This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
New Year, New Habits
In this episode, David Mathis, author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines, discusses how anyone can make Bible reading a habit in 2020. He reflects on the pros and cons of New Year's resolutions, shares why he prefers the term habits of grace rather than spiritual disciplines, and offers practical advice on making a plan to read the Bible every day.
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David, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.
Thanks, Matt. Good to be here.
So the new year is just around the corner and our listeners might be contemplating some New Year’s resolutions. Many of us start to think ahead this time of year. We are assessing our own lives, assessing things that we want to change about our lives, things that feel like they’re not quite where we would like them to be. I know that a lot of Christians have different perspectives on the value of New Year’s resolutions. Are you planning to make any resolutions for 2020?
Yes, I will. And some of it is because I love seasons. I love Christmas, and New Year’s, and St. Patrick’s Day, and Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, and Easter, and the Fourth of July, and moving through the calendar of the year. We have four distinct seasons here in Minnesota, which I love.
One factor related to resolutions is that I don’t feel a biblical or spiritual mandate to make them, and I don’t see anything biblically that would prevent us from making them. In fact, in 2 Thessalonians 1:11, Paul prays for the Thessalonians “that God may make them worthy of his calling and fulfill every resolve for good in every work of faith by his power.” So there is a biblical blessing on the Thessalonians resolving to do something good and Paul praying that God would bless their every resolve for good. When I make New Year’s resolutions, I do them in the spirit of 2 Thessalonians 1:11. I pray that it would be a resolve for good that would be produced by a born-again heart, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and formed by God’s word, and that it would have the end of glorifying God and serving others through love and satisfying my soul in him. That’s the kind of framework I would put on spiritual resolutions for the New Year that I think would be helpful.
I think many of us feel a kind of tension when it comes to resolutions, whether spiritual or otherwise. Namely, that it can sometimes feel like there’s a choice to be made between relying on God and his grace and his power, especially when it comes to some of those spiritual goals that we might have, versus simply working hard in our own strength to meet those goals. So tease that out for us. How do you think about those two sides of this issue?
Consider a few passages of Scripture. Think about Philippians 2:12–13, where Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you to will and to do for his good pleasure.” So that’s the framework with which I want to approach the Christian life. God gives us the dignity of participating in the process of our sanctification and growth. We are not passive in it. He works in us by his Spirit; he meets us externally through the word read, preached, and heard; through fellowship and through the church. And so God gives us his great grace of participating in the process. He means for us to work out our salvation, to be engaged, to expend effort, to make exertions of the will and mind and heart, and to know that we are not the decisive ones who are bringing about anything of spiritual and lasting significance. God is the one who is at work in us by the power of his Spirit to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Another text that captures the dynamic of our working—but our working not being decisive and ultimate, but leaning on the working of God for it to be effective—is 1 Corinthians 15:10 where Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Paul goes so far as to say he worked harder than the other apostles. I mean, Paul was a serious worker. There is quite a doctrine of vocation and work ethic to be found in the Apostle Paul, if you run with that. But I won’t run with that right now.
I’ll run with Paul’s exertions—Paul’s engagement of his mind, his heart, his will, his body, his actions—and his saying, “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” You say, What do you mean, Paul, it wasn’t you? It was you. It was your hands doing the work. It was your mind. It was your body. It was your faith that was engaged. And Paul would say he was engaged, but it was not in a decisive way. Ultimately—and most effectively and essentially—it was the grace of God at work. And so that’s the kind of paradigm that I bring and would encourage people to bring to New Year’s resolutions.
I think you hit on the interesting idea that oftentimes our resolutions are really about trying to help us establish a habit. Maybe we’re trying to exercise regularly, eat better every day, read our Bible every day, or pray more consistently. More broadly, it seems like our culture is pretty interested in habits right now. I was looking online a little bit and there are countless bestselling books on the power of habits. There are podcasts that talk about how to hack your habits. There are apps now that promise to help you establish good habits, whatever that might be. Do you have any thoughts on what’s behind what seems to be a cultural interest in habits right now?
Some of it, perhaps, is our being aware of more information now—through various scientific research—information that God wired into us from the beginning, but is on the frontier of what humans are learning about the human body. The final frontier in our research about the human body is the brain. We understand so little about the brain and we continue to learn more and more about it and the habit function is something that has come up in recent research.
