THE HABIT WORTH HAVING
It’s time to get practical about how to get proper nourishment from God’s Word in our busy lives. If you are a believer, you know this habit of grace promises great rewards over a lifetime. It’s like the compound interest you will earn over a lifetime from saving a small amount of money every month over many decades. The investment is small compared to the longterm rewards, but we need to be intentional about practising this habit of grace. Here are useful tips that I’d like to share with you:
- EXPLORE BIBLE DEVOTION APP: This is by far the best tool I’ve found in recent years for the purpose of personal study of every book of the Bible. It’s an Application for cellphones and ipads developed by the Good book company, endorsed by The Gospel Coalition. You will recognise familiar names like Timothy Keller, Kevin de Young and John Piper as contributors. Each study is practical and user friendly, but not dumbed down, and that’s why I love it. You download it free on the App store or Google Play, then buy individual studies for a small cost which take you on a day- by -day journey through entire books of the Bible, doing a chunk at a time. Each one takes 15-20 minutes at the most and there are questions and concise commentaries to guide you through the text. It’s perfect for using in the car (as long as the driver isn’t reading!) and it doubles up as a family devotion and a useful tool for preparing Bible studies if you’re a Bible teacher. The beauty of this app is that you don’t need to carry a heavy Bible with you, as the daily text is on the device, and you don’t use data once it’s downloaded. Questions always relate back to the text, and the writer does not ask you stupid questions or ask you to guess anything! It does not explicitly follow ROMA (Read, Observe, Meditate and Apply), but you’ll find all the steps there: Read, dig deeper, think, apply, pray. The commentator allows you to answer his questions before he tells you what to think, allowing you to discover Scripture by yourself. All the commentators are Gospel centred and respect the text. I love that you can see up front how long it will take you to read through a particular book of the Bible and then decide which one works for you. The daily portions are the perfect length- not too long, not too short- for use by ordinary 21st century Christians. I use the Explore app myself, alongside a journal where I jot down my thoughts and discoveries. In the 15 minute car trip to school in the mornings, my daughters and I are able to complete a study together. This app is perfect for using in the office at lunch time, on holiday or wherever you find yourself. We need flexibility in practicing habits of grace and the Explore app gives flexibility without compromising depth.
- JOURNALLING: Journaling has been shown by research to reduce scatter in our lives, increase focus, create greater emotional stability, hold thoughts still so they can be integrated into our lives, enable us to detach and let go of the past, to forgive, to increase gratitude…the list of benefits goes on! This comes from secular sources. Christian journaling has deeper benefits for our soul as well. In your journals, you are reasoning and preaching to yourself, reminding yourself of truths that are easily forgotten in the mayhem of life. Through our ink scrawls on paper, we are pouring concrete into our heart to reinforce the truth, especially when we are surrounded by wobbly sinking sand. We are capturing in our own words what we truly think and want to hold onto, as well as what the Lord has uniquely shown us. A Bible Journal is the faithful record keeper and guard dog of our walk with God. I keep my journaling simple:
- Bullet points instead of full sentences.
- If I miss a day, I don’t try catch up, just move on the next day.
- I try to give a date and title to each day’s message after I’ve finished.
- My entries are honest and full of questions, some unanswered. My writing is a scrawl, just between me and God and not designed to be a masterpiece.
- I keep an authentic record of my prayers, my desperate pleas and those moments of clarity where the lights have suddenly been turned on in my heart. I’m amazed to look back and see how God has worked for good the many desperate experiences I’ve recorded in my journals.
- I try to keep the purpose of Journaling in my mind: to train, practice and immerse myself in the things of God so that my thinking is renewed. I see it as soul gym!
- I prefer using an unlined sketchbook so I can scrawl, paste and draw freely.
- Caroline Leaf (author of Switch On Your Brain) says this: “Frame your world with your words.” That’s what you’re doing when you journal.
- READ FOR BREADTH AND DEPTH.
