This is the first post in a two-part series. The second part will be posted on Wednesday, July 8th!
Over the course of my entire life, my Christian communities have hammered away at the importance of regular devotions, or “quiet times.” Over and over I was told– rightfully so– that growth comes from reading God’s word and spending time in prayer. Spiritual disciplines were infused into my time with family, at church, with family friends, and even at school. In high school and college, messages about the importance of devotions persisted and grew louder, climaxing in my time in college, where in campus fellowship the importance of quiet time and Bible Study are unceasingly preached.
This post is no polemic against daily devotions. I believe that the regular practices of cultivating a relationship with God through hearing Him speak (in Scripture) as well as speaking to Him and listening (in prayer, meditation) are essential for the lives of believers. I believe that the Holy Spirit is able to use devotional time to transform our wayward hearts. But I also think that the church’s messages about “quiet time” are often unhelpfully simplistic — especially towards young people who may still be learning to cultivate consistency in their time with God in the context of the Gospel.
Perhaps this is due to selective memory, but as those messages about the importance of daily quiet time were reinforced again and again, I don’t remember a time when I was also told that I didn’t need to have one to be saved. Granted, no one explicitly told me the opposite — that I needed to have daily devotions to earn my salvation — but the implicit message always seemed to lean more towards works instead of grace. This, combined with my already- legalistic personality, caused me to internalize so much guilt about not doing devotions that I couldn’t comprehend God being ok with me not doing them. My entire understanding of devotional expression was devoid of Gospel grace.
So, for years, I had chugged along with daily Bible readings and compulsive prayers. Despite my flawed understanding of time with God, He was still gracious to work through that time and grow my knowledge of Him. My quiet times were a little fruitful, but that fruit was limited by legalism. Finally, after my freshman year of college, a mentor was bold enough to show me the extremity of grace and I began to see that my quiet time could not save me.
This past school year has followed a different devotional trajectory. After a fall semester of consistent and vibrant time with God, I hit a difficult winter break and eventually gave up having a conventional quiet time altogether. This stop was fueled by some very deep anger and frustration, but was also very intentional; aware of my struggles at the time, I felt that disciplining myself into daily devotions would be more hurtful to my faith than it would help. For the first time since I was eleven, I allowed myself to let go of consistent daily devotions.
I really wrestled with this decision to exist in intentional passivity (an oxymoron, I know). It felt wrong, but I also felt like I had no other choice. Would God ever lead someone to a place of not doing things that were so clearly right? Is there ever a space where it is ok to not engage in traditional spiritual disciplines? Even more, I felt scared to be honest with my friends about where I was at, lest they grow overly concerned and begin to think I was falling away from my faith.
Over time, I began to realize that allowing myself to exist rather passively in my daily spiritual disciplines was an exercise of accepting grace. I never expected that season to last indefinitely, but only for a short while; and that short time was a serious acknowledgement that I could not do anything to please God or progress my own spiritual growth. For the first time, I put my hands up and gave my relationship with God to God Himself.
I don’t recall these experiences to prescribe them for others. The season I spent without a traditional quiet time was most definitely not a spiritual ideal, and only happened because I was already really struggling. I wouldn’t encourage it for anyone else. But after reflecting for a while on that time in my life, I’ve come to understand that more nuance is necessary in typical messaging about the spiritual disciplines. Here are a few of those realizations.
God’s presence and power are not constrained to an hour at a desk.
Well duh, you might say. It’s a simple truth at first glance, but is much more challenging when deeply considered: there are innumerable ways to commune with God. Contemporary evangelicalism is often reticent to highlight ways to be with God outside of Scripture, prayer, corporate worship, or fasting; I think this is out of fear that overemphasizing His presence in nature or in other people could lead to idolatry or even heresy. This fear may not be unfounded, but it can lead to a kind of quasi-gnosticism that rejects the material world as inherently bad. But the material world cannot be bad; God Himself declared it good and we have it to see glimpses of Him.
In the time that I intentionally did not force myself to have a traditional quiet time, I spent a lot of time outside. Certain places and paths became sacred as I walked with God and poured out my heart in solitude. I learned about His glory by studying His creation. Because of that time outside, I never felt like I fully left the presence of God even though my traditional devotions had taken a pause.
Don’t get me wrong, here– I don’t think that time outside or time with others can directly replace God’s word indefinitely. But it can certainly function as a wonderful supplement.
Legalism can make even the best spiritual disciplines harmful.
The essence of Christianity is this: In our chosen sin, we could not meet a holy God’s standards of righteousness, so in order to be with Him (a place of ultimate flourishing, where we were created to be) He made a way by Jesus’ death and resurrection. This was all by grace and not because we earned it.
Legalism is an attitude of the heart. It says that by creating more rules we are able to bring God’s righteous standards to a level that is achievable to imperfect people. It can make the pursuit of holiness horribly mired in what one does or does not do for God, putting the weight of one’s salvation on their own shoulders (a weight we could never carry). When spiritual disciplines become co-opted into such a mindset, they work against the truth of the Gospel.
Prayer and scripture are some of the most valuable gifts God has given us, and as such, it makes sense that Satan would expend a great amount of effort to twist our thinking so that they actually lead us away from truth. In order for quiet time to be fruitful, we must pray that God would protect us from legalism and saturate our spiritual disciplines with knowledge of His grace.
In January, I had come to a place where my historically legalistic pursuit of God was really hurting my faith, and it took a season of surrendering to my inability to earn His love for me to begin understanding grace better.
Grace is not earned and it is not fair; that’s why it is utterly amazing.
Grace is getting a gift that we do not deserve; mercy is not getting the punishment for sin that we do deserve. I’ve written on the “unfairness” of grace in former posts, so I won’t expound on it here.
But how does this fit in with verses like James 2:14, where James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” I think what James is saying here is that “faith” which is proclaimed but does not lead to action is not really faith at all. True faith is transformative, and leads to evident fruit (often seen in works); yet faith is only given by grace, and any resulting works are only done by God’s power in us.
Personally, I have a very hard time understanding this and reconciling grace with the fact that reading Scripture and prayer are works that are good and necessary. I am still on the journey of understanding this mystery, and day by day God is showing me what it looks like to seek Him well — without legalism and with joy.
At the end of the day, we can take heart that God’s grace covers those who follow Him at all times — in seasons when seeking Him feels natural and at our worst moments when we struggle to crack open our Bibles. For those who do devotions regularly out of duty and for those who find it hard to have consistency in their quiet times, God’s grace does not discriminate. Fortunately, for individuals on both sides of the spectrum, there are a few things we can do to reshape our view of devotional time — more on that in my next post!