who had led a disorderly life retains his wicked habits, though they afford him no pleasure. He goes on in vice merely because vice has become habitual, not because it is pleasurable.

Eli, as we read in 1 Samuel 4, when aged ninety-eight years, and his eyes were dim, that he could not see, “sat upon a seat by the wayside watching” (4:13). What is the meaning of this? The old man of nearly a hundred has his chair brought outside the Tabernacle, and sits there looking up the street, though his eyes are so covered with a mist that he can see nothing. The sacred writer does not say that Eli sat on the seat by the wayside seeing what went on, but only straining his sightless eyeballs up the street.

If we turn back to 1 Samuel 1, we shall see that this was a habit with Eli. When he was many years younger, some thirty years before, when Hannah came up to Shiloh to entreat the Lord to have mercy on her and take away her reproach, we read “Now Eli, the priest, sat upon a seat by the post of the temple of the Lord” (1:9). And his eyes, then sharp and clear, were peering about and watching all that was going on, and examining the faces of the people who were coming in and going out, and were engaged in prayer.

One would have thought that common decency would have kept him from watching the face of the poor woman who was engaged in prayer, but Eli had not acquired control over his eyes—indeed, his great amusement was peering into people’s faces and guessing what was going on in their minds. Hannah wept as she prayed, “And it came to pass, as she continued praying to the Lord, that Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard” (1:12, 13)—then with that want of charity, and tendency to think evil which so commonly goes with peeping and prying—“Eli thought she had been drunk” (1:13). He saw what was not—drunkenness—in the weeping, sorrowful-hearted woman, but he saw not the wickedness which was in his disorderly sons.

Here is an illustration of how habits last. Eli had acquired this habit of sitting in the gate and watching what went on, when he was a man in the vigor of his days; and when he was an old man and blind, the habit continued. He had his chair brought out into the street that he might look up and down it, though his eyes were dim and he could see nothing.

Now the great advantage of a school to a child is that the child is taught good habits. The child has got certain talents, but cannot turn these talents to any good account without application. In school he is given the habit of application; that is, of keeping his attention fixed on one subject.

But application is not all; to that must be added perseverance. No advance will be made in anything, unless a man first applies his mind to his task, and then perseveres in it till he has fulfilled what he undertook. Nothing is more common than to begin a thing and to be disheartened at the first difficulty, and to throw it up. At school the child is given the habit of perseverance.

That is not all. No work will be carried out thoroughly without order and system. You see people who work all day and work hard, but never make any way, because they work in a muddle, and with no regular plan. At school the child is given the habit of orderliness.

I have instanced only a few of those necessary habits that we try to impress on children at school. We endeavor to impress them on the young, because then they are open to instruction, their characters are soft and take impressions, as warm wax does from a seal. We train them up in the way in which they should go, trusting that when they are old, they will not depart from it. We teach what is good, that good may become a habit with them; and when anything has become a habit, it sticks. It is not shaken off.

“Study to show yourself approved to God” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Alderney Light, Guernsey, Channel Islands, England

*Adapted from Sabine Baring-Gould [1834-1924], The Village Pulpit, Volume II. Trinity to Advent / A Complete Course of 66 Short Sermons, or Full Sermon Outlines for Each Sunday, and Some Chief Holy Days of the Christian Year (London: Skeffington & Son, 1886), sermon 64. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


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