Your Daily Devotions Cannot Save You, Pt. 2

This post is the second half of a two-part series. Before you read further, go back and look at “Your Quiet Time Cannot Save You, pt. 1” if you haven’t already!

In the last post that I wrote, I recalled some of my personal struggles with having devotions and some realizations I’ve learned about seeking God in a context of Gospel grace. Much of the post focused on what quiet time is not rather than a constructive vision for what it could be. In this post, I’ll try to do just that.

One of my fears (for myself and for others) is that in approaching quiet time, we would buy into a subtle yet pervasive lie that American culture feeds us daily: if it doesn’t feel good or is too hard, we shouldn’t do it. Yet God does not prioritize ease and convenience when it comes to His work in the world or in our lives; case and point, if God wanted the building of His Kingdom to be convenient for Himself, He would not have chosen us rebellious humans as his primary agents of change. We know from the Bible that the hope of Christ is not for lives of comfort, but rather strength during life’s inevitable trials (1 Cor 10:13, James 1:2-3, Romans 5:3-4). Jesus Himself went through the most horrific discomfort and suffering to pay debts for sin that weren’t His (Matthew 27); the night before He was crucified, He experienced such grief and stress that he sweat blood (Matthew 26). Comfort is not God’s goal when it comes to our sanctification.

Therefore, though my former post may have given this impression, I don’t think that a healthy approach to devotions is one that says, “I’ll do it only when I feel like it.” There are many times in life when we are called to do things we may not want to do — like exercise, eating well, or taking care of those around us. Just as taking care of our bodies and others requires discipline that transcends our wavering feelings, so taking care of our relationship with God will require persistence in the face of difficulty and stagnation.

Yet, as my own story from “Your Quiet Time Cannot Save You, pt. 1” shows, there is some nuance to this. I grew up in a home where this message of grit was preached and embodied constantly. My mom made all of my siblings and I do numerous things we didn’t enjoy– playing classical music for years, summer math workbooks, etc. — because she wanted us to learn to work hard at meaningful pursuits we didn’t always enjoy. I took this to heart, but over the years my approach to “gritting through hard things” in my spiritual life went unaccompanied by a healthy amount of emotional awareness. I kept going and going in my same, narrow vision of devotional time that I got burned out, legalistic, and more frustrated with God than I had ever been. An approach to quiet time that sees time with God as obligatory, guilt-driven, or necessary for God to love us can be just as unhealthy as the one that only kneels down to pray when prayer feels good.

How does one navigate between these two extremes? I think the key lies in a comment Molly made when she originally edited my former post: at the end of the day, devotions are not about us. They are about God. This doesn’t mean we ignore the emotional and spiritual warning signs that uncover unhealthy motives for spiritual disciplines; it merely means we reform our understanding of devotional acts to be focused on His character, work, and presence and not what we are getting out of it. Invariably, to go to God with a focus on self (for anything from self-justification to feeling good) will only ever produce limited knowledge of Him and of ourselves. However, to go to God with a focus on Him will bring abundant personal knowledge of Jesus. And as it happens, deeper personal knowledge of God often leads to deeper knowledge of ourselves — our sin and inadequacy, our need of the Gospel, our identity as grace-clothed children empowered by the Holy Spirit.

So if there’s anything you take away from this post it’s this: to reshape our approach to time with God, we must actively reshape our vision of God, Scripture, and Prayer. I think this process is cyclical in nature; as we spend time with God, we know Him better, and because He is good and faithful and constant, we are driven to deeper desire to seek Him even more. To dive into this, here are a few ideas I’ve found helpful over the years!

We do not have to spend time with God, but we get to spend time with Him.

As I just mentioned, simply reframing devotional time can really prevent it from becoming legalistic. Quiet time cannot save, nor must I do it to please God. He is already pleased with us because of grace. And yet it is incredible that God so loves His people that He makes Himself freely available to them. God is not a scrutinizing taskmaster looking to see when we slip up or miss a day in our 365-day devotional book or Bible-reading plan. He is a loving Father who desires to be with us, however that time looks.

Consider it for a moment: the God of the Universe, who stands outside of time, made the earth with a mere command, and defeated death wants to spend time with you and I. We don’t need to sign up for an appointment on His cosmic calendar. We don’t need to give Him a week of advance notice. He’s available all day, every day, for our entire lives, and not only is he available, He eagerly desires to be near and fill us with His life-giving presence.

Whenever I take a moment to consider these marvelous realities, I can sense my approach to devotions being infused with joy and delight. I don’t have to spend time with God for Him to be pleased with me, but I get the privilege of doing so all the time.

