BookRemarks are not book reviews, but topical posts inspired by books. This post was inspired primarily by James Clear’s Atomic Habits.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Too often, we label people based on something we have seen them do – a woman saves a child from drowning, so she is a hero; a boy steals a wallet, so he’s a thief.
But humans are too complex to be defined by a single moment. That boy might also defend a kid from a bully, while that woman might also cheat on her taxes.
So it is with all of us. We have our good moments, and our bad.
But if we should not define ourselves by single actions, we should analyze our repeated actions because they reflect who we really are. Repeated actions are habits.
“Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be,” James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits, “Quite literally, you become your habits” (page 41).
Previously, we have discussed some of the spiritual disciplines found in Donald S. Whitney’s book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Certainly, the spiritual disciplines are habits we should develop: attending church regularly, reading the Bible daily, praying, serving, and so on.
But it’s not always easy to form these new habits. Even the apostle Paul experienced such problems: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).
Since we all need help forming good habits (or breaking bad ones), I thought it would be useful to see how science can help us become better Christians.
Of course, we should make a quick note here: change does not come through our own power; Paul indicates that it is by God’s power that we are “being transformed into [Christ’s] likeness” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Indeed, David recognized that he could not change himself when he prayed, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).
But before God changes us, He typically waits for us to make a commitment to Him; He wants to see how serious we are. For example, the gift of salvation is available to all – but God doesn’t force it upon us. We have to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, repent of our sins, and dedicate our lives to God.
Also, many of God’s promises are conditional: “If you do X, I will do Y.” In Malachi 3:8-12, for example, God told the people of Israel that if they tithed, as they were supposed to do, he would bless them. God even said, “Test me in this…” (verse 10).
Finally, Paul told Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). This command also indicates an element of intentional choice on our part.
Of course, we won’t get far if we rely on our own strength in order to change. But we don’t have to rely on ourselves – God will use our meager efforts to produce great changes in us. We just have to give Him the opportunity to work.
In Habits of Grace, David Mathis uses the analogies of electricity and indoor plumbing to explain how God works in our lives:
[God’s] grace is essential for our spiritual lives, but we don’t control the supply. We can’t make the favor of God flow, but he has given us circuits to connect and pipes to open expectantly. There are paths along which he has promised his favor. (page 25)
In other words, we have access to God’s changing grace, but it doesn’t flow automatically into us. We have to open ourselves up to it, just as we open a room to the power grid by flipping the light switch, or as we open a faucet to the water supply by turning the knob.
Likewise, the transforming grace of God is just the flip of a light switch away – we just have to follow the directions He has provided for us, such as practicing the spiritual disciplines.
If we practice them, God will bless us through them; we will grow closer to Him. If we don’t practice them, however, then God will not extend to us the same level of grace; our post-salvation transformation will not be as dramatic as it could be.
We often face a twofold problem when developing a new habit, or a new spiritual discipline: starting and maintaining the habit.
For example, if we want to start reading our Bible on a daily basis, we often forget to read it. Even when we do remember, after a week or two life starts getting in the way – we are too rushed in the mornings, and too tired in the evenings.
Before too long, our intended new habit ends up like so many New Year’s resolutions of days gone by… it’s dead within a month.
But if we persevere – if we train ourselves for godliness, as Paul encouraged Timothy – God will perk up, smile, and help us along. Soon, God will enact changes within us that will make the habit both easier and more appealing to maintain.
Let’s look first at some things that will help us build a firm foundation for habit development. Then, we will dig deeper into James Clear’s Four Laws of Behavior Change.
Building a Firm Foundation for a New Habit
Clear says there are several things we can do mentally to prepare ourselves to succeed in developing a new habit. Although you can choose to develop any new spiritual discipline, I will use the example of starting to read our Bible every day.
Commit to a new habit
First, we have to decide that we are going to commit to starting a new spiritual discipline. This commitment is necessary, because we don’t change if we don’t want to change. Remember, God wants to see that we are serious.
Prepare for obstacles
Second, we need to prepare ourselves for the interference and discouragement that is bound to occur.
The Enemy won’t like our efforts to create a new spiritual discipline, so we should expect interference. Peter warns us, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The devil looks for people he can turn away from God; he even tried to tempt Jesus after Jesus had fasted for forty days (see Matthew 4:1-11).
What might this interference look like? We might become extra busy, be tempted by fun opportunities, or even get sick. Anything that might convince us that we don’t have time to read our Bible.
While interference comes from the outside, we must also beware of the enemy inside ourselves: discouragement. Clear warns us that not much seems to happen in the early stages of habit development:
Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance…. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hallmark of the compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed. (page 20)
We don’t lose weight by eating one nutritious meal; it can take months of eating well to lose weight. We don’t gain strength from exercising one time; it takes months to build and tone our muscles.
Similarly, we shouldn’t expect to become stronger in our faith by reading the Bible at 6 a.m. one time. We should expect the real benefits to be noticeable only after a lengthy, dedicated effort to read the Bible every morning at 6 a.m.
It’s important that we realize this truth: real change takes time.
The psalmist said, “I waited patiently for the Lord” (40:1). It’s important for us to remember that God will begin His transforming work within us; we just need to keep practicing our new spiritual habit, and wait for the results.
Change your identity
Third, we need to change our identity. Clear says, “Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve…. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become” (page 31).
He gives the example of someone who wants to quit smoking. The next time this person is offered a cigarette, he might respond, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.” But as Clear points out, this person still has the mind of a smoker – just one who wants to be someone else.
Instead, the former smoker should respond with, “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.”
“It’s a small difference,” Clear says, “but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was a part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes” (page 32).
The Bible says that our identity changes when we become a Christian: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Indeed, we’re instructed in Romans 12:2 to be intentional about our transformation: “Don’t become like the people of this world. Instead, change the way you think…”
So, are you someone who is trying to read your Bible everyday – or are you someone who reads your Bible every day?
Change your perspective
Fourth, we need to change our perspective. The way we frame something affects the way our brains perceive the action. We don’t have to read the Bible every morning – we get to read the Bible every morning.
It’s worth remembering that many people in history have not had this privilege. Many lived before the Bible was readily available, or before literacy was widespread. Many lived in times or places where reading glasses were not available, or Braille versions of the Bible were not available. Many have lived in times and places where it was illegal to own a Bible.
We have the freedom and the ability to read it – isn’t that awesome?
Clear differentiates between being in motion and taking action: “When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce results. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome” (page 142).
In these terms, being “in motion” might include things like identifying a place where we will read our Bible every morning; cleaning up the area; gathering “necessary” materials, like the perfect journal to write notes in.
Maybe preparing those things will help, but it can also serve as a form of procrastination – we won’t get any spiritual benefit from these activities.
Instead, we need to keep any planning and preparation to a minimal; we need to start our new habit of reading the Bible every morning.
As Proverbs says, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (14:23). In other words: don’t sit around planning all day long; take action.
So, we’ve committed to practicing a new spiritual discipline. We’re mentally prepared to persevere in the face of interference, and we realize that it will take time before we notice any real results. We’ve also changed our identity and our perspective, and we are ready to take action.
Next time, we’ll look at some tactics that will help us start and maintain our new spiritual discipline: Clear’s Four Laws of Behavior Change.
If you already read your Bible daily, what other spiritual discipline might you want to develop? Let us know in the comments below…