Bible Reading Resolutions That Stick

How to Form Lasting Habits in the New Year

‘Tis the season to make resolutions! Many of the people you lead are using the turn of the new year as motivation to kick a bad habit or start a good one. For some, the new habit might be Bible reading (and if they don’t come up with that on their own, they might be receptive to the suggestion).

Of course, many New Year’s resolutions are quickly scuttled. Stationary bikes become hangers for clothing. Health food piles up in the cupboard. How can we make a new habit of Bible reading stick?

From the fields of brain research, psychology and even advertising, we can gain some pointers. Habits start out as decisions, but they eventually become automated. In January, the resolution-makers will be deciding, day after day, to read the Bible, but at some point that decision moves to a different part of the brain. It becomes automatic.

New research shows that habits form, on average, 66 days after the process begins (not 21 days, as some have been saying for decades). It can take as long as eight months, and some psychologists and coaches are building habit-forming programs to last 90 days.

What does that mean for you and the people you lead? You need to set realistic expectations for them. Don’t promise that three weeks of discipline will create a life-long habit. Three months is more like it. However, researchers have also found that an occasional lapse will not derail the process. If someone forgets to read the Bible on January 4th, it’s okay to resume on the 5th.

The key elements of habit-forming are cue, routine and reward. Let’s consider these in reverse order.

What’s the reward of Bible reading? We often assume this goes without saying, but maybe we need to say it. Do we read the Bible because we’re supposed to, because that’s what “good Christians” do? That may be exactly what’s motivating many of the resolution-makers. “I want to be a better Christian this year!” Not a bad idea, but not the best reward. The Bible brings us many blessings, and they’re all wrapped up in our relationship with God. We meet God in Scripture. We hear the divine voice guiding us to follow Jesus. If we become “good Christians,” it’s because we’re regularly tuning in to the desires of Christ. It’s not to win praise for our own mastery of this spiritual discipline. The reward of daily Bible reading is quality time spent listening to the Lord we love.

That’s the picture on the refrigerator, the number on the scale, the longing of our hearts. That strong sense of the reward will help people make regular decisions to read Scripture—and it will become a habit as they attach it to their routines. But this will take some planning.

All the days in 2016 will have the same number of hours they had in 2015. (We will get an extra day, but that will be gone quickly.) Despite people’s best intentions, they won’t have any more time to do the good things they resolve. That means Bible reading will have to replace something else in the schedule. If a person wants to start reading the Bible 15 minutes a day, that quarter-hour needs to come from somewhere.

Sleep less? Work less? Skip a meal? Those tactics would be difficult, and perhaps unwise. But what about entertainment choices? Could time spent gazing at the TV or computer or phone be repurposed in order to connect with God? Or perhaps one could turn off talk radio on a daily commute and tune in to an audio Bible.

Then there’s the cue. What trigger will provide a reminder of the reward and spark the desire—and eventually the habit—of reading Scripture?

Some notable preachers have talked about “the chair”—that special place in your home where you do your Bible reading. That’s a kind of cue. But a cue could be nearly anything—a Bible placed on the kitchen counter, on a gym bag or on top of the TV. A Bible verse posted on a fridge, mirror or keychain. A daily email from a friend—or from a church. The cue is simply a behavioral or environmental reminder of the reward. It connects to a pre-existing routine that now has time carved out for Scripture.

Besides the cue-routine-reward cycle, it’s hard to overstate the importance of friends in habit formation. Encouragement is crucial, and so is accountability. How will anyone know whether I do my Bible reading today? Well, someone will ask me.

As a leader, you know the power of Bible engagement. You’ve seen God use the Scriptures to change lives. Chances are, you serve some people who would love to be Bible readers—but just haven’t gotten around to it. By sharing these principles of intentional habit-forming, you could turn vague wishes into transformative realities.

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