Almost every religion has a prescriptive regiment for developing in your faith. Faithful Muslims have their requirements—pray five times each day, fast, and, if possible, take a trip to Mecca. Jews and Christians refer to the Old Testament to learn what they should do. In the Psalms, we read, “How can a man keep his ways pure?” The writer answers that he has “hidden your word in my heart so that I will not sin against thee.” In the New Testament, Paul gives instructions to young Timothy about ways to develop into a good Christian leader so that he can save himself and others.
When people joined Central Baptist Church, especially if they were new Christians, I would discuss the seven practices they should start to develop into good followers of Christ. Other churches and groups advise practices like reading the Psalms daily or observing vespers each evening to become people who glorify God in their lives. Paul uses different illustrations such as faithful farmer, soldier, or athlete to teach people about good practices. The idea of the athlete developed into the concept of athleta Christi, a title that was given to kings or priests who were exceedingly pious and did great works for God and their nations during the Middle Ages.
One of the most frequent devotional practices runs parallel to our physical feeding of ourselves. Just as we need nutritious food each day, our daily devotional life of Bible reading and prayer will give us strength. Isaac Watts, one of the great hymn writers, wrote the song Am I A Soldier of the Cross, A Follower of the Lamb? He writes that we can “bear the toil, endure the pain” if we are supported by God’s Word.
One Sunday, I visited the First Presbyterian Church of Seattle where Dr. Earl Palmer was the Senior Pastor. That Sunday, he started his series on the Psalms. There are 150 Psalms, and his plan was to preach through them for the next few years. He started the series with Psalm 1, a definition, and a challenge. Palmer stated that the psalms are prayers that someone prayed, which were turned into songs. During that sermon, he asked, “When should you pray?” His answer became an important part of my spiritual development: “You pray when you feel like it and when you do not feel like it.” After hearing that sermon, I vowed to follow certain patterns. It is important for me to set a place and a time to pray, so I go whether or not I feel like it. The time and place have changed over the years, but I am a creature of habit. I need to know that I am going to have these times with the Lord. The Lord is always there, waiting for me, but I need to find that time and that place.
Even before I go to be with the Lord, I have to overcome my pharisaism, or desire to think I am better than others. We first learn about this idea from Jesus’s story about two men who went to pray in the Temple. One was a publican, and one was a Pharisee. The Pharisee boasted about all the things that he did for God, while the publican pleaded for mercy. In the conclusion of his prayer, the Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the publican. I have to remind myself that I do this not for the sake of comparison with others, but for the love that I have for God and the fact that my time with God benefits me, humbles me, encourages me, and enlightens me. My devotional time ensures I can say with conviction that “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am His own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”
After my wife and I settled into our new apartment, I decided to use mornings as my time with God. I sit down and read the Our Daily Bread devotional that covers at least three chapters from the Bible and one chapter from Oswald Chambers’ book My Utmost for His Highest. Then I sing five songs from the hymnbook. During the months of September and October, I only succeeded in having my devotions 33% of the time. But in spite of my low percentage, I want to keep my time with God because I am amazed at the richness that exists in our hymns and the ways God has blessed people when I talk or write about the verses I read on those mornings.
In his book Concise Theology, J.I. Packer asked, “What is the difference between God meeting with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise and God meeting with us when we open the Bible which we call the Word of God or God speaking to us?” He answered that there is no difference at all!
I pray that you will have a devotional life when you feel like it and when you do not feel like it. Even if your frequency of meeting with the Lord is not perfect, do not give up! God is always waiting for us to show up because prayer/devotion is a two-way street—we speak to God and God speaks to us. By His Holy Spirit, God will refresh and renew us and direct us to what He has revealed for our good in the Holy Scriptures.
P.S. United States Senate Chaplain Dr. Barry Black gives one of the best descriptions of the impact of a devotional life. You can read about the peace and confidence he experienced on January 6, 2021 when the Capitol building was attacked here.