Ideas on what to do when your "quiet time" goes silent.
Most of us know we’re “supposed” to do devotions every day. And so we slog along, crack open our Bible every day and hope to pick something up by osmosis before we forget what we’ve read. Why do devotions seem so … pointless? What do you do when you know you should be doing them, but it just feels empty and insincere to do them? Do devotions even matter?
I’ve been taking part in a daily devotional time for nearly forty years. I wish I could tell you it’s been an easy road. It hasn’t. Oh, I’ve had my moments when my prayer or study time seemed white hot with inspiration, but those were few and far between. There have been many more times when it seemed like I was investing more energy into my devotional time than I seemed to be getting back. And, truth be told, there have been a million times when devotion time meant little more than a horrible “should” for me, and I dreaded doing it.
It hasn’t been till the past ten years or so that my devotional life has become something more for me—something I actually look forward to. Here are some reasons why. They’ve helped me, and I think (and hope) they’ll help you:
1. Fight to keep “the point” the point.
The point of doing spiritual things at all (like prayer, or reading the Bible, or singing in worship, etc.), is not so we can say we did them or to make ourselves feel like better Christians; the point of devotion is to open our deepest selves to the God who saves, to the God who engages the human heart, to the One who draws near to us when we draw near to Him. Devotional time is to be more about God than it is about us and what we do. This means we long for God’s Spirit to penetrate the various facets of our lives in real time and space. We are to come to our devotions in the hope that God will enter and shape our futures for His glory. That’s the point.
2. Devotions tap into grace.
Grace is an amazing thing. There is no way it makes sense. It is God lovingly chasing us when there is no reason for it. When the psalmist caught a glimpse of it, he cried, “This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in!” Neither can we.
Grace changes things. It changes people. The task of the devotional gesture is to figure out how a person with your unique personality and mind-set can best tap into grace. For me, grace is most easily accessed as I ponder the Scriptures. As I wrestle with texts, grace seems to dawn inside me. My wife, Gail, taps into grace as she sings and worships. Others touch God’s grace most by getting together with other believers or by retreating into times of solitude. Once you find some pathways to help you succeed at living under the influence of grace, incorporate those practices into your devotional rhythm.
3. Variety is the spice of life.
I like eggs, but eggs every day, at every meal, would get old fast. One of the reasons that my devotional life took a dive early on is because I did the same things all the time. Things began to change when I discovered the many spiritual practices modeled in Scripture and church history—and there are a bunch of them (i.e. study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission, solitude, silence, fasting, sacrifice, etc. – Google these!). Now, when I practice my daily devotions, I mix it up—some days I do contemplative things (i.e. prayer, meditation, solitude); other days I take a long walk in silence and try to listen; some days I practice what’s called the Daily Office (the Daily Office is an ancient way to pray and meditate on scripture several times throughout the day); and then there are days when all I do is embrace Celtic spirituality and pray into the mundane things I do, like washing the dishes: Lord, cleanse my soul like I’m washing these dishes … scrub your church clean of whatever is not of you … , or when I clean up around the house or office: Lord, bring order into our world … let your kingdom come and your will be done …
The goal with any kind of devotional break is to balance the responsibilities of our lives with a continuous awareness of God in the back of our minds as we work throughout the day.
4. Winters come.
Winter is that season of the year when everything looks dead, cold and lifeless. But winter is actually not a bad thing. This is the time when the roots of plants push deeper into the earth, making them more healthy and resilient. St. John of the Cross talked about times when our relationship with God took on the characteristic of winter. He called it the “dark night of the soul.” St. John claimed this was the time when God’s working was imperceivable to us. In a dark night the spiritual practices of prayer or study or service would seem dead or flat, cold and lifeless, but that didn’t mean God was not working—just that His working was too deep for us to perceive it.
Madeleine L’Engle describes what sounds like the dark night: “Sometimes I just know that I am going to come down with an attack of atheism again. It’s like the flu. Spiritual flu, I call it. I get ready to endure three or four days of doubt and deep distance from God. Then, through the grace of God, I find myself spiritually well again.”
Our devotion time is not to be an end in itself; it is to be a spiraling process of ever-expanding openness and movement into God. Through these times we say “no” to the way things are, but our “no” isn’t where we stop. Our “no” implies a “yes” to something more. It is in these moments of devotion we foster a conviction about the kind of life we are to live, clarity about our role in the world, and a sense of corporate mission and ministry. There is a critical and prophetic power about them. We are not just believing differently; these times cause us to do and live differently. We end up no longer using the world for our own self-interests. We find ourselves seeking God’s will and goodness for a hurting world—we seek mercy instead of retribution, reconciliation instead of rejection and alienation. A robust devotional life causes us to live better, which helps us write our lives large for Him.
Ed Gungor is a pastor and author. He can be found at SaltTribe.org.
What have you found helpful in your devotional life? Share what’s helped you get out of the doldrums below: