Many Christians from various doctrinal streams and denominational traditions practice some kind of devotional exercise each day. These exercises are known familiarly as “doing devotions,” or “having a quiet time,” and usually include Bible reading and prayer.
Some people also employ a devotional guide. There are old favorites like The Upper Room and Our Daily Bread, as well as popular new books like Jesus Calling. Christians from liturgical backgrounds often use the daily readings from the lectionary, which guide them through short texts from the psalms, the Old Testament generally, the New Testament letters and the Gospels.
The goal of these devotional times is not the fulfillment of a duty but the transformation of a person. Christians don’t “do devotions” to stay in God’s good graces but to come close to him. They believe the promise of St. James: “Come close to God and God will come close to you.” There is absolutely no merit in that, but there is a great deal of hope.
A disciplined devotional practice helps a person know God, just as regular conversations help a person know a wise friend. And, as in conversation, there is understanding and disclosure on the part of both parties. Oswald Bayer pointed out this dynamic in the devotional practice of the philosopher Johann Georg Hamann: “In reading [the Bible] he was read and in understanding he was understood.”
A regular time of prayer and devotional reading places a person in God’s hands as an instrument for good in the world. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book on the Psalms,
“The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer. The morning prayer determines the day.”
But as most people who have practiced a regular devotional time know, it’s easy to get in a rut. One can read the Scriptures and pray in a purely perfunctory manner. Or one can rush through the time in a way that robs it of meaning. Or one can come to the Scriptures to prove a point rather than to encounter God. When the routine becomes a rut, what can a person do?
Here are a few suggestions. Remember why you started a devotional practice in the first place. Was it to learn God’s ways? Was it to become the kind of person who could know God and be used by him? Clarify your purpose and then ask yourself if your current practice is helping you achieve it. If not, it’s time to modify your practice.
Stick to the basics. There are a few fundamental disciplines that have stood the test of time: solitude and silence, Bible reading, and prayer. Whatever else one adds to a devotional time, these should have a regular place. So take time to get alone, pray and read the Scriptures.
Use the basic ingredients, but don’t be afraid to alter the recipe from time to time. Solitude is one of the staples of the devotional life. That may mean going into a room, shutting the door, and closing out the world for a half an hour. But mix it up. Once in a while you should spend your solitude time in the woods or in a park. Take a day (or a half-day) at a retreat center. It is still solitude, but the variety will enhance your experience.
If your prayer time gets boring or mundane, try writing out your prayers and reading them to God. Or try praying the words of Scripture, a verse at a time, talking to God about the concerns you find there. Try praying aloud. Try praying on your knees or as you walk.
If your Bible reading has become mechanical, experiment with lectio divina. Or pepper your reading with questions: What is this about? Who is saying it? Where did it take place? Why is this being said? Try visualizing narrative passages. Or paraphrase what you read, as if you were writing it for a fifth grader. Same ingredients, different recipe, better devotional time.
Would a devotional time benefit an irreligious person? Probably. Why not try it? Time alone and in silence, with words of beauty and power, is bound to be uplifting for anyone. For the person intent on following Jesus, though, it is more than uplifting; it is empowering.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/19/2016