The Center for Biblical Spirituality (CFBS): Which habit of grace do most Christians find the most challenging, and why?
David Mathis: Meditation. It is perhaps the most underserved, underappreciated, and potentially most life-changing habit for us to cultivate in our day. By meditation, I don’t mean (like Eastern meditation) try to empty your mind, but (biblically) fill your mind with God’s revelation in his word and seek to apply it to your heart, such that you increasingly feel the significance of his words. Seek to taste the glory of his goodness, communicated through his word, with the taste buds of your heart and soul. Savor the truth about Jesus and his grace. Enjoy it. Enjoy him.
One reason that meditation is so challenging for me, and for so many of us in the modern world, is that it requires that we slow down. It forces us to resist our rapid pace of life. To truly meditate, we must pause and ponder. Which is not easy since we live such fast-paced lives, and so rarely slow down to quite our souls and really ruminate on Scripture.
In particular, I was first awakened to the importance of meditation in studying Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Don Whitney’s (very good) quotations from the Puritans opened my eyes to an experience of the Bible that seemed so natural to these men, but so largely overlooked in our day.
CFBS: Do you limit your discussion to habits of grace found only in the Bible, and if so, why?
David Mathis: By “habits of grace,” I’m referring to the practices we create and develop to give us regular access to God’s appointed “means of grace” — his word, prayer, and fellowship. So, I do limit my treatment of the “means of grace” — at the level of principle — to only what is found in the Bible. However, in terms of personal “habits,” I want to encourage readers to develop all sorts of timely, creative habits for accessing God’s timeless means of grace. I hope to inspire readers to find fresh ways to use new technology, for instance, for the purpose of hearing God’s voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and even belonging to his body in community. I’d like to encourage readers to dream up all sorts of new practices in their own lives, not necessarily modeled in the Bible, for accessing God’s timeless means of grace, which are so clearly revealed in the Bible.
Other practices, like journaling and practicing silence and solitude (which are not necessarily enjoined in the Scriptures), are often treated in texts on the disciplines, and so I though they deserved treatment in this book as well.
CFBS: What distinguishes Habits of Grace from other books on the subject?
David Mathis: I’m no expert on all the literature in the field, especially the Catholic and more mainline texts, but here are few bullets of what was especially important to me in crafting this book:
CFBS: What do you think is the most helpful concept in the book, or the most helpful part of the book, and why?
David Mathis: Others will be the best judges of that, but perhaps it’s the simple threefold structure. Having worked with college students for many years (and having been one myself a little over a decade ago), I’ve heard time and again from young Christians carrying a low-grade sense of guilt because they’re not practicing all the spiritual disciplines — and they have a list of disciplines in mind that is a dozen, or fifteen, or twenty items long. I hope that thinking about the disciplines, or means of grace, in this threefold way will be clarifying and empowering for Christians young and old, as it has for me. You don’t need twenty different disciplines daily to be a healthy Christian, but you do need to find your regularly habits of life for hearing his voice, having his ear, and belonging to his body.
David Mathis: John has a contagious love for God and his word. You can get that from afar through his preaching and writing, but working closely with him now for more than a decade has made it real in the small moments of life. Like daily habits.
Those who know John, whether from close up or a distance, will be able to tell that his fingerprints are all over this book — just as they are on just about everything I write, how I pastor, and nearly every aspect of life. I’m not sure I can even begin to describe the extent of his influence. But to focus the question on daily habits, my morning approach to the Bible, for one, is deeply shaped by John. I begin with a brief (and earnest) prayer for God’s help, read through a Bible-in-a-year schedule, and while I do so, I’m on the express lookout for a glimpse of God’s goodness in a short passage or verse, or even just a phrase, to linger over and enjoy — call it mediation. Perhaps I try to memorize it as I meditate on it, but I pause there and seek to feed my soul on that ray of light, and then let it propel me into prayer, and into the day.
