Breaking down the anatomy of idolatry

Idolatry is a major theme in the Scriptures and in Christian thought. Most popular writers describe an idol along the same lines as Tim Keller does in counterfeit gods: An idol is “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”

This is a good definition, but whenever I compare it to the idolatry described in prophets like Jeremiah, I hesitate. In ancient Israel, the prophets had a very narrow and particular object in mind when they spoke about an idol: A piece of wood or stone or precious medal shaped like a human or an animal that represented some spiritual being.

How do we get from that narrow definition to Keller’s broad definition?

Ancient Israel’s matrix of power

When Jeremiah brought charges against Israel, he sought to undermine their entire worldview. Instead of trusting in their Creator God, they had begun to trust in a matrix of worldly powers. What “powers” did they turn to? They turned to false gods and the idols that represented them. They believed that those pieces of wood and stone had the power to make them safe and secure. They believed that the gods of the nations had some cosmic power over creation. They believed that certain rituals performed before the gods, or sacrifices brought before their idols, would secure for them what they really wanted and needed – the good life.

Jeremiah exposed the powerlessness of the idols. He mocked them:

Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.

Jeremiah 10:5

He also showed the foolishness of their religious rituals and their incantations. No matter how many times they said “the temple of the Lord,” they were not secure there.

The rest of Scriptures expose the powerlessness of false gods. Oh, the spiritual beings are real, and they have real power (read the gospels if you doubt this) but before the Creator God they stand utterly defenseless.

Here we begin to see the idea of idolatry expanding just a bit. Idolatry isn’t just about making a statue. It’s also about the sacrifices and rituals we do to appease it. It’s about the spiritual being behind the idol who supposedly has the power to get us what we want.

While there’s a form of spiritualism that seems to be gaining traction in parts of the United States – and is certainly still dominant in many parts of the world – this is still not characteristic of the community in which I live. But Jeremiah is not content to simply expose the foolishness of Israel’s false religion. He also exposes the more concrete and material powers.

When the threat of the Babylonians arose where did Israel turn? They turned to the nations of Egypt and Assyria. They relied upon their armies. When enemies were at the gate, what did they trust? They trusted the wall around their city. They trusted their fortifications. In a war, these are very practical things to trust – armies and defenses. What else should you trust? But for Jeremiah, this represented another sign that they had abandoned God. Astonishingly, their success or failure in war had nothing to do with weapons of this world. If they returned to God, he would rescue them. If they held fast in their rebellion, their best weapons of war would be completely overrun.

In the mind of the ancient Israelite these powers were inextricably linked. The idols were linked to gods who were linked to nations who were linked to kings who were linked to armies. When you tapped into one source of power you were tapping into the entire matrix.

With this in mind we can see how idolatry can fit into a broader system of acquiring power, of using some created thing to achieve some ultimate good. Idolatry fits into a broader framework of false worship and misplaced trust.

The anatomy of idolatry

Today we use the word “idolatry” to talk about that whole system. For my own clarity, I have broken it down into the following pieces and parts:

An ultimate good: Idolatry always aims towards some end. In Keller’s definition this is the “what only God can give” part. This ultimate good is usually abstract. Examples: Security, wellness, justice, recognition, meaning, etc.

A divine being: This was central to the belief structure of the ancient near east, and in the paganism of Jesus’s day. The divine being was said to have the power to grant you the ultimate good if you pleased it. Today, divine beings are often unacknowledged, though I suspect they are still at play in unseen ways.

An idol – a symbol said to have power within itself: Here things begin to get concrete. When we imbue an object with some sort of mystical power or if we treat an object with a special reverence that ought to be reserved for God (i.e., prayer, allegiance) then we can begin to fall into an idolatrous mindset. Examples: Use of crystals to gain a connection with spiritual beings to gain wellness, the use of a rabbit’s foot for luck, outsized reverence to a flag.

