Freedom From Devotions

Before I start this entry, a quick disclaimer: I’m not on some mission to systematically attack core ideas that are promoted in mainstream Christian churches.  I know it may seem like it sometimes; after all, this whole writing venture started with my PRISM article calling out a pretty central message of the church (“The Dangerous Lie That We Tell“).  However, what I am trying to do is share my thoughts on issues that I have been processing for quite some time.  For me, many of those issues have to do with facets of Christianity that I feel were presented to me as unquestionable Biblical truth.  As my faith has changed and grown, I have found those facets to be neither unquestionable nor entirely Biblical, and it has been difficult for me to separate these parts from what I do believe to be real and true.  What I’m sharing are my thoughts and experiences, and all I am asking you to do is consider them.  There are plenty of other perspectives out there, and I encourage you to seek out and consider those, too.

You’re probably thinking, “What in the world is she going to say that she needed to give that kind of disclaimer?!”  After you’ve read what I have to say, you may think the disclaimer was entirely unnecessary. You may think the topic of “devotions” or “quiet time” is much less of a lightning rod than some of the other topics I’ve addressed (like marriage and singleness).  For me, however, devotional practices have been a deep and integral part of my approach to faith, and so this topic is more personally emotionally laden than anything else I have written about.

For those of you who are already confused, let me start with some basic definitions.  Doing “devotions” or having “quiet time” means setting aside a certain time of day (often in the morning) to pray, read the Bible, and/or read Christian literature.  Mainstream Protestant churches, particularly those with an evangelical emphasis, encourage their members to do devotions daily, with suggested times ranging from 15 minutes to an hour.  The comparison goes: if you want to get to know a friend, you spend time with him or her.  So, if you want to get to know God, you spend time with Him–and you do that through prayer and reading your Bible.

I am no expert in spiritual disciplines (in my knowledge about them or in my practice of them), but I do believe they’re important.  I don’t think there’s anything overtly mistaken about encouraging devotional practices (there’s probably quite a bit that’s helpful about it).  But I do think we can over-emphasize the “quiet time” mentality (personally and to others) in a legalistic and disproportionate way that can distract from other aspects of spirituality and inhibit deeper personal reflection.  Again, you may disagree, but I’m saying this based on my own experience… and here’s why.

I am a very disciplined person.  For most of my life, I have committed to various types of daily devotional time.  Especially in college and in my first few years on my own, I looked to that time to calm me and “center” me and prepare me for my day.  It “worked” for me.  I also felt like I was being a good Christian, and it’s always a plus to feel better about oneself, right?  What I didn’t realize, however, was instead of coming as I was and interacting with my Father as He was, I was stuffing down a lot of thoughts and feelings in order to feel and act the way I thought I should.  It made me feel secure… and in control.

I could only “stuff” for so long, and so two things happened.  One, the steady current within me became increasingly turbulent, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  Second, all of the equally valid yet contradictory opinions on what prayer and the Bible meant would flood my mind and taunt my intentions.  When I tried to pray or read my Bible, I would get really, really upset… quite the opposite of how I thought devotions were supposed to go.

So, at some point… I simply stopped doing them.  It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time.  But it was part of a dawning realization that, well, I could make different decisions than I was used to, and it would be ok.  This realization had a lot to do with my counselor’s constant but gentle emphasis on the freedom we have in Christ, a freedom that doesn’t include the “shoulds” we create for ourselves.  It’s not that doing devotions was right or wrong,  but, in my life, it was playing a role that acted against an understanding of grace and freedom that I had yet to encounter.

In A Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel, Steve Brown shares a story about a friend who occasionally takes time off from church, quiet time, prayer, and reading her Bible.  She tells Brown, “it has become such a ritual and so empty of meaning, I just decided not to do religious stuff for awhile.”  Brown knows this kind of decision would shock many other Christians, and half-jokingly says their chagrin implies that “if you don’t go to church or if you miss devotional time or if you don’t read the Bible for too long, God will break your legs.”  (He adds, “Do you know what she does [in response]?  She laughs.  That drives them up a wall.”)

The other day, a friend explained she’d been feeling off-center, and said she knew part of that had to do with her not being faithful in her devotions.  I hesitantly confessed that it’s been two years since I did devotions with any regularity… and… I’m ok.  Actually, I’m a lot more honest with myself and with other people.  My understanding of what it means to relate to God is changing, and it’s much less structured or limited to a certain time of day.  I can engage with different types of people and ideas knowing that I don’t have all the answers and I am going to get a lot wrong, but that God frees me to do that and His grace infinitely covers whatever I happen to mess up.

All of what I’m saying is simply where I am right now.  I’m still in the thick of this thought process (and in some ways probably always will be), so I don’t have any all-encompassing conclusions to give you.  That’s kind of the point.  Instead, I’ll end with a suggestion.  Now that you’ve finished reading, take a minute and honestly assess your reaction to what I’ve shared.  Ask yourself why you’re reacting that way… and see where it leads you.

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One Response to Freedom From Devotions

  1. amanda june says:

    Hi Emily! I see this is quite an old post, but I came across your blog through stumbling onto the Don Miller post (you’re probably used to that), and I’ve been enjoying browsing the archives. Not sure how your perspective on this might have evolved in the last few years, but I’d love to dialogue about it and hear more of your thoughts. I find that your blog offers a valuable (not to mention well-written!) perspective; shoot me an email if you’re inclined — would love to chat on this or other things.

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