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John Mark Comer: Turning God Into a Habit

John Mark Comer: Turning God Into a Habit

When you first come awake at the beginning of the day, where does your mind go? When you lay your head down on your pillow after a long day, what are your final thoughts as you drift off to sleep? In the little moments of space throughout your day—waiting in line for your morning coffee, stuck in traffic, sitting down to a meal—where does your mind naturally drift?

Let’s be honest: for most of us, it’s not to Jesus. It’s to our fears, our wounds—to negative rumination. The undirected mind tends toward chaos, or what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “psychic entropy.” But on this, ancient Christian spirituality and cutting-edge neuroscience agree: the mind can be retrained. Whether you all it “neuroplasticity,” or “the practice of the presence of God.” The monk who coined those words was a dishwasher in a monastery in seventeenth century Paris. Brother Lawrence made it his life’s ambition to experience God in the chaos of the kitchen, with all its noise, distraction, and busyness. By the end of his life, he said,

“The time of busyness does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament.”

Take note: he’s a Catholic—the “blessed sacrament” (what Protestants call the Lord’s Supper) was the most holy moment in the spiritual life. But Brother Lawrence had come to a place where all of his life was holy; there was no longer any difference between the quiet of morning prayer and the cacophony of dinner prep. Life was a seamless, integrated whole, grounded in God’s presence.  We read similar language from the Quaker writer Thomas Kelly:

“How, then, shall we…live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, kin prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward Him who calls in the deeps our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established.”

There it is again: By “persistent practice” and “mental habits.” Through practice we can train our mind to rest in God amid the entropy of life. But not without the use of habit. If this life of being with Jesus required “practice” as far back as the 1600s—four centuries before the iPhone—how much more so now, in the age of urban noise pollution and the digital distraction of non-stop alerts, notifications, and an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” This will not just happen. But, listen: it can happen, if you practice. Let me offer you this from Dallas Willard…

“The first and most basic thing we can and must do is to keep God before our minds… This is the fundamental secret of caring for our souls. Our part in thus practicing the presence of God is to direct and redirect our minds constantly to Him. In the early time of our “practicing” we may well be challenged by our burdensome habits of dwelling on things less than God [i.e. we will be constantly distraction by a million other things]. But these are habits—not the law of gravity—and can be broken. A new, grace-filled habit will replace the former ones as we take intentional steps toward keeping God before us. Soon our minds will return to God as the needle of a compass constantly returns to the north. If God is the great longing of our souls, He will become the pole star of our inward beings.”

He’s talking about turning God into a habit. I love Willard’s word-picture a compass that “constantly returns the north.” Our minds, which scientists define as our directed attention, or what we give our focus to, can be habituated to constantly return to God. What Willard and all these spiritual masters of the Way are saying is that, through habit, you can co-create with Jesus a mind that is fixed on God all through the day. You can say with the psalmist, “I have set the Lord always before me.” Each time you get a little mental breath in the busyness of your life—that split second after you hit send on the email, or when you come to a red light, or those first conscious thoughts when you awake from sleep, through deliberate practice, you can train your mind to come back to God, come back to God, come back to God… Eventually your mind, and through it, your entire body and soul, will anchor itself in God, will “abide.” Even in the noise and chaos of the modern world, with its traffic to navigate, meetings to attend, babies to feed, even in all that chaos, you can develop a mind that is rooted in God. If the mind is a kind of portal to the soul, and if “you become what you contemplate,” as Hwee Hwee Tan so beautifully put it, then few things could be more important. Indeed, our destiny could hang in the balance.

Now, I recognize that turning God into a habit may sound about as inspiring as turning romance into a habit, or laughter into a habit. In a culture that equates authenticity with spontaneous emotions, habit is a tough sell; but show me a person’s habits and I will show you what they are truly, most passionate about, most dedicated to, most willing to suffer for, most in love with. And I will show you who they will become.

Again, when you have that fleeting mental break, that blessed white space of thought, where does your mind go? Does it go to God? To the Father’s love pouring out toward you in Christ and by the Spirit within and all around you? If not, it can: our mind is far more moldable than most of us were led to believe. It can be changed to a new default setting, a new baseline. To a new God-orientation.

Long before the neuroscientist Dr. Donald Hebb famously said, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” (Since called “Hebb’s Law”), A.W. Tozer said that as we “set the heart’s attention on Jesus,” something miraculous takes place in our inner being: “A habit of soul is forming which will become after a while a sort of spiritual reflex requiring no more conscious effort on our part.” Or as the missionary Frank Laubach testified: “This simple practice requires only a gentle pressure of the will, not more than a person can exert easily. It grows easier as the habit becomes fixed.”

I’m no spiritual master, but after practicing this for over a decade, I can confirm: it grows easier. I begin each morning in prayer, but like most people, I spend large swaths of my day getting sucked into the hurry and distraction of life, but when I slow down, when my mind comes to rest, more and more I find my consciousness coming back home to God.

The early days of our “practicing the presence of God” will likely be difficult and humbling, yet joyful. Difficult because we will consonantly forget God and get sucked back into the hurry of life; humbling, for the same reason; but full of joy and happiness as we begin to tap into the deepest ache of our soul, the desire for God. Over time, the wiring of our brain itself will begin to change, to heal from its rupture from our maker. New neural pathways will form. The more we pray, the more we will think to pray. What first felt almost impossible, eventually will become as easy and natural as breathing.

There is so much we can’t do in our spiritual formation; we can “fix” ourselves or heal ourselves or save ourselves. But we can do this; we can be with Jesus. We can pause for little moments throughout our days and turn our heart toward Jesus in silent prayer. And as we habituate this inner-Godward orientation in the whole of our life, we will make steady progress toward Jesus, and he will inevitably shepherd us every step along the way.

You can do this. If you are willing to practice. As apprentices of Jesus, you and I have the ability and the responsibility to set our minds upon him. To direct the inner gaze of our heart onto his love. To look at him, looking at us, in love.

Excerpted from Practicing the Way. Copyright © 2024 by John Mark Comer. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on January 16, 2024.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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