When it comes to spiritual formation, lasting change starts with small but determined commitments. Every one of us has sought out some type of habit change in our lives. And, since most of us are notoriously impatient in this age of instant gratification, we want the fruit of this new habit now.
But our bodies and wills do not cooperate quite so nicely. The reality is that most of us are not obedient to our own will. How many times have we tried to make a change and failed? We desire to be the kind of person that gets up very early in the morning to read and pray or to serve our family before they awake, but by the fourth morning, it feels like an impossible task to drag ourselves out of bed so early. We desire to care for our bodies by giving up certain foods or engaging in regular, healthful exercise but our will fails us when we face the hard choice hungry or tired. We desire to give more of our monthly budget to the poor but when we take a hard look at the numbers, our will fails us.
This has happened to us all. It is a sign of wisdom as well as an essential doctrine of spiritual formation that we yield to what is true about our own weakness. We simply cannot point to the mountaintop from the floor of the valley and begin a feverish sprint toward the summit.
Such an approach to habit change fails us because change requires an enormous expenditure of energy. It makes us tired. We steal from the reserves of will that we will need tomorrow in order to fulfill the demands for change we place on ourselves today. After a few days of maintaining the change by the force of will alone, we find that our reserves are exhausted and we have only our sinful nature on which to fall back. And we all know our sinful nature does not make good choices.
We cannot sustain such expenditures for long periods without betraying ourselves and returning to old habits, ruining whatever it was we were trying to accomplish. But by recognizing our weakness and starting small, we conserve our strength. We treat our will as a finite resource to be used well, like money or time. And in so doing, we are able to achieve sweeping change when seen from the perspective of hindsight.
Choose one small change and make a place for it in your daily routine. The easiest way to do this is to select a time of the day where you already have a regular and predictable routine, such as a morning shower, lunchtime walk around the block, a short drive to pick up the kids from school, or evening toothbrushing. Attaching new habits to existing routines can make the routine easier to establish because it already has an established time and context. After a short while, when we go to brush our teeth, we will naturally flow into the habit that follows it.
Start very, very small—try to make the change so small as to be almost trivial. It needs to be productive enough that it feels real, but easy enough that it requires almost no effort to begin and to complete. Resist all impulses to complicate or challenge yourself. Challenging yourself is a great thing, but very often can lead to failure. See yourself as establishing a precedent rather than a new habit. Over time, you can develop and deepen the rhythm you have developed. In fact, making these small, incremental changes is critical to sustaining spiritual formation habits over time. But for now, set yourself a rhythm that you are sure you can easily repeat for the next three weeks.
Here are some examples:
- Bible study: put your Bible on the kitchen table where you eat breakfast. Leave it open to the last place you read. Commit to reading the Bible while eating breakfast (instead of surfing your smartphone or watching a show). When you’re done eating breakfast, you’re done reading the Bible. Before you set your dishes in the sink, take one phrase or idea with you and ruminate on it for as long as you can as you start your day.
- Prayer: choose a simple prayer routine that you can easily memorize, such as the classic A.C.T.S. format: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Pray one sentence each for these and then sweep your mind for anything else God has placed on your heart. Take with you that moment of connection with God, knowing he has heard you and that his presence and power go with you into whatever comes next in your day.
- Silence: after everyone else in your house is either getting ready for bed or already asleep, go find a quiet room in the house and close the door. If you live in a noisy neighborhood or can’t escape the sound of music or other media, buy yourself a pair of inexpensive ear protection people use for target shooting. Bring a timer with you and set it for five minutes. Your thoughts will try to fill the silence; simply brush them away as they arise, attending to the sound and texture of the silence. When you are finished, take whatever sense of peace and inner quiet you gained and treasure it as a gift of God.
- Charity (love): choose one person in your world with whom you have a relationship and with whom you interact on a daily basis. In addition to whatever other interactions you have them every day, look for an opportunity to bless them with the love of God in one small, subtle way: give them a meaningful compliment, empathize with something they say by repeating it back in order to show that you are truly listening to them, reach out to them with meaningful physical touch appropriate to your relationship with them, write them something via text or email that will bless or encourage them.
- Fasting: skip a single meal like breakfast or lunch. As each signal of hunger comes from your body, let that be a prompt you to direct your attention to God. Re-assure yourself that another meal is coming soon. Listen to the rebellion of your body, how bossy and tricky it is, paying attention to the way it tries to manipulate you, reminding yourself that your life is sustained not merely by food but by that which comes from the hand of God.
- Vital exercise: immediately before breakfast, make a part of your food preparation a short set of strength-training exercises focusing on major muscle groups like pushups or squats. Complete a set of ten and then go about the rest of your normal morning routine. Even a short set of exercise repeated daily can have a big impact and positive long term effects on your stress, overall strength and health, and your energy throughout the day.
Give yourself at least three weeks of repetition for the habit to become “the new normal”, and then evaluate the impact and value of the change. If it is worthwhile and you have seen positive benefits from it, ruminate on that fact. If you are in the habit of keeping a spiritual formation journal, be sure to reflect on its effects and any factors that have caused you to falter in your commitment. Tell yourself and friends about the truth of the change’s benefits in order to further establish it as a part of your life.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” says Jesus in Matthew 11:29. True, it is surrounded by a firm call to self-denial and to follow him onto a road that does not appear easy. Remember that Jesus does not expect super-human effort from us, because he knows that his is the strength by which lasting change takes place. Ours is to recognize our weakness and to offer what little strength we have. And as we do so, we will see him multiply our small effort as he did with the loaves and the fish.
What are some ways you have established lasting change by starting small?