Alone time with God. We know we need it, and it seems simple enough, but we don’t do it. We fail at it and become frustrated. Enough time goes by, and we feel like a fraud: “He doesn’t want to hear from me anyway.”
Here are a few thoughts on how to rekindle your time alone with God in 2017:
1. Commune with God in community.
The overwhelming emphasis of Scripture is, perhaps surprisingly, on corporate communion with God. In Psalm 34 Davids invites his listeners: “Glorify the LORD with me; let us exalt his name together!” While the Psalms are often (but misleadingly) considered a collection of private prayers, they are more accurately described as a corporate hymn book: the prefatory notice “For the director of music” can be found in a third of the psalms, and those without it often have corporate exhortations like “Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD!” Even the more “personal” psalms end with public exhortations: “O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forever more.” (Indeed, when the 1st-person singular “I/me” is used, it is at times a corporate “I/me.”)
So start with corporate worship:
Make it to church every Sunday. No. Matter. What. (If married–and especially if you have kids, talk and pray about it with your spouse: logistically, what will it look like for church attendance to be a priority? If sleeping in or attending your sister’s boss’s cousin’s wedding is more important, at least be honest with yourself. Then repent. (Exceptions: seasons of life like having a newborn, taking care of a sick family member, or unavoidable vocational constraints.)
Join a committed small group. Go. Every. Time. Invest.
Find 1-2 sisters or brothers in the Lord (maybe from your small group?)—or an older “father” or “mother” in the Lord—and meet once a week to pray. Always. Or, instead of meeting in person, stay in your flannels and pray on the phone or conference call once a week (or more?) at a set time (e.g., 6:30am; 9:30pm) for a set amount of time (start at 15 min): no chitchat, no small talk; don’t even “share”; only prayer. Take turns praying short, simple prayers.
(If you don’t have time for a small group or for praying with 1-2 others during the week, you need to stop and rethink your life. Unless you’re in a unique season of life—e.g., you have a newborn, chances are you’re not nearly as “busy” as you think you are, and serious changes need to be made.)
Understand: it is okay if these activities are at times done in a half-hearted, obligatory way. We tend to think that delight cultivates devotion, but quite often devotion cultivates delight.
Listen: if you do this (faithfully attending Sunday worship, a small group, and engaging in prayer with a friend), you’re connecting with God almost every other day of the week.
And it will forever alter the trajectory of your life.
With the Enlightenment and the accompanying post-Reformation Protestant (over)emphasis on individual personal piety, the mandate for a “personal devotional time” was, and very often still is, overstated (as is the mandate for so-called “personal evangelism,” creating a huge amount of unneeded guilt–see more here).
Is “personal devotional time” in Scripture? Well, it is certainly exemplified but it is rarely explicitly instructed (the late Cambridge New Testament scholar and Anglican theologian Charles Moule not unfairly wrote that in the New Testament “no attempt is made to pursue the big subject of individual, private worship”).
But is private personal communion with God to be our primary means of communion with God? No. God’s Spirit resides in me and in you as individuals, but He especially resides among you and me: when God’s people show up, God’s Spirit shows up.
So if you want to rekindle your devotional time, first commune with God in community.
2. Read—or listen to—bible books (i) at breadth, (ii) repeatedly and (iii) mostly for familiarization.
In case you hadn’t already noticed, the Bible can be really, really hard to understand. Why? Because it’s incredibly foreign: its various “books” were written in a different language in a different land in a different culture at a different time.
No wonder the Bible is so hard to understand.
So, if it’s hard for you to “get something out of” the Bible, you’re not “sinful.” You’re not even weird.
