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.

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