On the Crushing Guilt of Failing at Quiet TimeSeptember 7, 2023
Must Devotions Be Daily?
I first began my habit of daily devotions when I was in high school. A couple of my friends at school were serious Christians, and they talked about spending time in their Bibles every morning before school. That wasn’t something I was doing at the time, but it sounded like a good idea. My motives were somewhat mixed. I was motivated to pray every day that God would bless my running and that I would meet my goal of being all-county JV. I spent a few minutes in prayer each day, and read one chapter in the Bible along with a daily reading from a simple devotional book. It took only 5 to 10 minutes, but it was a massive catalyst in helping me grow as a Christian.
Once in college, my faith grew like a weed—which is the right phrase, because although there was a lot of good going on in my spiritual life, there were also species of pride growing up at the same time. I was especially fastidious about my quiet time. I almost never missed a day, sometimes trudging through snow to get to my school’s prayer chapel, often fighting to stay awake during prayer because I was a college student after all, and I stayed up way too late. Many of my quiet times ended up really quiet! Nevertheless, I read through the Bible several times. I kept a prayer journal. I was, compared to most of my peers, a quiet-time champion. But I also felt terrible if I ever missed a day. I knew intellectually that I wasn’t earning God’s favor, but in my heart it felt like I was only a good Christian once I read my chapters and prayed my prayers. Looking back, I can see that the Lord used my zeal in many good ways. I can also see that there were more obvious biblical commands that I neglected so long as the quiet-time box was checked every morning.
Meet any mature, fruitful Christian, and you can almost guarantee he regularly has something like a “quiet time”—a time set aside to talk to God in prayer and hear from God in the word.
I am not anti–quiet time or anti–daily devotions or anti–family worship. All of these disciplines serve God’s people well and have been around for a long time. What does not serve God’s people well is the unstated (and sometimes stated) assumption—put upon us by others or by ourselves—that Christianity is only for super-disciplined neatniks who get up before dawn, redeem every minute of the day, and have very organized sock drawers. Spiritual disciplines are great (and necessary) when the goal is to know God better. Spiritual disciplines are soul-crushing when the aim is to get our metaphysical workout in each day, knowing that we could always exercise more if we were better Christians.
This prompts an important question: Do the Scriptures command a daily devotional time of prayer and Bible reading? Not exactly, but they presume something like it. On the one hand, we must be honest with what we do and do not see in the Bible. Family worship is not one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus did not outline M’Cheyne’s Bible reading plan in the Sermon on the Mount. The vice lists in the New Testament do not mention “delinquent in devotions,” and “crushes his quiet time every morning” is not listed among the fruit of the Spirit. We must be careful not to make the minutes (or hours) we spend in daily devotions the sine qua non of Christian discipleship. Too many of us have learned to measure our discipleship according to this one criterion, and because we can always spend more time in prayer, we never seem to be measuring up.
And yet if that’s all we said about “having a quiet time”— it’s nowhere commanded in Scripture—we would not be telling the whole story. We are often commanded to pray (Matt. 7:7–11; Rom. 12:12; 1 Thess. 5:17). Jesus assumes that God’s people will often be in private prayer (Matt. 6:6) and that the habit of prayer will be daily (Matt. 6:11). We know that Jesus withdrew to desolate places to pray (Mark 1:35) and that godly men like Daniel prayed three times a day (Dan. 6:10). Likewise, the Psalms commend to us the habit of meditating on God’s word day and night (Pss. 1; 119). We see in Timothy the example of public and private reading in Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13, 15; 2 Tim. 3:15). And, finally, on a number of occasions the Bible exhorts parents, and especially fathers, to instruct their children in the way of the Lord (Gen. 18:19; Deut. 6:5–6; Ps. 78:4; Eph. 6:4). There is no way to be faithful to these scriptural commands and examples if our lives are devoid of prayer, Bible reading, and time with our families in the word.
So are we right back where we started, with a crushing sense that we can never spend enough time in private and family worship? I hope not. Notice that while the Bible says a lot about the what—be devoted to prayer, meditate on God’s law, teach your children—it does not say a lot about the how. Developing personal spiritual disciplines is one way to the what, but there are many others: corporate worship, small-group Bible studies, listening to sermons in the car, listening to the Bible while you walk, listening to Bible teaching while you do the dishes, Christian schools, Christian books, spiritual conversations, prayers before meals, prayers at bedtime, and prayers over the phone.
So, yes, we should cultivate the habit of prayer and Bible reading, but we should not think that God puts impossible standards upon us as frail, finite creatures. When the disciples implored Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), Jesus didn’t give them specifics about time, place, position, and duration. He taught them what to say. Praying for the right reasons (not to be seen by others), to the right person (our heavenly Father), with the right petitions (hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, give, forgive, protect) is far more important than the discipline meant to enable our prayers.
Following Jesus Takes Effort
If I’m not mistaken, my wife likes to spend time with me. She likes talking to me and having me talk to her. When I’m overly busy, she won’t hesitate to ask for more of my attention. And even as a selfish husband, I’m usually eager to oblige because I love my wife. I love to spend time with her. Even after more than twenty years, there are still plenty of things to do and talk about. But because our lives are hectic and full, getting time together often requires planning and intentionality. If my wife made me check in every day at a set time, kept track of how many minutes I talked to her, and then rolled her eyes whenever I did anything else besides talk to her, that would make for a miserable marriage. But if I never made an effort to get a babysitter, go on a walk with her, plan a getaway, or simply put down my phone and look her in the eye, our marriage would likely grow stale and distant.
Will there always be more I can do to become a better husband? Of course. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be a genuinely good husband or that my wife can’t be happy with our marriage. One of the saddest things in a marriage is when one or both spouses are impossible to please, when good-faith efforts are never enough, when past hurts are never forgotten, when imperfections are always put front and center. Happy marriages are different. They require work. They don’t happen by accident. But they are possible. That’s what our relationship with God is like as well.
Following Jesus takes time and effort, but we don’t have to be time-management gurus or monastic ascetics to walk with him in faithfulness and fruitfulness.
This content was originally published on Crossway