One practice/discipline that is embedded in our modern Christian experience is what’s affectionately called “Quiet Times” or “Devotionals”. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time when those terms appeared, but it’s safe to say that it’s sometime in the 20th century. The practice, however, is very old. “Quiet Times” are a call back to reading the Bible, sometimes studying the Bible with no distractions while focusing on what God wants to say to the individual through His Word. I remember as a grad student in Colorado, practicing a “Quiet Time” was a normal part of the Christian life as we would ask each other as a way of accountability, “How were your Quiet Times this week?”.
Without spending too much time explaining the origin of individual time with God, the Jews certainly saw the importance of regular individual reflection as evidenced in the Psalms. The early church intentionally practiced this as Lectio Divina (divine reading) which began in Benedictine monasteries. It included reading the Scriptures, prayer, and meditation intended to lead one into God’s presence through a spiritual “hearing” in the heart. Take a look at one of the best examples in Psalm 139. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase reads:
“Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.”
The word “devotion” means showing an intense affection, loyalty, or even enthusiasm. So when we practice a time of daily devotion we are expressing piety (religious devotion and reverence) to God which goes beyond merely stating, “Thanks God for the day and now I’m off and running”. Nor are devotional times are something to check off a list or to merely gather information. It is an intentional slowing of one’s frantic and compartmentalized life in order to listen to God, to see one’s own twisted heart, to reflect on the gospel, and to sometimes to gain a very concrete plan of action to root out a sin pattern. I think it’s safe to say that without this basic regular practice of “taking in” the Word, it’s tough (maybe impossible) to hear from God in any real or rooted way on a consistent basis.
But what about devotional books? I remember the time I announced to my friend (in a very prideful way) that I was reading Plato’s Republic devotionally. That was a ridiculous statement on my part because I knew then (and now) that the point of time expressing devotion is supposed to lead to opening my Bible and to take in to my soul the very words of eternal life (John 6:68).
We want to use devotional books not to replace reading the Bible but to facilitate a heart preparation so that we are more focused and open to hearing from God. Let me suggest a few resources that are not so “modern” (I’m ok with contemporary but I think some, maybe most, of what’s out there is fluff). While there are many choices (and so some of it depends on preference) certainly daily devotional books like My Utmost For His Highest by Oswald Chambers and Streams in the Desert by Lettie Cowman have stood the test of time.
If it’s a devotional that involves reading the Bible in one year’s time, take a look at Jeffery Perkins’ use of Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s daily Bible reading and attaching devotional thoughts tying together the Old and New Testament readings for the day. M’Cheyne’s (pronounced “mak shayn”) was a Scottish minister in the mid 1850’s who died young (29) but his biography and daily Bible reading are still consistently read. Perkins wrote four volumes but they are very difficult to find.
For those who want to try something a bit more challenging, here is one more suggestion. Take a look at William Creasy’s translation of Thomas a’ Kempis’ classic, The Imitation of Christ. I used to give this as a gift to graduating college seniors because it’s THAT GOOD. Some say The Imitation of Christ is one of the most widely read Christian book, second only to the Bible. When you read it you will see why a’ Kempis’ appeal has lasted for over six hundred years and is loved by both Catholics and Protestants. This particular translation by Creasy is incredibly accessible without sacrificing a’ Kempis’ challenging words for a life rooted in Christ. Each writing is short enough to be read each day. Of course, there are a few troublesome spots but overall a’ Kempis’ spiritual theology is solid as he is interested in both dynamic action as well as the formation of the heart.