Four Mistakes That Are Derailing Your Quiet Time

A Handful of Quiet

One of evangelicalism’s great contributions to the historic Christian tradition is the development of the “quiet time” or personal devotion. By that phrase, all we mean is a specific time set apart (made holy, if you will) in which we can commune with God primarily through Scripture reading and prayer.

Quiet times are such a staple in the lives of hundreds of thousands of American evangelicals and I’ve no doubt the Lord will be pleased to continue to grow his people through this particular method. But without meaning to, we can fairly easily derail our quiet times with God. A little negligence can leave us feeling rudderless and frustrated, or (worse yet) guilty because our time with the Lord wasn’t “good enough.”

Thankfully, there’s always grace for God’s people. And with a little bit of tactical wisdom, we can build a better strategy for putting ourselves directly in line with those conduits of grace. So, here are four mistakes that might be derailing your quiet time with God.

Place: Wherever Works

When I first became a Christian, I would wake up early, grab my Bible, and stumble downstairs to the living room. Then (to my parents’ chagrin), I would turn up the heat. Next, I would take a blanket and pillow and cocoon myself over the floor vent. Wrapped in a that warmth, I would begin to read my Bible. More often than not, my mom would come downstairs to start the day and find me drooling on the page. The allure of warmth in the early morning was too great.

This may seem like common sense but pick a spot where you won’t fall asleep. Don’t lie down. Don’t read in bed. The goal is not to be as comfortable as possible but as alert as possible. I have no doubt that our Father is patient and doesn’t hold us a grudge when we nod off reading his word. I don’t think his feelings are shattered. But what benefit does it do for us if we set aside the time only to lose out because of the place?

Time: Whenever is Convenient

Speaking of, we can have a space picked out to read and prayer, but the time of day might set that against us. My own spot is at my desk in the basement in the early morning before the rest of the family wakes up. But if I go down to this desk in the evening, when my wife and child are home, then I sacrifice family time in the name of piety. And if I go downstairs to be alone with God after the little guy’s bedtime, I miss out on time with Joanna.

Pick a time that works for you. Your schedule is not my schedule. Lunch break. Commute in the car. An hour before bedtime. The point is that you swing for consistency over convenience. Honestly, the time will never be convenient. And if you factor in our three great enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil), even convenient times can be made to appear inconvenient.

If I water the flowers when it’s convenient, they will die. And they have. But if I stick to a schedule, they will flourish. There are enough gardening metaphors in the Bible to describe the spiritual life to help us connect the dots there.

Text: Whatever I Can Find

But what do we read? There are a billion devotionals out there. Some of them are even worth buying.

And there are some fine reading plans out there. My personal favorite is The Bible Reading Plan for Shirkers and Slackers. While not a reading plan exactly, I’ve also found the Book of Common Prayer Daily Office to be very helpful.

But if you have just your Bible, you’re 95% of the way there in terms of reading. The other 5%, I would argue, is a helpful practice called the Swedish method. I first found it in One-to-One Reading. It’s just a matter of asking the text you read three different questions:

-what’s the idea here?

-what questions do I have about what I just read?

-what am I called to belief or do considering what I just read?

When I worked as a youth pastor, I would use this method all the time. It’s a simple means to interrogate the text and then let the text interrogate you. And you walk away with something to belief and/or something to do. In either case, it connects faith with deeds.

Mindset: Why Ever Would I Do This?

Your mindset goes a long way on your end as to whether a daily quiet time will be a helpful discipline for you. Let me say now that if you miss your quiet time or it’s short or feels useless, God is not angry with you. It’s not as if you skipped your devotion this morning and now the Lord is going to curse you with a bad day and a flat tire and multiple hangnails. That’s not what the Father is like.

But neither do you have to “get something out of it” every time. I heard Jen Wilken talk about daily time with the Lord and thought it was an excellent insight. View your daily time with God like a savings account. You’re depositing something each day (or rather, the Lord is). And later, when you need it, he will bring to mind what you’ve read and what he’s taught you. You will have reserves to draw on in times of need.

But if you view it as a checking account from which to withdrawal daily, you’ll eventually overextend yourself and be left in the red, exhausted and frustrated. Sometimes you won’t “get anything” out of your reading. That’s okay. If his word never returns to him void but always accomplishes what he desires, then God is the only one who always “gets something” out of your reading his word.

Get After It!

So, you have your place. You know when you’re going to be there. You have something to read. And you have a pretty healthy mentality about what you’re doing. The next step is simple. Do it! Keep an eye out for these little spiritual derailments so that you can make the most of the time you have with God. Get back and track and go spend some time with your Father!

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In Defense of Unread Books

What’s the difference between a hoarder and someone who buys books and keeps them stacked like termite mounds in the basement? This isn’t a joke. I’m actually wondering.

Solomon said (to the “amen’s” of countless generations of students), “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc.12:12). This is one of the most bewildering and, dare I say, even offensive verses in the Bible. Of the making of many books there is no end. Praise the Lord! That means that of the buying of many books there is no end. And of the reading of books there is no end. Solomon, it sounds like you’re describing paradise.

Now, of course, Ecclesiastes is a back and forth between two ways of looking at life. You can look at life “under the sun” and what you see is what you get. That can make life tiresome (even in studying what you love). Or you can enjoy life “from God’s hand” and look along the sunbeam (as Lewis would say) back to the source of the gift and, thereby, see everything else properly. And Incidentally, that’s why the phrase “nothing new under the sun” isn’t a truism for how a Christian should see the world, but rather, how the folly and exhaustion and diminishing returns of a life without God is repetitive. But if nothing else, his mercies are new every morning (Lam.3:22-23).

But I digress. Back to my hoarding problem. Or is it hoarding? Is it because I need to have a plethora of books? (“Jefe, what is a plethora?“) No. When I changed professions this summer, I gave away or sold about 30-40% of my book because of storage space and it didn’t kill me. And yet, three months later, here I sit with lovely, wobbly skyscrapers of knowledge climbing to the ceiling around me. I’m flanked at my desk. I’m surrounded from behind. They loom over me from above.

And while I sip from twenty or thirty books on a monthly basis like some sort of lazy hummingbird, I know that I will never read them all. But that’s not the reason. Why do I have so many unread books? Why will I (without doubt) buy or trade or borrow more unread books?

I love meeting new people. It increases my empathy. It expands my experience. My favorite C.S. Lewis book is An Experiment in Criticism. In it, he talks about the interaction of multiple writers. “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

I love the pleasure of potential. Why is the waiting for Christmas better than Christmas day? Longing and joy mix together in a glorious anticipation that is invulnerable to letdown. There is a sweetness in an unread book because it could be the next Wind in the Willows to me. It just might be as good as Supper of the Lamb.

I love not being the smartest person in the room. This is an implication of Lewis’ above point. Wendell Berry is a wiser man than I am. Augustine was a genius on par with Plato. Don’t even get me started on Tolkien. But if I can experience life through the eyes of Tom Sawyer or Lucy Pevensie or Martin the Warrior, then I can also learn from them. I can be kept humble while I hear what Gandalf has to say. I can take notes as Dumbledore opines about true greatness. I can beat my head against the wall as Karl Barth shows me how I’m wrong even if I know he is also wrong.

So, as long as I can have a handful of change, it’s a good bet you will find me in a use bookstore. The allure is so strong and I can now justify it with at least three reasons. These stacks might grow a little higher yet.