The Power of Spiritually Healthy Habits
By Andy Deane
While most Christians desire to become more consistent in studying the Bible, many struggle with making it a daily part of their lives. We commonly bear witness to Paul’s battle revealed in Romans 7:15, “…For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” So how can a Christian move from godly desires to godly actions? In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul gave us some insight into that question when he said, “…I discipline my body and bring it into subjection…”
Everyone has attempted to discipline their body at some point by trying to eat better, exercise, read more often, quit smoking, etc. How come some succeed at making these changes while others fail? Jesus told us in John 15:5, “…without Me you can do nothing.” We must abide in Jesus each day and ask Him for the grace we need to empower us to serve Him. The major ingredients for transformation in the life of a believer are God’s grace to strengthen us as well as our will to partner with Him. We must even depend on the Lord for our internal will to serve Him as Paul shares in Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Never forget it will be by God’s grace alone by which we draw near to Him!
The difficulty comes on our end when we try and override our flesh’s desire for wickedness, laziness and selfishness. It was with this understanding that I decided to see if a secular book on the science of habits would have any insight as to how God wired our minds to accomplish tasks. I picked up a copy of the New York Times bestseller, The Power of Habit: Why we do What we do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg and read it to see if I could glean some wheat and spit out the chaff.
I’d like to give some practical tips on how Christians can create some wise habits of daily Bible study using the techniques the author mentions, while filtering it with a Christian worldview. The following are some tips I believe Christians can work into their grace-empowered pursuit of spiritual disciplines.
1. UNDERSTAND WHAT A HABIT ACTUALLY IS
Duhigg offers a combination of real life stories and scientific research to help us understand our habits. Much of the book contains his evidence for a simple three-step habit loop: cue, routine, reward. Something happens that causes us to begin a consistent routine of actions that eventually leads to some form of reward that reinforces the habit. The author states, “Researchers have learned that cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people. Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple…rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation.”¹
He argues, “By learning to observe the cues and rewards…we can change the routines.”² The Christian’s goal would be twofold: to ask God for help to reprogram sinful habits into creator honoring responses and to create new habits that strengthen the inner man. It’s basically “bearing fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8) and “walking in wisdom” (Ephesians 5:15).
Duhigg believes the research reveals a basic truth when he writes, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”³ That is why it can be so tragically easy to give into temptation sometimes. We’ve wired our fallen minds to head in that direction.
2. TALK TO GOD EACH NIGHT ABOUT YOUR SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES
The author cites research about why people continue to exercise. He writes, “In one group, 92% of people said they habitually exercised because it made them ‘feel good’ – they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided. In another group, 67% of people said that working out gave them a sense of ‘accomplishment’ – they had come to crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performances, and that self-reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.”4
He goes on to say that, “If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (such as a midday treat, a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog). But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward – the craving for endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.”
So what reward do Christians crave? As much as we enjoy coffee, tea and treats, a believer in Jesus craves His presence! Take some time at night praying that the Lord would give you the desire and the strength to be faithful with your morning devotions. Talking to God about the joy of His presence will cement this spiritual reward in your mind.
3. CREATE A SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE PLAN
1. Choose a CUE:
The noise from your alarm clock each morning. (Additional cues could be: making your breakfast or coffee, etc.)
2. PERFORM the Spiritual Discipline:
Studying the Bible, praying, worshiping, etc.
3. Reap the Spiritual REWARD:
Enjoying the presence of God! (Additional rewards could be: the peace you feel, the Bible knowledge you gain, etc.)
4. ANTICIPATE that reward:
Each night for the first month before you go to bed, take a few minutes and think what you’ll do in the morning. What book of the Bible will you read? Will you journal? Think about how good it will feel to spend time with the Lord each morning. Remind yourself how past experience has shown you that your best days start with Jesus. Then pray and ask the Lord to give you the strength to get out of bed. (Some people may even want to leave their Bible open to the page they are going to read the next morning and write the date on the journal the night before for added pressure to actually write something.)
It helps to write out your plan in a journal to solidify it in your mind: “When ____________, I will ________________________, because it blesses me by __________________________”.
4. COMMIT TO A ONE MONTH CHANGE
Research varies that it takes between 21-36 days to form a new habit. By then your spiritual discipline has become a healthy routine already and by God’s grace you will more than likely continue with it. You’ll have “tasted and seen the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), and you’ll never want to go back.
