My devotional life began with a lump poking its way annoyingly into my back, making me uncomfortable. Since that time, three books have had a profound influence on my devotional life. Actually four books if you count the Bible, in which I do most of my devotional reading.
It all began while I was sitting under an oak tree beside a country road in my home state of Oregon. About 22 hours had elapsed since I had broken the wall of silence that had stood between God and me for months. I hadn't really prayed. I had just issued a challenge to anyone who might reside out there in the heavens.
A product of Sabbath school one day a week and public school five days a week, I left high school with a diploma and a firm sense that I could control my own life. I continued to attend Sabbath school, but only because my parents expected me to as long as I lived at home. And oh yes, I did like Mr. Lemke's youth class, because he wasn't afraid to ask the same sort of questions that bothered me.
But I liked my philosophy and science teachers, too. More than what they said, it was their attitude that rasped away my faith. I admired them, and their apparent disdain for things religious deceived me into thinking that all truly intelligent, rational people had moved beyond belief in God.
It took some hard times and interpersonal problems to call me up short. One day when things were particularly bad for me on my job with the county highway department, I was desperate for any possible way to improve my lot. I looked toward heaven and challenged anyone who might be listening to change things for the better. "If You're out there, just get me put on a different work crew tomorrow," I said.
The next morning when I reported for work, I was assigned to a different crew. It seems amazing, but at first I didn't even make the connection. Until about 9:30 that morning I forgot all about the challenge I had flung at heaven the day before. Then I remembered, and the thought entered my mind that perhaps the reason I was where I was had something to do with what I had said to God. My job description on this new crew was simple: I was to sit beside the road for 10 hours and make sure no one stole a portable water pump that was being used to fill a tank truck every couple hours.
So at 10:00 a.m. there I sat, leaning up against an embankment, with nothing to do but think and try to make myself comfortable.
The tank truck driver had scavenged under the seat of his truck and proffered some tattered porn magazines to entertain me while I sat. But there was that lump pushing into my back—obviously something that had fallen through a hole in my jacket pocket and taken up lodging in the lining.
I reached back through the lining and pulled out a little servicemen's edition of Steps to Christ, by Ellen G. White. The book had been part of the standard equipment handed out at a wilderness retreat I had attended the preceding summer. I had read a couple chapters during meditation times on the retreat, but had long since forgotten that it was riding with me in my jacket.
Talk about God's good timing!
God had not only answered my prayer; He had provided a means of nourishing my newly reopened relationship with Him. And that's how Steps to Christ became an important part of my devotional life.
I carried the book to work with me every day from then on, and when I had a moment to read, I would get it out, read a paragraph, and ponder its meaning for my life.
There I read about the privilege of prayer. I learned that a life in Christ should be a life of restfulness—that I could trust in Him even in the absence of ecstasy of feeling. I learned to commit myself to God in the morning, to make that my very first work, and to give my plans to Him—to lay them at His feet to be taken up or set aside as His providence would dictate (seep. 70).
I cut my spiritual teeth on Steps to Christ, and it helped to lay a firm foundation for a continuing spiritual life. I can't say that my spiritual progression has always been rock-solid and straight as an arrow since that morning beside the road. But I attribute much of the stability I do have to the powerful principles I discovered in that book.
Wanting to be perfect
Yet problems lay ahead. Steps to Christ held out to me an ideal—pointing me to what a Christian could and should be. But not long after I began my devotional life, I came face-to-face with my own depravity and powerlessness to fulfill the ideal I was reading about.
I had given my life to God, but I had not become a saint overnight. While I wanted to achieve the peace and restfulness I read about, I soon began to experience pangs of guilt that destroyed my peace.
When that happened, Steps to Christ began to stay in my pocket instead of in my hand. It soon retreated into the lining again. I began to view myself as a failure at being a genuine Christian. Eventually I couldn't enjoy devotional times with God because I felt that He was condemning me for not being perfect. I must hasten to note that Steps to Christ has plenty of passages that could have led me past this problem, but somehow I focused on passages that left me feeling guilty.
It was then that I came upon another small book by the same author. On the very first page of the very first chapter of The Sanctified Life I came upon words that helped me to understand my discouragement and enabled me to learn to enjoy a devotional life once again. "Those who are really seeking to perfect Christian character will never indulge the thought that they are sinless," I read. "The more they discipline their minds to dwell upon the character of Christ, and the nearer they approach to His divine image, the more clearly will they discern its spotless perfection, and the more deeply will they feel their own defects" (p. 7). On pages 50 and 511 found this thought amplified by an approach from the opposite angle: "It is when men are separated from God, when they have very indistinct views of Christ, that they say, 'I am sinless; I am sanctified.'"
Now I had discovered the key to enjoying a devotional life without being perfect. Could it be that a genuine devotion to Christ would always leave me feeling a bit uncomfortable? That perhaps I needed to begin to appreciate the discomfort God sent my way as a sign that He was still communicating and revealing Himself to me?
I had come upon similar thoughts in Steps to Christ (see pp. 64, 65), but they hadn't had the impact that those in this new setting had. So The Sanctified Life rescued my spiritual life from the pit and set me back on the path to devotion.
It has been more than 20 years now since I began a devotional life. In the intervening years my number one favorite book for devotional reading has always been the Bible. I especially enjoy reading the Old Testament stories and ferreting out the gospel from accounts recorded there of the successes and failures of God's people.
But maintaining a consistent time for devotions has continued to be a challenge for me. Just recently I have discovered another book that is helping me by confronting me with the absolute necessity of being consistent in my walk with God.
I cannot speak for the entire contents of The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard, because it is fairly new to my library and I have found the thoughts early in the book so challenging and stimulating that I have not yet made my way past page 100, though I have read many pages more than once. At one time I set out to read the book through to the end before recommending it here, but I could not force myself to rush through it.
In one of Willard's early illustrations he points out an important fallacy in much Christian thought and writing. It is a fallacy similar to the one that plagued me early in my devotional life.
This fallacy centers on the desire to be and act like Jesus. Willard points out that, contrary to the story in the popular Christian novel In His Steps, it is not possible to be like Jesus simply by making conscious decisions to "do what Jesus would do" at the moment one is confronted with a problem or decision.
Attempting to imitate Jesus in that way will lead me to no more success than I would have should I attempt to equal a major league pitcher's ERA by stepping to the mound and mimicking his stance, tics, and mannerisms before lobbing the ball toward the New York Yankees' lineup of sluggers.
Willard points out that if I want to be like a major league pitcher, I will need to copy more than his actions on the mound. I will need to follow a similar practice and exercise regimen, eat properly, and copy other relevant aspects of his lifestyle. Just so, to be like Jesus I cannot simply set out in the morning determined to meet each challenge with a response that Jesus would give, I must instead follow Jesus' lifestyle —which included prayer, meditation, commitment to simplicity, fasting, declaration of dependence on His Father, and much more.
In short, to be like Jesus requires a spiritual life disciplined by the example of His entire life, not just by His response to crises. I sense that this book is teaching me to live a life based on principles that will help me to become more like Jesus. And that learning this will help me to become more comfortable in God's presence —without ever losing sight of the heights He yet has for me to climb.
My devotional life began with a lump that made me uncomfortable. I trust that it will lead me to the point at which I can feel comfortable with God for all eternity!
White, Ellen G. Steps to Christ,
Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press
Pub. Assn., 1956.
_____. The Sanctified Life.
Washington, B.C.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1937.
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the
Disciplines. San Francisco: Harper
and Row, 1988.