A created power: Something in this world that has a limited power to bring us a glimpse at an ultimate good. Money, for example, really can give us a level of personal security (the lack of it sure makes security difficult). The right foods can make us healthy (if our ultimate good is health). The right (in another sense) can give us happiness and comfort (if those are our ultimate goods).

A ritual or sacrifice: This is something that we can do to gain access to either the spiritual or physical powers. Israel prayed to idols to get them into contact with the divine beings. They paid tribute to kings to help the acquire the power of physical armies. Some religious systems today have certain rote prayers or incantations, but less religious people still have rituals which help them acquire the power associated with money or status. In one of its most blatant forms, the powerful practice oppression in order to maintain their hold on power. Oppression becomes a sacrifice to the god of power to achieve an ultimate good of security.

How then should we treat created powers?

Sometimes idolatry is obvious – you might be an idolater if you’re setting up a statue in your house or praying to a false gods.

But what should we do with our relationship to the “created powers” all around us – money, clothes, food, relationships, etc.? How do we know if we are treating these things in a way that is idolatrous or not?

I think the key distinction is found in the way that we relate to those created things. We can either view them as gifts from a generous God or we can view them merely as things we can use, apart from God, to achieve an ultimate good. Money can either be a gift from God that we can enjoy or give freely back to him or it can be merely a means towards which we achieve happiness. Politics can either be a gift from God which we can use to love our neighbors, or it can be a way to gain status and power for ourselves. Relationships can either be a gift to be enjoyed to the mutual benefit of all involved or they can be used to increase our status or give us a sense of meaning.

If we receive the world as a gift from a generous Creator God, we respond in worship in service. If we view the world as a means to power, we are falling into the trap of idolatry.

God is a generous God. He gives us both the ultimate good and the gifts to enjoy that ultimate good. He even gave us Himself and it is there we find all the ultimate goods wrapped up together.

The Most Interesting thing I read last Week: God’s judgment, kinism, and foster care month

Depending on how consistent I am, this will be a new weekly blog installment. It’s a new attempt to curate the media I’m consuming, either in books, online, or via podcast.

Book Big Idea: The Skeletons on God’s Closet

Big idea: In Scripture, God’s judgment is for “insiders” before it is for “outsiders”

More, a quote: “I began to realize that God’s coming judgement is not so much an evangelistic tool used to frighten outsiders into the kingdom, as it is a house cleaning tool used to weed out hypocrisy and call insiders back to the faith they proclaim.”

The Skeletons in God’s Closetcovers three tricky topics: Hell, Judgment, and Holy War. This quote is from the section on Judgment. Butler’s main point is that the Bible usually directs “judgment” language at those who would consider themselves insiders, at people who claim to be God’s people, at the religious, at Israel, and those in the church. God uses judgment language to call his people back to repentance. Butler’s quote fits with the language/order of the prophets (whose call was to Israel), Jesus (who used judgment language for the religious insiders), and Peter (Judgment comes first to God’s house, 1 Pet 4:17).

Why this is interesting to me: In general, I find theology and biblical study interesting. In particular, I am reading and preparing to preach out of Jeremiah, which is full of the language of judgment.

Critique: I found the first section of this book, on the nature of Hell, somewhat weak. But I think Butler is spot on here. The Bible talks about judgment in two main ways (1) Purification for his people (2) Salvation by kicking evil out of God’s good world – Butler hits on both of these themes.

Articles/Podcasts worth sharing: 

I’ve been haunted all week by the fact that the Synagogue shooter attended an evangelical church and proclaimed an evangelical faith. Here are a couple articles that I found interesting.

An explainer at TGC by Joe Carter: Kinism, Cultural Marxism, and the Synagogue Shooter

A call to repent of Christian Nationalism, by Mark Galli at Christianity Today.

Additionally, May is Foster Care Awareness month. To that end, I recommend this TGC podcast: How You Can Encourage Foster Parents.

I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of political bias I have been seeing from fellow believers. Here are two articles worth reading:

First, a response to those who were offended by the use of the term “Christian Worshippers”. Frankly, I believe that pettiness on this issue does real and needless damage to our Christian witness.

