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Below is a section from John Owen’s the Mortification of Sin. In this part, he is providing practical instruction for mortifying sin. What I find interesting about this particular section is the degree to which is matches contemporary habit theory.

A habitual response is driven by a context: in the precise of certain cues, the habit kicks into play:

Within psychology, the term habit refers to a process whereby contexts prompt action automatically, through activation of mental context–action associations learned through prior performances. Habitual behavior is regulated by an impulsive process, and so can be elicited with minimal cognitive effort, awareness, control, or intention. When an initially goal-directed behavior becomes habitual, action initiation transfers from conscious motivational processes to context-cued impulse-driven mechanisms. Regulation of action becomes detached from motivational or volitional control. Upon encountering the associated context, the urge to enact the habitual behavior is spontaneously triggered and alternative behavioral responses become less cognitively accessible.

In this direction, Owen explains that one should learn the circumstances under which the sin takes place and then should build one’s life around avoiding such a circumstance.


The SIXTH direction is,—

Consider what occasions, what advantages thy distemper hath taken to exert and put forth itself, and watch against them all.

This is one part of that duty which our blessed Saviour recommends to his disciples under the name of watching: Mark 13:37, “I say unto you all, Watch;” which, in Luke 21:34, is, “Take heed lest your hearts be overcharged.” Watch against all eruptions of thy corruptions. I mean that duty which David professed himself to be exercised unto. “I have,” saith he, “kept myself from mine iniquity.” He watched all the ways and workings of his iniquity, to prevent them, to rise up against them. This is that which we are called unto under the name of “considering our ways.” Consider what ways, what companies, what opportunities, what studies, what businesses, what conditions, have at any time given, or do usually give, advantages to thy distempers, and set thyself heedfully against them all. Men will do this with respect unto their bodily infirmities and distempers. The seasons, the diet, the air that have proved offensive shall be avoided. Are the things of the soul of less importance? Know that he that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin. He that will venture upon temptations unto wickedness will venture upon wickedness. Hazael thought he should not be so wicked as the prophet told him he would be. To convince him, the prophet tells him no more but, “Thou shalt be king of Syria,” If he will venture on temptations unto cruelty, he will be cruel. Tell a man he shall commit such and such sins, he will startle at it. If you can convince him that he will venture on such occasions and temptations of them, he will have little ground left for his confidence. Particular directions belonging to this head are many, not now to be insisted on. But because this head is of no less importance than the whole doctrine here handled, I have at large in another treatise, about entering into temptations, treated of it.

Compare what Owen writes with this statement from  Psychology of Habit by Wendy Wood and Dennis Runger

One way to change habit cues is through managing exposure. For example, unhealthy eating habits can be curbed by increasing the salience or accessibility of healthy foods (Sobal & Wansink 2007)

Compare also this passage from Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies for Satan’s Devices:

It is our wisest and our safest course to stand at the farthest distance from sin; not to go near the house of the harlot, but to fly from all appearance of evil, Prov. 5:8, 1 Thes. 5:22. The best course to prevent falling into the pit, is to keep at the greatest distance; he that will be so bold as to attempt to dance upon the brink of the pit, may find by woful experience that it is a righteous thing with God that he should fall into the pit. Joseph keeps at a distance from sin, and from playing with Satan’s golden baits, and stands. David draws near, and plays with the bait, and falls, and swallows bait and hook with a witness. David comes near the snare, and is taken in it, to the breaking of his bones, the wounding of his conscience, and the loss of his God

Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 13–14.