The benefits of holy habits

We’ve been trying to build holy habits the past couple of days (here and here). But why? Let me give you four reasons to develop the holy habits of prayer, Bible reading, and meditation.

1. They become hard not to do
What was once hard to do can become hard not to do. Once you get into a habit of daily prayer and Bible reading, it becomes hard to break the habit, no matter how many things call us away from it. Look at Daniel; there was so much pressure on him not to pray. But it had become so customary for him that rather than being hard to do in these circumstances, it was hard not to do.

You can now put your socks on without thinking. But it was not always like that. Initially it was impossible. But as you practiced, the weak neural connections got bigger and stronger and eventually created such a strong pattern that you can now put your socks on without falling over.

When you start praying and reading your Bible or meditating it feels really hard and you think, I can’t do this for a week, never mind a lifetime. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. 

2. They improve our feelings

You may say, “I don’t feel like praying or reading my Bible.” Do you think Daniel did? Especially that day? But actual doing, reading, praying, lifts our feelings.

Although I disagree with Jay Adams, the pioneer Biblical Counselor, on some important matters, I do agree with him that habits can regulate feelings, or at least actions can.

He often quotes the example of ironing. He says that so many women say to him, “I’m so unhappy because all the ironing is just piling up and yet I just don’t feel like doing it.” He argues that just picking a shirt and ironing it, will change the feelings and even give a sense of joy in accomplishment. And that surge of feelings motivates further ironing, thus building a virtuous cycle.

So, instead of “habitual” Bible reading or prayer emptying the joy and freedom from these spiritual activities, exactly the opposite occurs. 

3. They shape character

Just as one bad habit tends to breed more bad habits, so good habits tend to breed other good habits. Sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

Just like Daniel, those who establish these holy habits tend to have holy characters and standout from the crowd.

“Dare to be a Daniel” was not the result of some one-off, macho, spiritual weightlifting. His courage was not some rare supreme effort that he managed to work up. Rather it was the final product of years and years of character-shaping holy habits.

4. They reveal Christ to the soul
As we go on in the book of Daniel, we see Daniel being given increasing insight into the Scriptures and the person and work of Christ. In fact the pre-incarnate Son of God comes to him at least twice and shows Himself to Daniel in overwhelming ways. 

What a blessing holy habits are. Yes, at times they may become rather mechanistic and ritualistic, no matter how hard we fight this. I’m sure Daniel had days like this too. But if we prayerfully persevere in them, as Daniel did, we will be made wise unto salvation and know Christ in deeper and deeper ways.

I feel sorry for psychologists

I often feel sorry for psychologists. They seem to be worse than the antichrist to many Christians, who often write off their whole profession without any qualification whatsoever.

Although psychologists have often wrongly trespassed on to the Christian pastor’s territory, and many have also promoted dangerous and damaging anti-christian philosophy, their discipline is not essentially and necessarily anti-Christian.

Some of their work with autistic children and brain-damaged adults is beautiful and inspiring. Their work on diet and brain formation, and also on food and mood is already producing beneficial results. And many of their observations about human nature and behavior are true and can even be helpful for the Christian.

For example, I was recently looking into how habits develop and gathered the following ten principles of habit formation from various psychology resources. Can anyone argue that these are helpful principles that can be applied to the formation of holy habits?

1. Set a goal
It is much easier to form a habit if we have a goal. Many habits are the result of past goal pursuit. For example, someone who is in the habit of running every morning probably started running to take part in a marathon or something like that.

If you set a goal of “I will read through the whole Bible in a year,” you are more likely to develop a habit of daily Bible reading that will stick with you even after that year. If you set a goal of memorizing a verse a day, you are more likely to develop a habit of meditating on Scripture.

2. Have a small-step plan
As I said, having a big overall goal helps form a habit. However, the best way to achieve such a goal, and form a habit in the process is to break it up into small steps that are as specific and realistic as possible. Mini-plans bridge the gap between wanting to get something done and getting it done.

So, if you want to read the Bible in a year, break it up into so many chapters a day, a week, etc.

3. Work on one habit at a time
If someone tries to change too much at one time in their lives, then they will almost certainly fail. Change is much more likely when there is a focus on one problem at a time.

Instead of trying to read more of your Bible, and pray longer, and meditate more, work on one of these fronts at a time. 

4. Associate a place and time with an activity

A habit will form much quicker and stronger if the behavior is associated with a specific time and place.

Some pastors I know have a special chair in which they read the Scriptures and pray for their own souls. They don’t do these things at their desk because they want this to be a special time for their own personal devotions. Eventually, when they sit in that chair at their regular time the holy habits are triggered.

