Have you ever heard of “the habits of grace”? What in the world does it mean to have grace habits? Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor at Books At a Glance, and that’s what we’re talking about today with David Mathis. David is executive editor at desiringGod.org and author of the new book, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. It’s really a surprisingly good book, and we’re glad to have him talking with us today about it. David, welcome, and thanks for talking to us today.
Thank you, Fred. Thank you for your interest in the book.
I love the title you gave your book – tell us what you mean by “habits of grace.” And how is your title significant?
The study of habits has been on the cutting edge of scientific study in the last generation. Popular versions of various habits research are appearing in recent years, and people are thinking a lot about habits. What are habits? One thing that habits do for us, and why God would create the human brain in this way to produce habits, is that habits save us effort and energy. They save us from making decisions over and over again that we really don’t need to make, and if we keep making those decisions over and over again, we’re probably going to make unwise decisions at times.
For instance, developing the habit to put on your seatbelt is something that is a good thing to develop as a habit, and not get in the car each time and think, “Now, should I put my seatbelt on this time?” Or the habit to stop at a red light. We don’t want to contemplate that decision every time, “Should I stop at this red light or not?” We want to develop the habit to stop. So habits can save your life quite literally.
Or, for instance, the habit to read your Bible in the morning. Is that a decision to make every morning, to stop and expend the mental energy that it takes to think, “Should I pay attention to God today, yes or no?” With something like corporate worship or prayer or Bible intake, we want to develop habits so that we do the important things, that we don’t expend additional energy making those decisions every day. Rather, we give that energy instead to the content of our Bible reading, or to the content of our corporate worship together.
That’s why habits are significant. They are something we’re going to develop naturally, and with a little intentional thought we can do well by them.
What I want to encourage Christians to do is develop good habits related to the so-called spiritual disciplines. “Spiritual disciplines” isn’t my favorite term. I much prefer the term “means of grace.” “Means of grace” is the old Puritan term in the Reformed tradition — God has given us various actions that we can take that are “means” or channels of the ongoing reception of his grace. At the end of the day, our souls are only warm and soft by his word, by his own doing through his Spirit. And yet he gives us means to avail ourselves of. “Habits of grace” is my term for the little practices, the rhythms, anchor points that we cultivate in our lives that give us regular access to God’s ongoing means of grace.
You could make a long list of spiritual disciplines for various means and habits of grace in their various forms, but I find that they really coalesce around three loci, or three hubs. And I was helped by theologian John Frame on this. He talks about the means of grace in three categories: the word of God, prayer, and fellowship. And so my book is structured in that way. First we talk about hearing God’s voice, that is accessing God’s revelation of himself in his word. Then we talk about having his ear in prayer, personal prayer and corporate prayer. And then we talk about fellowship in the local church, or belonging to his body and the life of Christian community.
“Spiritual Disciplines” can sound negative right off the bat – who likes discipline, after all? But I think perhaps the most striking thing about not just your title but the book itself is the happy perspective you have given to these practices by which we come increasingly to “enjoy Jesus.” Expand on this idea for us a bit.
The Christian has every reason to take a maximalist approach to our ongoing reception of God’s grace in our lives, rather than the minimalist approach of what minimal things do I have to do, what kind of practices do I need to have, to limp along in the Christian life? Personally I don’t love the term “spiritual discipline,” but it’s been bequeathed to us, we have it, it is what it is, it needed to be in the subtitle of the book to identify the genre for prospective readers, but I much prefer the term “means of grace.”
And I much prefer thinking like this: given what the Bible reveals to us is available to us — that the great good is relationship to God himself in the person of his God-man son, Jesus Christ — I want to emphasize what opportunities of grace, what opportunities joy, God lays before us in his written word in giving us clear means for accessing his ongoing grace so that we avail ourselves of those means.
Now I don’t find personally that pursuing the spiritual disciplines with the feel of discipline, with the feel of duty, is most helpful for doing the very thing that I’m trying to take up those means for. I want those means of grace to keep my heart soft, to keep my heart warm, to keep me treasuring and enjoying Jesus, and so the means should be commensurate with the end goal — which is a relationship with Jesus. As Paul would say, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
So there is value in the spiritual disciplines in terms of our growth or our increasing Christlikeness or whatever other effect there may be, but the surpassing value — and I really want to emphasize this — the surpassing value is knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. This is eternal life, Jesus says in John 17, that they would know you, Father, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord, Hosea 6:3 says. So the great and surpassing value is knowing Jesus. And I personally have been helped by putting that biblical truth in front of me related to the spiritual disciplines, or habits of grace, and I hope others will be helped as well.
