by Peter White
How do you start any good habit? If you’ve done this Christianity thing for more than a week, then somebody’s probably told you that you need to read your Bible and pray—have a “quiet time” or daily devotion.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that there’s a three-part loop to any habit: 1) Cues, 2) Routines, and 3) Rewards. Cues have to do with your physical environment. What triggers your habit? Routines are the processes you then go through that are the habit. What are you actually doing? And rewards are what you get out of it. What’s the payoff for you? (You can see him explain this more in this short video.)
To start any good habit you want something sustainable, something reasonable. Sure, there are people who do CrossFit, and you might some day have an intense regimented routine to your spiritual life, but not today. Nobody goes straight from their couch to CrossFit and makes it a week. Same with your spiritual life. Don’t even try starting with getting up at 4 a.m. to pray for 3 hours to start the day. Just don’t.
Start with baby steps. Go easy.
Here’s a list of some helpful tools. Sure, you can connect with God without these things. Abraham never had a Bible. Neither did Moses. Peter probably didn’t know how to read. Elijah didn’t have much of a support system. Yet, they all had meaningful and powerful encounters with God. You can learn to ride a bike without training wheels, but having the training wheels doesn’t hurt, either.
Tools for your use. Think of these as your “cues”:
A Bible, just a Bible.
You don’t need the Study Bible for Gen-X Left-Handed Canadians. You don’t need one of those Bibles that offers commentary on every verse. In other words, you don’t eat food that other people have chewed on. God can speak to you in the pages of the Bible. So listen, undistracted, to the simple words of Scripture. Look for a translation in simple, modern English. I recommend the New International Version (NIV), New Living Translation (NLT), or Common English Bible (CEB).
Write stuff down. Write what you see. Jot down notes of things that are interesting. Scribble down questions you have that you need to ask someone else or maybe look up online later. Draw pictures, especially if you’re artistic and need to visualize what you process. And then, after a season, you can look back and see how God has revealed himself to you over that time. Journal your prayers. Be an encouragement to “Future You.”
A buddy, maybe two, the more the merrier.
Nobody says you have to read the Bible alone. In fact, sometimes reading the Bible alone can be downright dangerous. You want some community in your devotional time. Now, maybe that looks like 10 minutes by yourself in the morning, but then later in the day you call someone, saying, “Hey, I saw this. What do you think?” Maybe it looks like a regular small group and you can all bounce ideas off one another. Often times, God speaks to us through other people.
Decide on a regular time that you do this, perhaps each day or each weekday. Be intentional about your rhythm. Even write it on your calendar. Make it a can’t-miss appointment. You wouldn’t miss your dentist appointment that’s on the calendar or put off that meeting with your boss. Be intentional and write it down the day before. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning. Maybe lunch time. Maybe last thing before bed. There’s nothing special about any of these times. Just find one that works for you.
In addition, have a regular place. Maybe it’s at your kitchen table. Maybe on your front porch. Maybe the office break room. But find a consistent place that’s “your spot.” In time, your brain automatically defaults to thinking of it as sacred space.
This has to do with the time and place. You simply want to be intentional and think ahead of time. So fill it out on a calendar a week or month ahead of time. The night before, know when you’re going to do it the next day. Tell someone else who can follow up with you. And have a plan about what you read. YouVersion has numerous Bible reading plans, so pick one and get started.
2) Okay. You’ve got all those tools? Here’s what you do next. Think of these as your “routine”:
Ask God for help.
It’s the obvious first step, but maybe so obvious we forget about it. Pray. God is already with you. Simply express out loud your desire to be with God.
Free yourself from as many distractions as you can. Turn off your phone. Shut off the music. Get quiet. Get still. Listen. Really listen. Remember the story of Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13). God is in the whispers.
In particular, these three questions: What does this passage say about God? What is God saying to me in this passage? How can I cooperate with God because of this?
These are great questions to start with. Too often we start with the question, “How does this apply to my life?” Starting here often gets us stuck. It’s a terrible question to start with, because when we do, we make the Bible about us. The Bible’s not about us. The Bible’s about God. God wants to show you what kind of god he is and how you can cooperate with him. When it gets down to it, that’s what you really want to get out of reading the Bible.
You might pray and read and discover the gateway straight to heaven. Or you might not. In fact, more days than not, it might be boring. And that’s okay. God is present with you whether you’re feeling it that day or not. But keep showing up. Your emotions will eventually catch on.
Be gracious to yourself.
If you forget a day, or a week, or a month, or a whole season, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s okay. You’re normal. It’s like riding a bike. If you fall off, the only way to get better is to get right back on it and try again. Forgive yourself. Be gracious to yourself. This isn’t about checking a box everyday or crossing an item off a to-do list. This is about connecting with the Creator of the universe.
3) Last but not least, now take some time to think about what “reward” it is that you’re after. What do you want? The feeling of being closer to God? Something to talk to other Christians about? Having some measure of control over your spiritual life? Be honest. Brutally honest, if need be. Talk it out with a trusted mentor or pastor. Try to get as clear as possible about your “why.” If it’s “just because I’m supposed to” or “because it’s what good Christians do,” you’re bound to struggle with this.
And then get started. Really, the only way to do this badly is to not do it at all.
Peter White is both a Tulsa native and transplant, having moved away for 9 years and returning 7 years ago. He probably spends too much money supporting the downtown food economy. When not eating within the IDL with his wife, he can be found watching Netflix, whining about the Seattle Mariners’ pitiful offense, reading a theology book, keeping his toddlers from stealing each others’ goldfish crackers, or being a spiritual director. He blogs at The Sabbath Life, and can be followed on Twitter @thatpeterwhite.