In January 2020, I participated in an adult Sunday school class on the transformative power of habits as informed by Justin Whitmel Earley’s book entitled The Common Rule. It’s a power you’ve probably heard about from one source or another, but Earley treats the subject well and from a Christian perspective; I recommend it to anyone who found their way to this blog. Inspired by the class, I decided to start practicing some of Earley’s habits shortly after its conclusion. I also got serious about a habit Earley didn’t discuss – scripture memorization.
I started my new habit by writing a few verses I already knew partway (from songs I’d sung in high school choir) on the backs of index cards. Before breakfast, as I ate lunch, and again before bed, I silently reviewed the Bible verse flashcards as if studying for an exam. Intermittently, when my mind was free to wander, I also played the ones I knew best on repeat in my mind, where they stuck like pop songs. With this frequent repetition strategy, memorizing a few sentences didn’t take very long. After three days, I needed more verses, so I picked out a few I found particularly poetic and wrote them on some more index cards. The same happened at the end of the week and the end of the following week.
Day in and day out, I reflected not only on the truth of God’s word but also on its beauty and relevance to my every day. When problems arose in my life, I called my verses to mind and felt security in God’s promises. Even when COVID-19 struck, I knew God was at work under all the frustration, grief, and chaos because He had given me His word: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV). In the early months of my new habit, I even recognized more opportunities to discuss the Gospel with my friends and family. Was this not the perfect result of having successfully established a good habit?
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me (Romans 7:21, NIV)
Unfortunately, as I learned more and more verses, I ignored several red flags that should have alerted me about the other half of what was going on in my heart. It wasn’t long before going over all my verses took 30-60 minutes a day, which I reflected on with pride. Once in a while, when I got lunch with a Christian friend, I’d hand her my flashcards and let her quiz me; nominally, it was because I needed practice, but the real reason was to show her how thick my stack of cards had become. I took them out of context and applied them in hurtful ways. To the depressed: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4, NIV). The more verses I knew, the less I meditated on each one and the more the habit became about continuing to inflate my verse count. What’s more, I expected others to know quotes I hadn’t known a few short months ago. When my pastor referenced John 3:16 in passing, I felt ashamed of my mother for not knowing it by heart. In short, I took on the worst tendencies of the Pharisees: longing to be seen as righteous, perverting the scriptures, and judging others hypocritically.
Mercifully, the good Lord put an end to my foolishness. When life began to get busy, I started skipping days, then weeks, and finally, shortly after the beginning of the fall semester, I stopped reviewing altogether. All the verses I’d memorized to inflate my count disappeared from my memory. A habit like scripture memorization can be done well, but, as it did in my case, it can get twisted into something wretched. No conversation on habits is complete without acknowledging this possibility. How can you and I make sure our other habits don’t go sour?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31, NIV)
Understanding habits as liturgies can help us see how they can go awry and how to keep them on the right track. A liturgy is a common practice or habit that people engage in as a form of worship. If you go to church, you’ve probably noticed that certain things happen roughly the same way week after week and year after year; singing together, confessing sins, and reciting the Lord’s prayer are examples of liturgies. Lent and Advent are liturgical seasons during which certain liturgies are performed on an annual cycle.
It’s relatively easy to see that church-related liturgies are acts of worship, but what about habits that don’t seem inherently religious, like working out or watching Netflix? To understand these habits as liturgies, we need a sufficiently broad definition of what a god is. In this context, Alexander MacLaren’s definition is appropriate: “Whatever we profess, that which we feel ourselves dependent on, that which we invest, erroneously or rightly, with supreme attributes of excellence, that which we aspire after as our highest good, that which shapes and orders the current of our lives, is our god” (MacLaren¹). Fitness, intelligence, comfort, pleasure, and control fit this definition for many modern people, and activities performed in pursuit of these “gods” for their own sake are rightly considered acts of worship. For Christians who are called to worship only capital-G God, they’re acts of idolatry.
In my case, what started as an effort to know God better through his word devolved into aspiring after a false god - self-improvement - through superficial scripture memorization. Rather than letting God’s word point me toward God, I turned the habit inward so that it became about me. This is a sin often associated with legalistic religious practice (Earley 166²), for which the Pharisees are infamous. Truly good habits continually point us back toward God and others with love.
