Image Source: Shades Mountain Independent Church
We’re now into the second quarter of 2016, which usually means that any New Year’s resolutions we may have set have long been broken by now. That’s okay. When we’re cultivating new habits, we likely won’t be consistent at first. As long as we’re persistent (and, for believers, asking God for help with the changes we’re making is always a good idea), we can get past our faltering first steps and begin to walk more consistently and confidently in our new ways.
As Christians, the foundation of our lives is our relationship with Jesus. We practice spiritual habits that lead us to a greater understanding of how Jesus wants us to live. When we have formed good spiritual habits, we continually learn the way Jesus wants us to balance all the other aspects of our lives and increasingly align them with his will.
Jesus’ Spiritual Habits
There are a few habits that are crucial for the believer to cultivate: reading the Bible, prayer, and attendance at public worship. As usual, Jesus is our guide.
Reading the Bible
It is clear that Jesus knew the Scriptures very well. He impressed the religious teachers with his understanding when he was only twelve years old (Luke 2:41-50). He quoted Scripture to combat the attacks of Satan when he was being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). He quoted Scripture in his teaching (see, for example, Matthew 5:21-48). He also used Scripture to rebuke the religious leaders (see, for example, Matthew 9:9-13 and Matthew 15:1-9 // Mark 7:1-12). He even quoted Scripture while he was dying (Matthew 27:46 // Mark 15:34).
Jesus had many people who wanted his time and attention. Imagine having a crowd of thousands following you everywhere! Jesus knew he needed time to recharge. He often made time to pray alone (Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; Mark 6:46; Luke 5:16; Luke 6:12; Luke 9:18). In this way, he was able to remain in contact with his Father, asking for help and receiving guidance. The most notable times when Jesus prayed are right before his crucifixion. Jesus prayed a prayer on behalf of his disciples and everyone who would believe in him through their message (John 17) and he prayed for himself in the Garden of Gethsemane immediately before he was arrested (Matthew 26:36-46 // Mark 14:32-42 // Luke 22:39-46).
Jesus also made a habit of attending public worship. We see this clearly throughout Luke 4. After being tested out in the wilderness, Jesus returned home to Nazareth. “When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures” (Luke 4:16). Jesus read the following passage from Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.
After making the assertion that this prophecy had been fulfilled that very day, the amazed synagogue attenders wondered how Joseph’s son could speak these gracious words. Jesus then pointed out that no prophet is accepted in his hometown and related the stories of the Gentiles that the prophet Elijah had helped and healed rather than going to Israelites who were in similar circumstances.
The people in the synagogue were furious and mobbed Jesus, trying to push him over the edge of a cliff. Jesus simply walked through the crowd and moved on to Capernaum. He “taught there in the synagogue every Sabbath day” (Luke 4:31) and later moved on to other towns (Luke 4:42-44).
42 Early the next morning Jesus went out to an isolated place. The crowds [from Capernaum] searched everywhere for him, and when they finally found him, they begged him not to leave them. 43 But he replied, “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other towns, too, because that is why I was sent.” 44 So he continued to travel around, preaching in synagogues throughout Judea.
The Habit Loop
So how do we cultivate the spiritual habits that Jesus demonstrated?
Charles Duhigg is the author of The Power of Habit (available to borrow from the PEI library in book, audio, and digital audio form), which outlines some interesting research about and examples of habit-forming and habit-breaking behaviours (he uses Saddleback Church, led by Pastor Rick Warren, as one example of a community built on habits). He outlines how habits work and suggests that habits form a loop (check out his website for more details):
- Cue: Do you want your new habit to be triggered by a particular location? time? emotional state? person’s presence? action you’ve just completed? You get to decide.
- Routine: The habit you want to add to your life — in this case, spiritual habits.
- Reward: Something that satisfies a craving. What craving will your new habit satisfy?
A Personal Example
My grandparents have cultivated good spiritual habits all their lives. My grandfather, who will turn 90 years old this year, and my grandmother, who just turned 86, still read the Bible and pray every day just like they did long before I was born. Here is their habit loop:
- Cue: (Usually) Breakfast
- Routine: After my grandparents finish breakfast, they read aloud the day’s Our Daily Bread entry (they use the printed version but you can find the online version here). They also read aloud the Bible verses mentioned in the entry. After they finish reading, they might talk about the reading for a while before praying. They pray for each of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in order by name and also for any special prayer requests they have on their prayer list.
- Reward: I’ve never asked my grandparents what reward they get from this routine. I think it’s safe to assume that, as they’ve become closer to Jesus over the years, the reward has simply become spending time with Jesus and the joy that comes from living for and pleasing him.
This habit was instrumental in my grandfather’s rehabilitation after he had a stroke fifteen years ago. He was used to doing Bible reading and prayer on his own but was suddenly unable to. He spent many months re-learning his children’s and grandchildren’s names by praying for us as he looked at our pictures. Even now, they continue to pray for us in order because my grandfather can’t remember correctly if he doesn’t pray for us in the right order. He also spent many months re-learning how to read and which words went with particular objects and actions (after his stroke, he could still, for example, change a tire but he could not say the right words if you asked him to describe what he was doing). Reading the Bible out loud was one of the ways my grandfather was able to associate the right words with the right objects and actions.
My grandparents also cultivated the habit of regular church attendance. There was no question of whether they were going to go to church on Sunday mornings or to Bible study on Wednesday nights — that was an automatic part of their habit and routine. Part of the reward for attending was to socialize and to give and receive encouragement and insight from other believers. They don’t attend as often as they used to because of their health limitations, but they continue to go to church functions as often as possible and certainly miss it when they can’t go.
Time for Action
If you want to cultivate good spiritual habits, follow Jesus’ example and the example of my grandparents or any other spiritually-solid Christian people you know. Create your own habit loop, whether you’re adding the spiritual habits to your routine or improving your current routine. Make a plan and don’t give up. It’s hard to create new habits but, with God’s help, anything is possible!