Skip to content

Creatures of habit

From The Briefing:

“I really should be more disciplined…”

How often do you experience that gaping chasm between ‘should be’ and ‘is’ in your regular daily habits? Most of us can think of good habits we’d really like to develop, but somehow have never got around to it. If you’re a Christian, some of those habits you wish to develop possibly include things like regular prayer and Bible reading; intentional care for others; disciplined consumption; not spending too much time online, etc. You may have heard countless times that these things are important; you’ve probably nodded sagely in agreement; you may even have spoken about them many times out loud in sentences that begin, “I really should…”. But you’ve just never got around to turning them into lasting habits. Maybe that’s because your desire to develop these habits has never been anything more than a vague wish. Or maybe you don’t know where to start. Or maybe you’ve tried repeatedly to develop these habits and failed miserably.

“Oh no,” you might be thinking, “not another article telling me to read the Bible and pray more!” No, that’s not what this article is about. What would be the point? You already know you should read the Bible and pray more. If you’re like me, your problem isn’t knowing it, it’s doing it. And that’s a real problem, isn’t it? So this is an article to help you understand yourself a bit more, and to give you a few ideas about how to go about actually getting into these habits. You might object, “But I don’t have a disciplined personality, this isn’t going to work for me.” If that’s you, let me ask you a simple question: do you brush your teeth every day? If you answered “yes”, then this article is for you.1 Personality has nothing to do with it. If you brush your teeth every day, you’ve already proved that you have the ability to develop good, lasting habits. And if you can do it with teeth-brushing, you can do it in other areas too.

We all develop habits, because we are creatures. That common expression, ‘creatures of habit’, points to an important truth. Habits are an aspect of the way God has made us, as creatures who live in his good creation. God has created us from the ‘dust of the ground’ (Gen 2:7). He’s placed us in time and in space. He’s given us minds and bodies that are suited to this world; we respond to familiarity, regularity, cycles and seasons. Because of this, we’re all constantly forming habits—often without even realising it. Our habits are a key part of our character, of who we are; and so they are closely bound up with our decisions and our desires. Even our seemingly spontaneous decisions are highly influenced by our character and habits. Neuroscientists have noticed the way that repetition creates physical ‘pathways’ in our brain, which in turn shape our desires. It’s true to our experience, isn’t it? The more we do something, the more we want to do it. Fast food outlets, supermarket chains and social networking sites know this only too well: in fact, they employ teams of people to shape our habits, and thus influence our desires and our ‘free’ decisions. That’s why we need to take control of our habits—especially in the really important areas of godly living—to ensure that we are being conformed to the things of God. Otherwise, we will continue to be manipulated by the desires of the world.

Of course, there’s an important difference between the mundane habit of brushing your teeth and the kind of important Christian habits I mentioned above. Unlike teeth-brushing, these Christian habits are directly involved in our daily spiritual warfare. On the one hand, that means they are ultimately God’s work; we can’t do them in our own strength, and they’ll never be perfect this side of the new creation. On the other hand, they will be particularly challenging for us to develop. They are habits that battle against the enemy—our own sinfulness, Satan, and the whole world opposed to God. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to develop them in the same way we develop other habits. In war (I’ve been told), very little time is spent waging glorious battles and smiting the enemy. Most of the time, warfare is about training, preparing and honing skills. The effectiveness of a soldier is only as good as his habits: his reflexive reactions developed through constant, repetitive training. The same applies to spiritual warfare. Our main task in spiritual warfare is to get prepared: to put on the “armour” of truth, righteousness, the readiness of the gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the word of God through prayer (Eph 6:10-18). Putting on this armour is, in large part, about developing good habits.

Here, then, are some tips for developing habits. I’m going to concentrate mostly on personal prayer and Bible reading because it’s so important, but a lot of the tips can be applied to developing other good habits too.2 Most of these tips I’ve heard from other people; some of them have come from my own experience of failures and even occasional successes. Remember, of course, that they’re tips, not commandments or sure-fire recipes. Ponder them, weigh them up, and decide if they’ll work for you.