So, for instance, The Power of Habit book and those like it are popularizing some of the more recent research about the way the brain functions in habits and seeing the glory of how God wired us from the beginning for these habits. For example, take decision making. You may not realize this, but decision making takes a toll. There’s emotional energy to consider an option against another option, whether there are limited options or countless options, and make a decision about doing something. And if we’re making conscious decisions every day, the investment of our energy into deciding between things is significant for the kinds of things we’re doing each day. So every time I get in an automobile I don’t need to make the decision about whether or not to put on a seat belt this time. First of all, I don’t want to invest the energy in trying to decide and weigh the options: Should I have the seat belt on? This is uncomfortable, but it could save me from a crash; but it’s a low chance I’m going to crash the vehicle. I don’t need to exert that energy and I don’t need to make the wrong decision. I simply need to always put the seat belt on because I’m not going to plan when the accident is. And when I come to a red light I need to stop. I don’t want to cultivate the reasoning for making that decision to stop or not to stop every time. And so automobiles are one way for us to play out the option, in a more obvious way, of the kinds of things that habits do for us. So automobile habits are ways that make our lives more productive, more safe.
And because God’s wired us in such a way as to go through those things and create habits, we can then give our energy elsewhere. To translate that to spiritual habits, every morning when I wake up I don’t need to sit there and weigh out, Should I listen to God’s voice this morning in the Scriptures? Is it something I want to do today? On the one hand I don’t want to give the mental energy to trying to make that decision. I’d like to give my mental energy to what the Bible says and to hearing from God through reading his words and meditating on it in my soul. And then also I don’t want to make the wrong decision. I don’t want to start thinking, Oh, today I won’t. This is the power of habit and we’re very aware of how habits work negatively for us. We’re working with a child right now on refraining from sucking her thumb or biting her fingernails. We’re aware of the negative connotations when we think of habits. But on the positive side, God wired this into the human brain and means for us to make good, spiritual use of the power of habit, and in particular the habit of turning to him first thing in the morning. Putting our energy toward what he has to say to us and his word is a fantastic keystone habit where other habits then fall like dominoes when you get the right kind of key habits in place.
I think sometimes we can feel like spiritual habits are purely obligations that we are called to do, that we should be doing for spiritual reasons, and it can be hard to figure out how to relate those to the findings of secular science, and psychology, and other things that you were mentioning about things we’re learning about the human brain and how we make decisions, how we form habits, and where motivation comes from. We can sometimes feel like we just need to do it no matter how we feel and that maybe these other things just give us excuses for why we don’t want to do it. So speak more to how you integrate the findings of secular science and psychology to how you think about issues surrounding spiritual disciplines.
First of all, just parenthetically, the findings of secular science have their very limited place in a need to relate to what God has to say to us in his word. That’s a conviction I bring in, that’s a conviction that Crossway as a publisher is going to have from the beginning, and so put that bracket there. We’re not putting these two side by side and trying to mingle the two. We have a foundation in God’s words to us in Scripture and then we try to see where things can be helpful or not. And some of us will take those more peripherally, as I do. Others will be more serious about them and make that more of a part of their life—that intersection of science and faith.
But a key concept in some of the habit research is the function of reward. The way that the brain trains itself to go through certain habits by looking to a particular reward is so important. Not that that reward always shows up, but if there’s no reward, the brain’s not motivated to cultivate that habit. And for us as Christians, reward is a very biblical concept. Jesus himself in his teaching makes, as C.S. Lewis says, “unblushing promises” of reward. Hebrews 11 talks about coming to him, believing that God exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. And so reward is very important in cultivating various spiritual habits. Other literature will call it spiritual disciplines. It’s very important to see these spiritual disciplines not just as obligations, but as opportunities—opportunities for reward.
I am a Christian hedonist. I’ve worked at Desiring God and worked with John Piper for many years. I believe that God is most glorified in us when we’re most satisfied in him, that God is not glorified in the way that he ought to be if we’re not satisfied in him. If we don’t rejoice, and delight, and enjoy him—which the Bible assumes and makes explicit from cover to cover in various ways—God is not rightly glorified. And so I want to come to the spiritual disciplines, or habits of grace, knowing that my God is a happy God, and that he wants to motivate and does motivate through reward. He means to be the great Reward that we pursue.