5. Make it a priority
The first thing we do each day is much more likely to form a habit than the last thing we do each night.

If we want to strengthen the holy habits of Bible reading, prayer, and meditation, then make sure they are the first thing you do in the day (before email, Facebook, etc).

6. Early focus boosts success
Missing the odd day of an activity does not matter too much, unless it is in the early stages of habit formation. But unbroken daily repetition in the early stages produces the strongest automaticity, or the best prospects of a long-term habit.

Make sure you don’t miss a day in the first couple of weeks of forming a holy habit. Missing the odd day when the habit has had sufficient time to form is not so critical.

7. Identify potential obstacles
It is important to anticipate obstacles and hindrances before they come along. A runner may look at the weather forecast to make sure he will be dressed so as to enjoy his morning run.

Similarly, if you find yourself too sleepy for devotions in the morning, then go to bed earlier. If you find it difficult to concentrate on prayer without speaking out loud, find a place you can do this.

8. Be prepared for setbacks
The harder the action, the harder to form a habit. Although some habits form in as little as 18 days, the hardest habits take up to 254 days to form. Drinking a daily glass of water became a habit quite quickly. But doing 50 press-ups before breakfast was much harder.

As there are few things harder than prayer, Bible reading and prayer, we are going to encounter setbacks and disappointments in trying to form these habits. Thankfully we can take these failings to the Lord for forgiveness and grace to start afresh.

9. Know yourself
Research shows some while some people can form habits very quickly, others may be more habit-resistant. Some people are just more naturally disciplined and regimented than others.

If you are not “the organized type” or if you are a more laid-back personality then you will find it harder and have more setbacks. Also remember that although the world, the flesh, and the devil work together to build unholy habits in our lives, they also ally together to fight the formation of holy habits.

10. Be patient
How long do you think it takes to form a new habit?  A week? A month? A year? Well it varies depending on a few factors but the average is 66 days or 2 months. In other words, you will not lay down deep habits of Bible reading, prayer, etc, without persisting for at least two months.

Finally, what you won’t learn in any psychology textbook. You are going to need the Holy Spirit to help you to do all these things and to keep it from becoming a mere habit, a mere formality. And you are going to need the blood of Christ to cover stumbles and falls. What greater motivation can there be than the enabling power of the Holy Spirit and the cleansing power of Christ’s blood.

Tomorrow, I’ll suggest four benefits of holy habit formation.

Holy Habits

I’m speaking today at a youth camp on “Holy Habits.” It’s one of a series of addresses that various speakers are giving on the book of Daniel. I was asked to speak on Daniel’s holy habits of prayer, Bible reading, and meditation.

What is a habit?
I started studying for this address by asking: “What is a habit?” A habit is a behavior that through regular repetition becomes almost an involuntary and instinctive part of our lives.

A habit is a behavior: We all have many habits. Some are amoral (neither good nor bad) –  sleeping on your back, eating with a fork in your left hand, hitting the snooze button when the alarm goes off, etc. Some are immoral (bad) – swearing, looking at porn, procrastination, etc. Some are harmful – nail-biting, thumb-sucking, etc. Others are moral (good/beneficial) – a mother runs to help when she hears her child cry.

That through regular repetition: If repeated in the same place there is a strengthening of the link between the place and the action.

Becomes an almost involuntary and instinctive part of our lives: We hardly need to think about it. The habit is controlled by our subconscious. It becomes more and more automatic; so automatic that we hardly need to think about it. 

What are holy habits?
With that definition in mind, what are holy habits? Or, what habits help make us holy? Answer: personal prayer, Bible reading, and meditation. Through regular repetition, these behaviors should become an instinctive part of our lives.

I want to be careful here to distinguish between what should be habitual about these behaviors. Setting apart a time and place for these activities should be a daily habit that becomes so instinctive that we hardly need to think about doing them. But the actual exercise – the praying, the Bible reading, the meditation should engage our whole hearts, minds, souls, strength.

Daniel’s holy habits
When we look at the book of Daniel, we find someone who had holy habits. Prayer, Bible reading and meditation (Dan. 6, 9), had become such a regular feature of his life, that he hardly needed to think about doing them. However, as we know, his praying, etc., was not thoughtless and mechanistic. It engaged the whole man.

But Daniel was so habitual in these spiritual disciplines that when his enemies wanted to bring him down, they realized that the most sure-fire way of securing his death was to devise a law that would condemn him for praying to God (Dan. 6:4,5). So regular and predictable was Daniel’s prayer life that when these men got the law against praying, they knew that they had gotten Daniel too.