My little mental arc for moving through a season of morning devotions, or “time alone with Jesus,” is begin with Bible, move to meditation, polish with prayer.
CFBS: Thank you, David. May the Lord greatly bless Habits of Grace.
You can read the first part of this interview here.
I want to recommend a new book on the spiritual disciplines by David Mathis. David (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org, pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and adjunct professor for Bethlehem College & Seminary.
His new book is Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.
Center for Biblical Spirituality (CFBS): In a sentence, what is the message of Habits of Grace?
David Mathis: God gives us his ongoing grace for the Christian life through his appointed means, accessed through our regular, realistic, and personalized habits.
CFBS: How did Habits of Grace come about?
David Mathis: I have a shorter version of the story and a longer one. The shorter story is in recent years I taught spiritual disciplines to college juniors for Bethlehem College & Seminary. Over time I wrote up, in article form at desiringGod.org, some of the insights and approaches I was finding most helpful in the classroom. Crossway took interest in the project and gave me space to pull the articles together and grow them into a relatively short book (just about half the length of most texts on the disciplines).
The longer story — and I’ll just give the outline here — goes back to my parents and home church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, faithfully teaching me the value of God’s word, prayer, and Christian fellowship and some of the practical habits of daily life, health, and growth. In my college years, the ministry of Campus Outreach drove it all home as I was becoming an adult and embracing the faith at a new depth. Campus Outreach also gave me the opportunity to own these things even more through teaching them to others — both as a student and then during subsequent years on staff in Minnesota.
CFBS: What are the habits of grace and why are they important?
David Mathis: “Habits of grace” is my term for the countless practical rhythms of life we can develop in our lives for accessing the timeless “means of grace” God has given for our ongoing life, health, and joy in the Christian life. God’s means of grace (which John Frame helpfully summarizes as threefold — God’s word, prayer, and fellowship) are unchanging, while our particular habits for accessing his means will vary based on personality bent and season of life and simply tweaking our practices to keep them fresh.
CFBS: Why do you call these practices “habits of grace”?
David Mathis: Of course, the most common term is “spiritual disciplines.” I’m okay with the term, though it’s not my preference. I do include the term in the subtitle (“enjoying Jesus through the spiritual disciplines”) to help readers identify the genre of the book. By using the terms “means of grace” and “habits of grace,” I’m trying to keep principle and practice distinct (which can easily get blurred in the more general terms “spiritual disciplines”).
The biblical principles for accessing God’s ongoing grace — God’s “means of grace” — can be simplified to three: hearing his voice (in his word), having his ear (in prayer), and belonging to his body (in the covenant community of the local church). The practices, then — our “habits of grace” — are the personal rhythms and patterns of life we develop in light of God’s means of grace to position ourselves to keep on receiving his help. We build habits of life in light of God’s (three) revealed channels of blessing.
CFBS: Is this book about personal habits of grace, interpersonal habits of grace, or both? Why so?
David Mathis: The book is about both, and this is one of the most significant contributions I hope to make in constructing the book this way. Often the emphasis falls heavily on the personal aspect of spiritual discipline, such that it can take on an unintentionally individualistic feel. In some sense, that’s unavoidable — you can only address your reader, not his community! But in structuring the book this way, in three parts, and making one of those three parts to be exclusively about interpersonal disciplines, I hope to ring the bell, loud and clear, that fellow believers are essential means of God’s grace in our lives — and it is vital to cultivate habits of life that weave others’ lives into ours.
Part Two of this interview can be found here. Thanks for reading!
I recently finished The Boys in the Boat, and I enjoyed it from stem to stern. One part Seabiscuit, one part Unbroken, and one part Chariots of Fire, it’s the story of “Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”
In summary, it’s simply a good tale well told. The story itself is a fascinating one that for much too long has been little known beyond the lore of the University of Washington athletic department. Moreover, author Daniel James Brown is, like John McPhee, the kind of writer who can tell you how they mix concrete in Nigeria and fascinate you with it for 416 pages. Put the two together and you understand why the book was a #1 New York Times Bestseller and has sold well over a million copies.
