The Battle for Consistency

I brush my teeth every night.

I don’t love brushing them.  I don’t often even think about it. It’s automatic, like a habit.  Floss, toothpaste, rinse, bed.  I have done this in one form or another since I was a child.

And make no mistake—my mother instilled the habit in me.  Kids don’t care about cavities, or toothbrushing.  Left to themselves they will half-brush or not brush at all, or forget, or brush and then eat eighty gummy bears right before sleep.  But my mother marched me into the bathroom every night.

“I brushed,” child me would whine, having not brushed at all.

My mother would explain patiently what would happen if I did not brush.  Nobody, she told me, had ever told her to brush her teeth growing up. Nobody had cared.  And eventually she had so many bad teeth she had to have them pulled and had to get false ones instead.  “I miss my real teeth,” she said.  “Don’t take yours for granted.”

So I brushed my teeth nightly, and I grew.

Once, on an overseas flight, I didn’t brush my teeth.  I landed in Ireland early in the morning, and my prevailing memories of that jet-lagged arrival are of how very tired I was and how mossy my teeth felt, how when we arrived at our hotel room the first thing I scrambled for was my toothbrush.

Consistency builds habit.  Habit forms who we are.

But spiritual consistency is so, so hard.  Much harder than brushing teeth.

Even when it should be easy, it’s hard. And at its core, nothing about the spiritual life is hard, or needs to be.  Prayer is simple; meditating on a Bible verse can be simple.  Talking to God is simple.  Thinking of God is simple.  But to do that daily, to maintain the habit over weeks and months and years—that’s tough.

In one of his books, John Ortberg challenges his readers to pray for a single request for ninety straight days.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  Seems simple: how hard is it to pray for a single request for ninety days?  But even with reminders, I nearly often forgot.  I put it off.  I waited and often scrambled to do it right before bed.  I thought of other prayer requests.  My mind wandered.

Our phones and our devices, and the effect of both of those things on our minds, make consistency even harder than before.  But somehow I think it was just as hard even before the internet.  There’s always something: a distraction, a pause, a stray thought to chase.  Evil is involved, too.  God wants us to be close to Him; Satan doesn’t. Temptation waits everywhere.

A funny story: a quote I read recently encouraged the reader to “put God in front of your eyes” at all times.  That seemed wise to me, so I went out of my way to place my Bible and a small cross I have directly on top of my laptop. To open my work computer, I’d have to go through God’s word.

There, I thought serenely. 

Cue Monday morning when, having woken up realizing I had a major work project ahead of me, I bolted from bed, stacked up both the Bible and cross beside my laptop without a second glance or the slightest thought, started a Word document, and was two paragraphs in before I realized.

It was right in front of my face.

There is no perfection here.  I am very uneasy about Bible or prayer apps that keep track of your “streak.”  Maybe some people find it motivating, but I find it depressing.  It’s hard, sometimes, to go back in knowing you’ve messed up.  Striving for an endless cycle of never-missing seems beside the point.  We will stumble, eventually, in the same way that we know we will, sin, despite all our desperate prayers and attempts to the contrary.

But we try again anyway.

And God rewards it, that trying.  The habit will form who we are, even if we aren’t always perfect.  I’ve missed some days opening my Bible before my laptop.  But I can tell you that since I have started trying to be consistent about it, since I have spent more days opening the Bible than not, God has changed the way I approach my work day.

Recently, in a conversation that had every reason to become incendiary, my gaze caught on the Bible.  I had opened it that morning, read a Psalm, prayed.  Careful, I thought.  Careful careful.  I chose my words carefully.  I spoke to calm and to listen.  An impending disaster was averted, because God was on my mind.  And God was on my mind because I am trying my best to keep Him there.

So when it comes to consistency, make a beginning.  And try for every day—to pray every day, or study your Bible every day, or whatever it is you’re trying to do.  Manage it as well as you can, and when you fail—because you will, whether for ‘good’ reason or a ‘bad’ one—start again the next day like nothing every happened.  And all of those days, every single one of them, will add up, and God will make them more than their sum.

We’re not perfect.  Consistency will never mean perfection.  But it mirrors the Christian walk inasmuch as it is an attempt to get up, to return to God, to form the heart, to keep trying, trying, trying past all our stumbles and failures and forgettings.

Just keep going.

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