Christian living comes down to making a handful of disciplines into habits. The disciplines are not Christian living; they are only the scaffolding that support Christian living. Christian living is not about doing certain religious things. Christian living is about walking in grace. It is about walking on purpose. It is about basking in acceptance. It is not about trying really hard to be good. It is not about trying hard to be good enough that God will accept me. It is quite the opposite of that. It is reveling in the fact that He has already accepted me. Christianity is about accepting the fact that God has accepted me. Nothing I could do could change that, but my heart is prone to forget.

This is why I need the disciplines. However, I don’t think discipline is quite the right word. That word—discipline—at least to me, suggests duty, or obligation. It suggests that I don’t really want to pray but I pray anyway. It hints that I don’t really want to spend time in the Word, but, because I am disciplined, I do it anyway. Discipline hints that I don’t really want to do something, but I do it anyway. This is not Christian living—not Christian living at its best.

Imagine a couple you know has an excellent marriage. They agree to coach you as your marriage is struggling. They tell you that the key to a great marriage is to maintain certain disciplines:

  • The discipline of a date night each week, whether or not you want to go out.
  • The discipline of kissing each other every day, even if you don’t want to kiss.
  • The discipline of an annual retreat where you get away for a couple of nights. Again, you must do this even if you do not want to—even if you don’t get along and don’t like being together.
  • You must make love consistently, at least twice a week. If neither of you feels like it, do it anyway.
  • The discipline of reading a book on marriage once a year. If it is not interesting to you, so be it; read it anyway.

Does this sound like a great marriage to you? Actually, if you have a bad marriage, these things may make things improve. But, it will be a lot better when you do them because you want to, not because you have to.

In great marriages, couples don’t go out because it is their duty; they go out because there is nothing they would rather do than spend an evening alone together.

So it is with spiritual disciplines. We must maintain spiritual disciplines to grow as disciples. But, we will really grow when we do them out of joy rather than obligation.

We read of stories of disciplined athletes that get up early to torture their bodies. They drink slimy shakes and run till they throw up. Then they do it all again tomorrow. Somehow, we imagine that spiritual warriors are a little like that. They force themselves to do what they hate doing. Isn’t that Christian maturity at its pinnacle—doing consistently what you hate doing? John Ortberg mocks this kind of thinking:

You hear about someone who gets up at four o’clock in the morning to pray, and you feel guilty because you think you don’t pray enough. So you resolve to do that too, even though you are not a “morning person” — at four o’clock you are dazed and confused and groggy and grumpy, and no one wants to be around you at that time of the morning. Even Jesus doesn’t want to be around you at four in the morning. But you think, Well, this is exhausting and miserable — I certainly don’t like doing it — so it must be God’s will for my life. It must be spiritual.1

Christian living at its best is when, “the things of earth grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.” Christian living is when the early alarm becomes a sweet hour of prayer. Christian living at its best is when I really do, “love to tell the story.”

There is a place for discipline, and discipline may be necessary for good habits to form. But, once they are formed, they become automatic. You don’t think about them. Disciples don’t think about whether or not to have a Quiet Time; this is just how they start their day. They have done it so consistently for so long that they don’t think about it. It is who they are. It is what they do. It is their normal.

Having a Quiet Time is either a habit, or I bet you didn’t have a Quiet Time this morning. If we think of discipline as forcing yourself to do something, a startling truth arises: discipline has a very small place in true Christian living. Habit is a huge part of Christian living.

Two habits

Read any book on the spiritual disciplines and you will be encouraged to participate in a long list of disciplines. I recommend two—one, really. I recommend you embrace the habit of the Word and prayer—the Christian Quiet Time.

