This was originally posted on my church’s blog. You can see the original post here.
As the new year rolled around, I did as many of us do and reflected on my habits. While I’ve always been good at consistently spending time in the Word, I’ve always struggled with establishing new habits within that time. At different points I’ve journaled, worked on scripture memorization, or started prayer journals but none of these things had stuck. Going into 2021, I wanted to start new things and really build on the habit of reading I’ve already started. But as I looked back, I realized the same goals in the past had led to burnout and falling short.
I also had some resistance to creating a plan. There was this thought in the back of my mind that when it came to a devotional habit, I needed to be “led by the Spirit,” which meant creating a concrete structure would go against this spirit-led desire. It got me thinking, why did that structure or rhythm create so much tension internally? I look back as a child and remember how for years I created rhythms and patterns in everyday activities. At Crystal’s Pizza (RIP), I would get the same pizza, pile on the parmesan cheese (the only place I did this by the way), and play the same games. After school, I’d always go for the Cheez-its, Mountain Dew, and video games.
A lot of times we balk at structure and rules, but when it comes down to it, we all have some structure in our lives. Structure over time creates hard-worn paths and these hard-worn paths make life more automatic and less stressful. We need structure to help our minds relax into the task at hand. Research has shown our attention span is getting shorter, which means it’s more important to have structure because it allows us to follow through with our plan without thinking.
When it comes to reading scripture, my attitude of “free-forming it” or “spirit-led” devotional time has led to different patterns at different times, which made it easier to drop the habit all together. At times I’ve read, then practiced memorization, then journaled, then prayed. Because I started these disciplines coming off a season of more lax practices, it became overwhelming and hard to maintain.
That got me thinking: Intentional structure can help us in our devotional time with God. Let me walk through some structures you can create to help you create more consistent rhythms in your devotional time.
Pick a Scripture
This seems like the most important step, but the good news is that scripture is scripture; you can’t go wrong with picking passages. It is the most important in that it needs to happen for a devotional habit to develop. It can be the hardest step to starting because of the overwhelm of making the right choice and not knowing where to start. The overwhelm can result in freezing in your path. Other times you start, but jump between different ideas and never settle into something. This indecision can kill your momentum as well, because it makes it too easy to just give up again.
No matter what your devotional time as a whole looks like, it should always contain some scripture. Scripture should be the backbone of your time with God, even if it is just a few verses at a time. If you’re starting again after falling out of the habit, start small and read something you love. If you don’t have a good idea, find a reading plan on the Bible app or ask someone close to you to do a plan with you or to help you pick a passage. If all of that is too intimidating, start with the gospels, Psalms, or Proverbs.
Establish a Time
Things that we say we’ll do “when we have time” are things that never get done. If our devotional time is sometimes done first thing in the morning, then sometimes in the evening, then sometimes during lunch, the inconsistency will lead to forgetfulness. By establishing a time, we create a rhythm for ourselves which allows us to succeed in the long-term.
When establishing a time make sure it can be repeated consistently. If you plan on the morning but your morning is punctuated with too many snooze buttons and getting kids ready for school, this is not a consistent time. If you plan on doing it at lunch, but even once a week a meeting or work diversion would result in this time with God being pushed to the side, you’re bound to fail. If in the evening you get caught up in a show or fall asleep on the couch, your willpower reserves are too depleted to make evening devotion times a habit.
If I had to choose, I’d argue first thing in the morning is the best. It sets your mind on the right things but also provides for the most control over your schedule. No matter what time your “morning” is, you can set your alarm to allow for time with God. We are habitual creatures and will tend to do the same things every morning. I used to go to the bathroom, walk our dog, then sit down and do my devotional time. When we moved, my habit completely changed. I cut out the walking of the dog and just went straight to devotional time. That’s fine, but the routine is what helps you develop a habit.
Choose a Place
The place you have your devotional may seem inconsequential, but there is powerful psychology behind it. What do you think of when you’re in the kitchen? What about on the couch facing the TV? We associate places with our activities. We even associate the combination of time and places with activities. Certain restaurants are for lunch, others for dinner, others for both on the same day (no judging here). I would frequent Earl’s Rib Palace for lunch and then one time went for dinner. I immediately walked in and went straight to the cash register. Little did I know, at dinner instead of taking your order and seating yourself, they seat you as in a traditional dine-in restaurant. Boy did I feel goofy! I didn’t even see the sign asking us to wait to be seated… it was all background noise because I had my time and place for Earl’s and knew my rhythm when I got there.
It could be a room, a chair, or a “setup.” Maybe it’s the couch, but when you add a blanket and coffee, that equals time with God. These little environmental triggers result in an attitude change. Mentally routine and consistency signals to us that we’re safe and helps us focus on the task at hand. This may take some experimentation, but give yourself a week or two before you decide the spot isn’t good enough.
Schedule Out the Time
If you’ve picked your scripture, established a time, and chosen a place, you may think you’ve got it made. And you’re doing great! But once at that time and place with your scripture, it can be easy to let your mind wander. I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve had my 30 minutes in scripture turn into 40 minutes on my phone playing FreeCell and running 10 minutes late to work. Without knowing how your time is going to be spent, a slight distraction can turn into a derailing force to the devotional rhythm you want to create.
If you’ve not got a current rhythm, start with establishing two practices. It could be reading and prayer or reading and memorization or reading and journaling. While it may seem counterintuitive, establish yourself some time guideposts as well. Starting a habit or rhythm slowing will help you more firmly establish the habit, thus making it more likely to take hold. In “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, he uses the idea of habit stacking to take a small habit and expand it. The psychology behind this is when doing one or more actions in sequence, the actions trigger each other and require less thought or willpower to continue the next. This rhythm or stacking will allow the closing of the Bible to the opening of your prayer journal and the closing of your prayer journal will trigger a transition to your memorization routine.
While I’ve always done a good job of consistently being in the word, I’ve done a bad job of creating consistency in my rhythm. I started this year by attempting to reestablish place and scheduling my time. Every morning, I sit in the same chair and read the next section of my plan. The closing of my Bible triggers a time of prayer. Eventually, I’ll add more steps, but I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew. Eugene Peterson wrote a book by the title of “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” I first heard this phrase from Mark Stapp a few years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. Small growth consistently over a long period of time is better than the high of a new routine that wears you out after a month.
Join me in this. Let’s become people and a community that embody long obedience in the same direction. Let’s become people and a community who people look at and realize the more they know us, the more depth and Biblical truth they see revealed in us.