In Acts 8 we encounter a high-ranking Ethiopian official whose (highly privileged) literacy and leisure time enable him to read the prophet Isaiah (on a scroll that he somehow accessed). But for all his education, availability and cross-cultural intelligence, when asked if he could understand what he was reading, he replies, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”
Now it’s true that theologians (rightly) speak of the clarity—or, if you can pronounce it, the perspicuity—of Scripture. This doctrine says that Scripture is clear enough that any literate person can pick it up and come to a basic knowledge of salvation. But this ancient doctrine about Scripture never meant to say what some (many?) today say about Scripture—namely, that you should be able to sit down by yourself and understand all, or even most, of the Bible.
To say otherwise is like saying that, at your first football game, you should understand everything that’s happening; or that, when living in a new culture, you are immediately competent to understand, and even evaluate, its customs and norms. The former scenario (watching a football game) is entirely unrealistic; the latter scenario (moving cross-culturally) is sheer arrogance and can lead not only to comical but to catastrophic misinterpretation—something that untrained or lazy preachers do all the time.
So where does this leave the Christian, who seeks to read and understand their bible?
The most fruitful daily Scripture reading happens when (i) it is done while under the responsible preaching (and teaching) of the Word and (ii) initially for the primary purpose of familiarization.
Responsible preaching does more, but not less, than explain the text.
What does is look like to read the Bible primarily to become familiar with it? It looks like picking a book, reading (or listening to) it in large chunks (2-5 chapters) all the way through and then repeating that—say, at least 4-5 times. If you can concentrate, do it while walking or jogging, or perhaps during your commute. Listening to Scripture is excellent, and, indeed, one can generalize that all ancient works, Scripture included, were originally intended to be heard (vs. silently read), since everyone (or almost everyone) in the ancient world read out loud, even when alone.
In fact, consider reading Scripture out loud, actually seeking to “perform” it, as a good parent does when reading a book to their child. Doing so demands your attention and moves you along in the text. As you’ll discover, performing is interpreting.
You will be surprised at how reading at breadth repeatedly for familiarity will enable greater understanding of the text and greater enjoyment, because less is at stake but also because you will make more connections (e.g., identifying repeated phrases or themes). (You’ll also be doing your pastor a huge favor, because it’s far easier to preach to a biblically literate person.)
But where should you start?
3. Start with biblical narratives
Especially if reading Scripture still seems intimidating (or, frankly, boring), start with the stories: e.g., Genesis, Exodus, 1-2 Samuel, Luke and Acts (which go together). Why?
We humans were made for stories; they draw us in and catch us off guard, evoking emotion and action. And if we read at breadth (2-5 chapters at a time) repeatedly, the stories will begin to work on us in powerful ways, as we consider the various actors and events more deeply.
They’ll also raise questions, which you should take to other Christians (say, your fellow small groupies) or to your pastor: I love when my congregants ask me questions about the bible!
So what else after (or in addition to) narrative? Consider sliding over to the wisdom literature—e.g., Proverbs or James or the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). These books are incredibly practical and relevant (sometimes painfully so!).
When it comes to more difficult books like the prophets or Paul’s letters, consider reading them with a reading buddy—e.g., someone in your small group.
But wait: all this sounds great, but isn’t my devotional time supposed to do more than familiarize me with Scripture? Isn’t it supposed to feed me?
Absolutely. And here’s how to make sure it does.
4. Spend time in meditation
How can you be sure you’ll get fueled up during almost every “quiet time”? Through meditation.
Psalm 1 celebrates how well it will go for the one who “delights in the law of the LORD and meditates on it day and night.” After Moses’ death, God instructs Joshua on how to flourish and succeed—by “meditating on this Book of the Law [i.e., the Pentateuch] day and night.” The psalmist prays, “I think of [more directly translated, meditate upon] you through the watches of the night”; he resolves, “I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds” and “I will contemplate all your commands.”
But what does this look like?
Meditation involves (i) regularly collecting and then (ii) daily reflecting upon what we find to be the most beautiful and compelling (and counterintuitive) realities of the Christian life.