If you read other books on the topic, you will find a much longer lists, including Donald Whitney’s list of twelve spiritual disciplines:

1. Scripture reading

2. Prayer

3. Worship

4. Scripture meditation

5. Evangelism

6. Serving

7. Stewardship of time and money

8. Scripture application

9. Fasting

10. Silence and solitude

11. Journaling

12. Learning

Richard Foster has similar list:

1. Meditation

2. Prayer

3. Fasting

4. Study

5. Simplicity

6. Solitude

7. Submission

8. Service

9. Confession

10. Worship

11. Guidance

12. Celebration

Kent Hughes goes in a little different direction, but his list is even longer:

1. Discipline for Godliness

2. Discipline of Purity

3. Discipline of Marriage

4. Discipline of Fatherhood

5. Discipline of Friendship

6. Discipline of Mind

7. Discipline of Devotion

8. Discipline of Prayer

9. Discipline of Worship

10. Discipline of Integrity

11. Discipline of Tongue

12. Discipline of Work

13. Discipline of Perseverance

14. Discipline of Church

15. Discipline of Leadership

16. Discipline of Giving

17. Discipline of Witness

18. Discipline of Ministry

19. Grace of Discipline

All these things are fine and good. And, they may all come in time. But the length of the list can keep us from successfully living the Christian life. If I think that Christian living is about disciplining myself to do fourteen things I really don’t know how to do, or want to do… it seems as impossible as it is distasteful. Very few even try.

I suggest a different model. instead of making yourself do fourteen things you don’t want to do, get in the habit of one and only one thing: have a Quiet Time. Start your day with your Bible on your lap. Start your day in the Word and in prayer. As simple as this sounds, this one habit has the power to totally transform your life. If you will get in the habit of spending half an hour a day in prayer and in the Word, your life will be unrecognizable a year from now.

Christianity is about a relationship with God. A relationship is about communication. God talks to me; I talk to Him. God speaks to me primarily through His Word. I speak to Him through prayer. Once these two habits are in place, all the rest will follow as night follows day.

The role of church leadership

If you are a church leader—perhaps you are a pastor, or you lead a small group—you would do well to concentrate on this point. Leading people to live Christianly comes down to this: leading people into the habit of a Christian Quiet Time.

I can summarize Christian living as one habit: the habit of the Quiet Time. There is much that will come after this—service and evangelism and all kinds of character development. But, it all flows out of the time alone with God in prayer and in His Word.

If we can get people to get the Quiet Time right, there is a good chance that all else will follow. If we don’t get the Quiet Time right, we might do more harm than good. What do I mean by that?

There is always a danger of inoculating people against the gospel rather than infecting them with it. We give them a small dose of the gospel and they think they have the real disease. Thus, they are not interested in true Christianity because they think they have experienced true Christianity.

But, what they have experienced is a country mile from true Christianity. It is churchianity. It is bootstrapianity. It is the stuff of the Pharisees—the stuff that Jesus railed mercilessly against.

There is no Christian living without the Quiet Time. There is no Christian living without prayer. There is no Christian living without being transformed by the renewing of our mind. (Romans 12:2) This is done through time in the Word.

If you are a pastor, you can boil your job down to this: get people into the habit of a Quiet Time. If you are a small group leader, you can distill your job to this: help people form the habit of a Quiet Time. Once you do that, discipleship will follow as surely as night follows day. Simple, right?

Pastors: please read this paragraph

I’d like to break this down to one practical, actionable habit for pastors. There are some other things for pastors to do, but this would be a good start: have an annual “Back to the Quiet Time” Sunday. Do it near the first of the year. Challenge people to read every day between January 1st and Easter. Provide a reading plan. Give away One Year Bibles. Encourage and model people buddying up in an accountability group from January 1st to Easter. Have some testimonies each week during January reminding people of the value of having a Quiet Time. Make a big push during the month of January to get everyone’s year started right.

Good habits: hard to form, easy to live with

There is a difference between simple and easy. It is simple to get from my house in New Mexico to Jacksonville, FL. Just hop on I-10, which runs through the south side of Las Cruces, where I live. Head east on I-10 for two days, eight hours, and fourteen minutes. Stick your toe in the Atlantic surf. Simple, but not easy.

Making disciples is simple: lead people into the habit of a daily Quiet Time. Simple, but not easy.

How hard is it to form a habit and make it stick? The medical community provides some insight into the incredible difficulty of making a habit stick.

Dr. Edward Miller is dean of the medical school and chief executive officer of the hospital at John Hopkins University. He gave a speech at Rockefeller University, an elite medical research center in New York City.