Second, a call from Ed Stetzer to stay on point in the Age of Outrage.

One more thing: Did you know our churches publishes our sermons? Check out Pastor John’s most recent sermon. As a bonus, you get a great explanation of the conscience.

 

What’s the most interesting thing YOU read this week?

No Part-Time Pastors

I recently attended an event at my seminary alma mater for bi-vocational pastors. The event included panelists who had years of bi-vocational ministry experience. One of the panelists said something that struck a chord with me:

“There are no part-time pastors.”

As a bi-vocational pastor I work about 20-25 hours/week “for the church.” I average a bit more hours/week for my job as a project manager in the aviation industry. My “church work” is split between attending services and meetings, teaching preparation and prayer, planning, communication, and a slew of other miscellaneous activities. Since I don’t spend 40+ hours a week doing these tasks it would make sense to call me a part-time pastor, just as it would also be fair to say that I’m a part-time project manager.

This panelist would disagree.

The language “part-time pastor” and, to a lesser degree, even “bi-vocational” ministry, implies that our lives fit into neatly discrete categories. Yesterday at church I was a pastor. When I go into work this morning, I’ll be a project manager. On Tuesday night, I’m a father. In fact, my identity as a pastor/father/project manager, is far more integrated than that.

In pastoring, I’m a father and a project manager. My wife and kids (and anyone else in my home: that’s another post) are my first line of ministry, not separate from it. The lessons I learn from project management help me become a better leader. My experience at my job informs how I read Scripture and preach sermons.

In project management, I’m a pastor and a father. I don’t mean that I preach sermons at work. It does mean that I seek to live out my Christian witness by working hard with honesty, kindness, and calm. It means that I see my job as a way to supplement my income in order to free up the church to pay others or participate in other ministries. Neither is my project management separate from my duties as a husband and father. On its most basic level, my job enables me to provide for the needs of my family.

I allocate my hours in a “part-time” way but not my identity.* So long as I am called to these roles then, I am always a pastor even if I’m not doing traditionally pastoral tasks. My bi-vocational ministry role is simply one of the ways in which I pastor.

(* At its deepest level, my identity exists completely apart from these roles. My identity is in Christ, a truth that endures long after these particular roles will have ceased.)

Not how, but who?

Over the years people have approached me to ask me about my bi-vocational role. Some have expressed interest in entering into bi-vocational ministry. Some are already in a secular field and are interested in adding a ministry role. Some are preparing for ministry but see the benefits of bi-vocational ministry. How, I asked the panelists, should I counsel others to discern their call?

One of the panelists offered me this: Instead of asking if you’re called to bi-vocational ministry or not, ask who you are being called to serve. This is the story of my call. I did not, at the beginning of my ministry, feel called to bi-vocational ministry as such. But I was called to serve at my current church and that meant, initially by necessity, that I was called to serve in a bi-vocational role.

Right now, our church probably has the budget for a single “full-time” pastor should we choose, but we believe it is more strategic for gospel ministry to have a leadership team made up of multiple “part-timers” and then rely heavily on a church family all pulling together on the same gospel mission.

There are a number of reasons for this strategic approach, and it might not always make sense for our church, but it does right now. And, more importantly, it’s an example of how the “who” comes before the “how.” As a pastor, I am called to serve my church and the best way I know how to do that, is through bi-vocational ministry.

“Why do they feel the need… ?”

Most of the time, when I tell people that we are a host family for Safe Families for Children I receive a positive response. People see the value of the ministry and are glad to hear we are playing a part in it. Sometimes, though, we hear (directly or indirectly) a critique like this: “Why do you/they feel the need to do this?”

For those who aren’t familiar: Safe Families is a ministry that provides homes for kids whose families are in crisis. Perhaps the closest reference for most people is foster care, except that Safe Families is more of an alternative to foster care when the crisis is temporary. The parents don’t lose any parental rights, and participation is fully voluntary on both sides. Parents can pull out at any time and host families don’t get paid.

