Regular Bible reading and prayer constitute the bread and butter of the Christian life, yet these are the things most of us struggle to do from day to day. Paul Grimmond takes another look at the problem, and discovers that quiet times are all about our response to the gospel.
Many years ago now I heard a sermon on Matthew 6—the section where Jesus tells his disciples to pray behind locked doors to ensure that they pray to God and not to men. It was, in many ways, an unremarkable sermon. It was clear, faithful and challenging, like much of the preaching that, in God’s kindness, I get to hear. But, like most sermons, it was destined for the dustbin of my mind. Except for one thing: it was the first time I had ever heard a preacher ask, “Have your deeds of righteousness become so secret that not even God can see them?” The question stopped me in my tracks.
While it is difficult to find hard facts about these things, I cannot help feeling that in the 21 years since I became a Christian there has been a slow but steady decline in the evangelical culture of prayer and Bible reading. When I became a Christian in 1987, one of the first things anyone did was to thrust some Bible reading notes in my hand and tell me to hop to it. I wonder if the same thing would happen today. I also wonder if, over time, our initial zeal finds many excuses to wane.
When a Sydney newspaper ran a story recently on the failing Bible reading habits of Australian Christians, it became clear that we need to reflect once again upon the humble quiet time. The reader responses to our Briefing survey on http://solapanel.org tell me that the quiet time is not yet dead. And I hope that sharing some of those responses at the end of the article will be an encouragement and a rebuke to us all. But before we get there, I want to consider why the quiet time is on the decline.
Reasons for the decline
I am sure that there are more reasons than I can list here. But these are some that have become obvious to me over time. The first is the changing nature of life. I have worked among university students for the last seven and a half years, but it is only recently that I have reflected on the differences between their lives and mine. It didn’t take me long to realize that, even in my own very short lifetime, the world has changed remarkably. Up until the late 1980s, my siblings and I had a sum total of two television channels to choose from. I didn’t live in a house with a microwave until I was 17 years old. When I started my computing degree in 1991, the world wide web as we know it didn’t exist. Even by the end of my time at university, I don’t think any of my friends owned mobile phones.
Now, admittedly, I grew up in country New South Wales in a part of the world as backward as Australia, and so I am aware that some of my American brethren may have received these technological advances before I did. But nevertheless, it seems to me that the nature of life has changed in the space of a generation in an incredible way.
I am not, in any way, anti-technology; I love computers and I love gadgets, and I think they offer great opportunities for ministry. However, we must recognize that all change brings potential pitfalls as well as benefits. I am not sure that the impact of technology has been all good. Most people are now permanently contactable. People can ring us, SMS us, email us and tell us their current status. We are in contact with more people. There are more ways of spending our spare time. And the competition for our attention has gone through the roof. As I read somewhere recently, today’s university student is making the same sort of decisions about their time that, only a generation ago, belonged solely to the domain of the CEO. It’s a slight overstatement, but only a slight one. As the number of demands and interruptions has grown, so has the self-discipline required to turn the world off and sit obediently before God’s word.
Unfortunately, at just the moment we require greater self-control, the world has started shouting very loudly that self-control is unnecessary. The pressure is twofold. On the one hand, we don’t need to be self-controlled anymore because there is nothing we really need to abstain from; if you like it, do it. The word ‘sin’ has gone missing in action—not just from social conversation, but from much of our church life as well.1 On the other hand, we are told that science will soon have a solution to all our problems. You can take a pill to fix your sex life, and they are working on a tablet to reduce obesity. Self-discipline, romance and abstinence are on the way out! And so self-control and discipline have become dirty words at the very moment we need them most.
Of course, our church communities would never be so crass as to simply imitate the world. By and large, we are far too clever for that. What we do instead is find theological truths to help us justify our behaviour. When it comes to the quiet time, ‘legalism’ has been the chief weapon of mass destruction. The suggestion that we ought to read our Bible every day is countered by our desire to be serious about ‘grace alone’. The idea that we might be disciplined in prayer is rebutted by a concern that we might become Roman Catholic. But if we are really honest with ourselves, we have given in to the selfish, sinful individualism of the world, and then searched for good ‘Christian’ reasons for doing so.
So what is the solution to our problem? The answer is the same answer God has always given: the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. In order to understand God’s answer, I want to do two things: examine how the gospel relates to the quiet time and think through what a quiet time involves.
The gospel and the quiet time
How does the quiet time relate to the gospel? It seems to me that the quiet time is not an accidental institution, but a spiritually wise response to the kindness of God. What does the gospel tell us? It tells us that every human being is defined by relationship with Adam. He is our father and our head, and we are born into the rejection of God. We inherit our rebellion against God and, with it, the dual consequences of rebellion: death and judgement. But significantly, those consequences are exactly what we deserve; they are the appropriate response of a just and holy God to our sin.
The last point in particular is important: God owes us nothing, but we owe him everything. God is not morally bound to save humanity. Indeed, God is totally right to bring judgement on all. It is only as we understand the reality of this truth that we begin to understand the grace of God.