He talked about patients whose arteries are so clogged that any kind of exertion is terribly painful for them. It hurts too much to take a long walk. It hurts too much to make love. So surgeons have to implant pieces of plastic to prop open their arteries, or remove veins from their legs to stitch near the heart so the blood can bypass the blocked passages. The procedures are traumatic and expensive—they can cost more than $100,000. More than one and a half million people every year in the United States undergo coronary bypass graft or angioplasty surgery at a total price of around $60 billion. Although these surgeries are astonishing feats, they are no more than temporary fixes. The operations relieve the patients’ pain, at least for a while, but only rarely—fewer than 3 percent of the cases—prevent the heart attacks they’re heading toward or prolong their lives. The bypass grafts often clog up within a few years; the angioplasties, in only a few months.

Knowing these grim statistics, doctors tell their patients: If you want to keep the pain from coming back, and if you don’t want to have to repeat the surgery, and if you want to stop the course of your heart disease before it kills you, then you have to switch to a healthier lifestyle. You have to stop smoking, stop drinking, stop overeating, start exercising, and relieve your stress.

But very few do.

“If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, ninety percent of them have not changed their lifestyle,” Miller said. “And that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so we’re missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.”5

“For whatever reason…” What reason? Bad habits—even life threatening bad habits—are extremely hard to break. Good habits are extremely hard to form. “Good habits are hard to form and easy to live with. Bad habits are easy to form and hard to live with. If we don’t consciously form good ones, we will unconsciously form bad ones.”6

Making disciples is simple: get people to have a Quiet Time. But, never confuse this with easy.

Now, for some good news. Science has done a lot of research in recent years on how habits are formed. I wrote a whole book on this, and if you would like more information, see my book Break a Habit: Make a Habit. This books applies our knowledge of how to form a habit to forming the habit of a Quiet Time. Here is a summary:

• One habit at a time. Because habits are so hard to form, we do well to work on one at a time. The reason we fail to keep New Year’s Resolutions comes down to one letter—s. If we would work on one New Year’s Resolution (no s) we would have much better success. We need to have the humility to appreciate the difficulty of forming a habit and marshal all of our effort and skill toward one habit. Diffusing our effort across multiple domains will almost guarantee failure in all of them. Every New Year we are going to start reading our Bibles, start exercising, start eating better and lose some weight. Well, we might start. The goal is to finish. If you want to finish, concentrate on one habit at a time. Concentrate on the habit of having a Quiet Time, and don’t be distracted by any other difficult life changes. When you get this habit down, a multitude of life changes will flow out of it. There are many spiritual disciplines discussed in the literature: silence, service, solitude and fasting to name a few. These may come later. As you spend time alone with God, He may move you into all these things and more. By concentrating single-mindedly on the one discipline of a daily Quiet Time, you maximize your probability of success.

• Bring a friend with you. Science and the Bible agree: we are profoundly influenced by the behavior of the people we consider to be “our people.” If you want to develop a new habit, take a friend with you. There is a reason why Weight Watchers works. And, it is not because the diet itself is an amazing diet. It is easier to lose weight if you do so with a friend. If you want to develop the habit of a Quiet Time, bring a friend with you. If you attend a small group Bible study, you might ask the group if they would like to go through this book together, and encourage one another to have a daily Quiet Time. Neil Cole teaches another approach. He suggests you get together in groups of two or three once a week for accountability. When you get a fourth person, the group divides. Everyone in the group reads the same section of Scripture. This is a great way to apply the principle of bringing a friend with you. If you go it alone, you are almost certain to fail.

• Make it as easy as possible. People who eat off of smaller plates consume fewer calories. One man wanted to develop the habit of running first thing in the morning, so he slept in his gym shorts. If you want to develop the habit of practicing the guitar and not watching so much TV, put the guitar closer to you than the remote. Habits are hard. Don’t make it any more difficult than it is. If you have your Quiet Time in the same chair in which you watch TV, and you are tempted to watch TV rather than read your Bible, I have a simple solution. Put your Bible nearby and your remote control in the other room. It is not just about trying hard; it is also about adjusting your environment to make habit-forming easier. I keep a bowl of apples in the middle of our kitchen, and often munch on one or two through the day. If there were Snickers in that bowl instead of apples, I would eat Snickers and would weigh fifty pounds more. It is not about trying hard. It is about having apples instead of Snickers in the bowl. If you want to read your Bible every day, make it easy on yourself.