My family serves as a host family, so sometimes we have an extra child living at our house. That’s the case right now.

We don’t go it alone. We’re supported by others in our church, and even from people in other local churches. This community is essential to our ability to participate. It’s hard work, but it’s doable.

Then comes the critique: “Why do you feel the need to take care of someone else’s kid? You have your own children, your own set of responsibilities, your own set of cares. Why should you add someone else’s cares to your life? Is it responsible? Do you think you have to solve the world’s problems? Can’t someone else do it?”

Part of me wants to get angry: Hey, we’re trying to do something good here and you’re criticizing us?

But part of me understands the critique and sees the legitimacy of it. After all, our motivations could be poor: We could have a “Messiah complex” imagining that it all depends on us to take care of the needs of the world. We could think that this “good work” somehow merits salvation! Or, we could be acting irresponsibly, neglecting our own children so that we can look good to others of feel good about ourselves.

By God’s grace, I don’t believe that those are our motives. So why do we participate in Safe Families?

For me, it’s less because of a sense of need and more a sense of gratitude.

God has showered his grace on us. He has saved us, forgiven our sins, adopted us as his children, and welcomed us into the family of God. On top of those spiritual benefits he has given us material blessings. We have a warm house. We have sufficient food. We have enough money. We have stability, rooms, and resources. We have energy and health. In other words, we have been blessed not only with our daily bread, but with daily bread to share.

When you realize your blessing, it makes sense to share that blessing with others. That’s why we are a host family.

Not everyone is called to be a Safe Families host family. Most aren’t. But as we looked at the need (children in unsafe environments) and the benefit (providing stability in a family crisis) and the set of resources we have been blessed with, it just fit. Add, on top of that, the commands of God to love and serve our neighbors and the gratitude that comes from God’s grace, and it just makes sense for us.

“Raised to life for our justification” … Why do we need the resurrection to be justified?

In my circle of Christianity, when we talk about salvation, we tend to focus all our attention on the cross and neglect the role of the resurrection. Exhibit A is a book sitting on my shelf called The Cross and Salvation: 500+ pages of robust biblical and systematic theology on the doctrine of salvation. I was unable to find a single chapter or paragraph that dealt with the role the resurrection plays in salvation.

The book is excellent, but this lack of emphasis doesn’t seem to square with Paul and Peter’s emphasis on the resurrection. The resurrection played a key role in Peter’s early preaching and Paul saw it as essential (Romans 4:25, 5:10, 1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

It can be easy to believe that the entire salvation story is summed up in the cross: Humans sinned. Jesus paid for that sin. Since Jesus paid for that sin, we can be forgiven and reconciled to God, freed from the final judgment. In this story, the resurrection isn’t necessary. Or, it is only in this sense that it is evidence that what happened on the cross really matters.

On closer inspection, though, that’s not the “entire” salvation story after all.

The Whole Story:

So, why does the resurrection matter for salvation? What’s the whole story?

I want to tell three different and familiar stories.

First, there’s the story of humanity. We were made to live in communion with God, stewarding the earth for one another’s flourishing and God’s glory. Instead of living under his rule we tried (and try) to usurp his throne… and suffer disastrous consequences. This life of disobedience leads to death. This is the story of Adam.

Second, there’s the story of Jesus. At the incarnation Christ entered the story of humanity. He took on flesh. He faced the devil. He endured hunger and temptation. But, unlike the story of every human the preceded or followed him, he was obedient. He was even obedient to death on the cross.

Jesus took on himself, and completed within his own body, the story of humanity. On the cross he took the death that humans deserve. He took Adam’s death. But Jesus’s story doesn’t end there. He is raised from the dead to new life. He ascends to the throne of God.

Now here’s the third story: The story of little “Adams” who, through faith, move from being “in” Adam, to being “in” Christ. Jesus took our story – and our punishment – so that we could take his story – and his life.

