Wiser Devotions

Recently a dear friend kindly complimented a short article I wrote for Christ and Pop Culture asking whether we need a daily quiet time. She asked if I would flesh out my thoughts on ways to keep devotions fresh and beneficial. Here is the letter I wrote in reply.

The simple, central question we need to have about devotional time is this; What is devotional time for? The answer I keep coming back to, time and time again, is intimacy. Devotional time with God is for developing intimacy with him, for knowing him better, and for more closely aligning our hearts and our desires with his. Just like any relationship, the connection is built through time together, through experiences together, and through vulnerability with each other. Of course there are a whole host of reasons that intimacy with God has a different flavor and, in my experience, is more difficult. But the serious Christian mind can’t get around the absolute necessity of intimacy with God. Devotional time is all about helping us get that. And as such, the way we build our devotional time needs to be directed at achieving it.

Joshua Harris gave an excellent talk called Principle and Practice (you can find it online), in which he challenged his church with their tendency to wrongly lift up a PRACTICE (say, homeschooling your kids) as if it were biblical, when in fact it is not, rather than focusing on honoring the PRINCIPLE (such as loving your kids and overseeing their education and training). I think this is what happens with devotions, especially in conservative churches. As you say, it becomes a checklist- the practice of a certain type of quiet time becomes a matter of right and wrong, when in fact nothing in the Bible says this. And yet we see many things that devotions are trying to accomplish that ARE in Scripture; principles like the importance of knowing God’s word, closeness with God in prayer, and the pursuit of godly wisdom.

So whatever you do in devotions, whether my ideas are helpful or not, the MOST important thing is to design it in ways that help YOU grow in intimacy with God. If something is preventing that, change it! If some new idea seems to work especially well, incorporate it! My suggestions from here on out all have that goal in mind.

The Value of Structure

I don’t have to tell you that structure has value. I think it’s probably fair to say that you’re a more structured person than me as a general rule! But I think when it comes to devotions, we have the wrong idea about structure. For some reason we think that a)we have to follow certain structures even if they don’t work, and b) structure means doing something the same way every single time. My question to both those things is; why? If I was trying to grow in intimacy with my friend Bob by working out with him (the exact same way every time!), but it was resulting in boredom and zero healthy conversations (and weird muscle disparities), why would I keep doing it that way?

And yet the need for intimacy remains. So one big switch in my thinking was this: the best kind of devotional structure is structure in GOALS. That means that it is a good idea to set a devotional goal for myself, but a poor idea to assume I HAVE to do it a certain way every time. Instead, I want to focus on getting to that goal any way I can. And because we’re businesspeople, let’s say that our goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely).

Example: The month of August is beginning, and I’m noticing that I have an especially ugly attitude toward people. Humanity has lost any redeeming or redeemable value in my mind, and I’m constantly angry at everyone. I want to fix this. I decide that in this case intimacy means seeing humanity the way God sees humanity. So then, my goal for August is, “To see improvement in my love for others by the end of the month, as measured by my day to day attitude toward people at work and at church.” The first thing I want to do is to pray about that; asking God to help me accomplish that goal, to open his wisdom in this area to me, etc.

Now, there are a lot of ways I can get there. I can begin by doing a study of Genesis… reading through it, reading commentaries on the parts that pertain to my goal, etc. I can also read passages from other parts of the Bible that apply. I can read a book on the topic. I can read articles (of which there are MILLIONS for free online). I can do some google searches to find art or movies that might help me think about this area more. I can chat with friends or mentors about my ideas or questions. Each day, I can find a new way of advancing my understanding of how God sees humanity and work to mirror that in my own life. And most importantly, I can spend time praying about each of these things… asking that God would help me take them to heart, that he would give me a sense of how he thinks about them, etc. This approach is powerful because, as science tells us, our brains are stimulated by newness and change. By doing things this way, we are consistent in pursuing a devotional goal, but we allow ourselves to use simple tricks of human psychology to help keep us engaged and excited by that pursuit.

So by the end of the month, I have vigorously addressed a particular area. The structure of the goal helped me and gave me direction and a plan, without limiting me by becoming rote or liturgy. It also kept me open to new or unexpected insights… because my reading and experience is all over the place, I am prepared to be taught things I didn’t expect. And because I’m still taking in a lot of information, I am learning more than just my topic; I am building my theological framework for how I think about all of the Christian life. And as I take all that in, God and I have something specific to talk about. J I think those are the values of structure.

Oh, and one quick side note. A constant question in my mind this week has been this; “how does this apply to our brothers and sisters who are illiterate or don’t have access to a Bible?” It bothers me that so many Christians say something is sin (i.e. failing to have a daily quiet time of reading Scripture) when there are people in the world who do not have that option. THAT is a huge indicator that someone is mixing up Principle with Practice. So a big thing I like about the structured goals approach is that it gives freedom to the illiterate or Bible-less brother who can find alternative ways of developing his intimacy with God and still be faithful.

The Value of Flexibility

One difficulty with scheduled devotions in general, and even the structured approach I’ve advocated above, is that there are certain moments when we experience extremes; specifically, either extreme inspiration in a particular area or extreme challenge. These extremes command a response from us, but we can easily feel a challenge if we assume that our devotional schedule cannot change and yet our interest lies elsewhere.

That is why I would advocate openness to flexibility. Essentially, this means allowing yourself tangents from your structured devotions. One allowable tangent is time-sensitive, God-oriented projects. Perhaps you are asked to teach a Sunday School class on the book of Acts, but you are in the midst of studying the Old Testament prophets. It is OK to set aside the prophets for a time and to focus your devotional time on your lesson! I’m always shocked by how many people think this is an evil thing. What could be bad about that one week delay while you do something else that is just as legitimate in developing your relationship with God?

