A few years ago, my dentist discovered my first two cavities. They’re very small, and they’re symmetrical — they’re located in the exact same tooth in opposite sides of my mouth. I tend towards perfectionism (in things of my choosing — that’s how perfectionism works), so I had been faithful to brush my teeth throughout my growing-up years. But I had never flossed. My dentist told me that these two small cavities on the sides of these two particular teeth could never have been prevented by brushing. Only flossing. So he told me to begin flossing. And I did.
I decided to floss at night, because that’s the one time I consistently brush my teeth. Initially, I had to discipline myself to do it because I was always tired and just wanted to get in bed and fall asleep. But I persevered, motivated by the desire to not have any more cavities and to maintain the dental health that God’s given me. Not to mention stewardship of the money that, if not put into dental work, can be used to bless and provide for others.
Now it’s been a good 4-5 years since I started flossing. Sometimes I still don’t feel like doing it. But I always do. I’ve probably not flossed about ten times in the last five years. It’s simply a habit now. I’m efficient at it, and it’s a normal, expected part of my life.
Now, those of you who know me know that this post is not about flossing. Not in the least. Rather, I firmly believe that God provides massive lessons, analogies, metaphors, and inspirations in the smallest things in life. He provokes our thinking. He humbles us. He teaches us. He draws pictures and gives object lessons. He shows us how disciplined we can be in such an eternally insignificant thing like flossing while neglecting the weightier matters of spiritual discipline. Oh, how I want eyes to see these lessons, a heart to learn them, and a will to apply them!
Habits are hard to form, especially at the beginning. But they’re essential. You have to set patterns in your life. It’s actually impossible not to. Everyone thinks and chooses and lives in patterns. It just depends what those patterns are and what values and priorities drive them. It took me awhile to form a habit — a pattern — of flossing. But because I knew it was valuable, I did. How much more then should I seek to cultivate non-negotiable spiritual habits in my soul and in my everyday life?
I’m not talking about mindless habits like thoughtlessly “saying grace” before meals (I think it’s good to pause, reflect, and give thanks for your meals; you just shouldn’t do it mindlessly). I’m also not talking about heartless habits like coldly reading your Bible every morning (I think it’s healthy to saturate your soul with Scripture in the morning; you just shouldn’t do it heartlessly). I’m talking about calculated, heartfelt, willful patterns of life that flow from a consistent spiritual walk. Like cheerfully setting aside money each week to give to your local church. Like carefully consecrating times during each week for solitary prayer. Like tenaciously regimenting a Saturday night bedtime that you get used to following so that the battle for alertness on Sunday morning is lessened.
The fact that I now floss every night is encouraging to me as I consider what habits I currently want to continue, cultivate, or start. It’s encouraging to me because I know that patterns of life can be set, no matter how hard they seem. Yes, there is a massive difference between things like consistent flossing on the one hand and diligent Bible memorization on the other. My flesh and the devil don’t oppose flossing with nearly the intensity with which they battle against my pursuit of having the Word of Christ dwell richly within me. Nevertheless, both are habits that take labor to form but are possible to form.
I have no doubt that every single person who reads this post can think of habits that he or she would like to develop. I am also certain that you’ve already tried to form many godly habits before, staggering along and finally falling with a discouraging sigh. I sure have. My encouragement to you is: Get back up. Ask God to revive your heart, resolve again in your soul to develop godly patterns of thinking and living, ask brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you and encourage you, decide exactly what God would have your brand new or refreshed habits to be, and start hiking again. And all with a determination not to let the next month pass without toiling at the sweaty, bloody work of biblical habit-building.
Remember, there was a time when all you could do was lie flat on your back. Then you grew to be able to roll around a bit. Your parents were mortified but excited when you finally figured out how to roll over, because they knew they couldn’t leave you alone on the bed for five minutes anymore. Hands and knees were next, and soon you were crawling. You had made it a long way at this point, but you weren’t nearly up to your full potential. Standing was a massive accomplishment, even though you had to hold onto the big people (or the couch cushion or the coffee table). Then you took your first step. Next, the training wheels came off (i.e., your mom let go of you when you took steps). You fell down a lot, but you knew you were learning, and you wouldn’t dare give up. Walking was just too valuable to you.
That was a long, long time ago. Now you don’t even think about walking. You’re not shaky and unstable. You cruise. You go up stairs two at a time when you’re excited. You go jogging for exercise. You can sprint if you’re in a competition. You can put wheels on your feet and skate if you feel like it. Walking on your hands wouldn’t be that hard if you worked at it a bit.
Being good at walking was worth the years and years of hard work. At least I think it was. And if so, walking a consistent, enduring, blameless walk of faith is monumentally more worthwhile. Does it take work? Of course. Everything worthwhile does. And usually, the more valuable, the more work. But the Christian life is not a Caribbean cruise. It’s a death-march. Get used to dying every day as you seek to live righteously and godly and consistently in this evil age. Your own strong-willed heart will fight you. The devil will attack you. But you can learn to walk, and you can learn to run. Set a Scripture memorization schedule and keep to it. Set three academic study-times during the week and guard them. Decide to be habitually early to your appointments. Consecrate times for family devotions. In whatever area God has for you to cultivate today, start today. Continue today. Press on today.
Set a course. Set a pattern. Set a pace.