A daily “quiet time” isn’t biblical.
Please don’t get me wrong – spending time with God is totally biblical. The Bible is filled to the brim with examples of people who intentionally spent time in prayer and individual worship, not to mention reflection influenced by the scriptures. However, at no point in the Old or New Testaments is there a clearly described plan for what we in the Church today refer to as a “daily devotion” or “quiet time.”
Now, when I refer to keeping a personal Bible study and prayer time, I am referring to a genuine desire to spend time with the Creator and invite his Spirit to transform your life, bit by bit, inch by inch. If, however, you are the kind of person who keeps a quiet time out of obligation and cold compliance, it is safe to say you’ve already got the whole endeavor backwards. (More on that in a later post…)
So, how dare I insinuate that a daily quiet time isn’t biblical?
It’s not to argue against the value of a quiet time, but rather to dispel the myth that keeping one is an explicit command found in Scripture.
First of all, let’s look at the individual parts of a standard quiet time. (I am going off of the allegedly tried-and-true formula passed down to me by many a Sunday School teacher and youth camp leader when I was growing up).
- Bible study – Let’s ignore the fact that the closest thing ancient and first-century Jews had to devotional books was Rabbinic midrash; it would have been nearly impossible for common folk living in either testament’s time to engage in personal Bible study as we know it today. While we have evidence that portions of the Oral Tradition was written down as early as the second millennia B.C., it wasn’t like these writings were available to common folk. Thus, the Jewish people are reminded many times in the Pentateuch that Scripture (specifically the words and acts of God to his people) was not something to be studied over time, but intrinsically remembered. Which brings us to the second component…
- Scripture memorization – This discipline was actually quite prolific. As Judaism developed its educational system, the core curriculum was the memorization of the Torah, and for those who progressed into higher levels of training, it expanded to rote learning of the entire Hebrew Bible. This is one of many aspects of Jesus that is so fascinating. While he showed a phenomenal, interpretative grasp of the scriptures and taught with a level of authority that suggested deep advancement within rabbinical training, he is also derided as a country bumpkin and the son of a blue-collar worker. Given the importance of scripture memorization to the general public back then, my own struggle to commit to memory two measly verses from Ephesians seems pathetic by comparison.
- Prayer – The question isn’t whether the people of the Bible prayed, but how many of them compartmentalized their prayer lives into one specific time of day. Not many. For one thing, it was Jewish custom to pray at multiple times during the day, publicly or privately as circumstances dictated. Secondly, we are reminded several times by NT writers that one’s prayer life should be unceasing – that we pray continually throughout the day, rather than in one pre-determined time. This wasn’t a radical new teaching, but simply a return to the kind of faithfulness implied in the Law, the goal of which was deep communion with God.
- Journaling – Most of us are aware that very, very few biblical heroes had access to writing materials with which they might accomplish this part. A chisel and stone, maybe, but papyrus was pretty hard to come by. Sure, the Jews had been writing things down for centuries, and Peter, Paul and the apostles were able to write letters. But always having a Mead notebook at the ready has been a luxury reserved only for the last century’s worth of Christians. Perhaps this is why Jesus wrote in the dirt – it was readily available.
To sum things up, what we find in the Bible is that the children of Israel – and, later, early Christians – are commanded to remember the laws and stories, and to pass them on to future generations. Scripture, therefore, was not just a self-improvement tool, but a living, definitive history that enveloped the nation. Even before it was written down for a select few to access, there was a deeply communal aspect to the receiving of Scripture. This is something I never considered when I used to sit alone in my room trying to come up with modern-day applications from 2nd Chronicles.
So, how does this reality shed light on why and how we engage in a quiet time? Simply that what Scripture encourages is a regularity and an intentionality to a person’s Bible study and prayers. It does not insist on a set pattern. Sure, the ancient Israelites had a very strict set of regulations for temple sacrifice and worship, but those constraints didn’t carry over to the disciplines of prayer and reflection. These balls were left in the court of the worshipper, to not neglect but go about in a humble, authentic manner. This is why we can read the Psalms today and recognize a great variety of expressions to and about God. Because no one was requiring one particular method of devotional articulation.
If you feel your quiet time has lost genuineness – if it has become more about doing something for God rather than being with God – I encourage you to take a lesson from the very scriptures through which you’ve been slogging. When it comes to righteousness, what counts “is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6). A quiet time is meant to undergird one’s relationship with the Lord. We don’t do it so God is obligated to transform us. We do it so that his Spirit might find our hearts and minds opened to his guidance and provision. It is an expression of loyalty and love, not a set of daily chores.
Having opened this series with what quiet times shouldn’t look like, in my next post I will do my best to consider how they should look. There’s certainly more that needs saying. However, may these words from Frederick Buechner be a point of reflection in the meantime:
Be importunate, Jesus says – not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door… because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself.