Growing up in Christian youth group and then attending Bible college, I heard much instruction and emphasis on daily devotions. But it has probably been a good twenty years since I’ve sat under teaching on the value of devotions or how to do them. Even the term devotions sounds hokey to me now, a throw back to the naïve enthusiasm of youth ministers and the teenagers they led. I read my Bible and pray regularly, but I don’t think of it as devotions, at least not the way it was used in my youth.
Our church is in the middle of a four week adult study during our Christian Formation hour (formerly known as Sunday School), and the topic of devotions has come up. But it’s the grownup, reformed, educated version.
And it has powerfully affected me for good.
We call it Lectio Divina or Listening Prayer. In one sense, it is basically the type of devotional time emphasized in my youth group, time reading the Bible and praying to God. However, I recognize now that much of my previous understanding of devotionals, particularly in my youth, centered on reading someone else’s words on the Bible rather than reading the Bible itself. And maybe that’s the central difference in Listening Prayer and a more mainstream view of devotions and devotionals.
The second difference in Lectio Divina and my youthful understanding of devotions is the listening part. It’s not so much studying the Bible as it is hearing from the Bible. When practicing youth group type devotions, I read the Bible for ten minutes (or someone else’s devotional about the Bible) and prayed my prayer requests for the next twenty or so. Lectio Divina entertwines prayer, reading the Bible, and listening for God to speak to us through it. It is the listening part that I am not used to. I am used to reading the Bible to hear God speak to me and praying my requests to Him. But I am not used to stopping as I read and pray to listen for the still small voice of the Spirit speaking to me through it all.
Oh, what I have been missing.
In these first weeks of practicing listening prayer for myself, a practice used throughout the history of the Church, the Spirit has been speaking to me clearly through the Word. He’s emphasizing parts of His Word to me, drawing my eyes to truths He knows I need. It makes me think of the sweetness of the word devotion in its purest sense. For too long that word was used as a plural noun in reference to my Christian walk with God. Devotions were something I did. But adding the s messed up the word for believers, in my opinion. I don’t need devotions, but I do need devotion.
If you google devotion, you will see it defined as love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. I am loyal to God, but more importantly, He is loyal to, committed to, and loving of me. It’s devotion, not devotions — a covenant keeping relationship with another, not a thing I do to fulfill a religious obligation. Slowing down in my Bible reading and prayer has made me better understand my devotion to God and His to me. It has helped me settle into a communicative relationship with God where He reveals Himself (and myself) to me.
If you are interested in experiencing deeper interactions with God through His Word, Lectio Divina, or listening in prayer and contemplating God’s Word to you in a way practiced throughout the history of the Church, can be a help. Here are suggested methods adapted from the book God Still Comes by Charles Shields and Cinthia Ferrell.
1. Begin with prayer; invite God to speak to you in whatever way God knows you need. “Open the eyes of my heart,” the psalmist prayed.
2. Read a passage (choose one not over a dozen verses) slowly and thoughtfully twice— once for familiarization and once just to “listen.” During the second reading, watch out for the word or phrase that reaches out to you, that grabs you, that shimmers in your mind’s eye. Hold on to the word in your memory. Don’t analyze why you happened to choose it. Merely observe the word or phrase.
3. After the 2nd reading, be still and listen for at least 2 minutes. If your mind wanders, draw it back to scripture.
4. Following your time of silent listening, write in your journal the word or phrase that grabbed you. At this point, no other comment is necessary.
5. Read the passage slowly again. Watch for your word or phrase. (On occasion, your word/phrase may change. If a different word or phrase grabs you, listen to it. Let the Spirit of God lead you in the process.) Sit silently again for a minimum of two minutes. As you ponder your word or phrase, observe what emotion it creates in you. Observe how the word/phrase connects into your life. How does it hook you? At the end of your time of quiet, write in your journal just two things: your word phrase and the emotion it created in you.
6. Read your passage a final time slowly and thoughtfully. Return to your word or phrase, unless you are drawn in a different direction. (Remember, you are not alone in this process. You have invited God to work with you.) Sit silently for a longer period of time—at least double the previous periods of silence. As you reflect on your word/phrase and feel the emotions it generates, ask yourself, “If this is God’s word to me now, what is God calling me to be or do?” Stick with that question until you get some response. At the end of your time of silence, write in your journal all that you have observed and experienced.
7. Conclude by thanking God for whatever you received. There may be instances when nothing insightful comes to mind. Thank God for the quiet time.
Our Christian Formation teacher encouraged us that though this time might likely come with conviction of sin, it would not come with a voice of condemnation. If we are in Christ and hear condemnation or shame, that is not the voice of God (Romans 8:1).
If you have struggled to feel close to God through Bible reading and prayer, I encourage you to engage with God through the Word this way. I am currently setting aside time on the mornings I don’t have early obligations (two days a week for me) to sit in the Word this way, and it has blessed me greatly during a hard season in my life.
Hebrews 4:12 The word of God is alive and active …
* Not long after posting this, some pointed out to me criticism of Lectio Divina. I understand the concerns of opening Scripture up to “private interpretations,” and listening Bible reading does not replace the need for expositional preaching and teaching. But I separate criticism of contemplative prayer from criticism of listening Bible reading. Contemplative prayer apart from Scripture is of course wide open to error. But meditative, listening prayer within the confines of Scripture reading seems very different, and I strongly support listening to God through His Word.