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.
In part two of this article I’ll share five more tips I gleaned from this book.
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.