Research tells us it takes about three weeks to form a habit, or create a new rhythm, so that's what we're going to do. That's what the Cumulative Effect is; it's all of the small decisions that add up that create the biggest impact on our lives. Every day for the next few weeks, we're going to be sending short thoughts and scriptures to help keep us on track together. You'll be able to read it faster than you can brush your teeth (or, with a little skill—two birds, one stone).
This reading guide is designed to help you get the very most out of our new three week sermon series. Each day will feature a crucial facet of habit forming, you can check out each day below.
Week 1: Introduction
Start Small: What do you really want?
Have you ever asked yourself this question: what do I really want? While we might agree in our minds that we should want more peace, more patience, more joy—we might not be planting seeds to actually produce those things in our hearts.
More often than not, we spend the most time on our immediate wants—numbing our minds on a Netflix binge, filling spare moments with Candy Crush (is that just us?), grabbing a quick bite, cutting corners, or ordering on the app at Starbucks.
The first step to begin building habits that actually last is identifying what you really want. Do you want more peace? Joy? Contentment? If so, remember: habits form over time, not overnight. If we’re going to build our character, we have to start small.
This week we're starting in the Sermon on the Mount. If you're not familiar, it's a sermon Jesus gave to a crowd of people on a hillside. Everyone was accustomed to hearing religious teachers hand down more laws, but instead, Jesus invited people into a whole new way of life.
"Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get." (Matthew 6:1-2, NLT)
When was the last time you got really quiet? Our world is a loud, noisy place, and it can be easy to get lost in the hustle and trying to make our way to the top.
Jesus' way is different. While he might call you to big things, he'll always care more about your heart's motivations. Today, ask God to reveal the ways you do things to be admired by others, and how you can serve him in the silence.
Quick tips for practicing silence:
- Keep the radio, podcasts, and music off in the car.
- Get up early, before anyone else wakes up.
"But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you". (Matthew 6:3-4)
There's something you need to know about generosity—God doesn't only want something from you; he wants something for you. Ask yourself: do I earnestly believe this is true about God?
If your answer is 'yes', you know God to be loving, gracious, and kind. He is trustworthy, and every aspect of our lives can depend on his wisdom—even what we do with our possessions. Do you trust God with everything? Does the idea of giving what you have sound scary?
One of the keys to building generosity is starting small. If you're at ground zero, that's okay! We're all just taking one step right from where we are.
How could you generously bless someone today who isn't expecting it? Ask God to show you who that might be and how you could show them his love today. Extra points if you can keep it a secret!
"When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this:
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.".
(Matthew 6:5-14, NLT)
Spend some time asking God what he wants you to see in this passage. How can your character reflect his today? What would "kingdom come" look like in day-to-day routine over the next 12 hours? What would be different?
Read the whole passage through three more times throughout the day. Write down what stands out, and then put it into practice. Pray to God, and don't worry about getting all the words just right—he just wants to hear from you!
"And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you."
(Matthew 6:16-18, NLT)
Fasting is a deliberate choice to abstain from something for a period of time, but not just for the sake of being legalistic. At its core, the practice of fasting is meant to strip us of our comforts and distractions so we can only depend on Jesus.
What voice is louder than God’s in your life right now? Where do you go when you start feeling anxious?
Choose something to fast from today—food, media, Instagram, etc. Then, decide on a specific time to do it. While you fast, stay alert to what God might be speaking to you.
A couple things to note about fasting:
- First time fasting from food? Try one meal first, and work up to longer lengths of time.
- You might be able to do without screens for longer than you think. Check out this handy wisdom pyramid for reference.
"Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.
Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!
No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money."(Matthew 6:19-24, NLT)
Think about the masters you serve. If that seems like a daunting task, sit down for a minute and look at what you do with your time. Take a quick inventory of your money spending habits.
Is my life about accumulating more for myself?
Are my most precious resources being used to serve God?
Sorry, but there are no quick tips today. Choosing to follow Jesus with your treasure requires drawing some pretty hard lines in the sand. Just ask the rich man in Matthew 19:16-30.
"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." – Jim Elliot
"That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?"(Matthew 6:25-30, NLT)
It seems silly Jesus would compare us to birds and wildflowers, but the illustration makes our worries seem pretty small. If God is concerned with the wellbeing of birds, how much more then does he care about our worries and our needs?
When you find yourself thinking a worried thought, replace it with a prayer of thankfulness—anxiety and gratitude cannot coexist. The best way to prevent falling into an anxious, downward spiral is to always thank God for what he has given you. Today, thank him for what he's done for you and for all he will do in the future.
"So don’t worry about these things, saying, "What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?" These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. "(Matthew 6:31-34, NLT)
Every day presents new challenges. Of course, we can spend all of our time planning for every contingency, but doesn't that sound exhausting?
Instead of trying to play whack-a-mole with the problems in your life, Jesus is asking to narrow the focus a little bit. He's inviting you to take just a small step, day after day, seeking the Kingdom of God above all else.
Find peace today knowing Jesus is taking care of the rest and giving everything you need. Breathe deep and enjoy the day he has made!.