So just to press the obvious, although this subject in one respect is entry-level Christianity, basic Christian devotion and living, these are practices we never grow out of — this is just as relevant to an old and very experienced Christian as it is to the newest believer.
That’s correct. I hope that new Christians or young Christians, especially in their 20s, college students and young adults who are in that trajectory-shaping season of life would be helped, but the essence of the spiritual disciplines is something that is important in every season of life, and all of us are needful at times of having a refresher. So I hope that even veteran Christians will be helped with the simplified methodology as a kind of refresher-course on the means of grace.
Okay, let’s talk some specifics. First, just highlight the value of Bible reading. I’ll ask you some specific “how to” questions next, but first – Why? Why, in what ways is Bible reading important for the believer?
The first thing I want to say about the importance of Bible reading is the Bible is so much more than any other book that human beings have. So if we’re going to view the Bible mainly in terms of the categories of ordinary books, as humans know books, that is really constraining and restrictive. We talk about the Bible as God’s word, God’s word, God’s word — and that’s true, but it can begin to feel impersonal — so I find the word “voice” to be very helpful. I want to hear the voice of the one who created me and redeemed me. I want to hear his voice, I want to saturate my life and the life of my family, and the life of my church, in the voice of God. I want to hear his self-revelation. And the place where God speaks is in his word, in the Bible, in the Scriptures.
And so this is the value of Bible reading, and then expanding that out immediately from reading to all sorts of different ways that we take the Bible in. Don Whitney talks about “Bible intake” — that’s his phrase. I love the phrase “Bible intake” because the way that we saturate our lives and our hearts in God’s voice is much more than just Bible reading. It’s taking in God’s word in the Bible in all sorts of various forms and life habits.
So the main thing to say about the value of Bible reading, the value of Bible intake is: this is the voice of my creator; this is the voice of my redeemer; if I’m going to be in a relationship with him I must listen to him. And it is an amazing thing that we have his voice for us in the Scriptures. There it is to be accessed at any time, and those of us in the West have it on our phones and on our shelves. It is amazing the kind of access that we have to the creators’ self -revelation of himself for us in the Scriptures. And so I want to avail myself of God’s voice throughout my day, and throughout my life.
And then in terms of some specific “how to’s,” I want to encourage people in this book to focus first on the principles, rather than just the practices. I don’t want you to wear Saul’s armor. I don’t want you to do it exactly like I do it. I don’t think I’ve figured it out, even for myself. At age 35, I have changed up my various practices and habits over time. My habits were different as a college student than as a single man with a job, and then as a married man, and then as a father of twin boys, and now as a father of three. My habits have iterated through various seasons of life. I don’t want to tell you all my habits and have you do my habits. Rather, I want to isolate the principle and then inspire you to cultivate and develop habits of grace in your particular life and context that will help you avail yourself of God’s grace in that timeless principle. The timeless principle is in relation to God’s word: Christians need to hear God’s voice in his word. And so Bible reading is a very typical way to think about that.
Perhaps you think about some kind of Bible reading plan. A lot of people do annual Bible reading plans. That’s not necessarily something I would put on every Christian. I do think for leaders in the church, for teachers, that to access the fullness of God’s written revelation over the course of a year or so is a really good thing to help bring balance and texture to our teaching. But I wouldn’t want to put it on every Christian that you need to be reading the Bible through every year. Although — note this — it only takes about 72 hours to read the Bible through, and the average American watches about that amount of television each month. So cut out your television for a month if you have to, and read the Bible through, and you’ll be all the better for it.
So Bible reading is an obvious way to access God’s word. Bible study, then, is when we slow down, ask questions, and then try to answer those questions — either by ourselves by positing answers to the questions we’re asking, or with help by referencing a commentary or another work, or talking to a friend. So study slows down the kind of real-time process of reading or hearing the Bible in its original speed. It slows it down, asks questions, pulls together connections and tries to learn more.
