Imagine a nutritionist who doesn’t eat vegetables. Or a personal trainer who doesn’t exercise.
It’s difficult to imagine, isn’t it? These activities are so central to what these professionals know to be “life to the full” that it would be quite a shock if they didn’t actually do them.
Now, imagine a Christian who doesn’t spend regular time with the Lord.
It’s a scenario that should be just as shocking, but may in fact be very easy to imagine because it is the common experience of many Christians in Australia today.
Never before have we had such universal access to the Bible – paper, audio, phone, tablet, computer, television, even on your watch! And yet according to the Bible Society, only 2 out of 10 Australians are engaging with God’s word on a daily basis. This isn’t 2 out of 10 Australians. This is 20 per cent of Australian Christians!
It’s a staggering statistic that highlights an awkward contradiction that many Christians know far too well: We believe that time with the Lord is important, but we don’t spend time with the Lord. I confess that this too often describes me. And the more I speak with my brothers and sisters, the more I realise that I am far from alone.
In a recent survey of 300 Christians, I invited people to rank from 1-10 the extent to which they agree with the statement: “It is important for Christians to spend regular time alone with God.” The ranking of 10 corresponded with “strongly agree”, and the average response was 9.5. No surprises there.
In the next question I asked people to reflect on the current state of their devotional life on a scale of 1-10. 10 corresponded with “extremely satisfied”, and the average satisfaction ranking was 5.6. Many Christians are far from satisfied with the quality of their devotional life – is this you too?
I’ve been growing increasingly restless as I reflect on the chasm between what I know in my heart is important, and what I actually do. I don’t want to settle. I don’t want to give up. I want to know God better. And while my goal isn’t to wake at 5am every morning for a 2-hour devotional, I know that there’s a lot of room to grow to prioritise this relationship in deed and not just word. And, as famous prayer warrior, A.W. Tozer, a preacher hungry for the Lord, once put it: “The man who would truly know God must give time to him.”
In God’s kindness, I’ve been spending much more time with God in recent months, and I have pursued a new devotional habit that has continued uninterrupted for 79 days (and hopefully still going by the time this goes to print!).
To some, this won’t sound like a long time at all. And you’re right! But for many years I have been so inconsistent with my time with the Lord that even this short pattern of daily devotions has been cause for celebration.
If you can relate to this frustration and desire to grow, I’d like to share with you – not as an expert but as a brother – some of the things that have helped me.
1. Accountability was useful in getting me started. I kicked off this new habit after sharing with my friend Gavin how frustrated I was with the frequency and quality of my devotional times. That lunchtime we committed to read the Bible and pray every day for a week and to encourage each other to keep going. That accountability got the ball rolling.
2. I locked in a regular time and place. I discovered that if I need to “decide” each day when I will spend time with the Lord, I probably won’t spend time with the Lord. Too easily I drift towards the path of least resistance, and therefore if it’s not scheduled, it doesn’t happen. So my earliest decision was to pick a time and stick to it – no excuses. I decided on an evening timeslot, and now my routine is to open the Bible each night as soon as I get into bed.
If I have the time and energy to read or watch Netflix afterwards I will, but I want to give God the best of my energy (or what I have left once the kids have gone to bed!), not the scraps of my attention when my eyelids are struggling to remain open. If I know I will get home late, I’ll try to make time earlier in the day. But I won’t (God willing) end the day without time with God.
3. I clarified the purpose of this time. I’ve powered through many a Bible reading plan, but this approach has one big trap – the temptation to judge the quality of my time with God simply by the number of chapters read. Reading God’s word is great, but just reading it isn’t the end game. George Mueller, a man whose prayers achieved the care of more than 3000 orphans, put me in the right direction: “The first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was … how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished …” As I’ve read the Bible each evening, I’ve considered “how does this make my soul happy in the Lord?”
4. I set the bar low. Since November, my goal has been to read a Psalm an evening. This has been the perfect place to rebuild this time because of the devotional nature of the Psalms. In the past when I’ve attempted to revive my time with God, I’ve often started in Genesis, continued into Exodus, and got bogged down in Leviticus where I run out of steam. A Psalm a day has been life-giving.
5. I have benefited from (trying to) follow a regular pattern. I say “trying” because I haven’t always followed the same pattern, but each night I read a Psalm and write down in my journal one verse that stands out and “makes my soul glad”. I might also write down a prayer, or something I’m thankful for, or a prayer of confession, or one of Jonathan Edwards’ 70 resolutions.
6. I’ve been spurred on by the example of others. When I meet with other Christians I’ve started to ask them, “How do you spend your time with the Lord?”
This question has been an unexpected blessing – often sparking rich, mutually beneficial conversations where we have confessed our weaknesses, shared what the Lord has been teaching us, and asked for his help.
Along the way, I’ve been delighted by two unexpected outcomes.
1. I’ve discovered that desire has followed discipline. I’m not excited to admit it, but I often don’t want to read the Bible. And desire is a powerful force. Earlier this year John Piper made a blunt assessment of why we don’t read the Bible. He said:
“The reason we don’t read the Bible is because we don’t want to read the Bible.”
If I wanted to read the Bible and spend time with the Lord, I would. But too often I don’t want to and I don’t. And yet, I can say that as I have persevered, the desire has been slowly growing. And as I pray that it continues, I’m also glad I didn’t wait for desire to get started.
2. I’ve been thrilled that my wife and I are now doing this together.She has her own pattern (she’s benefiting from Paul Tripp’s great devotional New Morning Mercies) and to share this time together has been a wonderful outcome for which I’m particularly thankful to God.
While there are many challenges and priorities competing for our time – make time for God. You won’t regret it. Later this year I’ll be launching a new resource to encourage Christians in their time with God, sign up here: www.mytimewithgod.com