I have focussed on reading for depth, but it is also good to read for breadth so you know how the pieces of the Bible fit together and get a wide sweep of Scripture. The 66 books of the Bible, written over 1500 years by over forty authors who were inspired to write by the Holy Spirit, are bound together by threads of synergy and unity that become visible when digested as a whole. However, if you are anything like me, you may battle to read through the “Bible in One Year” programme. My attempts have always aborted because I run out of time; get stuck on a section, and my mind can’t jump from one book to another in a single sitting. I’ve opted instead for CD’s or apps where the Bible is read aloud to me while driving in the car or going about my everyday business. At the moment I am loving a reading by Eugene Peterson, from The Message paraphrase of the Bible. The language is fresh and easy to understand. The You version Bible app on cellphones has the option of a read aloud version which is a wonderful way of listening to Scripture while on the treadmill of life (metaphorical or literal)!
- DON’T READ A SINGLE VERSE AT A TIME. ALWAYS A PARAGRAPH or PORTION AS PART OF A WHOLE BOOK.
It is good and right to treasure certain key verses of the Bible, meditating and memorising them. That’s part of hiding God’s word in our hearts. But, if we never get into a Bible reading plan and instead treat the Bible as a promise box to bolster our self esteem or give us the magic bullet we need to get us through the day, we will often veer towards our own hobbyhorses and cherry pick verses, instead of listening to the whole counsel of God.
It’s like grabbing a doughnut instead of eating breakfast.
This can lead us (even unintentionally) to twist Scripture and make it say what we want it to say. Context is vital to becoming a conjunctive thinker rather than a disjunctive thinker. Let me explain conjunctive thinking: The Bible is full of paradoxes—both… and—not either… or. Two sides of the same coin are equally true. For example, reading Romans 8:28 without verse 29 loses Paul’s true meaning in the text, which is that God works all things for good for those called according to his purpose. His purpose according to verse 29 is so that we may become more like Jesus. Both are true at the same time. Reading the two verses together counters the simplistic belief that our faith dictates whether we prosper or suffer in this life. It also resists the health and prosperity worldview which implies we can use Jesus to get what we want.
To extract a single verse or phrase out of its proper context will deprive us of the full nourishment of Biblical truth. It’s like serving yourself dessert but leaving out the main course of meat, potatoes and vegetables.
It’s easy to distort the Gospel of Christ if we only read about the love and mercy of God without also reading about his holiness, anger against sin and judgment. Reading Proverbs alone may give us a worldview that life is a simple matter of cause and effect, ie, if you live wisely, you will always have a blessed, happy life and things will go well with you. But when you visit the theatre of Ecclesiastes and Job, the curtains will open to another, equally true scene– which is the reality of undeserved suffering, unfairness, randomness and futility in this world. Only when we read all three books of wisdom literature in the Bible, will we begin to fathom how wise it is to “fear the Lord and obey his commands” in a world which is largely uncontrollable. Since each chapter and book of the Bible shows us a different angle of truth, it is wise not to carve it up into such small pieces that we only ever see a single facet. That is why I recommend reading through whole books of the Bible with the Explore Bible Devotion app. Eventually you will get through every book of the Bible, but it will be in bitesize portions that an ordinary Christian can manage with the help of the Holy Spirit.
- BUILD A HABIT (SET A TIME, PLACE, PLAN) BUT BE FLEXIBLE TOO!
A habit takes around 60 days to build, but it’s worth it. Having a personal devotion is a habit of grace first and foremost, not a way to earn brownie points with God, but it is also a habit built out of discipline, perseverance and self control. This is a good example of conjunctive thinking, as God’s grace and our effort work together in unison.
Running the race of faith to the finish line requires tenacity.
Paul urged Timothy, a younger Christian to “train himself for godliness.” (1 Timothy 4:7) Listen to the words he uses in verse 15, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.”
If you are a believer, you can be assured that the Holy Spirit is working on your behalf and God has plenty of grace available to you for your daily life. But you cannot turn on a switch and force this grace to flow through you. God has given us channels for his grace and one of them is reading his Word. When you position yourself in the flood of this grace, if you come to the living water, and let it wash over you day by day, month by month, year by year, you will experience certain benefits or byproducts over time that are worth more than anything this world can give you. But flexibility is key too. Life is unpredictable and takes some unusual twists and turns. Sometimes we find ourselves in the pressure cooker of life where we hardly come up for breath. God is with us wherever we are and we can meet with him in the car, on a run, in the bath, on holiday or anywhere else! The Explore Bible Devotion App gives you the flexibility to read God’s Word virtually anywhere. Take advantage of all media available to immerse yourself in the Bible, even if you’re unable to have your perfect “Quiet time” in your favourite spot.
