The journey began with reading a most unusual “Bible” while I was in the military during the Korean War. After accepting Christ as my personal Savior, I decided to change my lifestyle and spend my free time, mostly weekends, in the base’s library. One day, walking among the shelves looking for something to read, I noticed a green-covered book titled “Bible.” Never having seen or read the Bible before, I pulled it off of the shelf, sat down at the reading table, and opened it. The first thing I saw was a picture of Jesus with outstretched arms; surrounding Him were all kinds of people—old, young, mothers with babes in their arms, those on crutches, and the sick. As I looked at the picture, I began to cry, wishing I could be as near to the Savior as they were. Quickly wiping the tears away, I began to read.
This “Bible” was in questionand-answer format and was fascinating. My heart and soul became attached to it, and, after several trips to the library, I decided I could not live without it, especially this particular copy. Because the library had another copy, I decided to keep this one, telling the librarian I had lost it and then paid the five-dollar fine. But, having given my heart to Christ, as I continued to read, I felt guilty for being dishonest, confessed to the librarian, and did not keep the book.
Home on furlough in Chicago, I determined to buy a copy of this question-and-answer Bible. I went from one bookstore to another, looking for that Bible; but one clerk after another told me there was no such Bible, and asked if I wanted a King James Version or a Douay Version. I had no idea what King James or Douay had to do with the Bible and I insisted that I had seen a copy of a question-and-answer edition and had read it. Finally, one bookstore clerk suggested I go to a used bookstore on the north side of Chicago; he was sure the man there would have what I was desperately looking for.
The store owner, an elderly gentleman, looked puzzled, then scratched his head, took a ladder, climbed to one of the top shelves in the back room, dusted off the books, brought down one, and laid it on the table in front of me. It looked different from the one I had seen in the base’s library—thicker and older, with a publishing date of 1888. But, curious, I opened it and turned to the same subjects I had read. To my delight, it said the same thing. My joy knew no bounds. I had found it. I thanked the old man and asked him how much it cost. He looked at me and said, “For you, soldier, two dollars.” I could not believe it—a treasure such as this for only two dollars. With a spring in my step, I left the store and carried with me what I later discovered was a copy of Bible Readings for the Home Circle, but for me it was the Bible.
Soon thereafter, I went to see the military chaplain’s assistant, who introduced me to the real Bible (the Douay Version since I was a Catholic then), and I read it avidly. Later, after being baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I felt a call to the ministry, attended college and the seminary, and then served as a pastor and a missionary.
All of this leads to another part of my journey, one that happened many years later. During a ministerial meeting that I attended, the ministerial director suggested that the best way to prepare sermons is to combine our devotional time with sermon preparation. I tried it for a while, but there seemed to be something missing. So I continued my devotional life with a deep heart-to-heart relationship with Jesus, which had begun in a military base library.
And I learned that there is a difference between personal devotions and preparing a sermon. The former includes a personal conversation with the Lord about strictly personal matters, while the latter focuses on the needs of people, which may or may not apply to you personally. The former includes surrender, acknowledgment of personal weaknesses, failings, and the hidden presence of pride (the “me” factor) that needs to be made evident by the Holy Spirit and, with His help, eradicated. The latter involves reaching into the depths of Scripture for pulpit ministry, using such study helps as needed to make the sermon applicable to the congregation, not merely to share some biblical or theological insight but to make the presentation practical with a spiritual depth that can be felt in the hearts of people. Without question, the devotional life impacts the sermonic and vice versa, but they are distinct in pursuit and purpose.
Devotional methods vary from reading the Bible all the way through to journaling to simply spending time in prayer. Whatever method is used, it can become routine, to the detriment of the devotional experience and personal relationship with Christ. Therefore, it is important that the method needs to be occasionally changed in order to stay fresh and vigorous.
When I gave my heart to Christ, I decided to make Him my Mentor, and the Model to follow. To be like Him became my passion, with all the frailties that accompany human nature. At times when my devotional life became little more than a habit, I would change my approach to reading or studying Scripture in order to keep the relationship fresh and new.