God was not required to offer us anything, but in his grace and mercy, he chose to deal with our sin. God did not have to save us, but he freely chose to send his Son to live unto death for his enemies. God was in no way obliged to offer us life, but he raised his Son from death in fulfilment of his promises to bring us what we do not deserve. The whole of the gospel is about the absolute grace and generosity of God.
But, quite astonishingly, God’s grace is not exhausted by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Before I get into trouble here, let me explain what I mean. We are saved not just by the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also by God’s grace in providing for the message of that death and resurrection to come to us. The life of Christ becomes ours as the living word of God works in us to bring us from rebellion to repentance and trust. Furthermore, the gracious work of God’s Spirit transforms our hearts and minds by the Word to live now for Jesus.
According to the Scriptures, the goal of this work is to create a people zealous to glorify God by living lives filled with the good that comes from obedience rather than the evil that flows from sin. So Paul can say:
[T]he grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
The grace of God is seen in the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit and the work of his word in our lives. The life we now live, we live not for ourselves but for him who died and rose for us (2 Cor 5:15). This new life is also the gracious gift of God, the result of adoption into a home that is not naturally ours. As God’s precious children, we are able to enter into the presence of the majestic and holy God to ask anything of him, but, most especially, to ask him to do his will in our lives and in the world. The grace of God brings us new life with God as our Father—a new life nurtured by the work of God’s Spirit through the transforming power of his word and through prayerful dependence on him.
These are all truths that wash over those who are familiar with them far too quickly. If we truly understand them, we will begin to appreciate the privileges of possessing God’s word in our own language and being able to call on God as Father. Resisting regular Bible reading or being slow in seeking to pray because of ‘legalism’ reveals the depth of our folly. To hear from God is not drudgery, but a profound gift of grace. To speak to our Father is not a chore, but the privilege of the children of heaven.
The practice of the quiet time is not an accident of history, but a profoundly spiritual response to the grace of God. If we understand what God has done for us, why wouldn’t we want to be reminded every day of the words of life? And why would we refuse to come to our precious Father to ask him to work in our world? Doing either of these things is not a stand for the grace of the gospel, but rather an assertion of the stubborn independence that required our salvation in the first place.
The grace of God calls on us to keep listening to our loving Saviour and responding to him in faithful prayer. But it would be good to ask what, then, should a quiet time look like? Does a quiet time need to take a particular form or last for a certain length of time? What are the practicalities of hearing from and praying to our God?
What does a quiet time involve?
At this point, I want to change tack slightly and examine one of the unfortunate legacies of the quiet time. How this relates to the question at hand will hopefully become obvious as we progress. The concept of a quiet time has naturally led us to make a distinction between what I might call ‘devotional’ reading, on the one hand, and ‘serious’ study of the Bible, on the other.
At one level, there have been some good reasons for making this distinction. The Bible warns us very clearly about the dangers of knowledge for the sake of knowledge—knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor 8:1). In addition, our history also raised questions about the value of academic study. Those interested in truth came face to face with the effects of ‘serious’ study in at least one form when the Liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries invaded our churches. When people decided on the basis of rigorous ‘academic’ study that the miracles didn’t happen and that we couldn’t accept most of our Bible as being historically accurate, it was right that the people of God recoiled in horror.
The possibility of proud human minds riding roughshod over Scripture was a good reason to emphasize a devotional response to the word of God. However, the ensuing evangelical culture has, at times, been guilty of mindless frivolity at the very best. If, in response to rampant disbelief, we retreat into a world where we read a small passage of Scripture each day in order to find some happy moral to brighten our lives, then just perhaps we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
The ‘devotional’ model of Bible reading has, sadly, led to a number of serious consequences. We have learned to read the Bible as small, easily digestible chunks, rather than as a book with a big story that stretches from the creation of the world to the new creation in Christ. We have often read the Bible with an eye on the clock and a desire to find one easy lesson for today. Thus we have become used to reading some parts of the Bible and not others, because much of the Old Testament is difficult to turn into a daily devotional. The result has been McTruth, rather than a rich feast of the deep things of God.
It is vital for us to work out how to avoid two very great problems: obedience without the truth is ultimately bondage, but reading to understand without the desire to obey is proud rebellion. We must remember the nature of the Bible God has given us, and structure our lives so that we respond to that word. What will this look like? Let me suggest a few things.
The most important point to make is that we need to repent of our disobedience, and stop using legalism as an excuse. Reading through the Briefing survey reminded me of what my own experience has taught me: hearing from God and responding in obedience to him requires a certain discipline. Those who are reading and praying regularly are doing so because they have spent years making it a regular part of life. They set apart a particular time and a particular place to read the Bible, and to think and pray.
