Last week I did a couple of posts on bible reading and prayer. In the first one I talked about my friend "Bill" who knows he needs to read the bible and pray every day, feels guilt and sinful for not doing so, yet still never seems able to motivate himself enough or feel guilty enough to stay consistent with his quiet times. I tried to bring some grace into the discussion and help Bill deal with some of the guilt.
In the second one I started to offer a non-guilt-inducing apologetic for reading the Bible and prayer. Then I got side tracked. I started looking at the means of grace and got going on the priority of preaching and corporate worship. I argued that preaching and public worship takes precedence over private devotion. My good buddy Dan Phillips chimed in that we ought not to think of private devotions vs. public worship in an either/or fashion and he is right about that. However, I think that it's probably worth a little more spilled ink, keystrokes and pixels to defend the importance the public and corporate, only because it is neglected. But again, Dan is right and here's attempt 2 at what I started to post the other day on an apologetic for using the private means of grace.
1. Don't think of it is law
I know we have covered that but it is worth saying again. Paul said that he would not have known what it was to covet had the law not said "do not covet" (Romans 7:7-8). I wonder if we sometimes fail to have "quiet times" because we make a law that says "thou shalt have a quiet time," or "thou shalt not fail to have a quiet time." I can remember that when I first came into faith the joy and delight of my life was to read the bible and pray. I prayed at all times and read the bible every chance I could. If I was doing something else I couldn't wait to get home or get to my room to read the bible and pray. I really only started to struggle with bible reading and prayer when I learned that a Christian had to read the bible and pray and was given a quiet time notebook that I had to fill out every day.
I'm not blaming those who said I should have quiet times, just saying that I did what sinful people with sinful natures do when given a rule. Also, I understand that when you first come to faith there is a kind of "honeymoon phase" where everything is new and exciting and I probably would have slacked off anyway. But still, any time you make a law of something the sinful nature kicks in and resists.
I mentioned this in one of the prior posts, quoting Scott Clark from Westminster Seminary in California. I mentioned that in the last post but I'd like to elaborate in a different direction. One of the reasons I think we ought to be careful about making a "law" of the quiet time is that the "quiet time" as we know it is a relatively recent thing. Historically, it's only been since the invention of the printing press that Christians have been able to take bibles home to read. Also, there are still many brothers and sisters in the world today who don't have the luxury of taking a bible home to read. Granted, private prayer has always been possible, but I think the reading of Scripture is far more important because this is where God speaks to us.
Having said that, this speaks to the incredibly privileged position we who have bibles are in. It's a tremendous gift that relatively few Christians have or have had. To be able to read the bible in the privacy of one's home is a rare privilege indeed, one we should make use of all we can.
3. Focus on the treasure, not the shovel.
I've never been a treasure hunter but I'll have a go on a theory here. It seems to me that no one who has ever discovered great treasure were ambitious early in life to become good with a shovel. My guess is they had a great ambition to find buried treasure and became proficient handling a shovel (and other tools) along the way.
Of course, somewhere along the way to discovering treasure you have to learn to use the tools of the trade. But it seems to me that the desire for the treasure was the dominating feature of their lives.
Similarly, I think we often move too quickly into the necessity of using the tools before fully describing the glory of the treasure to be found.
I once had a discussion with our youth director on how best to disciple young Christians. At this time he had become a little uneasy with the standard discipleship faire - get them saved then start teaching them the spiritual disciplines so they can become mature Christians. On the one hand he wasn't convinced this worked best, and on another hand growth had been transformed into something dependent on self-effort (spiritual discipline!) and on yet a third hand the goal had become a selfish one - one's own spiritual maturity. His impression was that we should start teaching kids about God and His attributes, the person and work of Christ and so on and so forth. All along we would be using the Bible as the tool to know God and prayer as a response. We could work instruction on bible study and prayer in among the study. The goal would be to keep Christ before the disciple and to cultivate a love for Him.