When I’m “in” Jesus, I get his story. I get his death and I get his life. I die with him and I am raised with him. Because I die with him, my sins are forgiven. Because I live with him, I receive a new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Imagine, then, what salvation would look like if Jesus was never raised from the dead. If Jesus was not raised from the dead we could share in his death, but not in his resurrection. We could die with him, but not live with him. Without the resurrection, Jesus’s story is incomplete and so is our salvation.

On the Logic of Romans 4:25

This post started while I was reading through Romans with an eye towards Easter. In my reading I came across this puzzling text: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

I opened up John Stott’s commentary on Romans. It offered me this important reminder: Paul believed that we were “justified” at the moment we believed God “who raised Jesus Christ from the dead” (Romans 4:24). In Paul’s language we are justified when we believe God. We are justified by Jesus’s blood (Romans 5:9). And, Jesus was “raised… our justification.” How do these pieces fit together?

Paul equates justification with “being credited righteousness.” We are credited righteousness when we believe God. But how can we sinners be credited righteousness? It can’t happen through works (“there is none righteous”). It has to come as a gift from God. It has to come from Jesus. It has to come through his obedient life, his death, which atones for our sins, and his resurrection, which is the “new life” by which we share in Jesus’s life.

We can’t stop reading Romans after 5:8. Romans 5:9ff spells out a present/future salvation that is only available because Jesus was raised from the dead. We are justified through his blood (5:9), but we also “shall be saved through his life” (5:10)! His life here is the life available in the power of the resurrection, with which we come to share when we have faith: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4). “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:5).

The Christian life without the resurrection

It might seem hard to imagine Christianity without the resurrection, but I fear that sometimes our preaching – if we neglect the resurrection – can lead to a Christian life without the power of the resurrection. How many people have walked down an aisle or said the sinners prayer with a shortened gospel story, a story that tells of the forgiveness of sins, but doesn’t tell of the new life available in Jesus, that invites us to share in Jesus’s death, but not in his resurrection, that rejoices in Jesus our Savior but ignores his life-giving Spirit? May it not be.

This Easter, rejoice in the full story of salvation. Rejoice in the cross. Oh, may we never neglect the cross! But rejoice also in the resurrection, not just as proof of the power of the cross, but as power to live in the life of Jesus.

Six observations on Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Law

Six observations on Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Law:

1.       Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

The gospels tell several stories about Jesus offending the religious leaders of the time by “working” on the Sabbath. Sometimes that work involved plucking grain, which the Pharisees would have interpreted as harvesting (Mark 2:23-27), but more often it involved healing someone (Mark 3:1-6, John 5:1-15).

Part of me wants Jesus to defend himself by arguing that he’s not really working, but that’s not what happens. Instead he appeals to his divine authority (John 5:16-18). In Mark 2:27, for instance, Jesus states “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

2.       Jesus saw the Sabbath as a life-preserving gift

Does this mean that Jesus was “above the law” or that he was a “law breaker”? In one sense, Jesus is above the law since he is the author of it. But in another sense, he placed himself under the law, in full submission to the Father. In the end, there can be no contradiction between Jesus and the law, since it would make God out to be a liar, or unfaithful, or both.

No, Jesus was not a law breaker and he was not breaking the Sabbath law as the Pharisees supposed. His actions and words hinged on his interpretation of the Sabbath. The Pharisees had made the Sabbath a burden, adding rules upon rules and interpreting Old Testament commands in the strictest possible sense.

Jesus, however, saw the Sabbath as a life-preserving event. He saw the Sabbath as a way for God to bless his people, to preserve their lives in the land, to grant them rest from their toil, to experience a day of Eden in a fallen world.

3.       Jesus used the Sabbath as an opportunity to do good, to save life

When Jesus says he is the Lord of the Sabbath he means first, that he is the author of the Sabbath and, following that, that he can authoritatively interpret its meaning. That explains his actions. If he saw the Sabbath as a gift from God to preserve life, then it makes sense that he would specifically use it to heal those who need him.

