Tuesday, January 14, 2014

If You are Serious about Spiritual Growth, Set Aside Your Devotional

I know that there are good devotionals and I know that many people have benefited from the daily discipline of reading them. Even so, I am confident that most people would be better off if they replaced their devotional books with daily devotional Bible reading. After all, the Bible is the source of truth and life. Anything worthwhile that you will find in any devotional has its source in the scripture. The Word of God is sufficient for every spiritual need and it alone has the promise of God to be effective. Relying on devotional books rather than reading the Bible is like locking yourself into your house at noon on a summer day and shutting up all the doors and windows so you can read by candlelight.

Many people have asked me through the years if I could suggest a good devotional book. I always suggest the Bible. When I give that answer, I often see a look of disappointment come across the face of the brother or sister who asked. Perhaps they think I am being sarcastic or teasing but the answer is truly and humbly the best suggestion that I know to make. Frequently, people think that they do not have time to invest and are looking for a quick dose of spiritual insight. Also common, however, is that many Christians are concerned they are not equipped to use the Bible devotionally. These concerns need not prevent believers from devotional use of the Scripture and the effort to overcome them is well worth it.

In this post, I will briefly discuss a few reasons why the Bible is better for devotional reading than other material. In the next post, I will give examples of how to use the Bible for devotions.

Why is the Bible Better?

1)      The Bible alone is the Word of God. Any other material is only useful to the extent that it accurately communicates the truth found in the Bible (2 Tim 3:15-16). God has provided the scripture for our spiritual nourishment and growth (Mt 4:4). The connection between the Word of God and our sanctification is so strong that it would require a separate series of posts to work through (Jn 17:17). It is probably not an overstatement to say that our spiritual maturity can be measured by our growth in the Word (1 Jn 4:6).

2)      The “good” devotionals I mentioned above are selections of readings from the Bible followed by a few questions. These can be helpful especially to newer believers because they guide you through the process of thinking about the passage. Those who are serious about growing spiritually, however, will benefit greatly from exercising their ability to ask questions and make their own observations and applications of the text (2 Tim 2:15). It may take longer to get going in the beginning but so does chewing your own food. After a bit of practice, you will find that you enjoy the process (Ps 119:103).

3)      Unlike the “better” devotionals mentioned above, most devotionals are really more of a form of commentary or scriptural application on a short passage. Many of these books reinforce bad habits that are not beneficial to disciplines that support deep spiritual growth over time. Often they are filled with examples of taking scripture out of context, oversimplification, or reducing God’s Word to motivational literature. Serious meditation on the Bible involves a respect for what it intends to teach (Heb 2:1). Taking a point (even a true point) and using out of context Bible verses to support it is a bad habit to get into. We are to be people of the Word and our use of the Word should respect it as a system of truth. Likewise, applying promises and platitudes out of context in order to make us feel better or get motivated may in fact be exactly the opposite of what is most needed in our spiritual lives (Heb 12:7).

4)      Connected to the last point is that frequently devotionals have an imbalanced focus. They often focus on what God has done or can do for us out of proportion with reflection upon God’s glory or our weakness. The Bible does talk about God’s love and His blessings but it also convicts us of sin and shatters our selfish pride. God’s purpose in His word is not just to encourage us, but to recreate us. He knows what lessons we need and His word is perfectly balanced (2 Tim 3:16).

5)      Finally, many devotionals often lead to a habit of thinking superficially about God’s word. “Devotional” is often just a code word for “not too deep or complicated”. Real growth occurs, however, when we wrestle with the profound truths of God’s word. Reverence rather than cuteness or pithiness should characterize our devotions (Prov 9:10).

Why Lack of Time is not a Good Reason to Avoid Devotional Bible reading

  1. The fact is that we make time for what is most important to us. If we are simply trying to fit our devotional time into our otherwise too busy schedule then we have the wrong priorities (Mt 6:33). If our devotional exercises are simply a religious ritual that we check off each day then we should probably just sleep in or use the time for something else (Amos 5:21-23).

  1. I talk a lot about the need to invest time in reading and studying the Bible. I think that is very important, but I am primarily talking about sustained engagement throughout years of continual study and meditation. I am not talking about marathon sessions in individual sittings. If the average person spent even 10 to 15 minutes a day, consistently, in devotional Bible reading I think they would be surprised at how significantly their thought life would change.

You do not need to be a teacher or an expert to do it

  1. People sometimes assume that when I suggest that they use the Bible for devotional reading that I am expecting them to become highly trained theologians. When I suggest that the Bible be used for devotional reading, however, I am not talking about systematic Bible study. Proper Bible study should also be something believers learn and that does take time but even young teenagers and new Christians are capable of using the Bible for devotional reading with just a little help to get them started. Devotional reading and Bible study are not exactly the same thing but they are complimentary. We should always seek to base our devotions on proper understanding of the text and our study should always have a devotional end in mind. The more time spent directly in the Bible will increase our ability to do both. In the next post I hope to help make this connection a bit more clear.

  1. I am convinced that most people would actually be less confused about the Bible if they spent more time reading the Bible and less time reading other material. I just typed “devotional” into the amazon.com search bar and 51,876 entries came up.  I recognize there is an important place for other Christian material, but it should always be supplemental. Unlike other types of Christian literature, people often primarily use devotionals as substitutes for reading the Bible itself. What are the chances these 52,000 books are consistently reflecting upon the truth of the Bible? I am certain that if the goal is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds then the time would be much better spent actually meditating upon the truth (both plain and difficult) contained in the Bible.

In the next post, I will try to help those get started who may want to use the Bible for devotions but are not sure how to get started.