Twelve years ago, our middle daughter Lucy was diagnosed with autism. Most of us run through our morning routine mindlessly—wake up, get dressed, brush teeth. But Lucy’s cognitive function is severely delayed, so helping her learn daily habits has meant intentionality.
We move Lucy along in the morning by asking, “What’s next?” after each task, or I’ll speak a sentence halfway through like, “It’s time to put on your . . .” This prompts her to finish with “Disney Princess socks!” (a morning highlight). I also follow this pattern when I sit on my daughter’s bed to begin the morning ritual. I’ll quote the first half of Ephesians 5:14 (NIV): “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead . . .” Even if she also pulls the covers over her head, she’ll usually answer, “. . . and Christ will shine on you.”
Ordinary daily habits are like liturgies. “They are little routines of worship, and worship changes what we love” (11). That’s Justin Whitmel Earley’s premise in his book Habits of the Household: Practicing the Story of God in Everyday Family Rhythms (Zondervan, 2021). He contends that God works through habits to change parents, children, and families in conformity with Christ’s love.
Habits of the Household: Practicing the Story of God in Everyday Family Rhythms
Justin Whitmel Earley
You long for tender moments with your children—but do you ever find yourself too busy to stop, make eye contact, and say something you really mean? Daily habits are powerful ways to shape the heart—but do you find yourself giving in to screen time just to get through the day? You want to parent with purpose—but do you know how to start?
Award-winning author and father of four Justin Whitmel Earley understands the tension between how you long to parent and what your daily life actually looks like. In Habits of the Household, Earley gives you the tools you need to create structure–from mealtimes to bedtimes–that free you to parent toddlers, kids, and teens with purpose.
Abundant Life Through Worship Rhythms
When most of us think about God’s law, we think of Moses carrying stone tablets or the 613 legal statutes. We don’t imagine an abundant life of faithful habits and joyful celebration. But God didn’t merely give his people commands. In the law, God instructed Israel to celebrate annual festivals (Lev. 23) and Israelite parents to teach their children throughout the regular rhythms of their days (Deut. 6:7).
God works through habits to change parents, children, and families in conformity with Christ’s love.
Earley, a writer, lawyer, and founder of The Common Rule, adopts this rhythmic approach when he writes, “The greatest spiritual work happens in the normal moments of domestic life” (24). The chapters of Habits of the Household unfold as they might be encountered throughout a day—from waking to mealtimes, and then to times of discipline, screentime, family devotions, marriage (time alone for mom and dad), work and play, conversation, and finally bedtime. Each chapter reflects on its theme biblically and practically, developing a main idea and then giving clear applications.
This memorable layout, the practical applications, and the helpful chapter summaries make Earley’s book eminently useful for busy families. His explanations, for example, of why and how to teach kids to apologize are wonderful (85), as is his encouragement for how to curate the content your family consumes (105–9). Parents, you’ll want to photocopy the end-of-chapter reference guides to put on your fridge.
While Earley’s outline of habits is formatted into applicable guides, he doesn’t make us think Christian household habits are easy. Instead, he says, “Parenting, seen properly, is an unceasing spiritual battle. A battle that God is using to refine us, a battle that God will win for us, but if it feels like a fight to you, that’s because it is” (25). Through this fight, God uses habits to form the affections of parents and children. “One of the central themes of this book,” writes Earley, “is that we become our habits, and our kids become us” (21).
Exposed and Encouraged
The Bible tells us that learning God’s commands and laws is like drinking milk or learning your ABCs (Heb. 5:11–13). It celebrates the beauty of a life lived habitually in line with God’s covenant (Ps. 119). But the Scriptures are equally clear that, because of sin, the law has its limits. God’s moral demands are designed to highlight the gap between our sinful hearts and God’s perfection (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13; 7:7–11). They shouldn’t be trusted in as a source for salvation or sanctifying power (Gal. 3:2). Instead, they point us ahead to the salvation and strength for change we find in Christ (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 4:15).
Earley is clear on this. He knows that godly household habits are tools given to sinners. He regularly points out that his book is for messy families (20) who eat at messy tables (116), for couples who recognize marriage is hard, and for kids who always need discipline (216). He’s clear about the purpose of curating movies and TV shows: “Our goal is not to protect our children from the world of immorality out there but to teach them how to deal with the immorality that is out there and in here too” (107).
Godly household habits are tools given to sinners.
As a parent of teens, the ideals Earley presented often exposed me. Yes, I was encouraged about my morning rhythm with Lucy. But I also saw some poor choices, good habits I’ve never adopted, and other habits I’ve let slip over the years. Earley regularly points out that it’s never “too late for grace” (114). He knows habits aren’t ways of earning God’s favor, and he’s clear that it’s ultimately God’s power that changes us and our kids (28). Reading the book encouraged me to confess my sins and cling to God’s love. Earley offers this word of hope: “Our habits won’t change God’s love for us, but God’s love for us can and should change our habits” (28).
Power Beyond the Habit
I wish Habits of the Household was more explicit that God’s grace can’t be stockpiled by learning rhythms of godliness. I wish Earley was more clear that when grace comes, it’s because Christ himself gives us the Spirit (Titus 2:11–13). But if this wasn’t always clear in Earley’s prose, it was abundantly clear in the way Earley related his experience.
The book nears its close with a touching story about a nightly prayer Earley rehearses with his son Shep:
Bedtime with him is usually so difficult and rowdy that while I felt I needed to be praying for Shep, it needed to be quick. Like, really quick. So I started doing something short like this: “God loves you. Jesus died for you. And the Holy Spirit is with you. Goodnight.” (201)
On one particularly difficult night, Earley confesses that he thought, “This child is deliberately trying to invent new ways to infuriate me.” Then, when he put Shep in his crib, he “mostly involuntarily” started into the regular prayer:
“Sheppard, God loves you.” I paused at the startling words I just spoke, feeling a lump in my throat.
I say them every night. Every. Single. Night. Why the emotion now? What’s different? . . .
And suddenly the radical notion fell afresh. God loves Sheppard. Even now! More than I do. He adores him, even now in this age and stage.
What is different in moments like that? The answer to Earley’s question is that as he spoke the words of prayer, as we practice rhythms of grace, as we rehearse the words of the gospel, the habits point beyond themselves. And Christ’s power shines through!