The Bible is God’s love letter — inspired by Him, written for us to know Him more.

Have you ever received a love letter? If you have, you know the thrill of opening it and reading each carefully crafted, affectionate line with delight. You know the joy of feeling valued because someone you love took the time to write to you. A mentor once told me that the Bible is God’s love letter to us– His way of articulating who He is, how He feels about us, and what He has done for us. This did a lot to reshape my understanding of the Bible.

There are a couple of things that make love letters different from any old letter you might get in the mail. The first distinction is the letter’s content — unlike a quick thank-you card from an acquaintance, a love letter contains sentiments of adoration, appreciation, and care. The words on the page are a vehicle to express the writer’s deeper love for the recipient. So it is with Scripture. The entire narrative of the Bible displays God’s love for His people, His faithfulness even when they rebel, and the stunning lengths He goes to redeem them. This love is seen both in the words of individual verses, chapters, and books as well as the entire meta-narrative.

The second aspect of love letters that sets them apart is that their value to the reader is largely derived from the person who is writing it. Affectionate sentiments and verbal promises are nice, but are less valuable (or even weird) when written by someone who is less close to the reader. There is an added level of dimension and pleasure to reading a letter from someone you love rather than a mere acquaintance. This is because the letter mediates a relationship that is experienced intimately both inside and outside the words on the page. The letter itself shows the reader more about the writer, facilitating bonds that extend beyond written communication. With the Bible, God’s love comes through powerfully when we are reading from a place of an abiding, loving relationship with Him that are not constrained to daily quiet times.

In prayer, we are reminded of our need and brought into dependence on the most faithful Provider.

Putting prayer in a similar light as Scripture and considering it as loving communication with a God who loves us can go a long way in refocusing our understanding of devotions on God Himself. If prayer means talking with our lives’ great Love, why would we not want to do it?

And yet I think there are important places where time with God in prayer (in combination with Scripture) diverge from the analogy of a loving, healthy human relationship. The act of prayer is necessarily an act of humility, because in coming before God we admit that we do not know everything, we cannot control everything, and we are quite insufficient on our own. Whether a prayer means we pour our hearts out in supplication or simply meditate on Truth in silence, it is an admission that we are desperately in need. This reality ought to drive us to depend on Him for everything — a dependence that would be unhealthy in any human relationship, but which is the most healthy place to be when it occurs in our relationship with God. God is all-sufficient, unlimited, and perfect; to rely on Him in faith is exactly what we were created for. To rely on anyone else for ultimate wholeness will only ever lead to hopelessness and pain.

While recognizing our sin and insufficiency is painful, and while dependence on God can feel uncomfortable, God promises to faithfully provide everything we need to do what He has called us to do (Isaiah 41:13, Isaiah 54:10, James 1:5, Deuteronomy 31:8, Isaiah 40:21-31). This simple truth can lead to peace unimaginable.

All of these reframing strategies point to the deeper reality that time with God must be driven by a desire for and knowledge of Him. Their purpose must be to know God more, to depend on Him, to bask in His glory, and to submit to Him. Without these basic desires, devotions simply become another task to do in the morning at best and a route to self-justification at worst. When we choose to see scripture, prayer, and any other spiritual disciplines as desirable gateways to access the presence of a loving God, it is much easier to desire them.

James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” God is faithful to plant these desires in our hearts when we ask Him for them. Furthermore, our actions can play a role in cultivating a desire for God by taking action. As CS Lewis points out, “When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” The growth of our desire from God is a gift of grace which we can actively take steps to receive.

Ultimately, God is good regardless of what our spiritual habits look like. Whether you are like me and approach time with God as a legalistic duty or whether you struggle to open your Bible outside of Sunday service, it is by His grace that we are able to seek His face and grow at all. Both our salvation and our spiritual growth are in His hands. We can trust that, by grace, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6), through seasons where we look forward to quiet time and in times when we struggle to have consistency. It has taken me some time of untangling my own legalism and spiritual burnout before coming to a place of renewed desire to be with God. But slowly, by His mercy, He is reminding me of His goodness — in times when I pursued Him every day and when I gave up altogether.

For anyone in ministry, any parents who may come across this post, or anyone involved in discipling and mentoring young people, I’d like to paint a rhetorical vision for you: what might it look like to encourage youth to spend time with God not by hammering messages about the act of quiet time, but by so captivating their hearts with a vision God that they cannot help but want to know Him? What might it look like to teach the importance of the Word and prayer but in a way that reinforces the radical grace of the Gospel instead of hindering it? What can it look like to trust that God loves our students and youth more than we — that the growth of their relationship with Him happens by the power of the Holy Spirit alone?

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