I have books on my shelf about spiritual disciplines: Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney, A Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard, and more. They’re good and worth reading.
But I also own books about habits, including A Habit Called Faith by Jen Pollock Michel, Habits of Grace by David Mathis, and Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck. I’ve even written a couple: How to Grow and 8 Habits for Growth.
To be sure, there’s overlap between the terms “spiritual disciplines” and “habits.” Both are valuable. In fact, both categories of books sometimes use the terms interchangeably.
But I prefer to talk about habits for three reasons:
- The helpfulness of habit theory
- The importance of subversive habits
- How habits make disciplines easier
The Helpfulness of Habit Theory
New books and research on habits point to the helpfulness of habit theory.
I remember reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg on a beach in Florida. His book seems familiar now, but it seemed revolutionary to me back then. Since then, other books have followed: Atomic Habits by James Clear, Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin, Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood, and How to Change by Katy Milkman. All of these books offer insight on how to form habits by helping us understand human behavior and how to form the automatic, repeated behaviors that help us grow.
Although these books aren’t written from a Christian perspective, we can apply them to the practice of spiritual disciplines. Habit theory is a useful addition to the discussion of spiritual disciplines.
The Importance of Subversive Habits
Using habits as a framework points us to the importance of subversive habits. Trevin Wax explains the idea:
Understanding “subversive habits” starts with the recognition that we are habitual people. Every day, we engage in habits and practices that either increase or decrease the position of the Scriptural Story in our hearts. So, here is the question we must ask: What practices or habits would have the effect of lifting up the Scriptural Story while also demoting lesser stories?
According to Wax, we need more than a general list of spiritual disciplines or habits. We need subversive habits that counter the habits that are already forming us.
Using habit language helps us to recognize some of the habits that already exist in our life that draw us away from Christ, and then to think about the habits we need to counter them.
Habits Make Disciplines Easier
When I think of spiritual disciplines, I picture someone who’s highly motivated and disciplined, overcoming obstacles and exerting a lot of effort. It sounds valuable, but also heady and exhausting and a little out of reach.
To be sure, we need to do hard things. But the way to do hard things is, ironically, to find easy ways to build them into our lives.
Habits are hard to begin, but once in place they run almost effortlessly. “Habits are the behaviors and routines we’ve repeated, consciously or subconsciously, so many times that they’ve become automatic,” writes Katy Milkman. Habits make hard behaviors ordinary.
I get tired when I think of keeping all kinds of spiritual disciplines; I feel a little more reassured when I think of building tiny, consistent habits that help me build the spiritual disciplines we need.
Talking about spiritual disciplines is fine, but I believe there’s value in also talking about habits. Whatever we call them, we need to build them in ourselves, and to help others develop them too.
If you’re interested in learning more about habits and the Christian life, you can preorder my new book 8 Habits for Growth. I’m exited about it. It releases on August 3. I’ll be announcing preorder bonuses soon.