Week 2: Introduction
Start Somewhere: What stands in the way?
Last week, the big question was this: what do you want? Hopefully, you were able to set your sights on some spiritual destinations for the journey you're on. The challenge was to just take the next small step, and if you're still reading this, it's safe to say you've made your stride. Way to go!
The thing we never anticipate about new disciplines and habits is how much resistance we'll face. Our efforts for good are often immediately met with struggle and conflict because our enemy knows we are easily discouraged—we're weakest at the start.
If you've ever started a new workout regimen or done manual labor, you know what it's like to feel muscle soreness. Isn't it maddening when you start to do healthy things for your body and it thanks you by supplying pain all over? The same thing happens when you begin exercising some spiritual muscle.
In the next seven days, we're going to address some things that might discourage new spiritual growth. When you read each day, you'll be better able to identify lies you've believed and know how to respond to them. If you overachievers are trying to skip ahead, this week's scripture readings come from John 15:1-17.
"I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you." (John 15:1-3, NLT)
In this passage of John's gospel, Jesus wants everyone to understand two very important things: you can't expect to grow if you aren't connected to the vine (Jesus), and you'll produce nothing without a master gardener (God).
What things in your life have the potential to interrupt your connection to Jesus? Maybe it's spending too much time at the office, too much money on entertainment, or too many Sundays sleeping in. Today, focus on building that connection with him, and be open to what God might ask you to prune from your life.
He wants what is best for you. Will you trust him?
"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:4-5, NLT)
When we don’t see immediate results, it's easy to become frustrated. The Cumulative Effect is a gradual building up, remember? It can be tempting to take matters into your own hands, forcing yourself to be more kind, gentle, or loving. Sheer willpower is unlikely to ever overcome your resentful thoughts of others and unkind words to them. Try as we might, we need a lot of help.
God didn’t design us to muster through and get better on our own. He made us to be fully dependent on him. We cannot have more joy, peace, or patience by our own efforts. These fruits are only produced when we remain in him. We need Jesus every hour.
Where are you trying to get better on your own? Spend some time today asking for his help.
"Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile and burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!" (John 15:6-7, NLT)
Jesus' promise to his followers seems too good to be true. When we remain in him, we can ask for whatever we want, and it will be done?
Take a close look here—notice he didn’t say, “You’ll get whatever you want, just ask!” He said, “If you remain in me...” When we remain in Christ, we'll want what he wants, see what he sees, and love what he loves. Over time, his desires become our desires.
Where do you need God to show up right now? What have you been asking him for? Check your desires against his truth, and ask God to help you want what he wants. Just ask.
"When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!" (John 15:8-9, NLT)
When we practice patience, kindness, and self-control, it’s an outward sign that God’s grace has made its way into the root systems of our lives.
It’s the same with joy. Joy isn’t superficial happiness or a fleeting mood. Joy is an experience of depth and meaning, and it comes from the overflow of a peaceful heart. Would people in your life describe you as joyful?
Take inventory of your interactions from yesterday, and ask yourself if people would know you by your joy. Does your mood shift by the hour? Do people’s words have a stronger hold on you than what God says about you?
Jesus promises us that when we remain in him, we will be filled with joy. Live with joy today.
"This is my commandment: love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." (John 15:12-13, NLT)
How has Jesus loved you? Spend a few moments reflecting on the ways Jesus has loved you despite your flaws and rebellion.
As you pursue holiness, remember that these new habits and disciplines are not commandments. We're trying to move to a place where the Spirit of God can produce good fruit in our lives, and the moment we start to treat these things as law is the same moment our fruit sours.
Jesus did give us one commandment—love each other.
Here are a couple ways you could genuinely love someone today:
- forgive someone who hurt you
- help someone who can't repay you
- encourage someone in a trying time
"You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me." (John 15:14-15, NLT)
The Lord of the universe has called you friend. Let that sink in.
Of course, he deserves reverence, devotion, and obedience, but how often do we forget about his friendship?
It can be tempting to think of Jesus only as our savior, coming to rescue us from ourselves. He wants to do more than save you; he wants to be your friend—a constant companion and confidant. If you knew Jesus in this way, wouldn't you want everyone to meet him?
Pray God would give you a natural opportunity to share about your relationship with Jesus with someone who doesn't yet know him, and expect to get an answer!
"You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. This is my command: Love each other." (John 15:16-17, NLT)
We make choices every day, but not all decisions are created equal. Choosing between Golden Grahams and Lucky Charms probably shouldn't hold the same weight as choosing a college, taking the job offer, or finding a mate.
Jesus gives us the choice every day to follow him, and despite some good intentions, we fall short on a regular basis. But here's the good news: he's still choosing to love us and carry out his will through us.
Today, confess to him one way this past week you chose your desires instead of what he wants for you, and thank him for choosing you always.
Week 3: Introduction
Start Now: What are you going to do about it?
A brief summary of the journey so far—
Three clarifying questions to ask yourself:
What do I want?
What is standing in the way?
What am I going to do about it?
Three easy steps to take: Start small. Start somewhere. Start now.
One guiding principle to remember: The cumulative effect is a gradual building up.
