If you read this title and immediately felt a twinge in your gut, then you are in good company. Keeping a consistent, thriving devotional life has been one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines for me to cultivate, and I suspect the same is true for you.
A number of factors have contributed to my lackluster performance on this front, including:
Timing - I allow other well-meaning events take charge of my schedule
Priorities - I place a greater emphasis upon other activities that take my attention away from faith.
Desire - May I admit that sometimes I just don't feel like it? Are you with me?
I am constantly convicted and reminded by a quote from Oswald Chambers that reads, "The greatest enemy of the life of faith in God is not sin, but the good which is not good enough." This characterizes so much of how I used to life out my faith, including my devotional life.
In seminary, my perspective began to shift on the meaning of personal devotion. To some extent, I can trace this shift to the moments when I began to feel the weight of responsibility bear down on me as the reality of becoming a Pastor became clearer in my vision.
Moreover, I can recall an "Aha" moment when I began to see the purpose of a devotional life differently from personal study. Prior to seminary, I used to equate my personal devotion time, which I am defining as prayer and Bible reading, as my time for Bible study. This frustrated me because whereas I desired to be nourished by the word, I could not prevent myself from reading Scripture through an objective lens.
Over time, I learned that Study and Devotion are not synonymous terms. Rather, they are separate categories for how one uses the Bible.
To study the Bible is an intellectual exercise in history, literature, and theology. One uses reference materials when studying Scripture, such as commentaries. One may also go so deep in study that he or she may learn the original languages and reference other extra-Biblical writings for clearer understanding. Bible study, while a necessary part of faith formation, views the Bible as an object for intellectual pursuit.
Personal devotion, on the other hand, uses the Bible for the sake of encouragement, personal growth, and edification. Devotion is water for a dry, warn out soul. It is bread for a weary beggar. One could experience these attributes during a study, but the key difference between Study and Devotion is Criticism.
Studying is critical thought. Devotion is open mindedness and stillness to hearing the still small voice of God move in your heart and soul. Through my devotional life the Holy Spirit moved in my life in such ways that revealed sin to me that I refused to see, encouraged me when I felt low, compelled me to act when I felt fearful, and so on. These actions could have only happened through my devotional life, for that is the result of investing time into prayer and reading Scripture. In my life, that investment of time has NEVER returned void!
Over the years, I have developed a couple of simple practices that have helped me keep this perspective during my devotion time:
First, I play Christian music in the background and set the tone for my environement. Some people like it soft, but sometimes, I like to blast it - loud and strong! Find your centering piece. Set the environment to your liking. Make it conducive to your needs.
***Caveat: if you practice your devotional life while commuting or located in some other public place, first of all, good on you! Do it whenever and wherever you can! Setting an environment may prove difficult, but find whatever works for you. Again, staying consistent in prayer and reading Scripture is the goal, however that looks for you.
Second, I say a simple prayer that I read once from C.S. Lewis: "Lord, May the real me meet the real you," and then I ask the Lord to open my mind, settle my thoughts, and care for my heart.
Third, I choose a playlist of songs ahead of time, depending on my mood and schedule for the day. I select the number of songs based on my allotted amount of time, which keeps from constantly looking at the clock. This allows me to stay focused on reading and prayer until the music ends.
Fourth, Regardless of whether or not I use a devotional book, I always read from Scripture. Sometimes, a devotional book keeps me focused on a consistent line of thought, but I never replace a book with the Bible.
Fifth, I do not compare myself to other people. Some people follow strict Bible reading plans that even I, a seminary graduate, cannot keep up with. I read at my own pace. This is my devotional life, not anyone else's.
Sixth, I always ask these 3 questions of Scripture. These questions help me get closer to the heartbeat of God in the passage:
- What does this tell me about God?
- What does this tell me about myself?
- What does this tell me about others?
Seventh, Take notes, annotate, journal, and go slow. I write in my Bible. Sometimes I place a little question mark next to the verses that do not make sense to me. Sometimes, I like to journal. I do not let these practices dictate what I do. I also do not let myself feel pressure to stay consistent with these practices. Remember, the goal is to read from Scripture and pray. Period. Everything else is icing on the cake!
Eighth, I do it everyday, regardless of my schedule. Even if I can only carve out 5 minutes, which has happened, I make it a point to stay consistent and do it everyday. This keeps me accountable, honest, and open to the movement of the Spirit in my life, in my family's life, and in my church.
Ninth, I always close my time in prayer by following a rubric called ACTS: I give ADORATION to God, I CONFESS my sins and failures to God, I THANK God, and I ask for SUPPLICATION from God to keep me through the day.
You can make your devotional life come ALIVE by simply giving God's Word a chance to change you. From personal experiences, I can promise you that it will!
QUESTION: What kinds of circumstances prevent you from coming ALIVE with your devotional life? What can you do today to choose Jesus by choosing your devotional life?