• The power of a list. Come up with a long list of reasons you want to have a Quiet Time. You will be closer to God. You will sin less than you do. You will be an example to your kids. You will know the peace that passes all understanding. You will experience the John 10:10, abundant Christian life. You will feel the assurance of your salvation. You will live with a sense of purpose. On and on. With a strong enough “why”, the “how” will nearly always take care of itself. Come up with a long list of reasons why you want to have a Quiet Time.

• The principle of replacement. If you start spending a half-hour a day in prayer and the Word, what are you going to NOT do? We tend to think we will just cram it in. You won’t. Something has to go. What will it be? Think clearly about that or you will struggle with success. If you want to get up earlier, you will need to go to bed earlier. Something in the evening has to go. You will not sustain just living with a half-hour of less sleep.

• Consider two good (and opposite) ways to form a habit. Depending on your personality, one of these may work better than the other. When you get in a cold swimming pool, do you dive in all at once, or wade in slowly? You can start a Quiet Time in either way. You can start with seven minutes a day and work up. Or, you can dive in full-force, committing to read the Bible in a year. The goal is about half an hour a day.

• Whatever gets rewarded gets repeated. Ultimately, the Quiet Time itself is its own reward. But, sometimes we need some scaffolding in place until the building can bear its own weight. Groups can do this nicely for each other. Perhaps you can reserve some time in your group for each person to share one insight from the Word. The reward, in this case, is having something to share each week.

• Work through the dip. There will come a day when you will get discouraged. There will come a day when you want to quit. There might come a day when you do quit for a time. This is the dip. Expect it. Anticipate it. Plan for it. The dip is coming. Success in many arenas of life is learning to make it through the dip.

• We measure what matters. The most successful plan I know for getting people to have a daily Quiet Time is the 2:7 Series, produced by the Navigators. You can find it on Amazon. It includes a one-page summary where participants are encouraged to write down brief insights from their daily Quiet Time. You can see at a glance how many Quiet Times you had in the last seven days. You can measure how many Quiet Times you had. When I first started doing this, I was shocked by how many blanks there were on my pages. What you can measure, you can manage.

• Goals. Brian Tracy says, “Success is about goal-setting; the rest is just commentary.” Set a goal to read through the Bible in a year. Set a goal to have thirty Quiet Times in a row. There is something about a goal that motivates.

• When all else fails… One of my favorite verses is, “To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” Colossians 1:29 (NIV) This verse contains the two-pronged secret to Christian living: trying hard and trusting with all your heart. Trust and obey. There are three words for “work” in the Greek and all three of them are in this verse. Paul is teaching us that to live the Christian life, we must try as hard as we can with a profound awareness that unless God pours His power in me, my trying is worthless. I am completely dependent on God to do His work through me. But, I try with all my might. When all else fails, pray that God will empower you. Trust in God. Ask the Holy Spirit to empower you to do what you cannot.

Having a Quiet Time is not enough

Reading the Bible every day is not enough. Praying every day is not enough. We must be doers of the Word and not hearers only. We must read for application. The question is not, “What did you read in the Word today?” That is a start, but it is only a start. The question is, “What did you do about what you read in the Word yesterday?”

We will get into this in the last chapter, I just wanted to give a hint as to where we are heading.

Discipleship is very simple. It comes down to the habit of having a Quiet Time every day. A Quiet Time consists of two parts:

  • Time in the Word
  • Time in prayer

Let me say one more thing again. The Quiet Time is not discipleship. The Quiet Time is what makes discipleship possible. In some ways, it is the opposite. Being a doer of the Word is not discipleship. In some ways, it is the opposite. Let me explain.

Discipleship is about living in the flow of the Spirit. It is about the Holy Spirit living His life through us. It is not about trying really hard to be good. If you are living a life of trying really hard to be good, I know one thing: you are tired.

The Quiet Time is the infrastructure that gets us to the Spirit-filled life. Never confuse the infrastructure with the destination. The Quiet Time is the pipe that allows the water of the Spirit to get to us. Never confuse the water with the pipe.

That said, we need the pipe. Without the pipe, there will be no water. This book is about building the habits that will allow the Holy Spirit to flow through your life.

Josh Hunt. 2015. The Habit of Discipleship. Good Questions.