In the spiritual disciplines, we’re on a quest for joy. We’re pursuing our joy in the one who is supremely valuable and delightful, namely God himself. Put that explicitly in place and come to his word, not as a mere duty or as an obligation, but as an opportunity for relationship and for enjoying him. Or consider coming to prayer and having the stunning gift that God himself, the Creator of the universe, not only speaks to us in his word but he pauses, as it were, and bends his ear and wants to hear from us. We have God’s ear in the person and work of his Son in prayer. And God didn’t make us to be lone rangers and to be on our own, but he saves us along with a group of people called the church. And he means to reward us through the relationships, and through the inputs, and through the investments, and through the interaction that we have with this people called the church. These things are rewards held out to us. These are invitations held out to us as Christians.
And that change in perspective is not a mind game. It is coming to terms with the way the Bible itself talks about what it means to approach God and pursue his various avenues. We are coming as receivers to these God-appointed avenues of his grace to receive from him the benefit and spiritual blessing and enjoyment of knowing and enjoying him. And so when we have that conception it transforms what it means to come to his word, to come to prayer, to come to the various corporate habits that happen in the life of the church for the Christian.
So one of the other things that you say in your book is that you prefer the term habits of grace. It seems like you prefer that over something like the more standard spiritual disciplines. Why is that?
At the end of the day, the terminology is not a big deal. I’m not trying to fight a battle to change the evangelical parlance on spiritual disciplines. That’s probably not a smart battle to fight.
But the way you think about things can make a difference in how you experience them or vice versa. How you view that reality may influence what kind of terminology you give to it. And the connotation of spiritual disciplines seems to put the accent on me as the doer rather than coming to the whole enterprise in the context of a Christian theology that says God is the great giver. God’s the great doer. And he is extending initiatives, invitations, and opportunities to you. There is a waterfall of his grace and he has specified in his word the most common places that he promises to bring his grace into our Christian lives. And so if we want to be receivers of his grace in the Christian life we should listen to what he said about how he continues to give his ongoing grace to us. And often lists of spiritual disciplines tend toward a long lists of ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty items of various spiritual disciplines to practice.
And that can feel pretty overwhelming at times.
It has to me, and perhaps to you. And maybe there are some listeners out there that love to engage in long lists, but it’s often been discouraging to me to try to think about fifteen or twenty specific practices that I need to be having in my life all the time. One thing I found helpful is to think, Alright, now behind those specific disciplines that are being commended, what are the principles of God’s grace? What is God doing behind that? How is my pursuit of these various habits in accordance with what God’s promised in extending his ongoing grace and the Christian life?
My best summary of the main principles is threefold: that first and foremost through God’s word we hear his voice—God’s breathing out of himself and his grace to us in his word, revealing to us who he himself is, who is Son is, what our world is, what our sin is, what salvation is. His first and foremost means of grace for us in the Christian life is his word and our coming into contact with it in its various forms.
And then secondarily God amazingly wants to hear back from us. He gives us his ear in prayer. And so prayer is a vital means of grace. And you could call it principle at this level without getting into the practices of how to go about prayer. The reality of prayer, that we have God’s ear in prayer because of Jesus, is a principle of grace.
And then third would be that God puts us in a corporate context, which is body life in his church. So to summarize: hear his voice in his word, have his ear in prayer, and then belong to his body in the fellowship of the local church, for God loves to extend his grace to us in the corporate context.
There is a common adage that if you fail to plan you plan to fail. Do you think that’s true when it comes to cultivating habits of grace?
So here we are, the last week in December, and I don’t think it’s essential that you make New Year’s resolutions. You are not disobeying a biblical command if you just sit the thing out. But the way I’ve approached it is, if I’ve got a wife, if I’ve got friends, if I’ve got others who are doing it, and it’s kind of a cultural event, resolutions for good are not unbiblical. And so I love to make the most of the opportunity. Here’s how I would think through making plans for the New Year. First thing would be to focus on a few things, perhaps only a single thing, rather than a bunch.
Why is that?
My experience has been if you focus on a bunch of things you can only handle so much at once in terms of the emotional energy that it takes to start a whole bunch of new things. The very nature of habits, as we talked about, is trying to save us emotional energy over repeated things so that we can give it to things that really need our emotional energy. And so you can get into the season a little too much and go overboard and make so many resolutions that you are, humanly speaking, destined to fail in all of them. So I would say make just a few, perhaps two, maybe even one. And if we’re talking spiritual resolutions here, if you’re come into the New Year thinking, You know, my life is just not shaped and saturated with God’s word in the Scripture like it should be, maybe this is the year to make one resolution related to the word. I want to daily be in his word reading, studying, meditating, memorizing—whether that’s listening to his word read or listening to preaching, whatever it be—make this a year where I form this one keystone habit.
