Has Your Quiet Time Become a Burden?

As I close in on the end of this series about daily quiet times, I feel the need to address a particular concern.

I recognize that much of what I have written in the last few posts regarding traditional quiet time methods has been primarily cautionary and negative. I haven’t written much about the benefits of keeping daily quiet times, but focused almost exclusively on the pitfalls and problems of them. The last thing I want is for my readers (meaning you) to think I am advocating for the abolishment of personal quiet times.

Because I’m not.

I am, however, troubled by what I see as rampant naiveté in many Christians’ lives when it comes to the keeping of a personal “time with God.” As my previous posts have pointed out, we often go about these times all wrong. Either we force ourselves to keep certain disciplines that our personalities, thought-processes and specific backgrounds naturally oppose, or we treat our devotional exercises like corporate grunts dutifully paying our dues in order to attain a promotion.

"Well, Mr. Bowen, you seem like a hard-worker, but we find it discouraging that you only have 5 psalms memorized. You need at least 25 to be upper management material."

“Well, Mr. Bowen, you seem like a hard-worker, but we find it discouraging that you only have 5 psalms memorized. You need at least 25 to be upper management material.”

So, before I leave behind the negative aspects, let me offer one more note of caution. While any time spent with God comes with an element of sacrifice (because, c’mon, there’s always something vying for our attention besides God), the goal of a quiet time is not to fix us up into a more presentable version of what a Christian should be. The various exercises and disciplines inherent in a daily devotional time don’t fix us at all; what they do is open us up for the Holy Spirit to enter our hearts, minds, and souls and do his work, in his way, according to his timing. It’s like taking your car for regular tune-ups. Your main role is to hand your keys over to the mechanic – he doesn’t need you rolling under there with him and giving him advice on what needs to be done.

Maybe get some newer magazines in your waiting room if you don't want me bugging you!

Maybe get some newer magazines in your waiting room if you don’t want me bugging you!

The work of the Spirit is key to grasping the purpose of a quiet time with God. As I wrote in a previous post: “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.”

And yes, I’m aware I just quoted myself there. I’m as disappointed as you.

But let’s face facts. Three-weeks-younger Bo was right. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Therefore, he knows what to transform in us – and how to go about that transformation – better than we do. This being the case, when it comes to quiet times, sometimes “less is more.”

Well, not THAT much less.

Well, not THAT much less.

There came a point in my own struggle with keeping a quiet time that I began to question not just the method itself, but the individual value of each element. As I’ve stated before, the method that was promoted to me growing up consisted of a time of prayer, Bible study, Scripture verse memorization, and journaling. Time and again, this structure was referred to as the most comprehensive and beneficial method a young Christian could adopt. For me, though, the problem wasn’t only that this arrangement of specific exercises clashed with my natural inclinations and preferences for communing with God. It was also that I couldn’t help corrupting each individual exercise until they became hollow, futile and self-centered pursuits.

When it came to prayer, I quickly progressed from not being sure what to pray, to praying for just about everything and then feeling guilty later when I remembered things I had neglected to pray for. Consequently, I began keeping an extensive list of prayer concerns – friends who didn’t follow Jesus, family members in the hospital, church members who were struggling with some problem or another, friends of friends who were in need, the church leadership, the local community, the country’s leaders, world events, third-world strife, unsaved people groups… The list grew and grew and grew, until it not only morphed into a rote list of problems I wanted God to solve, but also became a terrible drain on my time and energy. I began to dread my prayer times, because after I finally spoke my “Amen,” I did not feel refreshed. I felt exhausted, empty.

"Seriously, these are natural. If you don't believe me, take a look at my prayer list."

“Seriously, these are natural. If you don’t believe me, take a look at my prayer list.”

As for Bible study, I did the best any young person unfamiliar with commentaries and Bible dictionaries could do, trying my best to understand what I was reading. Sometimes it was Psalms, Acts, or Philippians, and this was not so difficult. Other times, though, I’d try to get my mind around a passage in Ezekiel, Daniel, Hebrews or Revelation, only to end up shamefully shrugging my shoulders and assuming that I’d eventually break through to a deeper understanding that would accommodate such perplexing writing.

Besides, my goal wasn’t contextual comprehension, but rather the drawing of modern-day applications from the text. My focus was, What can this passage mean for meNo one ever told me I should concern myself with the historical context, the nuances of the language, or the original purpose of a story. There’s nothing wrong with looking into Scripture for personal direction, but if the entirety of your Bible study – both individual and in a group – is focused on personal application, you’re missing an incredibly intricate and rich tradition that carries a far greater purpose than helping you manage stress or know what kind of girl you should date.

