This is from an article I wrote for CollegeUnion.org, a Community of United Methodists in campus ministry. I write articles (and here) for the Spiritual Formation section. Anyway…I wanted to include it here.
They say, “Old habits die hard.” Well, that may be true for your golf swing or biting your fingernails, but I haven’t found it to be true for spiritual habits. Perhaps I’m alone in my struggle, but I find that when I try to integrate a new spiritual discipline into my life, it becomes incredibly difficult for it to become a habit. Dictionary.com says that a habit is 1.) A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition or 2.) An established disposition of the mind or character. While the unconscious pattern of behavior may get us to pick up our Bibles every morning or get down on our knees, simply going through the motions of a spiritual discipline does not orient our inner heart and mind to think upon Christ. The second definition, however, “an established disposition of the mind” is appropriate for us as we think about forming new habits that shape us and make us more like Christ. It is these habits that are far from dying hard. They hardly live.
Why is it so difficult for spiritual disciplines to become habit? The main reason is probably because spiritual disciplines—the goal of which is positioning oneself to commune with God—is something that is completely unnatural to our “human nature.” It’s a good thing, then, that we are made in the image of God and as we spend more time with God, our “spiritual nature” is ever more recovered, rendering us more able to form those spiritual habits.
It is appropriate for us to think about establishing solid spiritual habits as we enter the new school year. A new schedule sometimes disrupts the habits that we’ve formed over the summer or previous semester. What was once non-negotiable in our spiritual lives now finds itself being squeezed in between classes or at the end of the day. However, this usually happens when we’re trying to take the sacrifice out of our spiritual disciplines. We’re happy to have “time with Jesus” when it pleases us and doesn’t require us to get up too early. But when that 8:00 class can’t be avoided and a “Quiet time” would require us to get up at 6:00…well, surely that’s not the discipline that Christ required! I mean, we can meet with him at any time of the day! And so what if we miss a day here or there. It can’t really have that much effect, can it?
Well, the important reality is that developing faithful spiritual habits make all the difference in the world. When I was in seminary, the Dean of the Chapel, JD Walt, preached at the beginning of the year about having what he called a “Prayer Mountain.” Drawing from the symbolism of Moses at Mount Sinai when Moses encountered the Lord in a powerful way, JD encouraged us to spend 1 hour a week, in addition to our regular daily quiet times, on a “Prayer Mountain.” The Prayer Mountain was a place that was set apart where we could expect to encounter God. A place that would become holy. JD shared with us the formula for why we were approaching the Prayer Mountain each week: “When alone with God meets God in community, power comes from you.” Clearly, the power is not for our own end, but it is a power that is manifested by God and for God’s glory.
That power is the same power that Moses experienced in his time on the mountain. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit and it is contagious. I’m reminded that when Moses came down from the mountain where he encountered God, his face glowed (Exodus 34). He had been in the presence of God and he began to take on the attributes of God. The Hebrew word for presence is peniel. It literally means “face.” To be in God’s presence is to see God’s face. Interesting then, when Moses’ face began to shine, be radiant, when he had seen the face of God. Hopefully we too, after spending time seeking God’s face, enjoying God’s presence, our faces will be radiant with the hope and the joy of obedience.
As I’ve practiced the spiritual habit of going to my Prayer Mountain, a little library chapel is turned into a holy place. In the daylight, the chapel looks dingy, dark, and even a little sad, with its water-stained limestone walls and old pews. However, through time, the lights inside remind me that Christ brought light into a dark world. The old prayer books remind me that many others have prayed the same prayers I have for many, many years. And even the newly acquired air-freshener to cover the dank smell becomes like incense, reminding me that my prayers are lifted to God. The habit is formed after weekly encounters with God in this place. It no longer becomes a thing of repetition, nor is it easily displaced. Rather, it is this spiritual habit that restores focus into my life and expectancy into my days. It is this habit that allows me to find the life that glorifies God, and allows God’s power to be contagious in my life. This transformative power of God can make my feeble attempts at developing habits that glorify God become habits that not only live, but bring life to me.
1. Just jump in! Schedule 1 hour that can be held sacred for you and block it out of your schedule.
2. Find a private place where you can go and pray without feeling self-conscious, in whatever way is most comfortable for you. This could be a campus prayer room, a place at a church, a study room in the library, the chapel at your university, or a room at your Wesley Foundation. Remember, this place will become sacred space.
3. Don’t have too much of an agenda during this time. Present yourself before God and be willing to pray about whatever God brings to your mind. It could be your normal prayer list, but God may want to communicate with you about something in particular.