Do you ever read the Bible and feel like God purposely led you there so He could share His heart for you in a certain situation? Have you ever read a book that was so good you just couldn't put it down? What about a sermon that convicted you deeply and drove you to make resolutions to change? Has a conversation ever stirred you so much that you just want to get up and go do something?
This happens to me pretty often. I often read blog posts that pique my interest or stir up my heart about some biblical truth or experiential reality. Sometimes I read a game-changing sentence about the goodness of God toward His people. Other times I read a moving biographical sketch of a saint that makes me want to imitate them as they imitate Christ. Many weeks at community group, a sister will share how God has been at work in her heart as she meditates in the Word during the chaos of motherhood.
More often than not, the stirring ends there. But why? Why is it so easy to be hot one moment and ice cold the next? How can I have zeal for the Word during the sermon and then be apathetic by the time lunch is over? It's not that I care less about God or His Word when I've just finished my lunch after church. It's not that I know less of the Bible when my belly is full and my kids are winding down for nap time. What is it, then?
We Need To Slow Down and Keep Coming Back
For me, it is a lack of meditation. If that sounds too new-age for you, it’s actually a biblical principle. Meditation is slowing down to think deeply and apply truth to our hearts. Whether it's a rousing quote from a good book, a deeply moving blog post, or a verse that sets my soul on fire, without meditation, it seems to stop as soon as I move on to the next sentence.
It's like getting only a teaspoon of my favorite thanksgiving food--my mom's corn pudding. I'll enjoy every bite of the other food, but I'm showing up for Momma's corn pudding. I need more than a bite to really enjoy it. In fact, I need some leftovers for Black Friday, too! This is how it is with Scripture, sermons, good books, and quotes, too.
James Ussher wrote that meditation is “worth more than a thousand sermons, and this is no debasing of the Word, but an honour to it.” If we want to get the most out of reading the Word, hearing sermons, talking with friends, or reading good books, we will have to slow down and let our minds dwell on what we've just encountered.
30 seconds may be all it takes.
Why 30 seconds? Honestly, it's an arbitrary number. But in 30 seconds, I can pull out my prayer journal and jot down a quick prayer. In 30 seconds, I can jot some thoughts into my notebook about what I've just read or heard. In 30 seconds, I can stop what I'm doing and ponder what I've just heard. In 30 seconds, I can think of at least one way to put into practice what God is revealing. In 30 seconds, I can pray.
God Can Do A Lot With A Little
Tweaking a John Piper quote, God can do more with our 30 seconds of prayerful meditation than we can do in 30 hours of information intake. This article is an example. I was reading Blogging For God's Glory in a Clickbait World when the authors asked if I would be willing to keep writing if my page views were zero and only God read my writing. This resonated with some recent thoughts and struggles I've had about writing and making music.
Normally, I would've just kept reading, but this time I stopped. It might've been 30 seconds. It could've been less. Regardless, I paused. I pondered. I prayed. I wrote a simple, short sentence in my prayer journal: "Lord, give me a desire to write and rap regardless of the applause".
I've never prayed this specific prayer, though the thoughts have crossed my mind plenty of times. This 30 seconds could shape the rest of my life and ministry, whatever God may allow. It could be that God prevents anyone from reading this post or anything else I ever write. It could be that God uses my writing to bless a multitude of saints. Either way, I am hopeful that He will continue to shape my heart to write for the right reasons.
From the Head to the Heart
I share this not to boast in my own piety. The Lord knows how weak I am! Rather, I'm sharing this to show how quickly we can move from information to transformation. When we take our head knowledge and bring it to the Lord in meditation and prayer, He makes it heart knowledge.
The implications for this are boundless. For example, if we read the "one anothers" of Scripture and take them to the Lord in prayer, we will begin to have gospel-centered, biblical unity and reconciliation stamped on our hearts in a time when we desperately need it. We won't be heady, puffed up, theological snobs seeking to devour everyone who disagrees with us.
Paul said it best when writing to the Philippian Church:
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
By grace, our right thinking will lead to right doing. If we want the God of peace to dwell in and among us, we must fight to slow down and meditate on the right things. If we are in the presence of God seeking the power of God, we will know the peace of God that surpasses understanding.