Sounds so beginner oriented, right? You're starting out, you're building up, you're striving toward something, but where does it end? When will you arrive?
It's easy to get fixated on results and obsess about the destination. You might even be wondering if reading this every day is worth it because life hasn't changed at all. Work still sucks, your relationships aren't getting any better, and as far as you can tell, God's not all that impressed by your fresh interest in spiritual things.
The cumulative effect is a gradual building up, but it's no guarantee you'll get everything on your Christmas list. Spiritual growth isn't about getting what you want, it's about changing who you are.
"We don not want to be beginners. But let us be convicted of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!"
—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer
"Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself." (Galatians 6:1, NLT)
Sin is taking the good gifts God has given us and twisting them so the result is the opposite of what was intended. Because of self-centeredness, pride, fear, impatience, and temptation, we're always susceptible to being overcome by sin—all of us.
There are two things to point out here in the first verse of Galatians six; who and how. No one wants people they love to make bad choices, especially in light of the cumulative effect, but Paul is careful to mention "...if another believer..." He doesn't say if any of your "friends" on Facebook or coworkers in the office are overcome by sin give them a good talking to. Gentle humility is the most effective posture for helping others get back on track, not self-righteous lecturing.
If you've been worried about another believer lately, go to them and share your concerns. Remember all the times you've been miles off the right path, and give them the safety of your humble, gentle friendship to find their way back.
"Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important." (Galatians 6:2-3, NLT)
In a hyperconnected world where we're constantly aware of tragedy all around, sharing each other's burdens can seem impossible. That's because it is. When the world's problems are too much for us, it's easy to throw our hands up and say, "I'm too small to make a difference."
That's the lie the enemy wants you to believe. The truth is, when you shoulder a friend's burden with them, you can make a huge difference in their life.
Why not start today? Instead of staring down at a screen for breaking news, look up at the broken hearts all around you. Find someone today who needs a shoulder to lean on or an ear that will listen. Don't fool yourself and think there's nothing you can do—it's too important.
"Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct.
Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them." (Galatians 6:4-6, NLT)
Have you been playing the comparison game? Keeping up with the Joneses might not be your style, but it's hard not to want the picture-perfect relationship, family, or dog you keep seeing on your social media feed.
When you do the hard work of planting good character and spiritual disciplines, don't get caught comparing your circumstances to those of your friends, coworkers, or neighbors. Remember—spiritual growth isn't about getting what you want, but changing who you are.
We'll never change if we always get what we want exactly when we want it. Ask God today for patience and perspective, and trust him with whatever comes.
"Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit." (Galatians 6:7-8, NLT)
Most of America will give thanks today, and many might even share the things they're grateful for around dinner tables. Gratitude is a wonderful virtue; it has the power to wake us up to our spoiled, entitled selves. But for you, gratitude is so much more than a virtue.
Christ followers ought to be the most thankful people around. Even in the midst of life's struggles and setbacks, we can be grateful for a God who never fails, never gives up, and never stops loving us.
Our God has given us life and eternity with him, and that is something to be thankful for.
"So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith." (Galatians 6:9-10, NLT)
The Cumulative Effect is a gradual building up—not easy, but worth it. The easy thing to do would be to give in and give up. It would be easy to sleep in a little longer, stay out a little later, and quit. Don't do it.
When your friend betrays you and the damage hurts so much—keep praying; keep planting.
When you take another drink or get on that website again—keep praying; keep planting.
When your spouse isn’t responding to your efforts to invest—keep praying and planting.
When things don’t seem to be getting any better at work—keep praying and planting.
When the anxiety wells up and just won’t go away—keep praying and planting.
When the rumors aren’t true, when you're misunderstood—keep praying and planting.
When God calls you to do something big but you have no idea how—keep praying and planting.
Don’t give up. You might want to, and you might be tired. Trust the principle of sowing and reaping. Let it work for you. Trust God even when it doesn’t seem like the seeds you’ve planted will ever break through. They will.
"As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died. It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God." (Galatians 6:14-16, NLT)
Is it starting to feel like work? Many people see prayer, reading scripture, and even attending church as rules to keep and duties to uphold. Herein lies the difference between those who let the cumulative effect work for them and those who struggle against it.
Those who let the principle work for them see spiritual discipline as the road to freedom, not chains to bind them. When we work to develop godly character, we're giving God access to our hearts. He's the only one with the power to transform you. Richard Foster says it like this:
"The needed change within us is God's work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given." —Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth
"How will you give God more access today? What are you doing to let him inside?
"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me."
"Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:4-5, NLT)
There are typically lots of starts and stops in one's spiritual life. Maybe that's your story to this point. You've got short bursts of enthusiasm for church, or perhaps a crisis brings you to your knees after having spent some time disconnected. You're going to be tempted to do the same thing this time around.
Jesus says, "Remain in me." What's that mean practically?
Just show up.
"When it'd be easy to check out of the relationships holding you accountable, just show up. When you can only find five or ten minutes of the day to read the Bible, just show up. When it's cold out and you don't feel like going to service, just show up.
You can never know what decades of just showing up might produce.