People who are serious about Christian theology are usually not fans of books in the “self-help” genre. On the surface, the genre title itself goes against the grain of Christian teaching on personal growth. While there is some tension, there are books in this genre that do have merit and can be integrated into a Christian worldview.

Take for instance Charles Duhigg’s recent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. The opening section focuses on the habits of the individual and their neurological basis. Here, readers are introduced to the Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it. Habits, we find out, are driven by cravings. Figuring out what sparks a craving will make creating new habits and overwriting old habits easier.

Duhigg then widens the scope in the second and third parts of the book so we can see how successful organizations and movements utilize this knowledge. Profiles include the Tony Dungy era Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Target, and even Saddleback Church. The profile of Rick Warren isn’t lengthy, but it is noteworthy. From even a secular point of view, habit formation seems connected to what we would call discipleship. In Duhigg’s estimation, Warren “gets it” when it comes to habits, and his church shows it. 

Through it all, Duhigg drives home the point that habits can be changed if we understand how they work. As he explains it, habits are shaped around a cue, routine, and reward. Certain cues trigger cravings that lead us to follow a certain routine to get a certain reward. The routine is the habit that is changeable. Because it is tied to a cue and reward that might not be, that is why Duhigg thinks bad habits cannot be extinguished. Instead, they must be replaced. Nature abhors a vacuum, so habits must be rewired rather than removed.

From a Christian point of view, this fits well Paul’s emphasis to put off old behaviors and put on new ones. Because Paul doesn’t exactly lay out how to put off and put on, we should welcome the insights from someone who does. Duhigg provides readers with a powerful tool for understanding habits. When we pursue changing our habits in the power of the Spirit, it can lead to growth and Christ-like change. The result is not self-help, but using worldly wisdom for godly gain.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2014. 416 pp. Paperback, $16.00.