The University of Kentucky basketball program has become the emblem of one-and-done college basketball. We grab high school athletes from the highest tier of basketball greatness, bring them in for a season, teach them the Coach Cal way, and get them to the NCAA tournament. The season-opening blue and white game looks like an all-star weekend dunk contest. The high-scoring, double-digit preseason victories stir up buzz about March Madness before college football has even played their bowl games. If you want to watch freshman phenoms year after year, tune into UK basketball.
By the time they play against the big shots, they are usually a top ten team, and with the exception of some major freshman slip-ups, we always feel one step closer to another national championship banner. As March comes and goes, we watch these young men earn their first round draft picks as they rally to the Elite Eight, Final Four, or the national championship.
They reach the pinnacle and then they’re gone. As quick as they came, they vanish. As soon as they announce their draft status and their agent, we say our goodbyes. Another year of one-and-done basketball. We see them off to their first round NBA glory and they make a life somewhere out there on an NBA team.
We watch them from afar, but we're not nearly invested. We've got eight-graders and blue chip seniors to keep our eyes on! Have you heard about next year's draft class?! We have to watch them early because we know they'll be gone soon.
Following Jesus Is Costly
We need to beware of a "one-and-done" Christianity. Too often, it's right in front of our eyes. It may even be in our living rooms. We invest in some top-tier church prospects—the ones we think can really make an impact for the Kingdom. We tell them we are Christians, invite them to a Bible study, and get them to visit our churches. After some good book studies or a convicting Bible conference, they get all the way to the point of confessing Jesus as their Lord and Savior. After their baptism, we celebrate like we just won the NCAA national championship.
Then we see them off to the rest of Christian lives, rooting for them from afar, hoping they look more like Lebron James than Greg Oden (just do a Google search if you don't know what I mean!). Of course, we still want to see them on Sunday morning. We make sure they're in a Sunday School class or weekly small group. We want them to be plugged in to a local church!
However, seeing people saved and attending a local church is not the end. It's only the beginning. For most Christians, following Jesus is long journey of perseverance and suffering. This is why Paul told the Philippians, "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). Getting into the faith is a glorious miracle! There is no doubt that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). But we can't stop there. If our ultimate aim is to merely see people baptized and showing up on Sunday mornings, we have settled for a weak, unbiblical Christianity. We have chosen to side-step the path of discipleship for an easier route.
Work It Out
Just as UK's one-and-done freshmen move on to a much more mature game of basketball, so new converts are called to move from "milk to meat" (1 Cor. 3:2). Those young men work with strength trainers, dietitians, sleep coaches, chiropractors, and many more professional specialists in order to grow and thrive in the NBA. Failing to disciple new believers is like an NBA team leaving it up to the players to train themselves for game day. However, God gave the Church gifts to build up His people after they get saved:
"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood..."
The aim is much further than conversion. God desires saints who move on to maturity. Together, the church does the work of ministry. Sunday morning is a piece of the preparation. The church leaders are here to equip the saints to do the work of ministry in everyday life.
It is for this very reason that Paul says, "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). If we want people to mature in their faith, we must continually point them to the Savior who is at work in them "both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil 2:13). We exhort them to live obedient lives because God is at work in them! We walk with them and urge them to pursue spiritual maturity!
Preach the gospel. Urge people to confess and believe in Christ. Baptize people of all nations. But please don't fail to make disciples, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded them (Matthew 28:18-20). There is no one-and-done Christianity. New converts aren't just banners to put in our sanctuaries or hall-of-fame rosters. They are eternal souls awaiting the day of Christ.
Unexpected and life-altering changes are the icy cold bucket of water that instantly jars us awake on a cozy morning. It seems that life went from normal to chaos in only a couple of days. Of course, history is full of pandemics and mass hysteria, but it is unprecedented—as the media has often said—for us in the 21st century with our advanced medical technology and interconnected systems of communication and information.
Yet here we are. A tiny band of parasites is threatening to undo us. A microscopic organism is lurking at the grocery store or in the breath of a loved one. These evil minions are rubbing their sheisty hands together as they wait to embed their genetic material into our bodies and try to take us down. Most of the time, they don't win. But that doesn't mean they'll give up without a fight.