In the Mark passage Jesus asks the religious leaders “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) The leaders, who had clung to a strict (and false) interpretation of the law are offended by Jesus and plot to kill him (Mark 3:6). Jesus, on the other hand, fulfills the purpose of the Sabbath to do good, to save life.

4.       The Law, if obeyed, is a life-preserving gift

This brings up a broader question: What is the purpose of the law? Like the Sabbath command specifically, the law was given as a life-preserving gift to Israel.

I’m not quite sure I have chosen the right word to describe the law as “life-preserving” so please allow me to expand on what I mean. God is the giver of life. He is the Creator, the sustainer, and the redeemer.

He gave Israel the law so that through the law they might experience life as God intended. For instance, when Moses set before Israel the choice between life and death he was setting before them obedience and disobedience. In choosing obedience to the law they were choosing God. In choosing God, they were choosing life.

The Bible, then, can speak of the law giving life: “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Psalm 19:7), and it does so through connecting the faithful with the very heart and life of the Law Giver.

But here a problem arises: No one is faithful to the law – at least not consistently and not in our inmost beings. The law preserves life only if we obey it. For those who disobey the law it is not a means of blessing. Instead, it becomes a curse. Not that the law itself is bad, but in our disobedience of the law we forsake God and reject him and, in doing so, we forsake the very One who gives us life.

5.       Jesus fulfills the Law, and so can give us life

Here’s the good news: Jesus fulfilled the whole law, and not just the letter of the law. Jesus fulfilled the spirit of the Sabbath by giving life on the Sabbath. He fulfilled the spirit of the law by loving God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving his neighbors as himself.

As the one who fulfilled the whole law, he qualified himself as the one who could not only preserve life but save life and give life. In his death he took our curse. Through his life he can give us blessing, the blessing of his life.

6.       In Jesus, we find Sabbath rest

The question remains, then, what is our relationship to the Sabbath?

Jesus does not “unhitch” himself from the law, nor does he leave it unchanged. Instead, he “fulfills” the law. For instance, through his sacrifice he fulfills the sacrificial system, therefore making it obsolete. The law is not repudiated, but completed. In the same way, by making us clean through his death he does away with ceremonial food laws intended to keep God’s people ceremonially clean. He can, therefore, declare all foods clean.

I don’t think we have the precedent to rule Sabbath rest obsolete in the same way we can with the sacrificial system and the ceremonial food laws. However, I don’t think that Jesus has left the Sabbath law unchanged.

For instance, we can see that very early on Christians began setting aside Sunday as the Lord’s Day. This was the day that Jesus rose from the dead and in it Christians find a new sort of rest, the rest of God’s redemption. I also take as evidence Colossians 2:16-17 “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Jesus fulfills the Sabbath and in him we find the reality to which the Sabbath points. How, then, should Christians celebrate Sabbath rest? Let me say, first, that I am in process here and cannot either speak from great expertise or experience. Nevertheless, here are some observations about which I am fairly confident.

·         Find rest in Jesus by accepting the life-giving gift of salvation.

·         Set aside time to worship God and remember that he is the Creator and Savior.

·         Trust God with your work. Intentionally rest as a way of practically trust the work of God.

·         Take warning from Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees. Don’t view the Sabbath as a burden which must be followed to the strict letter of the law. View it, instead, as a gift from a good God.

5 tips to starting a consistent Bible reading habit

Most Christians I know want to read the Bible more but struggle to establish a consistent Bible reading habit. They start with the best of intentions and maybe even succeed for a few days or weeks, but they’re never able to establish the kind of routine necessary to make the habit stick. This has been me at different seasons in my life.

I just finished reading the bestselling book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. Clear has written this book to help anyone establish and stick with good habits and break bad habits. The book applies to all kinds of habits, and Clear never specifically mentions the habits of Bible reading and prayer. He does, however, talk a lot about meditation. And, if you mentally replace “meditation” with “spiritual discipline” you wind up with a reasonably solid guide for spiritual growth – so long as you add a spiritual dimension to his otherwise thoroughly materialistic worldview.

