In previous columns, we looked at different approaches to changing your primary story—two ways to ensure that the Scriptural Story provides you with meaning and significance and not the lesser stories that center on career, politics, or entertainment. The Amputation Approach eliminates certain habits or practices in order to reestablish a focus on seeking first the kingdom. The General Habits Approach emphasizes common practices among Christians: Bible reading, prayer, and church attendance.
What happens, though, when spiritual disciplines don’t stop lesser stories from becoming primary in our lives? Doubling down on the general habits—reading more, praying more, going to church more—doesn’t always lead to Christian faithfulness in our time. It’s even possible to appeal to our spiritual activity as a way of justifying or excusing the lesser stories that influence us the most.
The Spirit’s Work
You may be ready to throw up your hands. Trevin, are you saying there’s no formula or practice that will keep the Scriptural Story primary? Yes and no.
We should never reduce the discipleship process to a particular formula. The Spirit’s work of sanctification is mysterious. You can implement certain practices, only to discover that wisdom comes with age, or that suffering is what God has used to bring about sanctification. What’s more, some people keep various commitments with sincerity only later to walk away from the faith due to disillusionment or deconstruction.
To say that habits and practices are the silver bullet to spiritual growth ignores the Spirit. We cannot capture the Spirit’s work in formulas or habits. We plant seeds; we water the ground, but God is the One who gives the increase. Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing. Without the Spirit we cannot become more like Christ.
Subversive Habits Approach
Still, there’s a place for formulas and habits. “God gives the increase.” Yes and amen. At the same time, we are called to plant and water. “The Spirit’s work is to sanctify us.” Yes and amen. At the same time, we are called to “work out our salvation” and to “walk worthy” of the gospel in ways that resist “conforming to the pattern of this world.”
So, habits and spiritual disciplines—while not the source of sanctification’s power—still remain important. We set the sails, and the Spirit gives the wind. That’s why I’d like to return to the general habits we looked at earlier, but give them a twist. Let’s call it the “Subversive Habits” Approach.
Understanding “subversive habits” starts with the recognition that we are habitual people. Every day, we engage in habits and practices that either increase or decrease the position of the Scriptural Story in our hearts. So, here is the question we must ask: What practices or habits would have the effect of lifting up the Scriptural Story while also demoting lesser stories?
1. Career Cameron
Remember Cameron, the guy consumed by his career? Even though he reads his Bible and goes to church, the story arc of his life (as he imagines it) is defined by career advancement, not his growth in Christlikeness. What Cameron needs is not a list of general habits, but of specific ones that will subvert the lesser story (his career aspirations) and reinforce the Scriptural Story as primary in his life.
- Instead of just following a Bible reading plan, Cameron memorizes Bible verses and passages that strike at the desire for wealth or earthly acclaim. He puts these verses on his mirror in the morning and recites them several times a day.
- Once a week, he practices the Sabbath and frees himself from career considerations by staying completely offline and focused on worship.
- When Cameron makes plans for the year to come, he trains himself not to consider the ground he might gain in his career or skills, but what he could give away in terms of time and money to causes greater than his career.
2. Political Pam
The narrative of Pam’s life closely follows the latest drama from Washington, D.C. Pam reads her Bible and goes to church, but she, too, needs specific, subversive habits.
- In order to keep this lesser story from gaining dominance in her life, Pam observes the “Scripture before phone” rule every morning. She realizes that reading a verse or two a day will not counter the magnetic pull of all the political commentary that ignites her imagination, and so she spends half an hour in Bible reading and prayer at the start of her day.
- She limits her exposure to social media accounts and political websites by setting restraints on her phone that alert her when she’s spent more than an hour scrolling and commenting.
- She purposefully fills her prayer list with popular politicians from both parties, including the ones she is tempted to despise. (It is hard to hate someone you pray for regularly.)
- She makes a commitment to share a meal twice a month with Christians who have different political perspectives.
- In order to get outside of the American bubble, she prays for the countries listed in Operation World, and she subscribes to newsletters and magazines that tell of Christian faithfulness in other parts of the world.
Slowly but surely, by adopting new habits and practices that counter the lesser story of D.C. politics, Pam begins to see her life more in terms of the Scriptural Story that should give meaning and significance.
3. Greg the Gamer
For Greg, the subversive habits show up in what he stops and starts.
- He stops the process of games or TV shows from taking up hours of his day by setting restrictions on himself.
- He starts the process of lifting up the Scriptural Story by ensuring that he no longer falls asleep with Netflix but makes a couple of psalms the focal point of his end-of-day routine.
- He replaces time once spent in leisure with time devoted to mission—joining several men in the church who once a week give a couple hours to helping widows with various handyman needs.
- He recognizes how leisure is an escape from serious reflection, and so he keeps a journal in which he chronicles the events of the day and lists prayer requests and answers. Journaling is tough at first, but over time, it leads to less noise and distraction and cultivates a greater personal depth because he is “numbering his days” in order to gain a heart of wisdom.
Practices of Resistance
The purpose of this suggestion regarding subversive habits is not to lay out specific recommendations for every person, but to stimulate our imagination so we can choose counter-formative practices.
A good start in imagining what adopting subversive habits might look like is Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule.
“We have a common problem. By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we’ve assimilated to a hidden rule of life: the American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life. . . . We desperately need a set of counter-formative practices to become the lovers of God and neighbor we were created to be.” (17)
Justin’s book combines the general and subversive approach: his recommendations are general (that is, for everyone), but his goal is subversive in that he deliberately seeks to counter the formative influence of lesser stories. He puts some of these habits in the category of “resistance.”
How can we get started in adopting or recommending subversive habits? The most important step is to help people identify the primary story they are living by. We need a diagnostic so we can see what lesser story has displaced the Scriptural Story. More on that to come.