Back To The Old Paths
Every generation is faced with some circumstance that can seem to pull the rug right out from beneath their feet. From the Black Death of the 1300s to the Spanish flu of the 1900s to the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, we all face circumstances that can leave us feeling undone. Yet in these challenging times, we would do well to remember the words of Jeremiah 6 when Jerusalem was facing great destruction:
"...Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls."
While our circumstances are quite different than the Israelites Jeremiah was speaking to, the principle is still very applicable to Christians today. In the face of what appears to be a new reality for us in coming months, we have the choice to either respond in faith a follow the good path or say to God, "we will not walk in it." I hope and pray for myself as well as this generation that we will respond by going back to the ancient paths.
A Side Note
Before we go further, I'm not one of those gloomy Christians who starts every sentence off with, "the modern church has got it wrong because of...". There are many Christians around the world who are striving, with 2000 years of tradition behind them, to live out a biblical faith. It brings me great joy to see Christians around the world rallying to worship God together in these days of global lockdowns and quarantines. Praise God for technology that lets us worship and receive His Word together in these days of "social distancing".
My focus is what we do with the other 167 hours of the week. After my first seven days of social isolation, I was ready to go insane! It wasn't because I have a house full of little kids or even that I'm stuck and can't have the social interaction I desperately desire. Rather, my problem is that my devotional life was so intimately tied to the routines of my life that when things changed, so did my time with the Lord.
I've got to keep focused on the old paths or I'll be led by the media's mirage that solace is found in having more knowledge of the world around me.
What are the old paths?
What are the "ancient paths"? What is "the good way" where we can find rest for our souls? The first and most obvious answer is Christ alone. He calls us to come to Him and find rest (Matthew 11:28). But what are the means He has given us to do this? How do we seek and find Christ in the midst of all the noise and chaos that seems be closing in from all sides?
I'll be forthright. This is not an impressive or exhaustive list. I don't have a secret path or formula that will guarantee instant devotional success. If you have it, please share it early in the COVID-19 social isolation phase so we can master it! In all seriousness, I just want to recommend 3 basic spiritual practices that can help anchor our souls during such a time as this.
Spend Time In God's Word
This may be the most boring and unoriginal tip you've read all week. But in the barrage of free books, free lectures, free courses, and a host other free resources, we can lose sight of the richness of God's Word. While starving our souls on supplements and junk food, we forget that there's an infinite supply of manna right before our eyes. We need God's Word in these times.
Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, says "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). Will we be like the Israelites who detested God's food (Numbers 21:5)? Will we frown at the Scriptures like children do a plate Brussels sprouts or will we heartily agree that God's Words are "sweeter than honey" (Psalm 119:103)? Whether it's your physical Bible, an audio Bible, or an app on your phone, it's important that we spend time reading and hearing God's word alone, with our families, and even with friends (get creative!). Faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17).
Meditate on Scripture
I once heard of dieters who put tasty food in their mouths, chewed it up for a few seconds, and then spit it out. This gave them the taste of the food without adding all the calories, sugar, and fat from the foods they loved. While it sounds like something for the birds, we often do this with the Bible as we plow through our reading plans or knock out our chapter for the day.
Just as people who don't actually eat their food would wither away to almost nothing, so our souls will be desperately malnourished without meditation. The 19th century writer, Nathanael Ranew said that, "little meditating makes lean Christians, of little life, little strength, little growth, and of little usefulness to others." This doesn't mean we need to be monks or mystics, but it does mean that we need to commit to slowing down and thinking deeply about God and His Word. If Joshua and David were both men of meditation and great leaders in Israel (Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2), then we can "find" the time during our time away from work and social life to meditate. The blessed path of meditation is available for all of us.
Once again, nothing new here! We know we ought to pray, but do we actually pray? Do we delight in our time with God? There used to be a slang phrase called the "Blackberry prayer" before smartphones took over. You've seen it. People have their phones in their lap, looking down in what could either be deep agonizing, solemn prayer, or simple scrolling. I wonder how many hours we will spend in "Android prayer" or "iPhone prayer" during these COVID-19 days with our live news and infinitely scrolling newsfeeds. I get easily sucked in.
It is during these days that we must remember to "continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving" (Colossians 4:2). Watchful, thankful prayer, like meditation, is a continual command, but it is especially needful as we are isolated and waiting out this storm. As valuable as it is to connect with people during these socially isolated days, it is infinitely more valuable to connect with God. We must prioritize our time with the Lord.
