Imagine an alien from outer space observing a man walking his dog. The dog leaves the house first followed by a rope attached to a man carrying a plastic bag. The dog leads the man down the road until it has found a suitable time and place to excrete its bio waste. The larger following creature immediately employs his storage device to collect the ejected matter and dutifully carries it along until the dog leads him home. Would not an alien assume that dogs ruled our planet?
Well, this is obviously a silly misunderstanding, but it does show how one can think about a situation from the perspective of actions rather than beliefs. Now, imagine an alien observing a Christian and a non-Christian side by side. What differences would the extraterrestrial record? Beyond the normal types of activities and social interactions, genuine Christians engage in certain activities that unbelievers do not. Let’s call these behaviors habits. In this series of articles, I’d like to consider six specific habits of a disciple: (1) Scripture reading, (2) prayer and fasting, (3) service, (4) fellowship, (5) evangelism, and (6) giving.
Before going on to think more about these habits, I want to focus on the word “disciple.” Jesus’ first followers thought of themselves as disciples. A disciple is someone who learns from a teacher and one who is a student or an apprentice. To be a disciple of Christ means you learn from him, adopt his views, and do what he says. By its very nature, a disciple does not believe he is above his master. In order to qualify as a disciple, you need humility in order to recognize that the rabbi knows better than you how to think and live. Notice the similarity between the words “disciple” and “discipline.” To be a disciple involves discipline or self-control. To be a disciple is much more than merely adopting a few disciplines or habits; it is all encompassing and extends to patterns of thought as well as lifestyle. However, in what follows, I want simply to focus on the sorts of external behaviors an outsider would observe.
1. Scripture reading
2. Prayer and fasting
3. Serving others
Examining these six habits of a disciple has benefited me greatly. I often find myself slipping backwards when it comes to one or more of them. It is all too easy to comfort myself with my lack of, say, evangelism by reminding myself that at least I’m attending fellowship regularly. Many times, we are our greatest enemy in our quest to authentically follow Christ. We psyche ourselves out from trying new things; we rationalize our current limitations; we blame others for our inadequacies. Some of us probably imagine that only super Christians like minsters, missionaries, or prophets need engage in all six of these habits. So long as we practice one or two of them, at least once in a while, we feel good about ourselves. However, this is like someone who thinks he can get by without ever eating vegetables. For a time, this person may be fine, but in the long run, he or she will suffer a bewildering array of medical problems from such an unbalanced diet. By making all six of these habits a normal part of your life, you will have a balanced spiritual lifestyle that will see you through times of uncertainty and crisis as well as prosperity and rejoicing.
Since we are all different, you will struggle with different habits than I will. You may find prayer easy but fellowship difficult because you are introverted, or you may think evangelism is exciting and fun whereas giving seems impossible because you struggle to pay the bills. Each of us will struggle in different areas, but that is no reason for any of us just to throw up our hands and say, “I’m done with this” and quit engaging in one of these areas. Now, I’m not saying we are all going to attain equal competency at each discipline either. Each of us has aptitudes and strengths that will enable us to go more deeply in one or another of them. This is a good thing, because the one who finds, say, Scripture reading easy can help those of us who struggle with motivation to read due to poor comprehension and retention. In this way, we can help each other—which is why fellowship is so important.
Every time I get in my car during the winter, I knock my shoes or boots against the car frame below the door as I enter the vehicle. I don’t think about it; I just do it. I suppose I picked up this habit from noticing that leaving snow caked on my shoes led to a wet, dirty floor mat. I don’t remember when I started doing it, but now I do it every time. This trivial example illustrates the power of habit. It is something you do automatically. You don’t have to psyche yourself up or set alarms to remember; you just do it.
Typically habits result from some kind of trigger or cue. In the example above, opening the car door and seeing the bottom of the car frame triggers me to kick the snow off my feet. This is a key for new habit formation. If you can attach these spiritual disciplines to cues that regularly occur in your life you will carry them out automatically, once you solidify that link. For example, many people find that the morning, right when they wake up, is the best time to read Scripture and pray. Another example might be linking receiving your paycheck to writing a check to give to a ministry. Many people associate a day with going to fellowship. Even if I’m out of town, I want to go to a Sunday service. I’m so habituated to Sunday morning worship that not going takes effort rather than the other way around.
You may say to yourself, “That sounds nice, but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Thankfully we are not dogs, and we are able to change and develop over the full course of our lives. In fact, it is far easier to take on a new good habit than it is to break an old bad one. Besides, we are not alone in this quest. God wants us to read His book, talk to Him, serve one another, spend time with the family, spread His message, and trust Him with our finances. He will help us through His powerful spirit as we endeavor to honor Him more consistently. So, I encourage you to take a moment right now and evaluate yourself. Be honest. How are you doing with these six habits? Mark next to each one: NW = needs work; OK = good, but not great; EX = excelling in this area.
__ Scripture reading
__ Prayer and fasting
__ Serving others
Stay tuned for future articles explaining each of these habits and giving helpful practical suggestions on improving them in your own life.