In my previous post, I praised James Clear’s Atomic Habits for providing simple, practical tools for struggling people to build good habits and break bad ones. In this post, I want to think about habits through a Christian lens with the help of another book: The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Earley.
The book is structured around eight habits, chosen to shape us in love for God and neighbor. Together, these habits form what Earley calls “the Common Rule” — named because it is intended for common (that is, communal) practice by common people. Earley is clear that these are not legalistic rules. Christians may adopt whichever practices they find helpful, modify them as they see fit, or not implement them at all and still lead fruitful, faithful lives.
The eight habits may be seen below:
Rather then explaining each habit, I wanted to share 3 broad takeaways from The Common Rule, which I think pair nicely with what we learned from Atomic Habits.
#1: Habits Form Our Hearts
Earley emphasizes the non-neutrality of our habits. That is, these repeating actions shape us into the people we become — either into the image of our Savior or according to the values of our culture and its idols.
Earley captures this dynamic with the word “liturgy”. Liturgy may call to mind images of stuffy, archaic church services, but he defines it to simply mean: “a pattern of words or actions repeated regularly as a way of worship.”
Notice the similarity between how Earley defines liturgy and how we’ve previously defined habits: a behavior that occurs regularly — and in many cases automatically. One way to think of liturgy is habits with the added element of worship.
For example, the consistent practice (or liturgy) of kneeling prayer throughout the day can shape our hearts in humble dependence on the Lord. To use a negative example, obsessive checking of social media is a “liturgy” which forms our hearts to increasingly idolize praise and acceptance from others.
If we want treasure God and love neighbor, we should formalize these convictions into the rhythms of daily life. Otherwise worldly “liturgies” of technology, busyness, and entertainment will gladly fill the voids in our hearts and schedules.
#2: Habits Give Structure for Love to Grow
Many Christians are familiar with the trellis and the vine metaphor in reference to the church. The idea is that healthy church organization (the trellis) allows for the growth of genuine fellowship and relationships (the vine). Without structure, there is disorder and decay instead of flourishing.
Earley picks up this same metaphor but makes our habits the trellis on which the vine of love grows (hence the cover image of a vine growing on a calendar). He writes:
“Anyone who stops to think about it comes to the same realization — humans are largely defined by the small routines that make up our days and weeks…Habits are how we stand up and get our hands on time…Only when your habits are constructed to match your worldview do you become someone who doesn’t just know about God and neighbor but someone who actually loves God and neighbor”
Earley’s chapter on “One Hour of Conversation with a Friend” exemplifies how habits help us grab a hold of time to love others. Drawing from his own experience, Earley paints a warm, compelling portrait of Christian friendship. He shares moving stories of being vulnerable and yet fully loved; of welcoming outsiders into the circle of friendship, just as God has welcomed us.
We all long for friendships like these. Earley uses these stories to encourage us to adopt a habit of talking with a friend for at least one hour per week. At first glance, the habit seems far less exciting than the examples of friendship he shares. And, if adopted, I’m sure many of these weekly conversations will be ordinary and uneventful. But Earley argues that consistent time is an essential ingredient to genuine, life-giving friendship. He writes:
“The vulnerable friendships that embody the gospel don’t happen because we wish we had them; they happen because they’re cultivated over time. They grow because we arrange the trellis of habit that allows them to flourish… The world would have us cultivate something else. The usual life in America leans toward busying yourself with things that seem urgent, but friendships will never seem urgent. The most important things never are until it’s too late.
Habits can be boring, but they force us to practice consistency and perseverance even when we feel unmotivated. Over time, they provide the structure for love to grow.
#3: Habits Help Us Fall into Grace
I’ve written often about how one bad habit can set off a spiral of poor choices that is difficult to escape once we’re caught in it. Our willpower and motivation are weakest when we’re sliding into well-worn patterns of habitual sin. Our vices beckon us: “you’ve already started down this road, might as well keep going. What’s the point in fighting?”
This is why building habits centered around the means of grace is so vital: not so we can win God’s favor, but precisely because we will fall short again and again. Good habits can counterbalance and stop the momentum of our vices.
How? When we find ourselves sliding down the slope of destructive habits, we will feel the pull of habit in another direction — back towards God in faith. The pull may be faint compared to temptation, but it can be enough to take a small step in the right direction — to close that tab and put down our phones; to whisper a prayer or reach out to a friend instead. That small step is often all it takes to regain our senses and break out of a bad habit cycle.
Earley recounts an instance when, after a series of failures, he decides to vent his frustration by scrolling through social media on his phone. That might sound innocent enough, but we know how easily that can lead to hours of lost time or irritability towards loved ones.
Before he can indulge, however, he feels the pull (much to his chagrin) of a familiar Common Rule habit: Scripture before phone. With a sigh, he opens up his Bible App intending to speed read through a Psalm. He then writes:
Then it was as if someone had laid out a trip wire. I was running full speed through this psalm when I was suddenly cut off at the knees and went sprawling face first onto this line: “One thing I will seek after, to behold the beauty of the Lord”…I stopped. I read it again. Then I read it ten more times…Sin means that my heart curves inward, but the words of Scripture had cracked me open. And these pesky habits had set it all in motion…When we trip on failure, do we fall into ourselves? Or do we fall into grace?
Habits can halt the momentum of bad habits, by bringing us back to the the means of grace. And the means of grace bring us back to the God who is abundantly and overwhelmingly gracious.
Until next time!