I read this book primarily through my pastoral lens and, with that in mind, I wanted to share six practical pieces of advice for anyone who struggles with starting or sticking with a Bible reading habit (or any other spiritual discipline).

#1 Connect it with your Identity as a follower of Jesus

Clear talks about three levels of transformation: Outcomes, process, and identity.

·         Outcome: What tangible changes do you hope to see? Do you want to be closer to God? Do you want to know and love him more?

·         Process: How are you going to achieve that outcome? Reading and meditating on God’s word is one path God has given us.

·         Identity: What kind of person are you?

Changes in outcome come from changes in process. Long term changes in outcome only come through a change in identity. I am a follower of Jesus therefore I want to seek him through Scripture and prayer. If we disconnect our identity from our process then the process (the habit) isn’t going to last. Focus, first, on your identity, on the person you are and the person you want to become.

#2 Write down when and where you are going to read your Bible and pray

Studies have shown that when people say or write down when and where they are going to perform a habit, their chance of performing that habit goes up significantly. Clear calls this writing an “implementation intention.” Here’s the formula: I will [behavior] at [time] in [location]. Try writing down something like: “I will read a chapter from the Bible at 6:30 am in my living room.”

A variance of this is called “habit stacking.” Habit stacking involves connecting an existing habit to a new habit. For instance, you already have the habit of brushing your teeth so your intention statement could be “I will read a verse from the book of Proverbs after I brush my teeth.” This is effective because the first part of habit formation is the cue, the thing that reminds you to perform your habit. The existing habit (brushing your teeth) becomes the cue for the habit you want to form (reading your Bible).

#3 Modify your environment

Much of our behavior is shaped by our environment so we can effectively modify our behavior by modifying our environment. For instance, if we want to get rid of a bad habit, we try to make the cues for that bad habit invisible. We might move the back of sweets out of sight if we want to improve our eating habits. Conversely, to add a good habit, make the cues for that habit as obvious as possible. For instance, if you want to read your Bible each morning, at night put your Bible at the table where you eat breakfast. If you read it at night, keep your Bible on your nightstand.

#4 Make it easy

This is important when starting a new habit. Habit formation takes repetitions, so if we make that habit too hard, too soon, we won’t stick with it long enough to make it automatic.

Clear recommends following a 2-minute rule. Only perform the habit for 2 minutes. For those new to reading the Bible, this might mean just reading a few verses each day and saying a quick prayer.

Once the habit has been established through repetition, begin increasing how much you read and how long you pray.

#5 Track your Bible reading and don’t miss two days in a row

Clear recommends using a “habit tracker” which could be something as simple as a calendar. Every time you perform a habit (read the Bible) mark an X on that day. Tracking helps keep it at the forefront of our minds and also gives a sense of accomplishment.

Related to this is the principle of keeping the streak alive. Missing one day won’t hurt, but if those misses stack up you can quickly derail. Clear recommends that you try to never miss the habit two days in a row. For instance, if your plan is to work out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and you miss Wednesday, make sure you don’t miss Friday. This helps keep habits alive.

I recommend daily Bible reading – or perhaps Bible reading on weekdays. If you want to establish a Bible reading habit and you miss a day, that’s Ok. But to keep the habit going, try not to miss the next day.

Grace and the Spirit

Atomic Habits offers advice is practical and wise but, especially for the spiritual disciplines, we cannot approach this with a purely practical mindset, otherwise we will sink into a worldly and ultimately self-oriented mindset.

Our relationship with God is built solely on his grace. His Spirit that works in us to transform us into the likeness of his Son. Nevertheless, God has given us minds and bodies which work in certain ways. We are embodied followers of Jesus, and we do well to use those minds to the best of our abilities to seek and to serve Him.
Book Recommendations


Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science (A Guide for Sinners, Quitters, and Procrastinators)