“We need never shout across the spaces to an absent God. He is nearer than our own soul, closer than our most secret thoughts.” (A.W Tozer)
Our family has developed a “Blessing dinner” on a Saturday evening, where we take turns reading portions of Scripture around the dinner table and eat a meal that’s more special than usual. It’s nothing formal, but my husband, Pete, is the ‘leader’ and the passages are usually ones I’ve read during the week, which have spoken powerfully to me. I copy and paste them onto a sheet which each family member gets to keep. I suppose it’s just a symbolic way for us to invite Jesus to share our family meal and teach us in the common routine of our week. There may be many practical ways you can incorporate the Bible into your personal and family life if you think creatively and are flexible. With children, strike while the iron is hot!
Sometimes it is good to look ahead at the rewards, the “why” of something to encourage us to keep up a habit that requires some effort.
Strong roots produce fruits.
I’ve put them down as three S’s.
- Satisfies us.
- Solidifies us.
- Sanctifies us.
Isaiah 55 asks us: “Why spend money on what is not bread and your labour on what does not satisfy?” The truth is that we are made for a purpose. That purpose is to know God, to love God and be like God. The Westminster Confession says that the chief end of man is to love God and enjoy Him forever. One of my favourite chapters in the Bible is Revelation 21 where John sees a vision of the new heavens and new earth at the end of time. Savour the words in verse 3:
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3)
That’s why nothing in this world will ultimately satisfy us. God has set eternity in our hearts. But how do we know God? Surely a finite mortal person cannot know the infinite God who made the universe? Yet, John’s Gospel begins like this:
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. …Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men…v14 The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… v18. No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (John 1)
The “Word” here is Jesus. Jesus has made God known to us. He embodies grace and truth. We know we can’t meet with Jesus physically anymore as the disciples could, because He’s at the Father’s side in heaven. But through the written word of God we come to know the Living Word who is Jesus. Jesus did not come just to reveal what God is like– he came to reveal God himself. He is the exact representation of the Father.
To see Jesus is to see God. To hear Jesus is to hear God.
The remarkable thing about the Bible is that through its pages, we come to know who God is, who we are, why our world is as it is, and we get a glimpse into God’s great redemptive plan throughout human history to make us right with Him.
Throughout the pages of the Bible we meet Jesus. When we listen to the Word with an open heart, we get to sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary did while her sister Martha was “distracted” by all her work in the kitchen. Martha tells Jesus to call her sister out for being lazy, but Jesus’ replies:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset by many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-41)
Jesus is not saying to Martha, “Become a nun and meditate all day in a cloister!” No, he is in effect saying, “Martha, don’t just focus on what you do! You will never do enough to gain eternal life. What matters for eternal life is not what you do, but who you know.” It’s a living relationship with Jesus which is “the one thing necessary.”
“The one thing necessary” is the root that produces the fruit. Don’t be obsessed by the fruit, but get yourself rooted and built up in Jesus!
DOING IS THE BYPRODUCT OF KNOWING AND BEING KNOWN BY JESUS. THE RELATIONSHIP IS THE MAIN THING. ACTS OF SERVICE FLOW OUT OF IT.
It’s our relationship with Jesus that will enable us to carry out what we need to do in this world and become the person God designed us to be. It struck me while I was reading the Gospel of Matthew that before Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to “go into all the earth and preach the Gospel, making disciples and teaching them all that I’ve commanded you,” he first instructed his disciples in chapter 11:
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
I have experienced first hand that I cannot go out to do anything worthwhile if I have not first come to sit at the feet of Jesus to learn from him. I don’t have anything useful to hand out if I’m not first filled up by the Bread of heaven.