In Daniel 6v10, we read that although Daniel knew when the prayer-forbidding law had been signed by the king, “he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime” or “as he had done previously.”

In Daniel 9, some years later, we find Daniel studying the Old Testament, specifically the prophecy of Jeremiah. And, as he meditates upon it, God reveals His plan to deliver Israel at the end of 70 years in Babylon. And what does Daniel instinctively do? He starts praying for this promise to be fulfilled (Dan. 9:2-3).

Daniel was a man of holy habits, the holy habits of prayer, Bible reading, and meditation. These were behaviors that through regular repetition became almost an involuntary and instinctive part of his life.

Well, I’m sure all of us would like to have such holy habits. But how do we get and develop them? I’ll try to answer that tomorrow.

Big question. Bigger consequences.

What were Old Testament Israelites thinking when they offered animal sacrifices? That’s the question Mark Olivera asked in response to last week’s posts on the Old Testament sacrifices (here and here).

And this is not some trial academic pursuit. Our answer to that question will influence our view of God (does He change the way of salvation from works to grace and from theism to Christ-ism, at half-time?), our view of sin (can mere animal blood cover it), our view of the Bible (does it present two essentially different religions or just one with different degrees of light?), and our view of Old Testament believers (are they brothers and sisters in Christ or simply theists and ritualists who didn’t know Christ until they got to heaven?). So it’s a big question with huge consequences.

Let me recap a little and respond to some of the questions in last weeks posts, and then attempt to do some biblical mind-reading, or, as Mark put it, try to get inside the heads of these OT worshipers.

1. The Levitical sacrifices reminded and convicted of sin (Heb. 10:3).
As Rick Phillips points out, the sacrifices proclaimed: “This is what will happen to you unless a better atonement be found.”

2. The Levitical sacrifices pictured and pointed to the person and work of the Messiah. (Heb. 10:1)
The sacrifices never saved anyone, never washed away or covered one sin. However, they were one of the major means of grace, one of the main ways God used to create, sustain, and nourish faith in the Messiah.

Therefore, just as neglect of the Lord’s Supper damages us spiritually, so neglect of the sacrifices damaged the souls of OT believers. Jim Hamilton wrote that that offering sacrifices were a work that proved living faith. I agree to a limited extent. However, I believe that the primary way that living faith was evidenced in the OT is the same as in the NT – through obedience to the moral law more than the ceremonial law. 

3. As the Levitical sacrifices were commanded by God, disobedience here would bring punishment on the offenders, whether individuals or the nation.
I disagree with Andrew Suttles who thinks the Old Covenant is a law covenant. I believe that the Old Covenant is an administration of the Covenant of Grace. However, I agree with him that faithful observance of the Levitical law did bring God’s temporal blessings upon the nation. 

But Mark made the point that there were sacrifices before the Levitical law linked God’s blessing on (and presence among) the nation with faithful observance of the sacrifices. So there must have been a deeper and more fundamental meaning.

4. The Levitical sacrifices gave ceremonial or ritual cleansing but never atoned for moral transgression (Heb. 9:13; 10:1-4)

They did not pacify the conscience (Heb. 9:9) but rather purified the flesh (9:13). They gave a “ceremonial forgiveness” that allowed physical proximity between the offeror and God’s presence in the Tabernacle and Temple. But of themselves the sacrifices had no impact on spiritual proximity to God. As John Calvin said:

For what is more vain or absurd than for men to offer a loathsome stench from the fat of cattle in order to reconcile themselves to God? Or to have recourse to the sprinkling of water and blood to cleanse away their filth? In short, the whole cultus of the law, taken literally and not as shadows and figures corresponding to the truth, will be utterly ridiculous…if the forms of the law be separated from its end, one must condemn it as vanity (Inst. 2.7.1).


But let me return to Mark’s question as it really helps us to get to the heart of the matter. He asked: “What was the worshiper motivated by as he brought his animal to the Tab/Temple to be slain?” Mark lists these options: 

  • “This is just a symbol cause something better is still to come.”
  • “Glad I made it – I’m covered for another year.”
  • “I feel so awful about what I did last week – hope this sacrifice is enough to cover my guilt – maybe I’ll bring another one next week just as insurance.”
  • “Atonement – that is what our Israelite worship is built on – so I’ll keep doing this to help keep our religion going.”

Although many Israelites probably thought like this, Israelite believers didn’t.

