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Water and the Window

On the Conditions and Habits for Growing Faith

More By Jen Pollock Michel

More than a year ago, we moved into a house in Toronto’s midtown. Most days, in most seasons of the year, the back of our house, which faces south, is flooded with light.

After we moved, I bought some house plants, including a banana leaf plant which I put in this south-facing room. To be clear, I’m not much of a green thumb. I will water (when I don’t forget). But chances are good that I’m going to ignore instructions like, “Fertilize in peak-growing season,” or “Occasionally wipe dust from leaves with a damp cloth.” That sounds like way too much work.

When I tell you about the long-armed monstrosity that this banana leaf plant has become, you’ll know it says nothing about my plant-growing abilities—and everything about the conditions of the room.

Even for the occasional odd instructions, growing house plants isn’t all that magical. Plants need water, and they need a window.

Growing faith is similarly straightforward. There isn’t magic involved or even complicated instructions. Rather, it’s about creating the conditions for cultivating a regular response to the love of God. As we see in Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds in Matthew 13:1–17, some seeds have no chance of survival: they’re too quickly threatened; they fall along rocky, shallow soil; they’re choked by thorns. But for those seeds that fall on good soil, they grow monstrously.

Every time, it’s a work of grace.

The Window: The Conditions for Growing Faith

It’s easy to conceive of the life of faith as a list of dos and donts. We worry—rightly—about the temptations of legalism, which would make faith more a matter of our performance than Jesus’ perfect work on our behalf. Nevertheless, growth in the spiritual life isn’t accidental. As the late A.W. Tozer wrote, saints are those who cultivate “the habit of spiritual response.”

But before I offer any advice on the essential spiritual habit of regular Bible reading, I recognize that my advice wouldn’t matter much if the rest of your life was oversaturated with noise and busyness. I could give you ways to water your faith, but it’s up to you to decide if you’re planted by the right window.

Before you are tempted to cram faith into your already bulging life, you might first think about the space you’ll need to make for it. The turning toward God seems always also to require a turning away.

Modern life is more hassled and harried than it’s ever been. Despite our optimism that technology will simplify our lives, it only clutters it further. There is more to read, more to watch, more to listen to, more to respond to. These conditions aren’t good for growing faith.

There’s a wonderful story in the Bible about God meeting the prophet Elijah, not in a great wind, not in an earthquake, not in a fire, but in a “low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). In this story, God didn’t speak over the noise. Instead, he lowered his voice—and Elijah had to lean in to listen.

As we journey in faith, we need to ask for God’s help in creating conditions of attentiveness that allow for us to grow. This isn’t to say that our lives must be monkish, that we can’t attend to God in the midst of a busy, sleepless season of raising young children. But it does mean that each of us must actively counter distraction and deliberately seek consistent moments where we practice the intention to lean in to listen to God.

The Water: Regular Bible Reading as the Keystone Habit for Growing Faith

Now that we’ve considered the conditions for growing faith, what about the habits? To be clear, it’s difficult to highlight only one, especially when the Christian life is conceived as a corporate affair, not a solo ride. But for now, let me simply say this: there’s no growth in the Christian life apart from regular Bible reading.

When I became a Christian between Grade 10 and Grade 11, I was encouraged to form good spiritual habits as a way of supporting my new faith, including the habit of daily Bible reading.

I’ve discovered that as I read the Bible, I grow in understanding of who God is, of who I am, and where I find myself in his story. I’m called out of my self-preoccupation and return to a sense of what it means to belong to God and participate in his mission. The Bible is an unending source of good news: that God has so loved me and you and the world through his Son, Jesus.

If faith is like a language I learn, I only learn to speak it by patterning my words after God’s.

“Human beings shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy when he was tempted by Satan at the beginning of his ministry (Matt. 4:4). Jesus was stepped in the Jewish Scriptures, and he knew something that you and I often struggle to grasp. That our deepest, most acute hungers in life are not physical.

We are hungry for the very words of God—and famished without them.

Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush, in Exodus 3:1-6, is a wonderful story to illuminate what the experience of Bible reading is meant to be like. It is a living, personal encounter with the living, personal God. As God speaks to us through the Bible, we learn about who he is. The Bible is God-centric, telling God’s story.

But here’s the miracle, too. As we read the Bible, we can even hear our own name.