If you’ve spent a little time in the gospels, you might remember that every gospel writer, when talking about John the Baptist, reference the same passage from Isaiah 40. Here’s Luke’s account.4 “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth (Lk. 3:4-5).
During this pandemic these verses have continued to surface in my mind. Reports have consistently come out to say that more and more people are admitting trouble maintaining good habits. At the same time, things like anxiety, boredom, loneliness, depression, despair, and hopelessness have all increased for many and as a result, some harmful habits and coping mechanisms are forming.
Neuroscientists like to connect our habits to neural pathways in the brain. The more we do something, the more something becomes a habit, the more automatic it becomes in our brain. It’s like a path getting wider and smoother and flatter the longer it is traveled. Eventually, we hardly have to think about them. It takes less mental energy or focus. This is true for any habits–good and bad. Those neural pathways make it easier to keep traveling constructive paths but also easier to keep sliding into destructive paths and harder to get off of them.
What Isaiah and John remind us is that it takes ongoing work to clear out the pathways between our ways and God’s. It may start with one of John’s favorite words, repentance. That is, getting off of less desirable (even destructive paths) and onto more constructive ones. But even once we find ourselves walking a more beneficial way, for a habit to become easier, we still have the work of “filling valleys, leveling mountains, straightening roads, and smoothing the rough spots.” Yet the longer and more intentionally we walk these roads of new, beneficial habits, the more natural that path becomes. Jesus doesn’t promise his way is always easy. His message is that his way is the way of real life.
To watch Bert’s sermon from Sunday, click the video player below.