The next thing I want to highlight, which I think is the most underrated aspect of Bible intake, and perhaps the most underrated of all of the practices that relate to the spiritual disciplines, is with the Old Testament calls meditation. Meditating on the Scriptures. Not just reading it in real-time, not just pausing to ask questions and put together pieces in a very cerebral or rational way (study), but meditation focuses on the heart. On chewing the biblical text. On trying to apply it to the heart. On trying to feel the weight of it, lingering over some great truth in God’s word.
And this is all the more needed in our day than perhaps has ever been. We are not a meditative society. Life continues to move at a faster pace, we have access to more information than ever before, but rarely do we pause and let the information we have really sink in in terms of its weight, in terms of what our hearts should be feeling related to the information instead of just passing it through our minds. So meditation, Christian meditation — not Eastern meditation where you try to empty the mind to achieve a state of enlightenment — but Christian meditation is: fill your mind with God’s word in his book. Fill your mind and seek to apply it to your heart. Chew on it. Pause over it. Linger over it. Feel the weight of it, and let that change your life from the inside. Instead of circumventing the heart by receiving the Bible in the mind and then trying to apply it immediately to the external life, take it all the way in to the center of your person, all the way into the heart. Let it change you from the inside. Let your external life conform and express the kind of changes that you’re having internally in the heart through meditation.
The list goes on. The list is endless in terms of various practices of accessing God’s word.
Whether you are memorizing God’s word, which I would commend, or whether you listen to his word read aloud. I do this through a little app, by YouVersion, and I listen regularly to the ESV read in the mornings or when I am driving. Or you could listen to an audiobook by a faithful biblical teacher, someone teaching biblically faithful truth. That’s a mediated way in which you are hearing God’s voice indirectly through the teachings. And what you do on social media could potentially affect whether God’s voice is the voice you’re hearing. We are hearing voices all the time. In advertising, in conversations, in what we look at online, what kind of social media we use, what Twitter accounts we read, what Facebook posts we read, we are hearing voices all the time. And the question is will that be God’s voice mediated through people who are speaking in godly, Christ-honoring, biblically faithful ways, or will it be lies and error? And so who you listen to on social media can be a way in which you allow God’s voice into your life.
And then one I can’t go without mentioning is the preaching of God’s word in the context of the corporate gathering of God’s people. That is a significant moment where the preacher in fear and trembling stands in the shoes of God, so to speak, behind his word and seeks to re-reveal God’s truth to his people. I have a very high view of preaching and believe that’s a very important event in the life of the local church, and for each individual believer that’s a very important context, a very important reception of God’s word in the context of the local church with the corporate gathering assembled. Listening online is not the same thing as being part of a real-life people in person hearing the re-revealing of God’s word by a pastor who knows and loves those people. For those people that is a powerful reception of God’s word.
So I would encourage people to find your own habits, cultivate your habits, in the car, during errands, while you are exercising, what you do in the morning, what you do at night, the habits you cultivate to not just have an access point to God’s voice daily, but to see how you can multiply, how can you diversify the portfolio of God’s voice saturating your life through the Scriptures in the various media that we have access to.
I love your emphasis on hearing God’s voice in Scripture. That’s an important emphasis even in the Scriptures itself. One of the interesting things in the New Testament is when the New Testament writers will cite the Old Testament Scriptures often it will be with that introductory formula, “God says,” or “God is saying,” or “the Holy Spirit is saying to us,” and even one time it’s, “Jesus is speaking.” And that points up again why it’s so vital, not just for the new believer, but for every believer of any age.
Alright, let’s talk about prayer. You describe prayer as, simply, talking to God and as irreducibly personal and relational. But you also stress that prayer is a conversation that didn’t start with us. What do you mean by this? And how is that significant with regard to prayer?
As we just talked about God’s voice in his word in the Scriptures — I would call that the most basic and most fundamental of God’s means of grace. He is the creator, we are the creatures; he’s the one that initiates, he is original reality, we are derivative. And so the pattern is: he speaks first. He speaks first in his word. We hear his voice first. And then prayer is our response. In relationship with God we respond to him in prayer.