During my devotional life years ago, I was thinking how wonderful it would be if Jesus were here today and I could walk and talk with Him as the disciples did. As I was wondering what He would say to me today, the thought struck me that He would say the same thing He said to the disciples as recorded in the Scriptures. So the question was not what would He say, but how would He say what He said.
This insight led me to envision Him speaking to me in the car, visiting with me in my office, going hiking with me, or meeting me in the grocery store. I decided to begin reading the Gospel of Mark with this in mind, and writing out how He would say what He said. I seemed to be walking by the Sea of Galilee, sitting next to Him on a hillside, and experiencing the joys and sorrows of His ministry.
Every morning at 3:30 A.M., I was living in another world, the world of biblical realities next to my Savior. This was the moment in time to live for. Sermon or class preparation could come at another time. Reading, writing, and praying for clarity, I got to the point where adherence to Scripture became a passion, not for the sake of having a devotional life but for a life with Jesus Christ. Passages I had paraphrased would often have to be reread; sentences scratched out and rewritten. The hours would go by so quickly while I was lost in the presence of the Son of God guided by the Holy Spirit.
Selecting at random the various books of the New Testament, I spent three years writing the Scriptures as I understood them. Then I continued my devotions by transcribing the written copy into the computer, polishing the sentences as I typed them. However, this process was more of a professional exercise than a heart-to-heart devotional with Christ. So I transcribed the New Testament and continued the personal heart-to-heart time with the Lord in the Old Testament, which took seven years to complete my transcription. Those ten years brought a change in my life and spiritual growth beyond words to describe. I’m forever grateful for the Holy Spirit’s leading. Since then, the process has continued, always with Scripture and Jesus as the center.
A devotional life must be guarded so it does not degenerate into “righteousness by devotions” or simply become a habit of Scripture journaling. We must always be distrustful of self, and, as we search our own hearts, we must be willing to correct any self-serving tendencies as the Holy Spirit points them out to us. This is an individual matter, for there is no greater subtlety of sin than spiritual pride for what we have done or are doing for the Savior. Submission and resignation must be proportionate to God’s gift of His Son for our redemption and must continue to deepen. God will not accept anything short of this surrender.
There will always be distractions that keep us from spending adequate time in personal devotions, whether from family or church members who call early in the morning. Some interruptions are legitimate; others are not. Also, there are administrative matters that weave a web of concern around our hearts and minds, which need attention, making it hard to concentrate. Needs never end, but whatever happens, guard against the thought, I’ll have my devotions later when I have more time or when I’m in a better mood. The battle for devotions is a battle for our lives. Let us not value the pulpit more than Christ or we will end up preaching ourselves instead of Christ.
For me, the greatest inspiration for personal devotions was the example of Christ Himself, who felt the need to be alone with His Father and visit with Him no matter how tired He was, even if He had to do so during the middle of the night after a very busy day of ministry. There have been others whose commitment to personal Scripture study have strengthened my own, but it has always been the example of Christ that continues to create in me a deep desire to commune with Him personally as He did with His Father.
How has this affected the way I pray? It has made me pray earnestly for myself to be more like my Savior, acknowledging my shortcomings as husband, father, and pastor, and asking Him to do whatever is necessary to change me. To be honest, my desire to be saved does not compare with my desire just to see His face; that would be enough. However, to be with Him forever is His wish for me, so that is mine as well.
As I become more intimately acquainted with Christ, I sense the contrast between Him and me and realize my personal inadequacy to reflect Him—His kindness, compassion, benevolence, forgiveness, and willingness to bear pain for the sake of others, but not without being firm on principles no matter what the cost. This is not always easy, but it continues as the basis of what a relationship with Him is all about.
Thus, the journey that began decades ago, in a military library, continues today as I seek to know my Lord better and better, awaiting the time when, though seeing now “through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).