I’ve had several conversations in the last week about devotional life – about the balance between flexibility and structure. And about how the spiritual disciplines need not be construed as legalism.
LEGALISM is the false (and BLASPHEMOUS!) thinking that by our puny, repetitive actions, we can add to what God has done. That we can expand His grace. That we can multiply His kindness.
It would be like attending a huge lavish banquet put on a by a king and laying an Oreo on the buffet table as my contribution. Legalism is me thinking that I can add to the spread.
Providing our own spiritual help is like holding up a candle to help the sun. Or a squirting a drop of water into the ocean.
But the spiritual disciplines, rightly understood, are our means of going to the banquet and then going back over and over. Even when we don’t feel hungry. Even if we’re sick. Even if we’re think we have plenty of our own food. We go back to His table – and our appetites are stirred – our senses are sharpened – and we get food. This isn’t legalism – it’s privilege. Charity! Benevolence! Grace.
We’re rhythmic creatures. We typically do certain things at somewhat regular times: daily, monthly, seasonally. Somethings we do based on our physical needs (eating and sleeping) – others we do because that’s when they’re done (seasonal, holiday events) – others we do because we have to (bill paying, car maintenance, medical care).
Those patterns have reasons:
Try telling your mechanic that you find it legalistic to change your oil as often as he says you should.
Try telling your dentist that regular appointments are too rigid.
Try telling your family that you’re doing Christmas on July 4th.
Well – there’s a similar reason for having patterns and habits for our spiritual wellness – our spiritual equilibrium. Jesus describes it as “abiding.”
“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” ~ John 8:31-32
We tend to resonate with the idea of: “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” but the big IF that precedes it often gets overlooked.
IF: you abide in my word
THEN: you are my true disciples
AND: you will know the truth
AND: you will be set free.
So – what is it to abide? A Bible dictionary will tell us that the word suggests dwelling, staying, residing. Remaining. My dwelling in His word is how I abide in Jesus! And it is the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading and prayer that keep me there. Jesus was talking to people who had believed in Him – but the next step was to abide in him.
Jesus tells me to ABIDE in the His word – it’s the means to my knowing truth and gaining freedom: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.“ ~ John 8:31-32
Then Paul tells me to let the word of Christ DWELL in me – it’s my means of building up those around me: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” ~ Colossians 3:16
This balance of abiding in while I’m being dwelt in – how mysterious! How merciful of God to give us this means to His sustenance. In our world of continual pings and notifications and alerts and distractions – how do we abide? I would suggest: the SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES HAVE NEVER BEEN MORE CRUCIAL. The setting apart of time, emotional space, energy, and focus for what will feed, comfort, stir, and challenge me.
How do I abide in His word and have His word dwell in me? By reading it and praying over it and pondering it. Simply that – in varying patterns for the changing seasons of life.
A daily time in the Word is not legalism. It’s life.
It’s my inner life (my knowing and my being made free).
It’s my community life (encouraging others with what I’ve gleaned).
There is no rigid form about time in the Word. But the daily commitment to it is me saying to myself: this matters! This is for me! I can tell you from personal experience, that a disciplined habit of being daily in the Word has kept me in the Word when I didn’t want to be there. There have been days, months, even years, when I have plodded to the feast each day – had my nibble and gone back again the next day. But that daily little nibble provided me with a glimpse of God, a promise to hold, a rebuke to heed, a hope to live in, a vision of Christ – and even, most days, some crumbs to share with others.
Our daily feast is both just enough and more than enough:
- manna (just enough for the day) – “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion everyday.‘” ~ Exodus 16:4
- and Jesus’ overflowing baskets (more than enough!): “And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” ~ Matthew 14:20
“They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.'” ~ John 6:34-35
Where to start?
– While there are many devotionals available, I encourage you, first, to just read the Bible. There is bounty there. If time and energy and focus provide, then delve into other devotional materials, biographies, and theological books. There is certainly worthy and helpful reading there – but the Bible should be our first course! If I’m not reading my Bible, I have nothing to compare my other reading to – I have no plumb line with which to judge it. You don’t have to do the same thing every year. Create a hybrid of plans and habits that fit into your life patterns.
There are a trillion Bible reading suggestions online – an endless buffet! Here are a couple of my personal favorites:
- Read the whole Bible in a year – there are many plans for this!
- Read the New Testament in a year – there are many plans for this!
- Justin Taylor does a great job listing and linking many Bible reading plans: https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2015/12/28/reading-the-whole-bible-in-2016-an-faq/
- Crossway has a great list here: https://www.esv.org/resources/reading-plans/
- Handwritten Bible – this is a favorite devotional practice of mine. I just write out a chapter. I’m gradually working through Psalms. What stands out to me when I write out passages is completely different from when I simply read a passage or hear it. I mark up what the passage says about God and what it says about me.