Something I’ve been guilty of in the vast majority of my Christian life is thinking that prayer works like this: “I’m going to dial up. Oh, it’s time to pray, let me pick up the phone and call on God. Let me get this prayer thing kicked off. Let me get the party started here with my words.” And that’s okay to dial up with prayer at times, but if we’re doing it biblically and relationally, what we are doing is on the basis of is our accumulated knowledge of God’s prior self-revelation at that point. And I think it’s all the better that we make that explicit, that God reveals himself first, not us.
So in my typical pattern of seeking to connect, commune, relate with God in the mornings and throughout the day, I’m typically going to begin by coming with a posture of reception. I want to hear from God. I want to open his word. I want to hear his word read or preached. I want to hear from God and then I respond back to him in prayer. And I want to let my prayerful response be led and guided by what I have just heard from him in his word. I don’t want to read a passage and think, “Oh, that’s very nice,” and close my Bible and push it off to the side and then just launch into my own prayer agenda — that would make it seem like I didn’t listen to anything God was saying. That’s not the way to proceed. I’m going to let my prayers be led and guided by what God has revealed himself in his word. So it’s very relational.
The means of grace, and the habits of grace we cultivate to access God’s means, are about communing with Jesus, enjoying him in a context of relationship. He speaks to us, he reveals himself to us in his word, we hear that word and then we respond back to him in conversation. We don’t just parrot his word back to him, but we don’t just launch off on our own topic that’s totally unrelated to how he’s speaking. So that has been a really helpful and important dynamic for me personally.
I see it throughout the Scriptures, and I was excited and helped to find Tim Keller’s book which came out in late 2014 and in which he talks about prayer in some very similar ways. That it’s responding to God. That it’s not the symmetrical relationship of “me and God, we are buddy buddies, and we’re going to shoot the breeze back and forth as old pals.” He’s is Father, I’m adopted child. He’s creator, I’m creature. There’s an asymmetry to it. And yet this is a relationship nonetheless where the God who speaks and reveals himself stops, he stoops and, wonder of all wonders, he wants to hear from us. He doesn’t only reveal himself. He reveals himself, yes, but he encourages us to reveal ourselves to him in prayer — and he listens and stands ready to give us what we ask, or better. Every prayer where we don’t get the answer we want in Christ Jesus is a place we can bank on God giving us a better answer. He is giving us a better gift than what we asked for. Such is the glory and joy of the Christian in prayer.
Explain for us how we can more profitably view and value Christian fellowship, whether personal and individual or corporate?
Right at the heart of fellowship is covenant fellowship. Committed fellowship. Covenant is such an important concept. Nowadays, we may hear some live-in couple say, “Oh, we really love each other, so we don’t need a piece of paper, we don’t need to commit to each other because we love each other.” But the opposite is true. You don’t love her enough to covenant with her. If you really loved her enough, you would covenant with her, you would commit yourself to her. Not just for the good times but for the bad. Not just for health but for sickness. Not just for riches but for poverty. And there’s a similar aspect in the local church. Joining a local church by covenant fellowship is not the same thing as a “till death do us part” in marriage, but it’s an important commitment nonetheless where we say, “I love these people enough that I’m going to covenant to be here for them, and I trust they love me enough that they are going to commit to be here for me.”
So, by fellowship, I don’t mean only the kind of loose associations of Christians who find themselves at a similar time and place and with some similar interests and are able to encourage one another. That’s important. That happens; it happens on college campuses; it happens in cities; it happens in neighborhoods. I want to press people to move beyond merely those kind of informal and helpful relationships to formalize it. To love each other enough to say, “You know what, I’m going to be there when times are toughest. I’m going to be there when your heart is hardening. I’m going to be there to speak truth into your ear when you are so locked up spiritually that you’re not accessing God’s voice for yourself.” God gave us these holes in the sides of our head, called ears, and the amazing thing is when we don’t have enough spiritual wherewithal to go out with our eyeballs and receive God’s word through reading or studying or whatever other means, there are these holes in the side of our head that we can speak a word into a brother’s heart.