When Jesus becomes our Lord and Master, he doesn’t give us a heavy load to carry—a bunch of rules and duties to perform for him. Jesus is not a slave driver like other masters. He wants us to learn from him, to be taught by him how to walk freely and lightly in this world, how not to be anxious and not try to carry more than today’s load. I don’t mean our walk is going to be easy. I just mean that Jesus teaches us what’s important and what isn’t, what’s real and fake, he teaches us to see through the thick fog of our busy lives and put first things first. He teaches us not to worry about tomorrow. He teaches us to let go of things that hinder us, past regrets, things that rule us, unmet needs, approval we never got, an identity or label that whittles away our confidence. He teaches us to surrender control of the uncontrollables. He invites us to come to him with all those burdens and worries that wear us down. He “sets us at liberty” just like he said he would when he stood up in the temple and read from the prophet Isaiah:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18)
Metaphorically, people eat breads of achievement, works, glory, approval, internet Likes and performance. We drink from the broken cisterns of work, family, education, leisure, pleasure and anxiety. But they leak, leaving our souls empty and thirsty– parched in fact. In contrast, Jesus himself is the Bread of life, which never runs out, like the 12 leftover baskets of bread. He is the Living water. He is the sustaining, cool stream that nourishes our roots and every branch of our lives if we are planted by the water. Only Jesus can quench the deep longings of our soul because we were made to find our joy in Him alone. The whole of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is about Jesus. Even David wrote in 1000BC:
“I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.” (Psalm 119:102-103).
If David could say this about the first 5 books of the Bible which is all he had, how much sweeter is our experience of the whole Bible, which includes the coming of the promised Messiah? God’s word satisfies us.
“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” (Hebrews 12:12-13).
There is only one way I know how to describe how God’s Word “solidifies” and that is through my personal story.
Last year I experienced what I call the ‘vapour’ state of life. Just as there are three states of water, I believe our lives can also metaphorically take on the form of solid, liquid or gas. When we are strong and bulletproof, we feel as solid as a rock. Nothing can stop us, nothing can shake our faith, nothing is beyond our reach. We are optimistic and hopeful about life. We laugh at the future.
Then there are times that we discover a wobble in our knees and feel more like liquid, not too constant and a bit turbulent. We waver between hope and doubt. Our faith is a bit shaky but still it flows freely through our veins. We wonder if we are bullet proof after all.
But then there are those moments (usually somewhere in the middle of life) when the penny finally drops and we realise we are not bulletproof at all. We know we are nothing more than vapour which is here now and gone tomorrow. It feels as if life is a smoke that you cannot grasp with your fingers. It is confusing, disorientating and uncontrollable. As the writer to the Hebrews says, your hands droop, your knees are weak and you feel lame.
Generally in my life, I have been a solid person. I think an objective assessment would say I’m organised, efficient, emotionally stable and positive about life. But in June 2017, after six months of health issues and chronic fatigue, a feather could have knocked me over and I was reduced to vapour. At the same time every afternoon a thick blanket of darkness would envelope me and threatened to suffocate me with despair and inexplicable weepiness. I could do nothing but close my curtains and lie in bed begging God to show me the light. I felt I did not want to live another day if this is what the rest of my life would be like. It took every ounce of my energy to get up in the evening and try to get supper together for my family. After a month of these horrendous afternoons, while I was begging the Lord once again to show me the light, Ephesians 6 came to my mind, a passage I had memorised as a child.
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
I suddenly realised I needed to fight this darkness, whatever it was, and take the offensive rather than just lie down like a victim. I knew I needed to wield the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, and pray in the Spirit, whatever that meant. I had never really practised spiritual warfare before but I knew my life depended upon it. I got out my Bible and literally scoured it for everything I had ever read about taking courage in the face of fear, trusting the Lord with joy, waiting for his salvation, standing strong in the hope of deliverance, taking refuge in God, resisting the devil. I wrote verses and whole Psalms on recipe cards for the next few hours until I had an envelope full of them. I felt armed at last! The next day when I could feel the darkness sneaking up on me, I hauled out my cards, stood up and started reading them out aloud, praying them back to God, reminding him of his promises and holding Him to them. I was wrestling with God for his blessing as I believe Jacob did when his hip was dislocated as he slept next to the Jabbok river. It felt good to be fighting against the lies that were strangling me, using God’s Word to push back the darkness and resisting Satan’s accusations. An amazing thing happened after an hour of this struggle. Peace washed over me like a cool waterfall and it felt like the vapour transformed into a solid state again. I was literally solidified by the Word of God. It took less than a week of wielding the Sword of the Spirit in this way before the darkness finally left me and that blanket of despair has not returned.
“Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” (Jude 21)
We must fight to “keep ourselves” living in the paths of God’s blessing and “wait for his mercy.” The word of God, the Sword of the Spirit is our best weapon and tool to enable us to do this.
The truth is that we are all recovering addicts— addicts of sin. We are only in recovery because we have been born again and are now new creatures with a soft heart of flesh instead of stone.
But no one drifts towards holiness.
There is nothing passive about the Christian journey. Peter tells us to “make every effort to add to our faith “virtue, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection and love.” (2 Peter 1:5-9) Paul tells the Philippians to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling knowing that: “it is God who works in you both to will and work his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13). We are in a constant battle to resist our flesh, Satan and the world, the three great enemies of our soul.
The Bible is a “lamp to my feet and a light to my path”. It is God’s unchanging standard of what He loves and what He hates. If we come to the Word every day, in childlike dependence, you can be sure that it will hold up a mirror to our soul, showing us exactly what we are like. The Spirit of God searches our hearts as we read the God-breathed words of Scripture. Other people may easily be deceived by our outward show or giftedness, and we may be admired in the Church and committed to ministry. But the Bible exposes us and shatters our masks of wisdom, false humility, secret sins and fantasies, false worship, idols and pretence.
“So if you think you are standing firm, be careful lest you fall.” (1 Cor 10:1-12). Complacency is our greatest enemy.
Just like the Israelites, we have enormous blessings from God. Yet sexual sin, grumbling, ingratitude, bitterness, anger, resentment, vanity, disappointment, despair, our ego’s…are only a small step away. We need an attitude of constant childlike dependence on what God shows us in his Word, craving its pure spiritual milk, so that we may grow up in our faith.
“Like newborn babies crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2-4).
In his last intimate time with his disciples before he was arrested and crucified, Jesus prayed for them:
“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:15-17).
It is not an easy kind of life that we’ve been called to if we are followers of Christ. We are not citizens here and are living in hostile territory. My friends, without the truth washing over us every day we cannot hope to run our race or finish strong. We are going to get tangled up in snares unless we are sanctified by the truth daily. God’s Word is truth.
CONNECTING WITH GOD
You may be reading this blog today and thinking, “I’m a Christian but I don’t know Jesus in this intimate way. I read the Bible but I’m not moved or inspired by it anymore. In fact, I feel disengaged and distant from God.”
Or you may be thinking, “I’m not even sure God exists. I don’t know him and have no clue about the Bible.” If you identify with either of these, I’m so glad you’ve kept reading to the end. I have no power to speak into your heart. Only God can do that and I hope you kept reading because your heart was stirred by one of the Scriptures I quoted today, not by my inadequate words. God’s Word is powerful and doesn’t come back empty. I’m going to make one last appeal to you.
Use the Explore Bible Devotion app as a tool or just read through one of the four Gospels from beginning to end on your own. With the Explore App, you will be able to complete Matthew’s Gospel in 98 days if you follow the daily readings. That’s just over three months out of your entire life to discover who Jesus is and whether it’s worth building your life on Him! It’s hardly a big investment. Before you begin, pray truthfully to God in your own words and ask Him to show himself to you if He is real and speak to you in a way you cannot ignore if the Bible is truly his Word. Ask the real Jesus to meet you where you’re at and take the trouble to read each day’s passage without preconceived ideas. Take a small step of faith and approach this assignment with fresh eyes, reading the text and answering the questions in the Explore App. Pray to God even if it’s to express your doubts and questions. Commit to doing it every day (as far as possible) until the end. After you have completed one of the Gospels, I’d love you to email me on:
Let me know what you think of what you’v! Two men discipled me when I was a child. One was my father in the first decade of my life and the other was a guest preacher at my school when I was eleven years old. These two people literally led me to the greatest treasure I could ever have discovered– a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. It was not just a gift for a lifetime but for all eternity. I would love to play some small role in doing the same for you if you have felt the Lord stirring your heart to reach out to Him.