If we are going to motivate ourselves to be disciplined like this, the motivation will come from preaching the gospel to ourselves. Why should I invest in reading the Bible prayerfully? Because God loved me and gave me his Son and his Holy Spirit and his word to give me new life. Is there anything more important than that? If you are struggling to do what you want to do, enlist the help of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Ask them to pray for you and to encourage you to work at it.
Secondly, I want to remind you of the importance not just of hearing from God’s word, but of responding in prayerful obedience. James’s words are haunting, aren’t they:
[B]e doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (Jas 1:22-25).
Finally, particularly if you are struggling a bit at the moment, I want to encourage you to stop and think how you might best use your Bible reading and prayer time. Let me give you a few thoughts and questions you might like to ask yourself. If you have been reading through the Bible each year for the past few years, have you just been ploughing through, or have you had time to stop and think and reflect? Maybe taking a few months to slow down and work in more depth through a particular book of the Bible might be a good idea. Or maybe you have spent lots of time reading your favourite bits of the Bible, and perhaps the discipline of trying to read right through the Bible would be helpful. There are a number of great Bible reading plans available at http://www.bibleplan.org/ to help you do just that.
Or maybe you are listening to lots of sermons each week and never really thinking about them. Maybe you should plan to read through the passage that was read in church on Sunday twice during the following week so that you can think and pray through the application to your own life. You could intersperse it with the Bible brief at the back of this Briefing, or with working through larger chunks of the Bible.
Whatever it is that we do, the most important thing is to be doing it. The one thing I am sure of is that those who have been reading and praying regularly are way ahead of those who haven’t. God in his mercy has chosen to speak to us; why wouldn’t we listen? If you have been challenged, rebuked or encouraged, take the time to commit yourself prayerfully to God, and plan to read and pray. But as you think that through, let me leave you with some words from your fellow Briefing readers who are striving to work at regular time with God.
“I was really challenged recently by a speaker at my church. He suggested that we should spend less time downloading and listening to sermons, and more time listening to the Bible. So I have made a few audio recordings of myself reading through the entirety of a few New Testament books.”
“When I do read my Bible (and this is such a great thing that God’s been blessing me with), I’m filled with such joy and excitement as I learn more of Christ and what he has achieved for us in his death and resurrection, and what an amazing inheritance awaits us when he returns! I’m filled with such joy as I continue to understand God’s plan of salvation as it’s revealed more and more through the Old and New Testaments.”
“It is a spiritual battle. Starting the habit was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’d much rather think about me in the morning. But God worked a great miracle in my life, and allowed me to consider him. I often don’t feel good when I wake up in the morning, and so I’d rather spend my time drinking coffee, showering, eating breakfast, or exercising and trying to feel good, instead of sitting and reading. But by God’s grace, it has been possible. I now read the Bible every morning, even if I don’t feel like it. But emotions have been a barrier. Sometimes God’s word makes you feel great. Other times, it leaves you feeling the same way. Either way, I’ve had to get it in my head that it is a good and right thing to read the Word. And the result of a transforming life is testimony to the fact that the Bible is worth reading daily.”
“I found the times in my life when I read my Bible most regularly (and enjoyed it most) was when I read in chunks and when I made the rule: no sleep before you read the Bible! I think that if you find a method that works, hang on to it for dear life! It is a rare and precious thing, and I thank God regularly that I have one.”
“I’ve found it hard since I had kids—too much distraction … BUT it’s become a lot easier recently since my husband and I got serious about setting aside a time every morning where we take turns looking after the kids, while the other one reads. We’ve kept each other motivated!”
“It is a big book, and reading through takes commitment, but I am finding it easier to grasp the message of the whole Bible after reading it through several times. I am finding it easier to come to grips with God’s holiness, justice and wrath after several read-throughs.”
“The excitement of reading of God’s big plan again and again has kept me going. I admit there are times when I read mechanically, but I think I can genuinely say that there is no reading that does not bring a challenge and a wonder at who God is and what he has done.”
“For me, the practical thing is to think of Bible reading as a matter of ‘obedience’ because it is the prime way of listening to God. Christians should be motivated to obey God because we love him and want to please him. How can we please him if we don’t obey him, and how can we obey him if we don’t listen to him? This is not legalism, which is self-centred rather than God-centred. Church leaders should not be afraid to insist, from time to time, that obedience comes before seeking God’s blessings, and ask how it is possible to be a Christian without reading the Bible.”
“To be honest, I find reading the Bible comparatively easy and I find prayer the hardest thing in my Christian life. And I find it funny when I talk to people from Sydney (I’m from New Zealand) that often when they talk about ‘quiet times’, it’s more about ‘reading the Bible’ than about prayer. Even the Briefing Bible reading notes seem to suggest that you can spend most of your time reading the Bible, and then just have a quick prayer about some important point at the end, rather than concerted, regular prayer about other people and nations and the church. I’m sure that’s not their aim, but I wonder if some people misinterpret it that way, and think that if you’ve done your two minutes of prayer each day, you’re done.”
- For an excellent survey of how western church culture has almost unquestioningly accepted a worldly paradigm, see D Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2006. ↩