by Jen Pollock Michel
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
Six years ago, I had a flyer in the mail from a local gym. I’d received at least a dozen mailers like it, but having just turned forty, I was primed for an incentive like, “Join today and get the first three months free!” Soon, I began to repattern my mornings to include exercise.
When the first pandemic lockdown closed my local gym last March, my exercise habit had to be reimagined: in my basement, with a smartphone app and hand weights as soon as I could buy them (which wasn’t until July). I missed the watchful eyes of my gym comrades, but I preferred the shorter commute. My years-long habit kept me moving.
For better, for worse, we are creatures of habit. We pattern our days, our months, our years, and much of life is made up of repetitive motion.
Importantly, the Bible tells us that habit is a necessary part of the Christian life. We work to keep the habits—and by some mystery of God’s grace, the habits work to keep us.
Habit has a bad reputation in many Christian circles. When we talk about habit in the life of faith, many of us imagine the rote performance of religious duties. In fact, we’ve probably all heard arguments against making certain practices too regular lest we drain those practices of meaning.
It’s true any habit of faith can become mindless. We don’t automatically value something simply because we repeat it. But it’s also true that in the life of faith, habits provide an anchor when good feelings about God are in short supply. They’re the net to catch us in life’s freefall. Habits help us keep a slow and steady pace when emotions ebb and flow.
I think of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 after her long season of barrenness. She’d sloughed disappointment, month after month after month. It’s not hard to imagine that it grew difficult for Hannah to keep praying. Was God even listening? But every year, a pilgrimage festival brought her back to the Tabernacle. Habit—not feelings—renewed the occasion to pray, to pour out her lament to him, even to see God’s miraculous answer.
In his recent book on the power of habit, James Clear argues that “we get what we repeat.” In other words, whatever it is that we most regularly do (or don’t do), most regularly think about (or don’t think about), those life habits inevitably shape us, for better or for worse.
Although all of us long for microwaved transformation, change is usually a much slower process. It’s a crockpot affair, requiring stores of patience. Marriages aren’t saved overnight. Addiction isn’t defeated in a day. By God’s power, we change—but this change is incremental and often measured in years. When we engage good habits in an effort to change, it’s one way we commit to slow, sure hope.
Habit was a familiar category for Paul in many of his letters. He often used athletic analogies to illustrate the discipline required for the life of faith (see 1 Cor. 9:24-27). He often emphasized the need for persistent practice (see 1 Tim. 4:13-16). In Phil. 4:8.9, he argued that growth in Christian virtue was a matter of rinse and repeat: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Habits don’t save us—but they are a way for us to participate in the mystery of sanctification, that while God “works us in,” we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (see Phil. 2:12, 13).
The late A.W. Tozer was once asked, “What makes a saint a saint?” He wrote this: “When they felt the inward longing [for God] they did something about it. They acquired the lifelong habit of spiritual response.”
Today is the day to respond to the prodigal love of God and renew our desire to love him in return. Today is the day to ask: what habit can I abandon for the love of God? What habit can I form? Maybe we give up a time-wasting digital habit. Maybe we renew a commitment to Scripture memory or spiritual community.
Either way, today is the day to lace up our shoes—and keep moving in faith.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus. You can sign up for her 5-Day Jumpstart to Your Habit Called Faith here.