Day 7 : Devotion Over Discipline
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE HABIT
I think the word devotion is often conflated with self-discipline. As if you grit your teeth and force yourself to read your bible every morning anything in your heart will change. When we talk about devotion, we mean it quite literally as it is defined - love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. You see, when you follow Christ, it's not because you follow certain rules, or don't cuss, or don't see certain movies, or dress a certain way. Following Christ is being in love with Christ. Feeding on the word of God becomes something we do naturally as a result of our affection for him. Much like how we will read about and study the things our significant other is interested in so that we might better understand them.
We are on lesson 7, are there any signs in your life that you’re a changed man or woman? We can’t answer that question for you, but perhaps we can tell you where to start:
“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” -Mark 1:35 (ESV)
One of my favorite things about Jesus is how he constantly demonstrates how the life of a someone after God's heart was meant to operate. Despite being God, we often find Jesus getting alone and praying. Ever thought about why Jesus would need to pray? He's God after all. Yet he did this time and time again throughout scripture. In fact, he made it a habit.
In the 1990's, studies on how habits formed became a popular interest for researchers at MIT. Several mice were put into a maze, one they had never seen before. During these initial runs, the cerebral cortex (the brains processor), showed high amounts of activity. Another section of the brain, the ganglia, remained mostly dormant in the first few runs. As the maze became more familiar, cerebral cortex activity decreased and ganglia activity increased. Researchers concluded from this study that the brain effectively offloads data to the ganglia when appropriate, making it run more efficiently. Further studies revealed this to also be true in humans. When a developing a habit, the brain activity changes from the energy-taxing cerebral cortex to the efficient, more instinctual processing that takes place in the ganglia. What's more, these habits are permanently encoded into our brains, waiting for the trigger to activate. 
Many of us unintentionally form such habits over several years. This could be something simple, checking emails regularly for example. This also takes place in a negative light, habits like excessive drinking, viewing pornography, and impulse gambling. Our focus should be on turning these bad habits into good ones. This is not to suggest we ought to rely solely on these things, leaving God out. It is to say that God designed our minds in such a way to work efficiently. We can take advantage of this intentional design by using it to serve Him through actions that promote our affection for Jesus. Unfortunately, more often than not, we find ourselves trapped in a pattern of bad habits that continually let us down. These habits, over time, can be replaced with the right ones:
FORMING THE GOOD HABITS
When I became serious about prayer, I began finding times in my daily routine where bad habits had developed. I noted the times when I was tempted the most, early in the morning and late at night. For years I sporadically prayed to God, begging for freedom from sexual sins like lust and self-gratification… and then I stayed up until 2 am playing video games and slept in until 11. It's a bit hard for The Holy Spirit to work under those circumstances. If you want freedom, you need to seek God consistently by doing more than just "making room" for Him in your life. The entire universe was created for one purpose - to glorify God in all his splendor and majesty. All of this is about Him, not about us.
Be careful here. I am not suggesting that doing routine religious activities such as a daily devotion will "fix" you. You and I were fixed by the cross of Christ alone. It is out of an overflow of our desire to know Christ more deeply that routine develops. The moment it becomes some forced religious act is the moment it becomes cold and dead. Routine looks different for everybody. One mentor wrote:
"Currently, my routine is quite simple. I go to bed at 10 pm, and wake up at 5 am. This includes the weekends. I spend the last 30 minutes before going to sleep and after waking up with God. This is His time that has been set apart for Him. It has become an essential and vital part of who I am now. I'm not always perfect, but the habit is there. Self-discipline of this magnitude takes a strong will and strong heart. I can testify that in the early stages it’s easy to give up on this. It is however absolutely vital to finding freedom from this struggle or any other forms of habitual sin for that matter. If regular prayer is neglected in your life, the road ahead will be a tough one..."
HOW TO FORM GOOD HABITS
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, do not confuse the following practical steps with somehow gritting your teeth through temptation, as if our acts alone will ever set us free. Freedom comes through one place alone - the cross of Christ. The bible tells us that even the faith we have to believe in Jesus comes from God, so you and I are in quite a desperate place if we feel that self-discipline will bring us freedom. It won't. Out of the overflow of our gospel-filled hearts do the right actions begin to form. This is called progressive sanctification.
- Reconsider Late Nights
Late nights often correlate with being tempted. Even if temptation isn't always there, it throws our entire next day off. Lack of sleep means lack of focus and we become easy targets for the enemy to tempt us. We are thrown off balance and become easy prey:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. -1 Peter 5:8 (NIV)
- Consider Becoming an Early Bird
Find a way to get up earlier in the morning, preferably before the break of dawn. “But I’m not a morning person” you say. Become a morning person. Routine is a powerful thing. For the next few days at least, try forcing yourself to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier. We'll make every excuse to horde that time for ourselves, but ask yourself, are the things keeping me up worth the cost?
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise. -Psalm 119:148 (ESV)
- Don’t give up
The first time you try to model Christ’s example of morning prayer/devotion, you may fail often. I've always been a person who was used to staying up every night until midnight at the earliest. This started when I was in high school and continued throughout college. I slept in until the last minute and rushed, often in panic, to leave for work on time. This isn't conducive to the working out of our salvation. It will take time to change, but press on and do not give up. Like many things, perseverance is the key to success.
I once heard a story about Billy Graham. When he had guests over and it started to get late he'd stand up and say something along the lines of, “Thank you all for coming, it has been an honor having you but I have my most important appointment early tomorrow morning.” Then he went to bed, and he did this every day because the most important appointment for all of us takes place in that quiet moments we lay our entire lives before the Lord.
Day 7 Application
What are your thoughts on studying the bible? Is it a priority in your life?
Do you see the importance of studying the word of God? Will you commit to developing a daily habit of doing so?
Have you spent time in prayer today? If not, take this opportunity to write a prayer to God below.
Since the last lesson, how have you been with maintaining your sexual purity?