10 February 2024

Lent 2024: Helpful habits

Major John Read

A photo of chocolate

Giving up something for Lent? Major John Read encourages us to take up a spiritual habit.

Lent is traditionally a time when we give things up. But it's also a good time to take things up. Did you make any new year’s resolutions for 2024? We’re quite a few weeks into the year now and, if you’ve kept any or all of them, well done! The likelihood of you keeping them is growing by the day!

According to a study from the European Journal of Social Psychology, an average of 66 days was required for most people to form a habit, ranging between 18 and 254 days.

I’ve been quite sceptical about the value of making new year’s resolutions in the past, but at the beginning of 2023 I resolved to use The Bible with Nicky and Pippa Gumbel, an app and plan to read through the Bible in a year. At the same time, I chose another app to use for a short time of evening prayer. Both resolutions became habits and I’ve continued using them this year.

The making and sometimes breaking of habits is an important part of our spiritual journey, our walk through life in the company of Christ. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer that was simple, memorable and intended to be used every single day – including, as it does, the words ‘give us today our daily bread’.

But the simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer is matched by its wisdom and profundity. It would be impossible to plumb its full depths even if you prayed it every single day of your life. CS Lewis wrote a number of books on prayer. 

In one of them he said he used the Lord’s Prayer as the basis for his daily prayer and talked about ‘festooning’ it. As he prayed through each of the phrases, he would add his own personal prayers of praise, thanksgiving, petition and intercession.

So, for instance, he wrote: ‘The prayer for our daily bread. It means, doesn’t it, all we need for the day – “things requisite and necessary as well for the body as for the soul”. I should hate to make this clause “purely religious” by thinking of “spiritual” needs alone.’ And so he would list those needs for himself and for others as he made that prayer.

I recently learnt from Sandi Toksvig, while she was presenting QI – a programme I hardly, if ever, watch – that the original Greek word translated as ‘daily’ in the Bible is unique. The word is epiousion and it is used only in the Lord’s Prayer and nowhere else in the New Testament, or in any other ancient documents. 

For that reason, translating it as ‘daily’ was a best guess on the part of the translators. At the heart of the word is the root ousios, which means ‘substance’ or ‘being’, and epi, usually means ‘above’ or ‘on top of’.

It would seem that through this word Jesus is indeed encouraging us to pray for all our physical and spiritual needs, whatever they may be, and that God is willing, ready and longing to go beyond and over and above meeting our most basic needs, in fact providing a super- abundance, as he answers our prayers.

Please forgive a little more QI-style geekery, but the Syriac translation of the New Testament – a language very close to that of Jesus, Aramaic – uses the word ameno, which means ‘lasting, perpetual, constant, trustworthy, never-ceasing, never-ending or always’. There is nothing mean or scrimping in the way God desires to answer our prayers. 

Psalm 37:4 declares: ‘Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart’ (English Standard Version). Jesus himself promised in Luke 6:34: ‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap.’

Of course, there are many other simple frameworks we can use as the basis for our prayers. Acts – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication – is a well-known example, but the Lord’s Prayer has the advantage that it was given to us by Jesus himself.

There are 40 days in Lent: more than enough time to at least begin to form a habit. Alongside the giving up of chocolate, for example, why not make the taking up of a new habit of prayer, or Bible study, part of your journey through these days?

Written by

A photo of Major John Read

Major John Read

Retired Officer, Weymouth

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