Jim Hamilton suggested that the Israelite was thinking along these lines: “This animal costs a lot of money, and it has to be an unblemished one. This animal could yield a lot to me in terms of increased flock, or wool, or whatever, to say nothing of the feast we could have if we ate it. But Moses gave these instructions. Does my transgression (or uncleanness resulting from contact with the dead) require this? This God must be both morally pure and clean. I know that he spoke through Moses, and I know his word is authoritative (cf. Exod 24:6–7), so because I believe I’ll offer this sacrifice.”

Again, I’m sure some Israelites did think like this. But regenerate Israelites didn’t. Why do I say this? Because none of these answers display any consciousness of faith in a coming Messiah, without which no one was saved. 

Biblical mind-reading
Here’s what I think was going on in the minds of OT believers: “This sacrifice tells me what I deserve – death. And it also tells me how to escape – blood sacrifice in my place. How I long for the Promised Seed of the woman who will crush the head of the devil and bless all the nations of the earth by offering blood-sacrifice in my place.”

In other words, their faith was consciously Bruised-Seed-of-the-woman-centered, or Suffering-Messiah-centered. I’m going to appeal to Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin to support this view.

From the life of Abel, Edwards establishes that sacrifices were appointed by God to be “a standing type of the sacrifice of Christ, and that when offered through faith in Christ they were pleasing to God. Also, from the fact that Abel seemed to be complying with an established custom, Edwards argues that sacrifice “was instituted immediately after God had revealed the covenant of grace, in Gen 3:15, which covenant and promise was the foundation on which the custom of sacrificing was built…. That promise was the first stone laid towards this glorious building, the work of redemption; and the next stone, the institution of sacrifices, to be a type of the great sacrifice (Edwards, History of Redemption, 135ff).

Calvin also denied any possibility of knowing God apart from the Mediator.

Surely, after the fall of the first man no knowledge of God apart from the Mediator has had power unto salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:24). For Christ not only speaks of his own age but comprehends all ages when he says: “This is eternal life, to know the Father to be the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (Inst. 2.6.1).
From this it is now clear enough that, since God cannot without the Mediator be propitious toward the human race, under the law Christ was always set before the holy fathers as the end to which they should direct their faith…Here I am gathering a few passages of many because I merely want to remind my readers that the hope of all the godly has ever reposed in Christ alone (Inst. 2.6.2).

In his sermons on Deuteronomy, Calvin says: “Indeed the ancient fathers were saved by no other means than by that which we have…they had their salvation grounded in Christ Jesus, as we have: but that was after an obscure manner, so as they beheld the thing afar off which was presented unto them.”

A modern voice
And just to bring us right up to date, here’s a terrific Christ-centered passage from Vern Poythress:

The shadow was not itself the reality, but a pointer to Christ who was the reality. Yet the shadow was also like the reality. And the shadow even brought the real­ity to bear on people in the Old Testament. As they looked ahead through the shadows, longing for something better, they took hold on the promises of God that He would send the Messiah. The promises were given not only verbally but also symbolically, through the very organiza­tion of the tabernacle and its sacrifices. In pictorial form God was saying, as it were, “Look at My provisions for you. This is how I redeem you and bring you to My presence. But look again, and you will see that it is all an earthly symbol of something better. Do not rely on it as if it were the end. Trust Me to save you fully when I fully accomplish My plans.” Israelites had genuine communion with God when they responded to what He was saying in the tabernacle. They trusted in the Messiah, without knowing all the details of how fulfillment would finally come. And so they were saved, and they received forgiveness, even before the Messiah came. The animal sacrifices in themselves did not bring forgiveness (Hebrews 10:1-4), but Christ did as He met with them through the symbolism of the sacrifices (Vern Poythress, Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, 11)


Such a view of what was going on in the heads and hearts of Old Testament believers confirms God’s immutability, underlines that sin is so serious that it required nothing less than the blood of God to put it away, unites the Bible, and joins us in sweet Messiah-centered fellowship with Old Testament believers.

Big question. Bigger consequences.

(Thanks to Jim Hamilton, Mark Anderson, Mark Olivera, Bernard, Andrew Suttles and others for their gracious and stimulating interaction).

The Talk-o-meter

Something that every Elder’s Meeting/Deacon’s Board/Presbytery should purchase: The Talk-o-meter.

When switched on the iPhone App, Talk-o-meter, will separate different voices and at intervals of 1, 2 or 5 minutes it presents in different lengths of red and blue bars what percentage of time each speaker was talking.


“Nobody has to be unpleasantly exhorted – from time to time everyone will have a cursory glance at the Talk-o-Meter and adapt if he is talking too much. Gentle biofeedback works!”

Might also save your marriage! (Or destroy it)