I’m on sabbatical (translation: I’m resting),
so this is a pre-scheduled post for your encouragement, education and enjoyment!
I came across a GREAT post about personal discipline – in particular personal HABITS that I thought was worth passing along. We all have the struggle to keep our good habits going and kill our old ones. This post was all about creating new ones and keeping them alive (particularly scripture reading and prayer). So… here’s the 13 tips it gave… and if you want to read the entire article – you can do that HERE.
- Motivate yourself by preaching to yourself the gospel of grace. Why do you want to develop the habit in the first place? Are you just gritting your teeth and “doing the right thing”? Are you trying to conform to the expectations of others? Are you trying to make yourself closer to God through your efforts? I hope you agree, these are all terrible motivations. Instead, preach the gospel to yourself: remind yourself that you want to develop the habit because the Spirit of God is at work in you; the Spirit who has brought you as close to God as you could possibly be through his son Jesus and who has changed the entire orientation of your life, making you want to serve him and grow in your knowledge and service of him. Keep coming back to God’s grace over and over again.
- The ultimate goal in developing a particular habit is coming to the point where you love to do it. You know you’ve truly got a good, lasting habit when it’s an essential part of your life, and it feels right. In fact, you feel bad not doing it. This is even true of uninspiring things like brushing your teeth. When you don’t brush your teeth, you feel yuck all day. How much more should this be true of daily prayer, the amazing privilege of speaking to the creator of the universe?
- Realise, though, that the goal I mentioned in the previous point (to love what you’re doing) will probably take a very long time to develop. In the case of daily prayer, it will probably take months or years to even get a small way towards that goal, and will continue to be a struggle until Jesus returns.
- Don’t be a hero—you’ll only set yourself up for failure. If you’re not reading the Bible at all, for example, don’t jump in with a plan like, “I will read the Bible for an hour every day”. Sure, it sounds like a noble goal. But then, when you read the Bible for 30 minutes one day, you’ve failed. Instead of rejoicing in God’s word to you, you’ll just give yourself needlessly negative vibes because you don’t measure up to your own arbitrary standard. You won’t love what you’re doing if you feel like you’re failing all the time. It’ll feel like you have to climb a mountain every day. And you’ll end up fearing and hating it. You might recognise this scenario as the ‘New Year’s Resolution’ syndrome. Don’t fall into the trap.
- The flipside of the previous point is to start small. In fact, make deliberately small plans at the start. Set yourself the goal of reading the Bible for 5 minutes each day, for example. And each day, leave yourself wanting more. Leave yourself with the feeling, “I liked that, I want more”. Then, the next day, you’ll be motivated to do it again.
- Start now. Just do it. This is linked to the previous points. If you have a gigantic heroic plan, you won’t be motivated to start until the conditions are perfect. But if you plan to start small, you can start straight away.
- Think creatively about ways to fit your habits into your life circumstances. Think in terms of people, time and space. What are your relationships? What are your commitments? What’s your daily routine? What times of the day do you enjoy the most? Where do you enjoy to be? If you can, try to practice your habits in the times and places that you love to be, rather than in the downtimes or the uncomfortable places. Spiritual warfare is hard enough without making it harder on yourself.
- Learn from the habits of others, but don’t follow them slavishly. I was once inspired by a godly Christian father I knew who often urged us younger dads to lead regular times of family prayer and Bible reading ‘at the breakfast table’. I thought that was a great idea, except for the word ‘breakfast’. The thought of trying to do anything constructive with that bleary-eyed half-conscious Weetbix-encrusted crew that is our family at the breakfast table was not a happy one. There was no point following his advice to the letter (and he wasn’t expecting us to anyway). We had a go at doing it at the dinner table, which works far better for our family.
- When it comes to habits, simple regularity is much better than sporadic brilliance. Don’t expect your Bible reading to be constantly wonderful and filled with awe-inspiring insights. If you have a spectacular, life-changing quiet time one day and then don’t pick up the Bible for a month, you’re not going to get very far. It’s much better to have simple expectations, and to rejoice each time you open God’s word, even if you learned something that seems small and insignificant at the time.
- Make your habit-developing plans simple (e.g. “I’ll read the Bible for 10 minutes a day”), not complex (e.g. “I have a Microsoft spreadsheet setting out my Bible reading plan every day for the next 10 years”). Simple plans are more flexible than complex plans; they’re easy to adapt to changing circumstances. Life is full of unexpected events: we make plans, but God has his own ideas about how life is going to turn out (Prov 16:9). We have to deal with sickness and emergencies (in fact, when I first sat down to write this article, my wife called to say the car had broken down on the way to school and my plans went out the window!). If you have a complex plan, and then an unexpected interruption comes which throws it all into disarray, you might be tempted to get frustrated or angry or just to give up. If you have a simple plan, you can adapt it.
- Develop the super-habit of regularly reviewing your habits! This is especially important because your circumstances will change over the course of your life. Since habits are integrated with your life circumstances, whenever there’s a change in your life circumstances, your habits will suffer. That’s normal. Sometimes you might have to go back to square one and completely reassess your habits. When we had very young children, we found that our daily ‘routine’ was changing every few weeks, as the kids’ sleeping and feeding patterns changed. When this happens, don’t (as I sometimes did) use it as an excuse to give up on your habits. Rather, adapt your expectations to your circumstances. Then start again. And when you do start again, start small, and don’t be a hero (see above).
- Use the relatively good or easy times in your life to work hard at developing your habits. When the hard times come, and/or when life changes, you’ll have spiritual resources to use.
