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How to Develop the Habits of Discipleship

How to Develop the Habits of Discipleship

Christian living comes down making a handful of disciplines into habits. The disciplines are not Christian living—in some ways, they are the opposite of Christian living. Christian living is about walking in grace. It is about walking on purpose. It is about basking in acceptance. It is not about trying really hard to be good. It is not about trying hard to be good enough that God will accept me. It is quite the opposite of that. It is reveling in the fact that He has already accepted me. Nothing I could do could change that, but my heart is prone to forget.

This is why I need the disciplines. However, I don’t think discipline is quite the right word. The word discipline, at least to me, suggests duty, obligation. It suggests that I don’t really want to pray but I pray anyway. It hints that I don’t really want to spend time in the Word, but, because I am disciplined, I do it anyway. Disciplines hints that I don’t really want to do something, but I do it anyway. This is not Christian living—not Christian living at its best.

There is a place for discipline, and discipline may be necessary for habits to form. But, once they are formed, they become automatic. You don’t think about them. Disciples don’t think about whether or not to have a quiet time; this is just how they start their day. They have done it so consistently for so long that they don’t think about it. It is who they are. It is what they do. It is their normal.

Having a quiet time is either a habit, or I bet you didn’t have a quiet time this morning.

Developing the Habits

Now for some good news. Science has done a lot of research in recent years on how habits are formed. I wrote a whole book on this, and if you would like more information, see my book Break a Habit: Make a Habit. Here is a summary:

  • One habit at a time. Because habits are so hard to form, we do well to work on one at a time. The reason we fail to keep New Year’s Resolutions comes down to one letter—”s.” If we would work on one New Year’s Resolution (no “s”) we would have much better success. We need to have the humility to appreciate the difficulty of forming a habit and marshal all of our effort and skill toward one habit. Diffusing our effort across multiple domains will almost guarantee failure in all of them. Every New Year we are going to start reading our Bibles, start exercising, start eating better and lose some weight. Well, we might start. The goal is to finish.
  • Bring a friend with you. Science and the Bible agree: We are profoundly influenced by the behavior of the people we consider to be “our people.” If you want to develop a new habit, take a friend with you. There is a reason why Weight Watchers works. And, it is not because the diet itself is an amazing diet. It is easier to lose weight if you do so with a friend. If you want to develop the habit of a quiet time, bring a friend with you. If you attend a small group Bible study, you might ask the group if they would like to go through this book together, and encourage one another to have a daily quite time. Neil Cole suggests you get together in groups of two or three once a week for accountability. When you get a fourth person, the group divides. Everyone in the group reads the same section of Scripture.
  • Make it as easy as possible. People who eat off of smaller plates consume fewer calories. One man wanted to develop the habit running first thing in the morning, so he slept in his gym shorts. If you want to develop the habit of practicing the guitar and not watching so much TV, put the guitar closer to you than the remote. Habits are hard. Don’t make it any more difficult than it is. If you have your quiet time in the same chair you watch TV, and you are tempted to watch TV rather than read your Bible, I have a simple solution. Put your Bible nearby and your remote control in the other room. It is not just about trying hard; it is also about adjusting your environment to make habit forming easier. I keep a bowl of apples in the middle of our kitchen, and often munch on one or two through the day. If there were Snickers in that bowl instead of apples, I would eat Snickers and would weigh 50 pounds more. It is not about trying hard. It is about having apples instead of Snickers in the bowl.
  • The power of a list. Come up with a long list of reasons you want to have a quiet time. You will be closer to God. You will sin less than you do. You will be an example to your kids. You will know the peace that passes all understanding. On and on. With a strong enough why, the how will nearly always take care of itself. Come up with a long list of reasons why you want to have a Quiet Time.
  • The principle of replacement. If you start spending a half hour a day in prayer and the Word, what are you going to NOT do? We tend to think we will just cram it in. You won’t. Something has to go. What will it be? Think clearly about that or you will struggle with success.
  • Consider two good (and opposite) ways to form a habit. Depending on your personality, one of these may work better than the other. When you get in a cold swimming pool, do you dive in all at once, or wade in slowly. You can start a Quiet Time in either way. You can start with seven minutes a day and work up. Or, you can dive in full-force, committing to read the Bible in a year.
  • Whatever gets rewarded gets repeated. Ultimately, the Quiet Time itself is its own reward. But, sometimes we need some scaffolding in place until the building can bear its own weight. Groups can do this nicely for each other. Perhaps you can reserve some time in your group for each person to share one insight from the Word. The reward, in this case, is having something to share each week.
  • Work through the dip. There will come a day when you will get discouraged. There will come a day when you want to quit. There might come a day when you do quit for a time. This is the dip. Expect it. Anticipate it. Plan for it. The dip is coming. Success in many arenas of life is learning to make it through the dip.
  • We measure what matters. The most successful plan I know for getting people to have a daily Quiet Time is the 2:7 Series, produced by the Navigators. It includes a one page summary where participants are encouraged to write down brief insights from their daily quit time. You can see at a glance how many quiet times you had in the last seven days. You can measure how many Quiet Times you had.
  • Goals. Brian Tracy says, “Success is about goal-setting; the rest is just commentary.” Set a goal to read through the Bible in a year.
  • When all else fails… One of my favorite verses is, “To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29 [NIV]). This verse contains the secret to Christian living: trying hard and trusting with all your heart. Trust and obey. There are three words for “work” in the Greek and all three of them are in this verse. Paul is teaching us that to live the Christian life, we must try as hard as we can with a profound awareness that unless God pours His power in me, my trying is worthless. I am completely dependent on God to do His work through me. But, I try with all my might. When all else fails, pray that God will empower you.