  1. Motivate yourself by preaching to yourself the gospel of grace. Why do you want to develop the habit in the first place? Are you just gritting your teeth and “doing the right thing”? Are you trying to conform to the expectations of others? Are you trying to make yourself closer to God through your efforts? I hope you agree, these are all terrible motivations. Instead, preach the gospel to yourself: remind yourself that you want to develop the habit because the Spirit of God is at work in you; the Spirit who has brought you as close to God as you could possibly be through his son Jesus and who has changed the entire orientation of your life, making you want to serve him and grow in your knowledge and service of him. Keep coming back to God’s grace over and over again.
  2. The ultimate goal in developing a particular habit is coming to the point where you love to do it. You know you’ve truly got a good, lasting habit when it’s an essential part of your life, and it feels right. In fact, you feel bad not doing it. This is even true of uninspiring things like brushing your teeth. When you don’t brush your teeth, you feel yuck all day. How much more should this be true of daily prayer, the amazing privilege of speaking to the creator of the universe?
  3. Realise, though, that the goal I mentioned in the previous point (to love what you’re doing) will probably take a very long time to develop. In the case of daily prayer, it will probably take months or years to even get a small way towards that goal, and will continue to be a struggle until Jesus returns.
  4. Don’t be a hero—you’ll only set yourself up for failure. If you’re not reading the Bible at all, for example, don’t jump in with a plan like, “I will read the Bible for an hour every day”. Sure, it sounds like a noble goal. But then, when you read the Bible for 30 minutes one day, you’ve failed. Instead of rejoicing in God’s word to you, you’ll just give yourself needlessly negative vibes because you don’t measure up to your own arbitrary standard. You won’t love what you’re doing if you feel like you’re failing all the time. It’ll feel like you have to climb a mountain every day. And you’ll end up fearing and hating it. You might recognise this scenario as the ‘New Year’s Resolution’ syndrome. Don’t fall into the trap.
  5. The flipside of the previous point is to start small. In fact, make deliberately small plans at the start. Set yourself the goal of reading the Bible for 5 minutes each day, for example. And each day, leave yourself wanting more. Leave yourself with the feeling, “I liked that, I want more”. Then, the next day, you’ll be motivated to do it again.
  6. Start now. Just do it. This is linked to the previous points. If you have a gigantic heroic plan, you won’t be motivated to start until the conditions are perfect. But if you plan to start small, you can start straight away.
  7. Think creatively about ways to fit your habits into your life circumstances. Think in terms of people, time and space. What are your relationships? What are your commitments? What’s your daily routine? What times of the day do you enjoy the most? Where do you enjoy to be? If you can, try to practice your habits in the times and places that you love to be, rather than in the downtimes or the uncomfortable places. Spiritual warfare is hard enough without making it harder on yourself.
  8. Learn from the habits of others, but don’t follow them slavishly. I was once inspired by a godly Christian father I knew who often urged us younger dads to lead regular times of family prayer and Bible reading ‘at the breakfast table’. I thought that was a great idea, except for the word ‘breakfast’. The thought of trying to do anything constructive with that bleary-eyed half-conscious Weetbix-encrusted crew that is our family at the breakfast table was not a happy one. There was no point following his advice to the letter (and he wasn’t expecting us to anyway). We had a go at doing it at the dinner table, which works far better for our family.
  9. When it comes to habits, simple regularity is much better than sporadic brilliance. Don’t expect your Bible reading to be constantly wonderful and filled with awe-inspiring insights. If you have a spectacular, life-changing quiet time one day and then don’t pick up the Bible for a month, you’re not going to get very far. It’s much better to have simple expectations, and to rejoice each time you open God’s word, even if you learned something that seems small and insignificant at the time.
  10. Make your habit-developing plans simple (e.g. “I’ll read the Bible for 10 minutes a day”), not complex (e.g. “I have a Microsoft spreadsheet setting out my Bible reading plan every day for the next 10 years”). Simple plans are more flexible than complex plans; they’re easy to adapt to changing circumstances. Life is full of unexpected events: we make plans, but God has his own ideas about how life is going to turn out (Prov 16:9). We have to deal with sickness and emergencies (in fact, when I first sat down to write this article, my wife called to say the car had broken down on the way to school and my plans went out the window!). If you have a complex plan, and then an unexpected interruption comes which throws it all into disarray, you might be tempted to get frustrated or angry or just to give up. If you have a simple plan, you can adapt it.
  11. Develop the super-habit of regularly reviewing your habits! This is especially important because your circumstances will change over the course of your life. Since habits are integrated with your life circumstances, whenever there’s a change in your life circumstances, your habits will suffer. That’s normal. Sometimes you might have to go back to square one and completely reassess your habits. When we had very young children, we found that our daily ‘routine’ was changing every few weeks, as the kids’ sleeping and feeding patterns changed. When this happens, don’t (as I sometimes did) use it as an excuse to give up on your habits. Rather, adapt your expectations to your circumstances. Then start again. And when you do start again, start small, and don’t be a hero (see above).
  12. Use the relatively good or easy times in your life to work hard at developing your habits. When the hard times come, and/or when life changes, you’ll have spiritual resources to use.
  13. I said it at the start of the list, and I’ll say it again at the end: keep coming back to God’s grace.

What do you think? Is there anything you have found particularly helpful in developing godly habits?

  1. If you answered “no”, stop reading this article and call a dentist right now.
  2. Also, realise that these tips are mainly about developing good habits, not so much about getting rid of bad habits. Getting rid of bad habits sometimes might need more drastic measures, depending on the seriousness of the habit.

Comments at The Briefing.

Published inThe Briefing

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.
  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor