Monday, March 1, 2010

The Heresy of Personal Devotions

As some people may be aware, one of my personal "hobby horses" is to speak out against the "salvation by personal devotions" paradigm that seems to be prevalent within Christianity. This mentality may also be expressed as being "saved" by a "personal relationship" with Jesus.

Now, there are a number of reasons why I am troubled by this type of paradigm, but in talking with someone recently, he brought up another point that I had not really clearly thought about before in relation to this topic. That is, the idea of having "devotions" is a very watered-down approach to how the Christian should approach the Bible.

Think about it for a second: how many times have you heard someone give a talk or sermon in which they admonished the audience with something along the lines of, "Folks, if we are Christians, we should make it a priority to spend time with Jesus each day. And it doesn't need to be three hours. Start your day off with 15 or 20 minutes, reading your Bible or praying"? They may even encourage a whole 30 minutes to this exercise.

Now, don't get me wrong: 15 or 20 minutes is probably 15 or 20 minutes longer than most Christians spend a day reading their Bibles or praying. It is more than I spend some days. But such an admonishment falls infinitely short on many levels:

1. It presents "personal devotions" as if they were some "pill" you can pop where, by adding water, abracadabra, you all of a sudden have this thriving experience with the Lord.

2. It very dangerously makes each individual the initiator of his or her walk with the Lord. And, all through out scripture, God is always the one who does the seeking, pursuing, and wooing (see Isaiah 50:4ff, Luke 15, etc).

3. It distorts the meaning of the term "devotion." And this is completely ironic: we encourage "devotions" so much but we have watered-down the meaning of the word entirely. The dictionary defines the word devotion as "profound dedication" or "consecration." Twenty minutes in the morning is hardly a reflection of being "devoted" to anything, much less the Lord.

4. It inherently encourages minimalistic thinking. The truth of the matter is, so many of us are minimalists. We will always try to do the minimum of whatever is required of us. And when we hear so much that we should spend 15 minutes a day in our devotions, we often flatter ourselves into thinking that if we can simply read a quick devotional thought in the morning (usually not even from the Bible, but rather from something like Chicken Soup for the Soul), then we are doing enough in our walk with God. We are some how "saved" because we have at least spent a few minutes with God.

Now, I'm not saying that the answer is to all of a sudden change the "requirement" to 45 or 60 minutes. This is not the point at all. We shouldn't put a time expectation on this. Nor am I saying that we should even tell people to have devotions at all (it inherently sets up "Old Covenant" thinking if not done in the right way, I do believe). But, maybe we should some how lift up the beauty of deep and consecrated and enjoyable study and prayer time with God.

Let me share something with you that I have shared before: I remember I had professors in the seminary tell me that my devotional time in the morning was not a time to worry about reading from Greek or Hebrew or figuring out the nuances of a passage. That time is to be simply "devotional" or "inspirational."

Now, besides the fact that I do not know how you can be inspired by something unless you know what it is actually and truly saying, do you see what type of mentality pastors are being trained to promote?? Hey, I'm not saying everyone needs to know Greek or Hebrew or syntax or whatever. What I am saying is that we should be able to encourage people in such a way that they will want to dig deeper. They won't be satisfied with an "inspirational" thought or two in the morning, and then move on to their morning coffee or newspaper.

I don't mean to be so negative in this post, and in many ways I am preaching to myself first of all. But there are a few passages in the Bible that uplift the intimacy that Christ longs to have with us. And if we're not interested - we'd rather watch the Super Bowl or Grey's Anatomy - God is not going to force us into a relationship with Himself. He will continue to seek, pursue, woo, and knock, yes. But, again, if we insist on turning down His overtures, He will have no choice but to say, in the end, "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:23). And, in so doing, He will simply be giving us what we want.

One of those instances is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The wise virgins had plenty of oil - the Holy Spirit - in their lamps, while the foolish ones didn't. And when the foolish virgins came back from getting more oil, only to discover that the party had moved on without them, and the door had been shut, they cried out to the bridegroom, "Lord, Lord, open for us!" Sadly, the bridegroom's response was, "Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you" (Matthew 25:12).

Heretofore the virgins had refused to open the door when the bridegroom had knocked (see Luke 12:36 and Revelation 3:20), so He was able to read their hearts when they came knocking on His door. And he truly didn't know them because they had never taken the time to get to know Him.

And such is a sobering account for us to keep in mind: there will come a day when Christ no longer knocks on our doors because we have passed the point of no return.

The second passage is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 where Paul says that there will be many "who perish because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved." Saved by having a "love of the truth"? Is Paul serious? Apparently. Yet, sadly, many of us do not have that agape love for the truth. We may have a foggy idea of what that truth is, but very few of us would sell everything to study, understand, and dissect that truth.

The truth of the matter is, we have come far too short of uplifting what true intimacy with the Lord is all about. So let's raise the standard. Let's lift up Jesus so high that people won't be able to help but spend hours upon hours a day reading His word, digesting it, pondering it, tracing themes through out scripture, studying passages that appear confusing at first but bring about incredible satisfaction once understood - and then applying all these discoveries to their every-day lives.

Yes, this is true devotion. And this is what the Lord is lovingly trying to draw from our hearts.


Kyle Baldwin said...


Anonymous said...

I do think I need to spend more time in Daniel, chapter 11. As I got into it this morning, I thought. "I have never conquered this chapter." Maybe now is the time! Time to devote myself to it!

Anonymous said...

I need to devote (!) more time to in-depth study of some parts of the Bible I have not yet begun to conquer. This morning I started with Daniel 11.

Dingo said...

Thanks for a lot to think about. It is very timely. A lot of wonderful time could be spent in the Word just with the concept of seeking the Lord. In Psalm 9:10 we have that promise "Thou Lord, hast not forgotten them that seek thee." Are we seeking Him?

But who really initiated that seeking? Psalm 27:8 is a delightful surprise - "When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face Lord will I seek."

Each morning before I open my eyes, my first words are to God, reaching out to Him – seeking Him; but that would not happen if He were not wooing and drawing me first. We can do nothing of ourselves.

Each morning when I spend 20 or 30 minutes in the Word, praying and asking for instruction from it, seeking what God has to show me for this passage, that would not happen unless he initiated my seeking.

Throughout each event of the day, laced with times of seeking/praying, how could I even remember, let alone desire to seek God in prayer unless He initiated the seeking.

Then, in the longer study sessions (which the devil seems to fight so hard to derail), when I seek to know something more of God - his character, law, salvation - I cling to His promise that my seeking is not fruitless. He promises that when I seek Him with all my heart, I will find Him. But still, who really initiated my seeking? Would I even care about that magnificent promise unless God had put it in my heart to seek.

At least in some part, devotion is a relationship of seeking and even baby steps toward tasting that life and finding it good are a beautiful thing - God drawing us toward Himself in baby steps, then more mature steps until, Like Enoch, we walk with God.

Staci said...

I so agree with this post and will probably share some thoughts from it in a seminar presentation I'm doing next month on how to have a vibrant devotional time. Just one other thought. There are some (sometimes me) who spend their devotional time just researching and writing and walk away about any personal "inspiration". That is another danger. I have decided that my devotions cannot be all about preparing studies / sermons /etc. for sharing with others. It has to be about God speaking to my heart. While we want people to study deep, we also need to encourage them to make sure they are letting God speak to their own heart. It makes all the difference!