"You're so Proverbs 31 and you don't even know it!"

“You’re so Proverbs 31 and you don’t even know it!”

And as my Bible study became more about me, so did my selection of Bible verses to memorize. I chose the ones that resonated with me, treating particular sentences with hardly more respect than fortune cookie aphorisms. To this day, I still use the little Bible I had when I was in high school, and every day I see verses highlighted in yellow – the ones I attempted to memorize a decade and a half ago. I’m not sure what motivated me to commit some of those sentences to memory. However, what bothers me more than my adolescent selectivity is that many of those verses were abducted from healthy contextual homes meant to provide sound interpretation.

For example, one of those verses I carried around with me, like a trimmed photograph inside a locket, was the second half of 2nd Corinthians 10:5, “…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I remember quoting that one often, always regarding the importance to think before I spoke – lest I utter a swear and “hurt my Christian witness” – or felt an urge toward angry or lustful daydreaming. Unfortunately, while that probably is good advice, it wasn’t Paul’s intention when he wrote those words. He was referring to how we deal with heresy – that we examine all spiritual teaching in light of Christ, which was something the Corinthians were failing to do with the false teachers in their midst.

"Dear Corinthians, I'll give you something to memorize..."

“Dear Corinthians, I’ll give you something to memorize…”

And I shan’t forget how efficiently I corrupted the exercise of journaling. If drawing personal applications from my Bible study bordered on self-centeredness, what found its way onto the pages of my journals was downright narcissism. Writing down thoughts doesn’t always provide perspective and guidance like we might expect. Sometimes all we end up doing is indulging in either self-pity (Why am I so incapable of __________?) or self-advancement (Realizing _________ shows how awesomely God is blessing me.) Sure, there are certain journal entries I can look back on today as documentation of major life decisions and important new shifts in understanding, but they are hidden within a sea of pages full of overwrought self-reflection, all of which serves as evidence that I refused to heed one verse in particular: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

There’s nothing wrong with journaling, setting down all your thoughts and fears on the page, as long as you have first relinquished control of those things to the Savior who reminds us that following him requires the denial of self, not the promotion of it.

"Blessed are those who keep diaries, for their sparkly pink pens shall never run dry."

“Blessed are those who keep diaries, for their sparkly pink pens shall never run dry.”

So, what’s the point of all this?

Simply that there exists no magic combination of exercises or disciplines that will make you into the kind of Christian you hope to be. There is no specific pattern or method that works perfectly for everyone. As we grow, learn, and mature, our personalities and interests and abilities shift in subtle yet profound ways. The way we interact with God has to grow and shift with that.

The good news is that the God with whom we seek to commune is abundantly merciful and infinitely patient. He doesn’t keep a short list of only three or four ways to connect with and inspire us. He is always with us – his Spirit indwells us, going where we go, whispering his truth throughout our days, whether we have our Bibles open and our highlighters uncapped, or we’re waiting in line at Chick-Fil-A.

Where real Christians go to love God and waste gas.

Where real Christians go to love God and waste gas.

I still have one more thing to say about personal quiet times – specifically about an actual biblical mandate for how to spend time with God – but I’ll save that for next week, and the final installment in this series. In the meantime, I encourage you to examine the things you do to commune with God and grow in his truth. Does it keep you grounded in his will and his sovereignty, or have you made it all about you? Don’t be afraid to change things up, because God’s fervent desire for a relationship with you never changes.

Is There Something Wrong with Your Quiet Time?

In a post dated August 5th, I promised to expound on the misconceptions of “quiet times.” This follow-up grew so lengthy that I feared it would put off even the most dogged of blog readers. I decided to break it down into five smaller posts, each detailing a major problem with keeping a traditional, daily quiet time. Here is the first installment of this series. 

young man reading small bible

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.”

Though this is totally on the level! (he said with heavy sarcasm).

Though this is totally on the level! (he said with heavy sarcasm).

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.

"Commandment 11: Thou shalt give Oswald Chambers's MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST to every graduating high school senior..."

“Commandment 11: Thou shalt give Oswald Chambers’s MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST to every graduating high school senior…”

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.
Is that the best you can do, Jimmy Gourd?

Is that the best you can do, Jimmy Gourd?

  • 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.
Rich boy.

Rich boy.

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.

"You call that a psalm, son?! I only count three metaphors! What would your Uncle Asaph think?"

“You call that a psalm, son?! I only count three metaphors! What would your Uncle Asaph think?”