- The Proverb of the day – there are 31 – just perfect for a month! This is a good to read to the family at a meal time. Always applicable!
- A Psalm of the day – there are 150 – just perfect to read through twice in a year! A whole book of praise and prayer and encouragement.
- A Psalm for the year – choose one Psalm to mark the year (linked to either your age or the calendar year). My 50th year was especially memorable as I focused on Psalm 50. Psalm 17 would be a great marker for 2017. I so wish I had started this practice when I was 15 – imagine the wealth I could have amassed in a daily – weekly – yearly laying up of Psalms riches!
- 5 Psalms and 1 Proverb each day – get through Psalms twice and Proverbs twelve times in year!
- Treasure searches – choose one theme or word to search the Bible for (blessings, light, path, sin, children/parents, womanhood, mercy, justice, money, heart, etc.). I must mark them in different color or symbols – my husband (aka “my brilliant engineer”) does his marking in engineer-black. Not sure how he can stand that but he does!
- Audio Bible – from my house to the freeway is about 15 miles. What can I listen to in that time? some inane radio programming, some intriguing news show, or a whole epistle!
- Daily Light – I know said I don’t suggest using devotionals before the Bible – but the exception to that is Daily Light because it is ALL Bible! Daily Light was first published by the Samuel Bagster family in the 1790s. There is a Bible reading for every morning and night of the year – all Bible – no human editorial commenting! The Bagsters have strung daily verses together around a general theme. Given that they’re taken out-of-context – occasionally, the connections seem to be a bit of a stretch. But, I’ve been helped many times to seeing connections that I wouldn’t have seen on my own. I’ve been doing Daily Light for over 20 years. There have been seasons when that nibble first thing in the morning and last thing at night has been the bulk of my Bible food for the day but usually it is the bookends of my day – with some more substantial meals in between. In that Daily Light was used by Amy Carmichael, Elisabeth Elliot, some of the Hudson Taylor family, some of the Graham family (Ruth Graham started reading it at 10 and as an old woman she commented that she couldn’t remember a day of her life that she hadn’t read it), and countless others, I feel the kindredness of reading the same passages on the same days that many of my brothers and sisters have for generations.
- There are many versions of Daily Light. The one I use is Daily Light for Every Day – mainly because of it’s pretty leather cover and it portable size. Crossway has a beautiful edition of Daily Light on the Daily Path. Crossway also has an excellent version of Daily Light in their online Bible and on their app. There are usually many copies of Daily Light on sale on eBay and Amazon.
A word to parents of the young: don’t be discouraged that you don’t have as much focused time as you’d like! Don’t attempt to do too much but don’t do nothing. Isaiah offers us this beautiful image: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead these that are with young.” (Isaiah 40:11-12) You are led by a strong and gentle shepherd. It is the Shepherd’s job to feed and protect you. It is your job to come to the feeding trough and eat.
You young mothers – you need sleep. God knows you do. He knows our frailties. Sleep when you can! But you also need food. Food to sustain you – to help you to sustain your children. While you nurse, you can eat! While you sit at the table with messy, reluctant eaters, you can eat! Instead of scrolling through Facebook – scroll and read a chapter of something – read it to your soul and your kids! What can you read in that 30 minutes? Probably at least a chapter or two of eternal wisdom. What does 30 minutes on FB give you – except the draw to spend 20 more minutes? Enjoy looking at your babes and eating eternal food. You don’t need to instruct much – just as you don’t give a nutrition lesson every time you serve a meal. You just eat – tell them where the food came from and that it’s YUMMY!
You young fathers – with those little ones always trailing along: let your children see you reading the Bible. Listen to an audio Bible as you shave and get ready for your day. Wrap up in a blanket by the heat register and chomp on a passage. They’ll listen in – they’ll interrupt – they’ll distract you – but they’ll see that this matters to you.
Let your children’s Bible time be yours, too! If you have the habit of reading a Bible story book for your children – let that be part of your own devotional time. Don’t read passively – the way you could read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Sometimes the most simply expressed Bible stories can allow us to see complex things we’ve overlooked before. Let your children’s questions and observations stir your faith.
What I want you to know is this: God will give you the time and the food you need. It may not be as much as you’d like. But, if you keep up the habit of Bible-eating – different seasons will yield more time to feast.
The Bread has been broken for you, my friends. The feast is spread. Come, eat!
Jesus says: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall not thirst.” ~ John 6:34-35