People expect ministers to enjoy a rich devotional life. We sense these expectations in the upturned faces of our parishioners, the (sometimes competitive) comments of our professional peers, and the urgings of our superiors. Eager to live up to these appropriate expectations, some of us plunge energetically into the pursuit of a "devotional life" as an end in itself. To what, then, do we look to determine whether or not we have met this ill-defined goal? Should we feel satisfied when a warm glow permeates our other wise harried lives? Have we achieved success when we can "drop" the report to an awed church member that we spent two hours in devotions that morning? What is the goal, the object, of a minister's devotional life?
In His prayer to His Father, Jesus spoke a watershed insight when He said, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3, N.K.J.V.)- When reduced to its essence, sin is personal alienation from God, the Life-giver. It is a broken man-God relationship, the separation of beings intended for unbroken union. And every other problem selfish attitudes, loss of self-worth, hostility, ignorance, sinful behavior, and ultimately death results from this shattered relationship. Eternal life, then, is found when that life-giving union is reestablished.
Unless we are convinced that the character of God is the central issue in the great controversy and the focal point of personal salvation, our devotional lives will degenerate into obligated ritual, professional face-saving, or denominational ammunition-gathering. In any case, our devotions will soon cease to be productive. And then they will cease.
At its very core "devotional life" is not a technique, a discipline, or a religious duty. It is the fascination of a person for a Person. It is the God-drawn questing of one's soul for that divine Friend by whom we were created for fellowship. As such, it has all the elements of an absorbing, rewarding, mutual friendship.
In the beginning God did not walk away from man because man had misbehaved. Man walked away from God--and as a result, misbehaved. And since then man has turned against God because his understanding of God has been tampered with by the enemy. Jesus cried out, "O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee" (verse 25). And this is the greatest tragedy in the universe: that man should regard One so ready to share nurturing fellowship with him as hostile, unapproachable--or irrelevant.
No wonder, then, that nothing was more central to Jesus' ministry than making His Father known! "I have shown your glory on earth," Jesus reported to His Father; "I have finished the work you gave me to do" (verse 4, T.E.V.). Far more than any other topic, Jesus talked about His Father. John alone records 229 explicit statements Jesus made about His Father.
Jesus is the pathway to the Father, not a refuge from the Father. By opening people's understanding to the beautiful truths about the Father's character, Jesus draws them to Him, in trust and love and admiration. In contrast to the alienation and fear that track those whom Satan's distortions have blighted, those who accept Jesus' revelation are drawn into bonded union with the Life-giver. They put their trust and loyalties in One whom they have come to know and thus they pass from death into life (see chap. 5:24).
And this, for minister or layman, is precisely where the devotional life focuses. It becomes the ongoing, excited, soul-feeding deepening of an informed friendship with Him who is the rightful center of our lives. Through it we build rich reservoirs of insight into His character, so that our confidence in Him will be unshakable. Through our devotional life we discover anew that His wisdom is fine and sensible and applicable to earthly details of life, so that we become teachable, always teachable, in His presence. Through it we find evidence, from His dealings with His Biblical-era friends, that God's love is unconditionally nurturing, even when it is confronting. Through it we have the almost sensory delight of discovering a little nuance in Jesus' interaction with some hurting person that confirms that He knew exactly what He was doing in every encounter. It gives us the exhilarating freedom to ask Him the most probing questions, knowing that He relishes such dialogue. In brief, our devotional life is an absorbing, stretching, and healing fascination with a real Person!
Those who have passed from death into life--from alienation into reconciliation--find joy on the other side. Jesus spent whole nights in prayer, not because He had a fetish about praying but because He enjoyed His Father. And for those who suspect that the Old Testament except for the Psalms isn't intended for devotional reading, it's worth remembering that the Father whom Jesus cherished in private and revealed in public was made known to Him entirely through the Old Testament. He didn't arrive on this planet with a full-blown memory of His previous existence. Through the same documents and the same Spirit that are available to us, Jesus found His Father.
Obviously Jesus knew what to look for. And all of us who occasionally, or frequently, find our devotional seasons to be dry and dusty need to know what to look for. The answers we find when we open the covers of Scripture depend on the questions we ask. If we ask, "Where are some promises that will make me feel good?" we may in fact find some. But in time we should grow beyond dropping the correct promises in the slot, pulling the "trust lever," and waiting to catch our expected benefits on the dispensing tray. In time we shall want something more personal, less blessing-centered, and more God-centered.
The most rewarding questions
I have found the most rewarding question is, quite simply, "Who is He?" What are the qualities of His character? What can I know about His personality? Sometimes this question becomes very specific: What is His attitude toward sinners caught in the act? How does He intend to bring everyone in the world to make his or her final decision for or against Him? Actually, any of God's goals, methods of accomplishing those goals, and especially His attitudes and feelings toward sinners comprise prime targets for study, for they all give us more and more reasons to trust Him.
Though this approach to devotional study will produce many insights of a doctrinal nature, I find it places each such insight in a very personal frame work. I have come to see the doctrine of forgiveness, for example, not as a theological statement about a judicial act. Rather, I have discovered that our Father is by His very nature a forgiver. I know that I am forgiven, not because I have memorized the proper key texts or measured up to the correct formula. I am confident of my forgiveness because I am confident in the Forgiver!
Once again, the "good news" is not that I am forgiven, but that God is a forgiver. The good news is not that the judgment is coming, but that our Father is the judge. The good news is not that I can go to heaven, but that my God will be there when I arrive. The good news is not that I can overcome, but that our Father wants nothing less for me than wholeness. In a word, the good news is God-news--news about Him. It is the "gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God" (2 Cor. 4:4, R.S.V.).