Another allowable tangent, it seems to me, is response to extreme emotions and circumstances. Perhaps I’m having a good month and I decide to delve into the theological nuances of soteriology. But a week into it, my friend tells me his wife had an affair and they are getting a divorce. Because intimacy with God (rather than following a schedule) is our goal, this is a good opportunity to use devotional time to cry out in anguish, to work through sorrow, and to know God’s will for times of trial more intimately. One specific example of this for me was September 11, 2001. We were in college, and that experience drove me (and, I assume, millions of other people) to more closely consider sorrow and why God allows such spectacular pain. There is no reason that I needed to spend half an hour every day in the week after that event completing my assigned readings of Leviticus.

A final helpful tangent is moments of inspiration. Sometimes some little thing in a book, or a movie, or something someone says in a good conversation will set your mind ablaze with possibilities, and you’ll be inspired to know much more about God in that area. It’s perfectly ok to lay aside your scheduled plan for a while so that you can pursue intimacy in response to inspiration, and then come back to your structured purpose later.

A key point here is that this has to do with MINDSET… recognizing that certain things are ok, and knowing WHY they are ok, so that you are freed to pursue them without guilt.

The Value of Feedback

We all know consistency is difficult. I think it is both ok and even important to find pragmatic ways to help ourselves grow in consistency. One of the best ways of doing this is getting feedback. I think it is helpful to get feedback and insight, even constructive criticism, from a friend on things like what they think about the devotional goals we’ve chosen, how we’re pursuing them, and how successful we are in accomplishing them. This is true because it keeps us accountable, but also because they help us see things we may have missed. Like a good editor for an article you are writing, a wise Christian friend can help streamline your devotional approach and can keep an eye on whether you are doing it. This tends to motivate us, and it also helps us with the M (measurable) part of our SMART goal. After all, who can tell you better about whether you seem to be progressing than a friend who sees your life?

I think too many of us grew up with this idea that there HAS to be a purely personal, separate-from-everything aspect to your relationship with God. Ok, I can agree with that to a certain extent. But who says we can’t use community to help strengthen us in that pursuit? And in what way is our time with God degraded if someone else knows what we’re doing in it? For that reason, I think being very open with someone about our devotions… and even about our devotional STRATEGY beforehand… is a good way to help keep us on task and inspired. I also think it’s a really good idea that this person KNOW they fill this role. In other words, it gives them a way to help you build and maintain your spiritual life without committing huge amounts of time or effort. You can simply write down your devotional goal for a time period, check in with them periodically to let them know how it’s going and what you’re learning, and then ask them whether they are seeing fruit in that area of your life. This also allows you to be quicker to challenge each other, because instead of arguing about “enough” devotional time or “filling a checklist,” you can focus on questioning each other’s growth according to goals that the other person committed themselves to. And of course you can be in prayer for each other, asking God to speak to that person in a particular area and to reveal himself in ways that help them grow.

One final note here is that we tend to grow more from experiences we remember, and we remember things better when we articulate them to someone else. Most of the stories about my life that I remember well are crystalized because I told someone a story about them soon after. This is a great practice for charting our devotional journeys… tell friends so they stay locked in your mind! This helps us a lot later on when we face that issue again.

The Value of Self-Forgiveness

To say it honestly, Christians have a history of using guilt to, “inspire” good behavior. The problem is that this “inspiration” also inspires resentment and bitterness and frustration. But time and again, Scripture speaks of the Christian life as, “freeing.” That is, when Christ enters your life you are meant to feel more free to live life the way God intended than any non-Christian ever can.

To me, this means that I need to be quicker to self-forgive. When I fail, yes, it is usually due to laziness and selfishness. But the way to correct it isn’t to wallow in self-hatred. The way to correct it is to get back on the horse. So forgive yourself when you fail and, making use of an accountability partner, get back at it!


So, here’s the short version of what I’d recommend.

Stage 1: Pray, asking God to give you wisdom in organizing your devotional time. Next, set a devotional goal for yourself, and set a specific time period for pursuing that goal. Write down some ideas for how you plan to pursue that goal. Finally, ask a friend to look over your plan, giving feedback on the basis of their knowledge of you, things to think about, new ideas that might be worth adding, etc. Finalize a basic (but always flexible!) structure for the time period.

Stage 2: Pursue it! And have fun. Consume Scripture, read recommended books, google articles, find people who disagree on the topic, write out an essay about how you answer a particular question, watch a movie that pertains to your topic… give your mind plenty of time to work through all the possibilities and to stretch in new ways.

Stage 3: Find ways to keep track. Tell stories about your experiences. Keep a record of the things you learn. Blog! Find a way to measure your progress.

Stage 4: Always be flexible. Allow yourself time off to focus on teaching a class or leading a bible study. Let yourself pursue a new idea you’d never considered, or respond to a time of strong sorrow or intense joy.

Stage 5: Forgive yourself. You’ll be imperfect, you’ll fail, and you’ll display the same weakness that every other human in all of time has displayed. Get over it and come up with a new idea.

Whatever you do, let intimacy with God be your constant pursuit, your constant joy, and a goal that never wavers even when we do. I’m hopeful that mindset will produce better results in your heart and in mine than we’ll ever get from rote practices and dry schedules.


Mary said...

Glad to see you back in the blogosphere, Ben! This was very encouraging. For some reason it made me think of a book I love by Walter Wangerin called Whole Prayer. Have you ever read his stuff before? I think you'd like it. Check him out.hy

blbartlett said...

Thanks Mary! Of course, i would suggest that writing for Christ and Pop Culture counts, but I see your point. ;-) Your blog, meanwhile, is my favorite personal blog ever! Thanks for the encouragement.