There are some habits that are so significant they create ripple effects in your life. And if you would focus on that first and most basic means of God’s grace, that’s where it all begins: God’s speech. He creates through his speech and he redeems through his speech. The word that transforms us is the gospel word, God’s word. This is a fundamental reality. And so when we become the kind of people who orient on his word as creatures to our Creator who speaks, it has all sorts of implications. We’re going to find in his word various things that are going to relate to prayer and drive us to prayer and inspire prayer. And we cannot take his word seriously and obey his word without making real and substantial and effective commitments to other Christians in a local real life context. And so his word would be one of those keystone habits that would affect other things. So focus on a few new habits, maybe only one, instead of many.
Second, make it specific. Perhaps, as specifically as you can, try to select the kind of habits that you want to form. Don’t settle for the general resolution. Try to make some specific plans for what time you’re going to read the Bible, how much you’re gonna do it, where you’re going to start, and try to plan it out. And I think that will help significantly in pursuing resolutions in the New Year.
And this flows right into crafting a plan that’s realistic. Don’t try to think about all of the potential things you can do. It’s very easy to be inspired in the New Year and to be idealistic. Rather, make it practical. If you’re going after the right kind of habit development and change in spiritual habits they will make a significant impact over time if you’re picking the right thing. And having a realistic plan of how to jump into it will be helpful.
Another fourth idea then would be to identify the reward. For the Christian the great Reward is God himself—the God who is the happy God who means for us to know him and enjoy him. That will be very effective in creating your habits if you’re consciously and intentionally identifying what that reward is, knowing what you’re pursuing as you go about it.
A fifth thing then would be to enlist some regular accountability. Don’t just go on your own with this. Draw in a spouse, a roommate, a friend, an accountability partner, or somebody from church. Have somebody else in on it so that there is a tangible, visible, real-life person that you plan to talk to and stay up-to-date with—someone who will help in that habit creation.
And then finally, I’d say cover the efforts in prayer. We don’t do this in our own strength. Yes, we make exertions. Creating new habits involves our minds, our wills, our bodies, our exertions of energy. But the decisive work is not done by us. If there’s going to be anything of spiritual significance, of lasting significance, that’s going to be accomplished decisively by God at work in us to will and do for his good pleasure. “Not I,” Paul says, “but the grace of God in me.” And so to cover the whole thing in prayer and say, Father, I’m gonna make these efforts. I’m going to try this. I’m focusing on one or a few things and I want it to be realistic and specific and I’m pursuing the reward of knowing and enjoying you—the living God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent—and I’m drawing in others to try to help with accountability. But Father, I know nothing of lasting significance is going to happen merely because of my efforts. It’s gonna happen because you had your favor on it. Your Spirit was at work. You blessed it. You extended your grace to me. You brought about real change in my life and real increase of joy. And so we should ask God to be a part of it and for him to do that as we try to make resolutions in a New Year.
How important would you say it is to give yourself grace for those days when you just don’t find the time or make the time to pray or read your Bible?
I would want to frame it as missing out on grace. If there is the thought, I’m not going to have a good day now, or Is God frowning at me because I didn’t do the evangelical quiet time first thing in the morning and check the box?, I want to encourage you to dispel that line of thinking. Instead, try to come at this from the angle of God is the giver of grace and he is offering you these avenues for satisfaction and relationship with him that really matter and that you’re created for. And I wouldn’t want to cultivate feeling condemnation as much as the miss of an opportunity. Maybe like missing breakfast where you didn’t want to miss food, perhaps. You missed out on feeding. And so you’re hungry. And so it’s not like, Oh, well you know I missed it today. I won’t condemn myself for missing breakfast, but I’ll try again tomorrow. No, you’re still hungry. You probably want to have something mid-morning or you’re going to want to have lunch. So that would be a better way to think about it. If you miss in the morning, God’s word is still there to be fed upon.
