Remember when people were excited about the end of 2020?
Now, at the end of 2021, such excitement seems naive. The pandemic lingers. Polarization remains high. People remain tired. Many churches are still struggling to regain their footing. Reports suggest many pastors are ready to resign.
Nobody’s enjoying the disruption to our long-term plans, but we can’t afford to miss the opportunity we face as the pandemic drags on. The disruption provides us with an opportunity to recalibrate habits that can help us get back on track and live in sustainably healthy, godly ways—no matter how long the disruptive season lingers.
The disruption provides us with an opportunity to recalibrate habits.
Sluggishness vs. Earnestness
Some of us needed a disruption. We weren’t doing well with godly habits even before the pandemic.
“I don’t want to sound alarmist, critical, or preachy,” George Guthrie writes in Read the Bible for Life. “But let me speak frankly. I am concerned about where we are currently in terms of our reading of the Bible, and I want you to be concerned with me. Let me say it again: we are not reading the Bible, much less reading it well.”
I’ve noticed other worrying trends as a pastor. In the past, I could count on people to gather for worship regularly. Increasingly, especially with younger generations, attendance is more sporadic. Whereas people used to show up almost every week, many now attend once or twice a month.
If we struggle to read Scripture or gather for worship consistently, it’s likely we’re not engaging in other godly habits like prayer. It’s not surprising, then, that we’d find ourselves struggling to resist the currents of culture.
But some of us have never learned how to build godly habits into our lives. We don’t know where to start. We try, fail, become discouraged, and quit. We’re like the enthusiast who signs up for a gym membership in January and quits by February.
We’re like the enthusiast who signs up for a gym membership in January and quits by February.
We need to learn how to begin to build godly habits in our lives.
The pandemic has disrupted our lives, and it may have accelerated some trends. But it also gives us a chance to start over again and build new, godly habits into our lives.
According to Katy Milkman, behavioral scientist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, fresh starts—like a birthday or new year—can increase motivation to change because they give us the impression of a clean slate, relegate our failures to the past, and boost our optimism for the future.
“An ideal time to consider pursuing change is after a fresh start,” Milkman writes in her book How to Change.
Sometime, the pandemic will end. We can start to build new habits in our lives now that will help put us in the path of grace as we face another fresh start.
Brief Theology of Habits
Some may wonder where habits show up in Scripture. At first glance, you don’t find many passages that speak to habits. The word only appears once, and it’s negative: some people have developed the bad habit of not assembling together (Heb. 10:24–25).
The implication: we should build the good habit of gathering together.
Look closer, though, and habits are implicit everywhere. Psalm 1 speaks of meditating on God’s law day and night, inviting us to think about God’s law not just in the morning and evening, but all day. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” Jesus said (Matt. 7:7). Each of the verbs—ask, seek, knock—is in the present imperative. Keep on asking; keep on seeking; keep on knocking. In other words, make a habit of prayer.
Scripture encourages a number of habits—regular practices that become routine—that we’re meant to cultivate in our lives. If we want to grow, we need godly habits.
If we want to grow, we need godly habits.
At the same time, while habits are important, they’re not the point. Nobody cultivated habits better than the Pharisees, but they still missed the goal of the habits: God himself. Habits don’t mature us by themselves. But they are the means by which God matures us and draws us to himself.
8 Tips for Building Habits
Here are some ideas on how to start building godly habits today.
- Ask for God’s help. Building habits isn’t about improving ourselves on our power. We can count on the Spirit’s help to regularly practice what Scripture commands us to do.
- Seek help from others. We often think we need to make changes ourselves. God intends for us to change in community. Find people at church who will walk with you as you pursue God.
- Take advantage of the disruption. While the disruption to our routines is uncomfortable, it also presents us with an opportunity to form new patterns of behavior, and to prepare for when the pandemic will eventually end.
- Choose key habits. Engage with God’s Word, pray regularly, and worship with and belong to a church.
- Start small. The goal isn’t to do big things immediately. It’s to choose small, realistic habits. Don’t start by reading ten chapters of Scripture a day; start with one. Don’t insist on an hour of prayer; start with five minutes.
- Practice the clean-slate policy. We tend to give up when we miss a week of church or a day of Bible reading. Don’t. Enjoy God’s grace. Start again the next day.
- Keep experimenting, and don’t give up when you fail. Acknowledge mistakes. Learn from what doesn’t work. Stay curious. Take discouragement to the Lord and find grace.
- Keep going, even when you don’t see progress. Small habits, maintained for a long time, can lead to lasting change.
Don’t waste this disruption. Don’t settle for spiritual flabbiness. Cultivate godly habits that strengthen your faith. Ask for the Spirit’s help. Start today.