Joe Rantz and “the boat”
Brown tells most of the story through the life of Joe Rantz, the last oarsman added to the University of Washington crew that eventually won the U.S. rowing championship and the Olympic gold medal only a few yards from Hitler’s gaze. (He’s second from the left in the photo.) I marveled at Rantz’s determination and endurance through obstacle after obstacle from his later childhood until his graduation from college.
Here’s an excerpt recalling Brown’s first conversation with Rantz, just months before Joe died:
His voice was reedy, fragile, and attenuated almost to the breaking point. From time to time he faded into silence. Slowly, though, with cautious prompting from his daughter, he began to spin out some of the threads of his life story. Recalling his childhood and his young adulthood during the Great Depression, he spoke haltingly but resolutely about a series of hardships he had endured and obstacles he had overcome, a tale that, as I sat taking notes, at first surprised and then astonished me.
But it wasn’t until he began to talk about his rowing career at the University of Washington that he started, from time to time, to cry. He talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars, about tactics and technique. He reminisced about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories and defeats narrowly averted, about traveling to Germany and marching under Hitler’s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and about his crewmates. None of these recollections brought him to tears, though. It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.
At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements? Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both— it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.
The deprivation and loneliness Rantz experienced during the Depression were heart-rending. In God’s providence, however (and by the way, this book is not written from an explicitly Christian perspective), what Joe suffered before and during his rowing days, and his grit in overcoming his circumstances (for example, to pay for college he worked one summer suspended by a rope while using a jack-hammer against a rock cliff) were the making of him.
Rowing, and much more
In 1936, as unimaginable as it seems today, collegiate rowing trailed only boxing, horse racing (think Seabiscuit, War Admiral, and others), and of course, baseball for the most column inches in the sports pages of newspapers. The national collegiate rowing championships—which drew from a relatively small number of schools—would sometimes attract 75,000 spectators to the banks of the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, NY, to watch crews of eight men row racing shells two or three miles.
Despite my lifelong love of sports and enjoyment of 20th century sports history, I had no idea rowing was once this popular in America. I knew it to be an Olympic sport, and that Oxford and Cambridge had been rowing against each other almost as far back as the time of William the Conqueror who rowed over from Normandy in 1066.
Now I appreciate so much about the sport, even if it’s as a landlubber who’s never been in a racing shell nor watched a race in person. The Boys in the Boat gave me (if only a reader’s) sense of the full-bodied exertion required in rowing, the various roles of each of the eight oarsmen, the coxswain’s many crucial responsibilities as “quarterback” of the boat, the possible strategies in a race, the finesse required of each stroke of the oar, the history of the sport in America, the exquisite craftsmanship of a master shell builder, and so much more, all with Brown’s mesmerizing touch.
I learned a great deal more than about rowing, too. Although I thought I knew a fair amount about the Great Depression, Brown introduced me to some of the hardships I’d not previously known, such as the unusual weather conditions during much of the early Thirties which resulted in the Dust Bowl. Along the way I discovered more about the Pacific Northwest, college life during the Depression, the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, and Nazi Germany (especially Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Nazi film producer Leni Riefenstahl), than I ever expected when I started the book. The Boys in the Boat is just a beautiful weaving of history and biography that pulls you into its tapestry.
“It has to be about the boat”
The story is so compelling that you may want to intermingle your reading with listening, so the Kindle edition with Audible narration combination is worth considering.
The website for the book, which includes a book trailer, is here.
I think it would be a great book for dads to read with their sons. If you have younger boys, there’s also a “Young Readers Adaptation” for readers in grades 5–9.
As Brown and Rantz finished their first conversation, the author writes:
I shook Joe’s hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.”
 Brown, Daniel James. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2013). Kindle Edition, p. 2.
 Brown, p. 4.