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How to cultivate a life with Jesus through “a habit called faith”

An interview with Jen Pollock Michel

We all have our own combination of personal habits. From morning routines before the day’s work begins to evening habits that help us decompress from each day’s stresses, we even have habits for every waking hour in between, both healthy and unhealthy. In her newest book, A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus, Jen Pollock Michel shows that a life of following Jesus is a life spent cultivating “a habit called faith.” In a world where there is unprecedented competition for our attention and for our habits, Michel shows her reader (and invites them to practice) what it takes to stay on the narrow way with Jesus: the practice of putting one intentional foot in front of the other habitually, day by day. 

Recently, Jen was kind enough to talk with us about the book and about some of her own experiences following Jesus, which you can read below. 

The title of your latest book, A Habit Called Faith, may catch some readers off-guard. Can you describe why you call faith a habit? 

Habit can be a bit of a dirty word, can’t it? We imagine something rote, something perfunctory, even something insincere. But to imagine faith as a habit can do a couple of really important things. First, it can remind us that faith is more than emotion, that it’s something to practice regardless of our feelings. Second, it can remind us that faith is more than a cerebral exercise, that it involves more than the ideas we hold about God. To say that faith is a habit is to grant how active it is, even that it involves a life of training. 

How do our habits contribute to or detract from our faith in Jesus?

When I was a new Christian, someone told me to practice certain habits of faith as a way to “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Tim. 1:6). Thirty years later, I’m so grateful that someone gave me practical ways to shore up my faith. Read the Bible. Pray. Share the gospel. Belong to a local church. It’s a real failure when we make Christian growth a matter of mystery or magic. Of course, there’s always the temptation to make the whole point the habits themselves, as if they could ever save us. 

I think the late A.W. Tozer said it best. When he was asked, “What makes a saint a saint?” his answer was, “The lifelong habit of spiritual response.” That language allows us to hold in tension the great paradox Paul outlines in Philippians 2:13, which is that “God works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Spiritual habits can be a way we participate in this mystery.

You say there is a “persistent idea today that we’ve grown out of religion like a child grows out of shoes.” What do you mean by this? What’s the solution?

I live in Toronto, where many people consider the claims of biblical Christianity primitive. They imagine that science has supplanted the need for religion. If we have mapped the genome and discovered quarks, what need do we have for God? I think the only solution is to get people reading the Bible for themselves and making sense of what they find. It’s a kind of come-and-see invitation, which is the approach we see Jesus himself use. I’d love to see churches develop more groups like this, making room for the spiritually curious to read the Bible alongside other Christians. Truthfully, I continue to marvel at the work of the Holy Spirit as people get their noses in God’s book. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a couple of people come to faith in Jesus doing just this.

Early on, you write that “faith looks a lot like the kind of belief all people practice.” Can you expound on this? 

Again, many people who don’t share any kind of religious commitment often assume that faith acts like “superstition.” They think it’s the stuff of fairy tales and myths. By contrast, they imagine that their agnosticism (or atheism) is decided by objective, rational thought. I think this begs a really important conversation. How “objectively” does any of us decide anything? Research tells us that we’re not the “thinking” beings we imagine ourselves to be, that all of us — religious and irreligious alike — construct our beliefs by way of intuition, reason, gut instinct, and emotion. Of course, the good news about Christianity is that it never requires us to check our brain at the door. The Gospels are reliable documents, bearing witness to historical events. Christian faith is a response to evidence, even if evidence alone will never compel faith.

In trying “to make sense of the habit of faith in the context of contemporary life,” you focus your attention on the books of Deuteronomy and John. Why these books?