We can speak goodness, speak gospel truth when they are at their most weak and difficult position and bring grace into their lives. I want to be that for the Christians in my life, and I want others to be that for me. I don’t want to just have fellowship when times are good, but I want fellowship that would be strong enough to be a backstop, to be a safety net, in this dynamic pattern of life, this journey of difficulty in a world of sin, of a self that still continues to be sinful. I need other believers to be committed to me, and I want to commit to them, as in marriage, that the relationship flourishes best in the context of commitment and such is true in the local church as well. So there’s that covenant aspect want to emphasize and that aspect of loving each other enough to be willing to ask good questions and at times say the hard things that we don’t want to hear, and hopefully we’ve established enough backdrop of love and care for each other that we can speak those things in and hold onto each other in life’s most difficult moments.
Okay, you’ve addressed the main emphases of your book – Bible reading, prayer, and Christian fellowship. Tell us quickly about the “Coda” that finishes up your book.
We have various actions in the Christian life that are clearly means of grace and yet function differently in terms of filling and strengthening our hearts; they are more a kind of a pouring out, so to speak, of healthy a Christian life rather than the means by which we ongoingly access God’s grace, even though they are themselves means of God’s grace. And so the three big ones in the book’s “Coda” are the Great Commission (disciplemaking), financial stewardship, and stewardship of our time. So I put those at the end of the book.
I thought that in a book on the spiritual disciplines, on the means of grace (as we think about our own habits of grace) it was really important to talk about disciplemaking and about the clock and the dollar. How do we interact with those things? Because we can interact with them in such a way that they are a means of grace. And yet they function differently than hearing God’s voice, having his ear in prayer, belonging to the body. So I made a structural decision at that point about how you deal with these various topics.
With the Great Commission chapter, I wanted to talk about the means of grace in living “on mission,” not only personal evangelism but also in personal disciplemaking. The big emphasis in that chapter is on disciplemaking, rooted in the Great Commission of which evangelism is an essential part. And I highlight there how taking that step, making the awkward initiative to invest particularly in the lives of a few such that they might become those who would invest in others, is a great means of God’s grace in the life of the discipler. So not just the disciple is benefited by a mentoring relationship, but also the discipler himself, who is first and foremost a disciple of Jesus. When we take the initiative to invest in others, to pour out for a specific season to help someone mature in the faith such that they can then help other people in their spiritual walks, that is a great blessing and means of grace in our own growth. The discipler himself grows in this process of disciplemaking.
The last two chapters are about the stewardship of our money and about our time. I am no productivity guru, so I don’t have the last word, by any means, on financial or time stewardship, time management, but there are a few principals I’ve found, driven by biblical texts and just my own experience here in early adulthood and seeking to be faithful to the calling God has given me, and maybe hopefully those can be helpful for people. But I make no pretense of being comprehensive or saying the last word on the topics of time management and financial stewardship.
I notice you have an accompanying Study Guide – How might you suggest this book be put to use?
The study guide was the publisher’s idea. That wasn’t something I dreamed up, but once they mentioned it, I thought I would try to rise to this. I’ve designed it that individuals can use the study guide or groups. It’s a big workbook-sized thing. It flops open and stays open on the table so that you can feel like you are invited to write in it. We put lots of white space in for drawing pictures, for making charts, for making lists, for circling items, just to make it your own. I’ve heard already about some who are doing it for group study, and then others who are just grabbing it for individuals and seeing if that can help enrich their personal study of habits.
I am trying to do something different in the study guide than in the book. The study guide is not just repeating what’s in the book. The book is very principal — it tries to get the principles of God’s means of grace on the table and tries to get you to find your own habits of life. In the study guide, I try to take that a step further and ask questions of the audience, so to speak, that would help them to discover and develop their own habits. I’m trying to push the carpet into the corners, trying to ask the questions that would lead people to think about what kind of practices, what kinds of rhythms of life they would find most helpful. I hope that the study guide serves to be an exercise in application of the principles that are in the book.
We’ve been talking to David Mathis, executive editor at desiringGod.org about his new book, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. It’s an unusually good book – a joyful challenge and guide for any Christian. I really hope no one will consider this book too elementary. The subject is basic, but you will benefit from and genuinely enjoy this book no matter how long you have been a Christian. I’ve already given a copy to two people – we encourage you to check it out. David, thanks for talking to us today.
Thank you very much, Fred. It was an honor.
Buy the books
Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines
Habits of Grace (Study Guide)