By “collecting” I mean this: whenever we come across beautiful truths (or situations), we write them down for later, daily access. These might look like:
– a celebratory worshipful line from Scripture: e.g., in Psalm 37 we read, “The LORD laughs at the wicked, because he knows their day is coming”–wow! Or “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD” (Prov. 21.30).
– a memorable line from a sermon or conversation: e.g., when I get into a disagreement or conflict with someone, I tend to think, “This is the last thing I wanted to happen! What good can possibly come from this?” Answer: actually, a lot, if I believe and obey the gospel. So when I preach or teach on conflict, I’ll say, “Conflict + the gospel = intimacy”; I’ve had a number of people say, “I’ve always remembered that simple line, and it has helped me to begin to see conflict as an opportunity”;
– a proverbial line from Scripture—e.g., “lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3.5); or “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight” (Lk. 16.15); these highly counter-intuitive truths sober and radically re-orient us;
– a penetrating question—e.g., “What do you have that you did not first receive?” (1 Cor. 4.7); “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38.2, 4); “Do you not think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26.53);
– a powerful petition: in Psalm 51 David pleads, “Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow”; if King David, an adulterer and murderer, can pray that with such confidence about his sin, then maybe . . .
– a subversive narrative moment in Scripture—e.g., in the Joseph story, his father Jacob despairs, crying out, “Everything is against me!” As a reader, we can readily identify with Jacob- (don’t we all know how he feels?!), and yet we also know that, wonderfully, Jacob couldn’t be more wrong: from the Genesis narrative we know that God is at work in amazing ways. By meditating on this simple line daily, we can critique and conquer our temptation to interpret life according to our immediate input;
– key lines from hymns, praise songs, poems, even books or movies: e.g., “Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love. / Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” Or I regularly recall a scene from the (admittedly somewhat melodramatic) romantic comedy Hope Floats, in which the divorcing parents of a little girl are arguing, and as the husband goes to leave (permanently), the little girl begs her father in vain to take her with him; as he drives away, she is utterly devastated. It takes only seconds to recall this scene, and immediately I’m moved to repent of my pitiful frustrations and failures as a husband and father and to cry out to God for greater faithfulness.
– a list of events, things and persons for which we give thanks: I specialize in forgetfulness and ingratitude, so I absolutely need to be reminded of His past and present undeserved goodness to me–e.g., I have a long list describing my wife Sarah–why?–because I’m regularly tempted to take her for granted.
You can collect these truths in a notebook or store them in the cloud (e.g., I keep mine on Microsoft OneNote, for ease of access and editing).
So that’s “collecting.” What about “reflecting”?
Simply this: merely re-reading and re-orienting ourselves around these realities, reveling in them and letting them challenge and transform and animate us each day, as we take them to God in prayer.
Just one example (taken from above): When Jacob bitterly declares, “Everything is against me!”, that’s sure how I feel at times, but he–and, therefore, I–couldn’t have been more wrong! (How good it is when we cynics, skeptics and sulkers are wrong!) I’m forced into a conversation between myself and God: “What am I doing trusting myself? Why am I accusing You of being so absent? Surely You’re at work in ways that I (the self-anointed all-perceiving one) can’t see at the moment–GASP! God, thank you for your patience with me and power over all things!”
These self-subversive, hope-giving, sanity-restoring reprioritizing meditations, and the prayers of praise, penitence and petition that easily flow from them, can each take as little as 10-20 seconds. Or they can be a launching pad for more extended reflection when you have the time.
Look, you can do this. Listening to Scripture for 10-15 min on a walk (or on the treadmill) and then taking 5-10 minutes to meditate and pray, accompanied by the weekly service and small group, will exponentially draw you closer to a God who is so committed to us that he was willing to be crucified, so that he might commune with us.
Next time we’ll focus specifically on how to a pray the greatest prayer of all–the Lord’s Prayer: what does “hallowed be your name” mean, and why are we asking God (of all persons) not to “lead us into temptation”?!