At first glance, the Gospel of John seems to make a lot more sense than Deuteronomy! It allows readers to carefully consider Jesus: his claims, the work of the cross. Is he God? What does his death mean? Is he, in fact, “the Way, the Truth, the Life?” But Deuteronomy prepares us for the Gospel of John (and the revelation of Jesus) in a number of important ways. From the very opening phrase of the book, “These are the words,” Deuteronomy tells us something important about the nature of faith: that we must surrender to the words (and later, Word) of God. It exposes the nature of human sin, that for as often as we’d promise to keep the words of God, we can’t. Finally, it leaves us marvelously bewildered at the end of the book, when Moses blesses the unfaithful people of God. How can such grace be? Deuteronomy is the appetizer for John’s Gospel meal.

In describing your conversion to Christianity, you say that “when you took up faith in Jesus . . . you took up its habits too,” having been encouraged by someone to “commit to forming the habits of the Christian life.” What are some of those habits that you developed, and how have they contributed to your development as a Christian? 

I’ve already answered this in one sense, but maybe I can simply add this. In the pandemic year we’ve all lived, it seems obvious that we’ve needed grounding in our spiritual lives. Life has been turned upside down for all of us, and for those of us with established spiritual habits, they have provided a tether in the storm. To look at our circumstances, we might not always feel convinced that God is good. But to have habits of Scripture reading, prayer, worship, body life, service: it gives us a way to keep putting one foot of faith in front of another, even when we don’t know that we can, even when we’re not sure that we want to. We keep the habits — and often, the habits (by God’s grace) keep us.

The format of the book itself, with its 40 daily readings, seems intent on helping readers establish a daily habit of their own, which I assume was intentional. Why did you choose 40 days? What does each reading consist of? 

Forty seems like a biblical number, no? Jesus was 40 days in the wilderness during his temptation; Israel was 40 years in the wilderness after the Exodus. There’s nothing magical about the number, of course, but I do think that if we do something consistently for 40 days, we’re on our way to forming the habit. In this case, I’d love to see people forming the habit of daily Bible reading. The book travels 20 days in Deuteronomy, 20 days in John. Each daily reading focuses on one chapter of the Bible, athough I’ve also suggested a shorter selection of verses (for the time-pressed) as well as a key verse. My own reflections on these passages are meant to probe Scripture as a means of transformation. If I can say it this way, I try to engage the Scripture in a way that “reads” us as readers. Perhaps most importantly, I try to make gospel connections for readers, so that they can see that the Bible is one story, that it’s soaked, from beginning to end, with the good news of God’s grace.

For those, like you, whose lives are filled with work responsibilities and raising children and school and the like, how can we strive to maintain the habits of the Christian life amidst a busy schedule, and why is it vital that we do so?

I have five children, so I suppose I know a little something about this. I do think certain harried seasons of life require creativity and intention. As a young mom, I always thought it counted when I read the Bible, prayed, and worshipped through song with my children. I did try maintaining a morning habit of regular Bible reading, too, but I do remember one long stretch of time, when my twin boys (the youngest) were infants. I gave up that morning time, figuring sleep was also a means to godliness. I copied Psalm 145 on index cards, tucked it into the pocket of my nursing chair, and pulled it out throughout the day. I was meditating on that psalm for a good year! I think there are all kinds of ways to imagine how we might connect to God — but one thing is for sure. It won’t simply happen. We’ll be met with resistance. We’ll be given to distraction. As the late Dallas Willard once wrote, there’s nothing accidental about spiritual life and growth.

What are your hopes for those who read A Habit Called Faith, and how would you encourage them as they seek to “take up the habits of faith in Jesus?” 

I have one hope alone: that readers will discover (or rediscover) that the life of faith in Jesus Christ is just this: life. He’s bread. He’s living water. No amount of money, no professional achievement, no domestic happiness will ever fully satisfy our restless hearts. I hope Christians will read — and I hope they’ll read alongside their spiritually curious friends. We can’t tire of the perpetually good news of the gospel: that we were once estranged, that we’ve been befriended by Jesus, that the world will one day, finally be made new.

Jen Pollock Michel

Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want, Keeping Place, and Surprised by Paradox. She holds a B.A. in French from Wheaton College and an M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. An American living in Toronto, Jen is a wife and mother of five. She is the … Read More

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author