Spiritual Paths for Spiritual People
These old paths have been blessing believers for millennia, but it's not merely the doing that brings change. Without the Holy Spirit's help, our reading, meditating, and praying will be vain and powerless. We are needy people! Without the blood of Jesus, we can't come boldly to the throne of the gracious Father, nor can we understand the aim of all the Scriptures—Jesus. Without the love of the Father, we would be left to our sin and lost for eternity! Never forget who and whose you are while you're doing these spiritual duties, for that will put you on the path to legalism and burnout. But also don't neglect these important duties which God has given for our good.
Do You Keep Your Bible Open?
Lately I've been keeping an open Bible on my desk at work. Before you think I'm being self-righteous, it's not an attempt to show off to my boss or coworkers, nor is it to "preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words". I actually got the idea after hearing about the devotional life of a godly man who mentioned keeping open Bibles around so he could be consistently in God's Word.
This tidbit of wisdom seemed genius, and I wanted to put it to the test. I recently read Andy Crouch's Tech-Wise Family and I'm finishing up The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Earley. These books speak of the importance of habits and nudges that help guide our lives in the direction we want them to go.
So far, keeping a Bible open has been a great nudge in the right direction, and I want to share a couple of reasons I've found it helpful.
An open Bible helps me read Scripture more frequently.
Too often, I find myself confining Bible reading to a "quiet time". While I highly value having a daily quiet time with the Lord, there are nights that I stay up late and mornings that I sleep in. However, the blessed person is the one whose "delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night" (Psalm 1:1-2). In order to meditate day and night, I need more than just a once-a-day encounter with scripture. I also desire to at least read and pray morning and night.
Keeping my Bible open helps me meditate in two very practical ways:
An open Bible leads to spiritual conversations
At home, if my Bible is open on my desk, counter, or table, I am ready to look at some passage of scripture to discuss with my wife and children. Some of the best spiritual conversations I have with my wife are when we are wrestling with a truth in Scripture that has perplexed us both. It usually starts out with, "this may be a dumb question, but...". It always ends in us discussing and searching scripture to find the answers. If I'm reading Hebrews 2:1 over and over, it may lead to discussion about how to guard ourselves against apostasy. That may then lend itself to some discussion during family worship.
At work, I am able to take a few minutes to read scripture on breaks or at lunch. When I’m actively reading and thinking about the Word, it’s more likely to mix into my conversations and allow me to witness effectively to my colleagues. While I may not quote a specific passage, I’ll certainly be reminded not to try to hide my faith or operate from a secular worldview. Rather, I’ll be more likely to let the words I’ve been glancing at to season my speech with grace. In a postmodern society, this will prove to be an effective way to witness to your coworkers.
An open Bible impacts how I live
It would be foolish to claim that the world doesn’t influence me throughout the day. From a tough student to a slow-moving tractor on a two lane road, sin is crouching at the door. If I’ve been reading scripture I may still fall into that temptation. But the chances of escaping temptation are higher when my mind is set on the Spirit and I’m putting my sin to death. How often have you found yourself in a temptation only to remind yourself of something you read or heard earlier in scripture? That’s the Spirit working through His Word to sanctify you.
If we strive to be doers rather than hearers of the Word, then reading the Word frequently will change how we live each day (James 1:22). If we are drawn to worship from a passage in the Psalms, that love for God will spill over into our work. If we have been convicted about not loving our spouse by reading Ephesians 5, that will change our home life. If we’ve just confessed pride, lust, or worldliness because we’ve been convicted by scripture, we will be more likely to forgive as God forgave us. The Spirit uses His Word in our normal, mundane, everyday lives to give us the holiness without which no one will see God (Hebrews 12:14).
Give it a try
Keep your Bible open for a week and try to intentionally read at least a verse each time you pass by. I am confident that your life will be impacted by it. If you’re like me and youve got a bunch of Bibles, set one in a few different places. As you go through your day—especially when you feel nudged to check in on social media or waste the time doing something else, take a few minutes to read a verse, think about it, and pray. Surely it will be beneficial to be with God for those few minutes, right?
What are some other small nudges or habits that have helped you spend more time in God’s Word? How have they benefitted your spiritual and devotional life?