We also need to keep in mind that there are seasons of life. In 2010 my wife and I had twin boys and I have very little memory of those weeks, and even those months, because I slept so little and we’re doing feedings every hour and a half and we were in the hospital for a few weeks with both of them because they were preemies born at thirty-five weeks. There are seasons of life. Then our daughter came–our third child came–and then our fourth child came about two-and-a-half years ago. And those were crazy seasons and adapting to a new season of life. And so that may be a sense in which you want to understand your context and know that life has its seasons. Life has its changes. The kind of patterns and habits that you want to have in the long term aren’t always things that you need to force for the sake of loving others in the meantime. So here is a very practical instance in having a newborn: I get up early, I get to the table downstairs, I’ve got my Bible, and here I am—I’m pursuing the one who rewards those who seek him. I want to know and enjoy Jesus. Here I am, reading my Bible, and then I hear the first few cries of the baby.
Every parent listening knows exactly what you’re talking about.
At first it’s like, Well, maybe she will go back to sleep. And then after a couple of minutes I realize that she’s not going back to sleep. She’s awake. And soon she’s going to be waking up the other kids and soon she’s going to be waking up my wife. And besides, I love this baby and I want to care for her and nurture her. And so factoring in love for others is, I think, very important in this conversation about giving yourself grace and missing your habits. If it’s because of your poor planning—because you stayed up later than you should have because you were watching the next thing on Netflix or scrolling through whatever—if it’s on you that’s a very different story than if God is presenting you with an opportunity to love and help somebody else. And so often as a father, as a husband, often the opportunity that God presents me to love and care for somebody else is a person in my own house when my nice little preference would be to continue to enjoy God over my Bible. Amen. Pursue that. And sometimes God calls with various acts of love for caring for child, caring for spouse. So that may be something to think through as well. What is the reason that the space you wanted to carve out now has been restricted and cramped? Is it a divine move in your life where he’s offering, All right, David. I’m filling you up here with my word. I’ve done so. You’re ready to pour out. You’re ready to care for that baby. You’re ready to care for your wife. You’re ready to care for your neighbor. Answer the call of love right now and come back here to feed later on. It’s a very different circumstance than just my poor planning. There may be a sense in which we say, Come on, man. You’ve got to plan better than this. Get some accountability. I’ve gotta get that TV off by this time so I can get enough sleep so I can get up and and meet with my God, which is the most important thing to do first thing in the morning.
If someone is listening right now and they are convinced, they’re excited, they are motivated by this conversation to really try to prioritize—perhaps it’s their Bible reading in 2020 and even want a goal of spending focused time in their Bibles every single day in 2020. My question is, very practically, what would be the first three tangible steps that they should take—maybe even right now or in the next day—to start to make that goal a reality?
I think this is how I would go about it, and they may want to go about it in a different way, but I think the way I’d go about it is probably on my own with a pencil or on a keyboard, I would try to type out some thoughts about it so that it’s not just this amorphous inclination in my head. In the very act of getting it into words, the idea and the intentionality will be fleshed out and will grow. So in our heads we have these seedlings or these trajectories of thought, but until they’re fleshed out either in words that we speak to somebody else or if we capture them and in writing, they’re not whole and full and filled out yet. So the first thing I would say is turn these resolutions—these kind of latent resolutions or instincts—get them into words, whether that’s spoken to someone or written down.
And then I would say have a conversation with somebody. Draw somebody in so you’re not just doing it on your own. Hopefully that’s a spouse, that’s a roommate, somebody in your life that you can have by offering to them what you’re planning they can speak into it as to whether it’s realistic, or whether it should be directed in a more specific way. It’s just helpful to have other people. God made us to have other people, not just to be alone and think and write in our own rooms, but to engage interact with others. So the first thing is flesh it out in words. Second, draw in another person.
And then maybe third I would say turn it explicitly Godward. Ask for his help. Ask that his blessing would be on it. Ask that he would confirm that this is what he would have you to do here at the start of the year, that you would want to consecrate it, set it aside, make it holy to him and ask for his blessing on it and his power in it.
And as you go about it, you want to look for progress not perfection. That can be an instinct that creeps up at this time of year—to create this long list of New Year’s resolutions and then think you have to do it perfectly and feel a sense of dissatisfaction or burden if you’re not executing perfectly. And the goal of making these resolutions, and seeking God’s help, and accountability in it, and specificity in it, and a realistic plan in it, is that you’d make progress in your spiritual life. Not that you would have ascended to some new level of perfection.
Well, David, thank you so much for spending some time talking with us today and for offering your insights into what God has taught you about habits of grace and how he has led you to establish some, and I’m hoping and praying that this is helpful to many who are listening today.
Thanks, Matt. It was good to talk to you.
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