If you read my post a couple of days ago about my conversation with "Bill" you may have seen a segment of the conversation where I asked "Bill" if there was anything in the bible he wanted to learn or anything about God that he could gain through quiet times. He said that he really just wanted to "get through it." God wasn't the clear treasure here.
This is why I deflected the question about getting better at quiet times. I asked "Bill" to contemplate God's grace and goodness and to think on how great a thing it is to be forgiven of one's sins. My hope was that God would become attractive to "Bill" so that he would want to go to the Bible and prayer to know him better.
4. Pursue God not spiritual maturity
This is a corollary of the above and is really just another way of saying the same thing. However, there is a nuance of difference here I thought might be worth highlighting. Let me try out another analogy here.
Some folks run for the exhilaration of running and some run to get in shape. Personally I've never experienced a bit of exhilaration in running and I've never wanted to get in shape so bad that I would resort to running to do it. Still, I've heard of people in both camps.
If God is the run, for some God Himself is the joy for the one, and He is a means to an end to the other. Both may have a proper theological understanding that God reveals Himself in the Scriptures. But one has a selfish end and the other a self-denying, God embracing end.
BTW - I understand it seems like I am splitting verbal hairs here. Some would say that "when I say I am pursuing spiritual maturity by that I mean that I am pursuing God." That's fine if it's true. But John says that "He must become greater I must become less," in John 3:30. I wouldn't push the matter too much but it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34) and at the least it's probably a good idea to let our words serve as a diagnostic tool for our hearts. In other words, let's make God our goal, not some kind of personal spiritual achievement.
5. Embrace Your Insignificance
This goes along with #4 above. In the aforementioned post where I paraphrased the conversation with "Bill," he told me that he read someone who said that if we don't have a quiet time we are telling God we can handle life without Him. I made a wisecrack to the effect that, even if you were to tell God you could handle life without Him, He wouldn't believe you and would still be the one handling your life. God's loaning you some blood, muscles, bones, organs and some other things awhile and he's keeping them running, you walk and drive on God's roads, you eat God's food, breathe God's air, are married to God's child and are getting paid by God. He's running everything whether you acknowledge it or not.
Carl Trueman has one of my all time favorite articles called "An Unmessianic Sense of Non-Destiny." He speaks mostly to middle aged men who have crises and things like that over their sense of significance and accomplishment. He reminds us all that history went along just fine without us before we came and will continue fine without us when we are done. In fact, if we die young, after an appropriate time of mourning, our wives and kids will go on with their lives just fine after a fairly short time. The church is the main player in kingdom history, not the individual Christians involved and God promises to preserve the church, but the individual Christians who make up individual churches will have various outcomes and will largely be forgotten.
This is a wonderful thing because it cures us of our Messiah complexes. We act as if something terrible has happened in the grand scheme of the kingdom of God if we miss a quiet time, when really it won't.
I was talking about this very thing this week with our aforementioned youth director. He had a conversation with someone that was almost exactly like mine with "Bill." His "Bill" was the same - knew he needed to read the bible but then didn't and felt terrible about it. It seemed to our youth director and me that our "Bill's" and others treat reading the bible and prayer as such a momentous event, with so much riding on it that they wonder if they can do it. Along with that I think sometimes we are too afraid of doing it wrong, i. e. reading the bible the wrong way or praying the wrong way, that this hinders us from simply praying or reading the bible the wrong. way.
I started this post a couple of days ago so am coming back to it and it occurs to me that I am writing to a certain kind of person, of which I am one. I am writing to people for whom Christianity is a performance game, who struggle with alternating legalism and guilt, and who are very self-conscious. There are many who are naturally pretty disciplined and don't wrestle with this stuff the way people like me do. Also, many of you aren't so self-conscious and the bible and prayer delight you. To you I say, you are blessed and may your tribe increase.
For those who struggle like me and the "Bill's" of the world I hope some of this is helpful. I don't put much stock in testimony, but I can testify that when you can take yourself out of the loop and quit worrying about yourself, then God's word can become a delight and prayer can become a simple means of conversing with one's Father.