How confident are you that you’ll still be a Christian in ten years?
Ultimately and decisively, God is our only hope for persevering in the faith. He is the one who keeps us (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24; Jude 24).
Yet Christian perseverance is not passive. It is not something that happens outside of us and around us, but in us and through us.
God commands us, in reliance upon him, to participate in the process of our perseverance in the faith. We are not only promised that God keeps believers, but we’re also charged, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). What we do in perseverance is not ultimate, but it is essential.
Power of Habit
The word habit appears only once in the New Testament (ESV), and it speaks directly to perseverance (and from the book of Hebrews, which is very much about perseverance).
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)
In negative terms, we’re instructed not to develop the habit of neglecting to meet together with fellow lovers of Jesus. The positive implication, then, is that we should cultivate the habit of genuine Christian fellowship.
Perseverance is not mainly about unique one-off events and special mountaintop highs, but about daily and weekly routines of regular life — what we call “spiritual disciplines” or “habits of grace.”
Four Keys to Better Habits
Your perseverance, under God, is in your habits. Heaven and hell hangs on habits. Show me a man’s habits, and you’ll give me a glimpse into his very soul. The habits you develop and sustain today will affect whether you persevere till the end or make shipwreck of the faith.
Simply put, your habits are one of the most important things about you. So, here are four lessons that might help you get intentional, and become more effective, in cultivating life-giving habits for the Christian life.
1. Habits Free Our Focus
Habits free our focus from distractions so that we can give attention to what’s important, and be more fully aware in the moment, while continuing to carry out regular tasks and actions.
By forming good habits — for instance, by making a beeline to the Bible in the morning, by praying at meals and at regular points throughout the day, and by meeting together with the body of Christ — we position ourselves in the paths of God’s grace. Habits free us from being distracted by our own actions and techniques so our attention can focus on God.
In personal Bible meditation and prayer, for instance, good habits open up space for us to move beyond always asking how and when and where to do the main thing: hearing from Jesus in his book, getting to know and enjoy him, and speaking to the Father, through him, in prayer.
It is not the act itself of reading the Bible that warms our hearts and changes our lives, but seeing Jesus with the eyes of the heart. Habits make space for faith. “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Seeing Jesus glorifies our souls, and the soul that is being incrementally glorified is the soul that is persevering. Good habits help us look well, and keep looking.
2. Habits Protect What’s Most Important
Habits also keep us from having to make the “right decision” over and over again. The power of good habits, and the danger in bad habits, is they save us from regular reconsideration and the energy-tax of decision-making.
Deciding whether to go to God’s word first thing in the morning isn’t a productive or helpful decision to make every day. Whether to meet with fellow believers for corporate worship isn’t something to reconsider every Saturday night or Sunday morning. Or whether to be present at community group during the week. Make the decision, barring rare exceptions, to be there. Make the commitment. Form the habit, so that you’re not stuck asking the same questions over and over again.
Good habits protect what’s most important. They keep us on the track of perseverance even when we don’t feel like persevering. They help us access the channels of God’s ongoing grace in the times we need it most (often when we don’t feel like it), and so preserve and keep our souls. Good spiritual habits keep us in God’s word, and in prayer, and among God’s people, even as we ride the emotional ups and downs of life.
3. Habits Are Not One-Size-Fits-All
Perseverance in the Christian life is dynamic. It looks different based on your personal experience and wiring and proclivities, your season of life and era in history, and your current community.
It should be freeing to know that you’re not called to live someone else’s spiritual routines. You’re not called to persevere by precisely the same on-the-ground habits as your heroes. Habits are person-specific, and God gives us flexibility in how the timeless, unchanging principles of his means of grace intersect with our timely, changing, personalized habits in life.
One way to say it is we don’t have to wear Saul’s armor. Perhaps you know the story in 1 Samuel 17, when David stepped forward to fight Goliath.
Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine. (1 Samuel 17:38–40)
How will you fight the giant who wants to keep you from persevering in the faith? You don’t have to wear another man’s armor, but you do have to find your way to wield the weapon of the Spirit. “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
Perseverance happens “by the Spirit.” And he works by God’s word, the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). You must take up the sword and develop your tactics in fighting the battle of perseverance. But the key is not in whether you swing it like other men in your day, or like the Puritans, but who you fight for — better, who fights for you.
4. Habits Are Driven by Desire
Finally, this is what makes the science of habit such an asset to Christian perseverance: desire and reward drive our habits. We shouldn’t be surprised that God designed the universe this way. Habits are an earthly gift to open our mouths for tastes of heaven.
Helpful spiritual habits, and true Christian perseverance, are not driven by mere duty, but by joy. Hebrews 10:35 mentions “a great reward” that is coming to those who persevere. What is this reward? Verse 34 is the key: “you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property [literally, “your possessions,” plural], since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession [singular] and an abiding one.”
Those early Christians accepted the loss of their earthly possessions (plural) because they knew they had a better, and lasting, singular and heavenly possession.
The ultimate goal of cultivating holy habits is having Jesus, “possessing him” by faith, knowing and enjoying him. He is the great end of perseverance. He himself is the center and apex and essence of our great reward. What habits of grace do for our souls, and how habits of grace play an essential role in our perseverance in the faith, is turn our eyes away from the subject of our faith — ourselves and our part in persevering — to the object of our faith: Jesus.
Know and Enjoy Jesus
Habits of grace for hearing God’s voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and belonging to his body help us get our eyes off ourselves so that we might regularly taste “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). They help to make persevering in the faith not be about our technique and actions, but about knowing Jesus.
As Jesus prayed in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The great reward that drives our habits is knowing him. The great end of all our habits, and all our perseverance, is a person. So, day in and day out, we say, “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord” (Hosea 6:3).