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.

  • Mv_49496

    love this! many of the books i find helpful and fill my library with were written by psychologists. of course, one has to read with discernment (throwing to the wind anything that does not align with scripture) but i find for the most part, constructive advice and insight often inadvertently aligns with what God was telling us in His word all along. (the fruits of the spiritual, daily application of grace, trust, repentance, humility etc)