5. DEVELOP A KEYSTONE HABIT
Duhigg allocates a large portion of his writing on research that shows that people who create a “keystone habit” will trigger widespread change in many other areas of their life. For example, people who start exercising also begin to eat healthier, feel less stress and even spend less on their credit cards!¹ Essentially, keystone habits help to create “small wins,” which in turn boosts your overall motivation and gives you momentum to build even more good habits in your life. For the Christian, the keystone habit that will affect the most God-honoring change in life is developing a consistent habit of daily devotions. Starting each day with the Lord will be the most beneficial spiritual discipline you ever develop!
6. STRENGTHEN YOUR SELF-CONTROL IN OTHER AREAS
The author cited experiments that showed self-control as a muscle that could grow. He wrote, “As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives – in the gym or a money management program – that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.” He went on to say, “When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think…People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.”²
Christians are actually strengthening their self-control when they consistently practice things like the spiritual discipline of fasting, praying for longer periods of time and even saying no to social events to serve at church. When the alarm goes off in the morning for the daily devotion routine, they are more able to get out of bed and stay focused as they have their quiet time with God, because they’ve already put in the hard work of a disciplined life. Think about the areas in your life that need self-control, self-denial and submission to the Holy Spirit. Practice disciplining yourself in these areas, and you’ll also set yourself up for success in your daily Bible study habits.
7. PREPARE IN ADVANCE HOW YOU’LL HANDLE OBSTACLES
Duhigg shares about a medical study where participants were asked to write down their rehab goals each week. Those that followed this request recovered quickly in contrast to the delayed recovery of those who didn’t write anything down. It doesn’t seem like written goals should make much of a difference, but there was a striking transformation in the results. After correlating the data, they found a common thread in their goals, “They focused on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain.”³ One patient knew it hurt to stand up from the couch to walk to the bathroom, so he resolved to automatically take the first step immediately so he wouldn’t be tempted to sit back down again.
It would seem that to take some time each week to write down your daily devotion plan and think through some potential obstacles helps to build perseverence and gives you a better chance of success in establishing the habit. I recommend taking 15 minutes each Sunday for the first month you are trying to establish a daily devotion routine to write down the answers to the following questions (along with others you find helpful):
1. My quiet time goals for this week are ____________? 2. If I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning, I am going to ___________. 3. If I oversleep in the morning, I am going to instead read at this time ___________.
8. DEVELOP SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES IN COMMUNITY
Duhigg interviewed a man who climbed out of poverty and asked him for the secret to his success. The man said, “I don’t really know…My mom always said, ‘Your going to be the first person to go to college, you’re going to be a professional, you’re going to make us all proud.’ She would ask these little questions, ‘How are you going to study tonight? What are you going to do tomorrow? How do you know you’re ready for your test?’ It trained me to set goals.”4
Many Christians share the same goals of reading the Bible every day to meet with the Lord, but find themselves in the same position as others, unable to make a habit out of it. Why not challenge a few friends to start this habit the same time you do? Contact each other throughout the week to encourage each other to “not grow weary in doing good” (Galatians 6:9). Brainstorm each other’s game plans and offer suggestions. The community accountability and encouragement can be a healthy force in developing a habit early on.
9. DON’T FORGET IT’S ALL ABOUT GOD’S GRACE!
A not-so-surprising discovery I found in this book was that Christians actually have the competitive advantage in creating lasting habits. The author’s research on Alcoholics Anonymous showed that one of the main secrets to lasting change was “belief,” specifically in God.5 This shouldn’t surprise us since our God desires to change us. Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 to, “...Not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” If God is asking us to change, then He is going to enable us by His grace to make those changes. Above all else, depend on the Lord as you seek to develop spiritual disciplines that will conform you into the image of Christ!
I believe the mature believer can profit from much of this secular research, while ignoring any parts that bring glory to man or leave out God all together. There is certainly a “man is the captain of his own destiny” type of feel to this book with which I wholeheartedly disagree. Yet the research and scientific discoveries are strong enough that they should not be discounted entirely.
¹Duhigg, Charles. "The Habit Loop." The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. 25. Print.
² Ibid, 27.
³ Ibid, 20.
4 Ibid, 51.
¹Duhigg, Charles. "The Habit Loop." The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. 109. Print. ²Ibid ³Ibid 4Ibid 5Ibid
Associate Senior Pastor
Pastor Andy is the Associate Senior Pastor of Cornerstone. He has a passion for God’s Word and loves to teach people how they can engage with it for themselves, which is why he wrote the book, Learn to Study the Bible. He has a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management from New York University, a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies from Veritas Evangelical Seminary, and is just about finished with a Masters of Divinity at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.