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.

On Quiet Times

I am a morning person.

That term is often used to describe someone who can wake up at some ungodly hour as alert as a fighter pilot passing through enemy airspace. Someone who doesn’t need even a hint of daylight to begin his or her day. This is not what I mean when I say that I am a morning person. Pulling away from the embrace of sleep and actually putting feet to cold floor does not fill me with positivity. The cold water I splash on my face in the bathroom is not the symbolic christening of a new day, but a necessary dousing for my senses to reactivate, like smelling salts under a boxer’s broken nose. I brew my first cup of coffee with a kind of desperation – the Keurig is never slower than at 6 AM.

No, I am not a morning person because I have no problem waking up early. I am a morning person because I recognize the value of the early morning hours. As a father of pre-schoolers, there are precious few stretches of silence in my house, and the ones that come after evening bedtimes find mine and my wife’s collective strength sapped. I have hardly enough energy to watch an entire Dateline episode or read more than a single chapter of a novel.

Shows like this are more compelling when you're brain is already half asleep.

Shows like this are more compelling when your brain is already half asleep.

So, despite the difficulty, every weekday I rise earlier than the rest of my family. I stagger down the hall to the kitchen, clumsily trying to avoid the creakiest of the floorboards, and hold a yawn so pronounced that most of my coffee brews before it dies away. Then I pick up my coffee, my laptop, my Bible, and whatever book on theology I’m currently working my way through, and I tip-toe to the living room. There, on the sofa under the lamp, I have my “quiet time.”

Growing up in an evangelical church, I heard that term a lot – quiet time. While there is no specific mention of the concept in Scripture, I was taught that, above all things, the obedient Christian is one who keeps a daily quiet time.

And the über-spiritual take it to the next level.

And the über-spiritual take it to the next level.

If you grew up in the Church, too, chances are you’ve heard the importance of something like this expressed. Most of the teachers I had in my youth not only encouraged the keeping of a quiet time, but they usually offered a formula for what one looked like. A quiet time, they said, consisted of the following:

  1. prayer, not only for myself but also for a list of other people (and a good Christian always kept a list)
  2. reading the Bible – either a Psalm or a Gospel story or a portion of a letter – with or without the aid of a devotional book (until you graduated to concordances and commentaries and thus added the spiritual discipline of cross-referencing into your quiet times)
  3. journaling, in which you muse on the intersections of life and Scripture, or perhaps write out your prayers (before Facebook and Tumblr suggested we share those thoughts and prayers with everyone everyday).

I spent years trying to make this formula work for me. I was white-knuckling it, trying to force an enlightenment that I was told was the natural product of keeping this practice faithfully.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that, just like the Sabbath, a quiet time was made for the person, not a person for the quiet time.

That awkward moment when you're unsure whether or not you just read something heretical.

That awkward moment when you’re unsure whether or not you just read something heretical.

It took years of student ministry for me to realize this, but after dozens of conversations with frustrated young people, I finally wised up. My heart went out to them, because they were struggling with the same deep sense of guilt that I struggled with, all because they had missed a day here and a week there, or because after months of forcing the formula, they felt very little difference in their spirits. Not only were they result-biased, but the drudgery of keeping the formula had cultivated an aversion to both prayer and Bible study within them. They were sick of it, but stopping meant conceding it was all for nothing.

"I bought my journals in bulk. I can't just stop!"

“I bought my journals in bulk. I can’t just stop!”

Next week, I will explore some of the reasons why people fail at the traditional quiet time formula as often as others succeed. In the meantime, however, let it be known that I have no “better way” to offer in its place.

What I have is what is unique to my own experience, but I think that is part of the truth about “quiet times.” What I have is a steaming cup of coffee, a laptop, a Bible, and a whatever book on theology I’m currently reading. What I have is a silent house and a sofa and a lamp. What I have is a physical body that is not ready to wake up, but a spirit that is eager to be awakened. So I do what I can for it – I read a short passage of Scripture, and part of a chapter on theology, and then I turn on my laptop. I work on the same old novel, or on a short story, because telling those stories engages my spirit more than any journal entry ever did. And after showering and dressing, packing my bag and heading off to work, I realize that I am happy, that God wants me to be happy, and that he has made me a certain way, with particular interests and energies, none of which should ever be formulated or templated for anyone else.

In the car, I breathe out prayers of thankfulness. I thank God that his mercies are not carrot-and-stick. I thank him that I have been remade – a new creation he sees and declares to be good. I thank him that there is no such thing as an ungodly hour.