It is fitting that many writers speak synonymously of the devotional life and the "life of faith. " For "faith" takes on its richest meanings when it is used to describe the relationship between a thinking, trusting person and his God. Our parishioners hear repeatedly (often from our pulpits) that they should "have more faith." Many of them, in a response destined to frustration, search for some greater intensity of feeling, some deeper gullibility of response to the unknown, or some occasion to abandon a quest for meaning and "simply trust."
In most discussions of "righteousness by faith," or its children "justification by faith" and "sanctification by faith," the big Latin words get all the attention and faith gets benignly neglected. But no man can be "righteous" with God (that is, in his rightful state of union with the Life-giver) apart from faith. And faith cannot exist meaningfully by itself. It must be connected with its object as in "faith in God." So we can only have more faith in one way: by becoming better acquainted with God. This con firms that we must make getting to know Him better the fundamental purpose of our devotional life.
Making the time
Any minister who is sensitive to the needs of his flock knows that he will go to bed every night with his work not yet done. The demands seem almost infinite while the workweek is cruelly finite. Many good intentions for time with the Father die as the telephone boils over. And the (perhaps self-consoling) question at workers' meeting is "How do you find the time ...?
Quite likely the answer does not lie in heroic scheduling or in having one's spouse or secretary run interference. A minister must have a "soul session" with himself and admit that the greatest hoax, the most insulting contradiction of terms, is a superficial man of God. Though verbal alacrity, good management skills, and a pleasant visitation style may carry a minister for a while, his own integrity is at stake if he knows that he is regularly speaking beyond his depths. And nothing can deepen a man more effectively than regular contact with the mind of the Infinite.
When we use our devotional study to collect cute sayings, clever illustrations, or weepy stories, we are not adding substance to our ministry. And study aimed at stocking our doctrinal arsenals may make us skilled debaters, but that is not the skill for which the world hungers. God created our unique order of beings that we might stand shoulder to shoulder with Him, entering into His mind, sharing a mutually satisfactory interchange. He Himself invites us to "come up higher," to think as He thinks--about people and their needs, about the cosmic issues in the great controversy, and about the excruciating demands of unconditional love. What a compelling incentive to rise above the petty preoccupations of our days! The minister who struggles to find time for devotions likely has not yet grasped this perspective. But the one who has heard the high and bright invitation of an intelligent Lord for this soul fellowship does not try to find time to respond. He makes time!
The mind-set that we daily reaffirm in our devotional moments of solitude can carry through and flavor our entire day. I have enjoyed carrying a pocket-sized Bible and a small stack of 3 x 5 cards with me. In spare moments while riding the plane, standing in line, or listening to a dull lecture I enter into quick, excited explorations for new gems: texts that reveal insights into God's character. Or these insights may flash into focus while counseling, during a class discussion, or while in brisk conversation with a friend. In any case, I pull out a 3 x 5 card, jot down the Bible passage at the top, then in the space remaining write down the insights into God's character which flow from that text. (I have a colleague who is doing the same thing, and from time to time we get together and "play cards.") What richness! The growing stack of cards--my theology "card file"--provides not only fresh, God-centered sermon material but, more important, potent prayer material. Every discovery about God's character may be eagerly "prayed into" our own lives.
Paul states it as an unquestioned fact: When we behold Christ, we shall be changed into His likeness (see chap. 3:18). Though he reports that this is a step-by-step process (from "glory to glory"), he affirms that the Holy Spirit supports this work. The key, however, is that the object of this beholding is the Lord Himself. Not ancient Hebrew history; not intriguing stories; but the Lord and the qualities of His character.
This means that we increasingly learn to read the Bible as a revelation of who God is. Every story, every parable, becomes an occasion to see God more clearly. Even the Old Testament events that are not apparently helpful devotionally portray how God works in secular, or less-than-ideal, settings. Thus the entire scope of Scripture opens to us as prime territory for devotional study, for all of it reveals our Father--the God who is active among His people.
The prayer focus
As our devotional life deepens and our spirituality matures, our praying quite likely will change as well. We will ask less frequently for things, for favorable circumstances, or for creature comforts. Instead, we will hunger for a relationship and for the likeness of the One we admire. We will focus less on our needs and celebrate more the One who is aware of those needs. As our attention becomes swallowed up in the overwhelming majesty of God's goodness, our prayers will less often be preoccupied with our own perplexities. We shall cease trying to coax Him to act on our behalf and rather seek to align ourselves with what He is already doing to meet those needs. We shall see that blessings are inherent in following the path of His wise will and announce our readiness to walk in His ways.
Jesus said, "If I be lifted up ... [I] will draw all men to me" (John 12:32). The Bible unceasingly lifts up Jesus Christ. And if we behold Him in its pages, we shall be unceasingly drawn to Him. That is the enduring motivation of the devotional life, the greatest assurance that our quest will be rewarded.
Seeing Jesus' unconditional love for us will heal our insecurity and loneliness. Grasping the grandeur of the themes that occupied His mind will gently rebuke our pettiness and lift us higher. When we sense how powerfully He touches us when He trusts us, we shall gladly relinquish our untrusting, manipulative ways of dealing with others. When we awake to the bright discovery that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (see 2 Cor. 3:17), we shall be ashamed of our attempts to control others. When we know that He Himself is the truth, we shall loathe faulty concepts of Him as far greater heresy than mere doctrinal heterodoxy. When we see people damaged, confused, and discouraged because they do not know Him aright, we shall feel the greatest indignation indignation that shall drive us anew into the pursuit of that chief treasure, the knowledge of His character. We shall crave to be "His people," His transparent medium, because we know that He is the answer to all the world's questionings.
For there is no calling for the people of God more grand than that they should be devoted to Him!