- I said it at the start of the list, and I’ll say it again at the end: keep coming back to God’s grace.
Organizing your prayer priorities
For years, I struggled to find a way to include the many things I needed to pray for and about, into a system of some kind so that I wouldn’t overlook or forget them. I wanted to be diligent in my prayers for my family, friends, and church family, but felt that the great number of things I should be praying for was so overwhelming that I couldn’t get through it! It seemed like I’d never be able to consistently pray for all those needs! I tried to write out my requests on a “list” so that I could systematically go through them, but I never felt like I was being consistent to pray for ALL of them, or praying for the truly important things enough.
One year when I was attending a conference, I heard Dr. D.A. Carson (author and professor at Trinity Theological Seminary) speaking. In his message, he made a side comment about the way he went about organizing his prayer life. He had a very simple, easy-to-follow system that enabled him to regularly and consistently cycle through all of his prayer concerns. I began using his system, and found it very helpful. Over the years I have adapted it in a few significant ways. It has been a wondrous blessing to me. It’s no cure-all, but is is a very practical way to organize your many prayer requests into a system that works. I call it the 3 stack method – and here’s what I do initially to get it organized…
- STEP 1: I write a list of everything and everyone that I want to pray for on a regular basis.
- This is everything from my wife and children, to individuals in my church family, to ongoing personal needs, to my country and its leaders.
- I make a list of all those things so that I have a pretty full idea of the things I want to be praying for.
- STEP 2: I decide how often I want to and need to pray for each of those prayer concerns.
- Some people or things, like my wife and children, I want to pray for daily.
- Others, like specific families in my church, or temporary situations, I don’t feel a need to pray for as regularly – though I do want to be faithful to pray for them.
- Finally, there are issues or needs that are even lower on the priority scale than that. It’s not that these are unimportant or shouldn’t be prayed for, but that they are not AS important as some of the other things on my list.
- I assign one of 3 priorities to each of them: I’ve decided to call those 3 levels of priority “Daily”, “Weekly”, and “Rotation” requests.
- STEP 3: On index cards or note cards of some kind, I write each request, one to a card (you’ll understand why in a minute).
- Somewhere on the card, in large letters, I write it’s priority.
- Then I place each card in a stack with the other cards of the same priority.
- Here are some examples…
- STEP 4: Using paper clips, I fasten each stack together so they don’t go flying across the room if I drop them! So now I have 3 stacks of requests, each with a different priority assigned to them.
- HOW IT WORKS: Here’s where it gets really practical… and where you will begin to understand why I’m using paper clips!
- Every day when it comes time for me to pray, I pray for each request in the daily group, from front to back. When I finish praying for a request, it moves to the back of the stack. When I finish praying for the next one, it goes to the back of the stack, and so forth until the entire stack is finished. Then I reattach the paper clip.
- When I’m finished with the daily stack, I move on to the weekly stack and pray for an equal amount each day. (For example: If I have 21 cards in my weekly group, and if I have my prayer time 7 days a week, I’ll be praying for 3 per day. Again, as I finish each request, it goes to the back of the stack. When I’m finished with the weekly group, I reattach the paper clip. Since I moved the requests I prayed for today to the back of the stack, the first one on the stack will be where I start the next day.
- When I’m finished with the weekly stack, I’ll move on to the rotation stack. I don’t have a specified number that I pray for in this stack, just whatever I have time for. Again, as I finish each request, it goes to the back of the stack. When I’m finished, I reattach the paper clip to the stack of cards.
- Using this method, I simply start with the top card in each stack because I know that they are “next in line.”
- What happens if I run out of time or an emergency comes up? Even if I didn’t finish one of the stacks as planned, I just paper clip it where I left off, and pick up there the next day, resuming my normal routine. I never worry about “catching-up” if I have fallen behind for some reason. I just pick up where I left off.
- You should keep your 3 stacks in something where they won’t get lost or misplaced. You could use anything from a zip-lock baggie to a file folder, to a briefcase pocket. I have a zippered pocket folder where I keep mine. Just make sure you keep it in the same place all the time so that when it comes time for you to pray, you know where it is!
- ADDING/REMOVING ITEMS
- Any time a request is no longer relevant, you can simply remove that card from the stack and throw it away.
- For answered prayers – you could create a 4th stack of “Answered” requests that you could periodically look through in order to give additional praise to God for His answers! You could even put a card in any of your stacks that says, “Praise for answered prayer” to remind you to use that 4th stack!
- If the priority of one of you prayer items changes for some reason, you can reassign it to another category by making a new card for it.
- The most difficult part of this system is in handling new requests. If someone asks you to pray for them, you first have to remember to write down their request so you don’t forget. Once that is done, all you have to do is to make a card for their request, assign it a priority, and include it in the cards you already have in that stack.
- Sometimes you might be given a prayer card from a missionary family, or another ministry that contains its own list of specific requests. Or you might be part of a prayer chain or other distribution list where you receive lists of requests on a regular basis. You can make individual cards for every individual request if you’d like, but I don’t go to that trouble. I include those kinds of cards in my “rotation” pile. When I get to that card, I pray for as many of the individual requests on it as I can. If I don’t get all the way through, I leave it on the front of the stack and mark with a pencil next to the request where I should begin praying next time.
I’ve found this method to be a great help to me in organizing the many things that I need to pray for. It allows me to regularly and consistently be praying for the things that are important to me, or that are my responsibility to pray for as a father, husband, pastor, etc. Now, I can honestly say that I’ve been praying for people on a regular basis – and encourage them by telling them so!