In the last post, I suggested that those who are serious about their spiritual growth should stop using “devotionals” and instead focused on devotional reading of the Bible. Using the Bible for devotions does not take much more (if any) time than using other books but the results are worth the effort. In this post, I would like to offer some practical suggestions on how to get started.
What is it?
The purpose of devotional reading is slightly different from critical reading (the kind of reading we do for study). Devotional reading is not so much an examination of the text as it is an apprehension of the text. Of course, devotional reading should be built upon a correct understanding of the text but the emphasis is on applying what we do understand rather than studying. This is why devotional reading cannot replace Bible study. The two are complimentary. As we grow in our understanding through study, our devotional life will be deeper because we will be seeking to connect and apply even more of God’s Word. Likewise, as we grow in our devotional life, we will begin to have a better understanding of the relevance and importance of the doctrines we learn from studying. Devotional reading is about our submission to the text and our desire for the Holy Spirit to change our lives through its truth.
Where to begin?
A common question is where to start. Often, people want to begin at Genesis 1 and read straight through. If you have that type of discipline great, but most people do not. For those new to devotional reading I suggest beginning with Proverbs or James. Both of these books are rich with practical application of Biblical wisdom for daily life that can be examined in short sections. This is not where I would recommend a person begin to study, but I have found that people who are new to reading devotionally find it easier to identify points of application in these books than in most others.
How Does it Work?
The Bible is like a field planted by God that yields spiritual food to those who labor there. If we keep that in mind, we can easily remember the four steps to this method with the acronym R.E.A.P.
Step 1. Read
The first step in the reading process is praying for God to bless your devotion. Then, if you are unfamiliar with the book you want to use you should quickly read the whole book just to get a feel for how it flows. You do not have to do this all at once but it is better to read large chunks. Trust me, taking the time to read the book first will pay off later, if it takes a few days or a week that is OK. Be sure to read large sections if you cannot read the whole book and do not try to study or figure anything out, just get a feel for what is going on in the book and how it flows. If you are already familiar with the book, the pre-reading is not necessary.
Once you have a general idea about the book, you can begin a more focused reading. Each day, read a passage that contains a single unit of thought. In most books, this is typically not a single verse or sentence. In the New Testament letters for example, it will usually be a paragraph. In Proverbs and James, it is usually a cluster of verses. This tends to be where people have a hard time because our tendency is to want to stop and focus on each verse. Do not put too much pressure on yourself. If you find yourself constantly wanting to stop after each verse, just read the next one and think about how they fit together. With practice, it starts to get easier to see where these divisions are. Just do your best to try to expand beyond single verses while staying within a paragraph.
Step 2. Examine
The next step is to examine what you read. In this step, you are looking to identify what is clear from the passage. If there is something that is unclear, such as a figure of speech, a particular vocabulary word, or reference then you might want to make note of it and come back to it in your Bible study time. For the purpose of the devotional exercise, however, you want to focus on what is clear from the passage.
- Is there a promise given?
- Is there a sin exposed?
- Is there an instruction or command given?
- Is there a truth about the Father, Jesus, or The Holy Spirit revealed?
- Is there something that is clear but seems strange?
Step 3. Apply
In this step, you work out the significance of what you understand from the passage for you personally. This is the bridge between merely reading the Bible and submitting to its authority over your life. This step is what makes it truly devotional because it is at this point that you are devoting yourself to living by the Word.
- If promises are given, are they for all believers generally? How do they apply to me?
- If there is sin exposed am I guilty and in need of forgiveness and repentance?
- If there is an instruction or command given, how does it apply to my life and circumstances, and how do I faithfully respond?
- If truth about God is revealed how does it help me know Him and serve Him better?
- We will address those things that seem strange in the next step.
Step 4. Pray & Meditate
In this step, you pray through the passage you are reading. The Christian life can only be lived through the power of the Lord and if we are serious about being transformed through our devotional time, we must seek Christ’s help through prayer. Praying the actual words of God helps keep us disciplined and focused so that we avoid developing a lazy, shallow, or selfish prayer life.
To do this, simply work your way through the passage taking each statement and rephrase it as a prayer. In order to avoid self-centered prayers, formulate each statement as both a personal prayer and a prayer for others. You might know someone in particular who could use the prayer or it could be a general prayer. Usually, the more specific you can be the better.
You can apply any passage in prayer many ways but let us look at an example:
“2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4, ESV)
“Father, forgive me for my grumbling and my complaining. Forgive me for the weakness of my faith and the lack of my maturity and trust in you. Father please give me the faith to count it as joy when I meet trials of various kinds. Remind me Lord that the testing of my faith will produce steadfastness. Let me, a sinner who has inherited all things through the suffering of my savior, not shrink from enduring suffering for a short time. Help me depend entirely upon you so that my faith might produce steadfastness and I pray Lord that steadfastness would have its full effect and that I will be made complete, lacking in nothing because I have you. Father, I know that many brothers and sisters are facing trials far worse than I. I pray that they would be encouraged and strengthened. I pray that your name would be glorified through the testimony of their faithfulness.”
Notice that it is not any kind of rote formula but you want to stick closely to the actual words used by the Holy Spirit. The key is that you are organizing your devotional prayer life around the specific teaching of the Word of God. I promise you that if you do this it will expand and deepen your prayer life and your appreciation for the Bible.
The last part of the “prayer” step is ongoing meditation. Throughout the day try to take every chance you get to think about the truths, you encountered during your devotional time. As you reflect on your reading, you may be surprised how many connections you can make. This brings me back to #5 from the Apply step. When we read the Bible there are often little details that just do not seem to fit in the way we expect. You should consider it a blessing whenever you run across one of those because they are like treasure maps! The more time you spend in the Word the more of these details you will notice. Often, it will require study to uncover the fullness of these gems, but if you just think about them carefully, they will draw you deeper into the Word.
I have written about this a few times before but let me just give you one more example here:
I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. (Revelation 1:10-13, ESV)
Notice the way that verse 12 is worded, “then I turned to see the voice”. Does that not sound strange to you? How do you see a voice? Is this just a quirk of ancient language? Maybe, but until you study it you will not know. What you can do throughout the day, however, is to think about this passage and what is happening. Why does John record it that way? Who is the voice? Obviously, Jesus is the voice. That is interesting and opens up a whole series of questions. What does a voice do? What is this voice doing? How do those things relate to Christ? Is there a connection between Jesus as The Word and Him being described here as the voice? Are there other places in scripture where God is associated with sound? Where else is God associated with voices?
Perhaps you can see that something as simple as this can open up all sorts of potential connections within the Bible. You may find in study that some of these were dead ends but throughout the process, you will be absorbed in thinking deeply and devotionally about what the Bible teaches and how it does so.
If you follow this process or something similar I am confident that you will be further ahead than spending the same amount of time reading an off the shelf “devotional”. I promise that believers who are looking to grow spiritually who do this type of devotional reading along with regular Bible study (preferably with other believers in a local church) will not be disappointed.