New Habits for a New Year
by David Mathis
Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Is there any single habit more important than getting your soul regularly within earshot of God? Right there with the basic natural habits we cannot avoid — breathing, eating, sleeping — one supernatural habit stands at the fountainhead of all others for our spiritual life and health and growth in a new year: hearing God’s voice in his word.
The first and most fundamental means of God’s grace for the Christian life is his word to us in the gospel and in the Scriptures. Having his ear in prayer, because of Christ, comes in response to God’s self-revelation in his word, incarnate and written. And belonging to his body in the fellowship in the local church is a reality created and sustained by God’s word.
Vital as prayer and fellowship are, all spiritual life and health and growth begins, just as creation, with the word of God (Genesis 1:3).
First and Greatest Habit
Is there anything more fitting, then, for starting every day in the new year than the word of God?
The Bible never commands the modern “quiet time.” Nor does it specify that we must read our Bibles first thing in the morning. In fact, the concept of Christians having their own copy of the Scriptures for private reading is a fairly recent phenomenon in the history of the church. So, here at the outset of the year, we’re not talking mainly about an obligation but an opportunity.
“Is there any single habit more important than getting your soul regularly within earshot of God?”
For Christians, getting our souls within consistent earshot of God’s voice in his word is as basic as sleeping and eating and even breathing. Our fully human Savior himself said, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). If Jesus needed his Father’s revealed words for daily human living, how much more his fallen brothers?
Grow in Grace — or Fall Away
Twice in the apostle Peter’s letters, he encourages his readers to grow. The second is his final word to them, at the end of his second letter, very last verse.
You . . . beloved . . . take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:17–18)
Note first the parting of the ways. Peter’s “beloved” fellow believers are either being carried away and losing their stability (verse 17), or they are growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ (verse 18). Standing still is not an option. There is no neutral in the Christian life, back then or in the coming year. We are either regressing in the faith or progressing. Losing stability or gaining maturity. Shrinking or growing.
The all-important question, then, here at the start of a new year is how? We want to grow, don’t we? We don’t want to regress or fall back or be carried away or lose our position of security and stability. Rather, we want to grow in the grace of Christ, and increase in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10). And grow in knowing him (John 17:3; Philippians 3:10). How, pray tell, Peter, will we grow this year?
Taste His Goodness
Only one other place in Peter’s two letters uses this same verb grow:
Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1–3)
“Salvation,” in this instance, is not something Peter’s readers have already attained (unlike Ephesians 2:5, 8), but something they are, if healthy and true, growing into. This is like Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:12 not to work for but to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Which means, this “pure spiritual milk” Peter mentions has a real part to play in our final salvation.
What, then, is this “pure spiritual milk” that we not only drink but long for? Where is it that we will taste that the Lord is good? The answer, as the immediately preceding verses make plain, is “the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23), which is “the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25).
“Take steps to remove or keep yourself from whatever is keeping you from the Bible.”
In other words, the key to spiritual life and health and growth — the pure spiritual milk — is God’s self-revelation to us in his words through his inspired prophets, culminating in the gospel word about his Son, attested to by the inspired apostles. The pure spiritual milk by which Christians grow up into salvation is the living and abiding words of God in the Bible, with the gospel of Jesus Christ at the heart and center.
Seize (the First Moments of) the Day
What we do each morning in the first fifteen to thirty minutes of our day is doubly revealing: it reveals both where our treasures really lie, as well as the trajectory of desires and decisions that will direct the day and, over time, our life. Therefore, while the Bible does not command morning devotions, all Christians would do well to consider starting each day in the Book. What baby steps might you take, along with these suggestions below, toward a new-year’s resolve to be in the Bible more next year?
AUDIT YOUR MORNING HABITS
Alexander Hamilton famously wrote, “Man is very much a creature of habit.” And perhaps especially so first thing in the morning. The relatively new “science of habit” can help us with this. As Jerome Groopman explains, writing on habits in The New Yorker, and quoting author Wendy Wood,
Our minds have “multiple separate but interconnected mechanisms that guide behavior.” But we are aware only of our decision-making ability — a phenomenon known as the “introspective illusion” — and that may be why we overestimate its power.
In other words, because our conscious thoughts direct only a limited amount of our behaviors — and we are, unsurprisingly, very conscious of our consciousness! — we tend to overestimate our willpower. New-year’s resolves, apart from the formation of new habits, likely will not become new-year realities.
A great place to start is with being honest about what your current habits are. Ask yourself, What are my morning habits? What do I typically do in those first fifteen minutes to half hour each day? What is my morning routine, not ideally but practically? What’s the sequence of what I actually do first thing in the morning?
IDENTIFY THE COST
New habits typically don’t come easily. They aren’t “free.” There is some attendant cost. New habits that really matter don’t just typically thread into your current ones. They must displace the old. According to Groopman, “the key lies not in breaking a habit through willpower but in replacing one habit with another.” With regard to your mornings, make conscious decisions to change tangibles in your world that will guide your subconscious. So ask, How can I get into the word of God in those first moments of each day? What needs to wait until later in the day, or go away altogether, to make space for what’s more important?
CREATE BARRIERS TO THE BAD
After identifying the bad habits keeping you from what’s more important, make concrete plans against them. Create “friction” between the bad habits of checking email or getting sidetracked in texts or notifications. Or turning on the TV. Or reading something else less important. Make them inconvenient. Take steps to remove or keep yourself from whatever is keeping you from the Bible.
INCENTIVIZE THE GOOD
Reading the Bible is not a chore, and there’s no virtue in making those moments as unpleasant as possible. Identify an inviting space, consider conducive sounds (whether silence or beloved soundtracks), and “treat yourself,” within reason, to solidify the habit of coming first to God’s word in the morning. In doing so, of course, we want to develop a palette that increasingly tastes and enjoys God’s goodness in his word so that the real incentive and greatest reward is knowing and enjoying him.
God Gives the Growth
Whatever little supplemental steps we might try in habit formation, they are but supplements. In the end, the word of God is supernatural, and tasting his goodness is beyond our natural abilities. We cannot cultivate supernatural appetite through natural habits alone.
For those of us who are serious, especially here at the outset of a new year, about making daily and consistent access to God’s word vital in the new year, and the rest of our lives, we look, in and through our efforts and strategies, to God himself as the one who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6–7), if it is real growth. He is the one who grows our faith (2 Corinthians 10:15) and his church (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20) through his word, and the one who stands ready to have his gospel word bear fruit and grow in our lives (Colossians 1:6, 10).