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them (Matthew 18:20, NIV)
Months after the Sunday school class on habits, I read The Common Rule. One of the insights that surprised me most when reading was the value of practicing habits communally (hence Common). God created people so he could be with them and extend the mutually glorifying relationships found within the Trinity. By creating us in his image, God also made us for communities in which we exalt not ourselves but others through love and humble service. If I had consistently practiced scripture memorization with someone else so we could grow together, would the habit still have gone off the rails? I’ll never know for sure, but I think it’s a safe bet that a partner would have helped me see where I was going wrong sooner. Friends who humbly consult and correct each other follow in the example of the church’s first leaders and reap some of the same benefits they did: more creative and equitable decision-making, a better ability to remain focused on what’s important, and the simple comfort of companionship amid fears and failures.
These benefits are some of the reasons Simple Charity has college chapters rather than individual college heroes – we’re better together. Simple Charity’s mission is to help Christians practice solidarity with the global poor and thereby fight global poverty. Like scripture memorization, even this noble goal can get twisted around into something it shouldn’t be. Those who study and participate in poverty alleviation efforts are painfully aware of cases in which “white saviors” have imposed on the poor in what they think are helpful ways but which end up doing more harm than good. As Simple Charity’s founder Brian Grasso argues in Liturgies of Solidarity, however, these cases shouldn’t paralyze us into inaction. A humble and theologically-sound approach paired with consistently practiced liturgies can keep us oriented in the right direction: toward lives that honor God and love our global neighbors actively and effectively.
... for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again (Proverbs 24:16a, NIV)
One of Duke Simple Charity’s main liturgies is failing. Unintentionally, we practice it all the time. Inviting potential new members to join is a significant part of what we do, but the more people we ask, the more we get politely rejected or ignored. When fundraising, trying to inspire college students to give when they consider themselves poor is challenging, and our administration’s strict COVID-19 rules have made it hard to even get a fundraiser approved; sometimes we fail even to get the opportunity to fail. Of course, if our chapter could do more effective fundraising and outreach by simply working harder, we would. But when we do fail together, it humbles us and invites us to recall our dependence on God for every good thing. Our inevitable limitedness gives us opportunities to support one another as we seek a common goal, and it makes us much more grateful for all the small and large wins that God provides.
Failure isn’t a waste of time; one of my favorite insights from The Common Rule is that humans are more beautiful for having fallen and having been sanctified. Recognizing our failure to live up to God’s perfect standard is the first step toward redressing our wrongs and replacing old, bad habits with loving ones. It’s also what convicts us of our need for Christ and enables us to love and respect others as brothers and sisters despite their failures. For these reasons, I’m glad I started my habit of scripture memorization and I’m thankful I failed at it; both helped me grow in my understanding of God and his holy word. The latter also opened my eyes to the possibility that we may not fail enough. In a sense, I was lucky that my liturgy of self-aggrandizement was unusual and unpopular because there was no external pressure or expectation that I’d sustain it. Other habits of action and thought, however, pervade our culture; many of us unwittingly practice liturgies that are leading us away from God. Vain spending and vain saving, mindless media consumption, and ambitions for worldly glory are so popular that even when they leave us spiritually and emotionally bankrupt, we run back to them without realizing they contribute to the problems they pretend to help us solve. Turn instead to God, who already loves you and wants so much good for you.
I encourage you to try starting a new habit. One of the best ways to do this is by replacing a bad habit with a good one, for example replacing early morning phone checking with early morning scripture reading. If you can find someone to do it with you, even better. Starting a new habit can also look like joining or starting a club on your college campus or in your community. Whatever you do, sin will inevitably creep in and you will fail in ways large or small, but that failure will not render the habit worthless or a waste of time; instead, practicing liturgies that honor God will allow you to compose your days with beautiful and eternally significant acts of worship.
¹ MacLaren, Alexander. Expositions of Holy Scripture. Bible Hub, 2004, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/maclaren/micah/4.htm
² Earley, Justin Whitmel. The Common Rule. Intervarsity Press, 2019, p. 166.