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.
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)