Are you familiar with the phrase, “doing devotions?” If you want to sound cool you can try the more casual term, “devos.” To be honest, I don’t hear the phrase as much anymore, perhaps you had to go to church in the 80’s and 90’s to learn the cool lingo. Nonetheless, devotions have been around for a long time now, and they are still a popular concept in the Christian world.
If you hear someone talking about devotions they are typically talking about a time that they set aside every day to read their Bibles and pray. In high school we were encouraged to dedicate 5 to 10 minutes every morning to these tasks, and because 5 or 10 minutes of Bible reading felt like an eternity at the time, we were given little guides to help us through the process. We read little booklets by “Youthwalk” or “Our Daily Bread,” but always knew that the real devotion pros read things like “My Utmost for His Highest” by Oswald Chambers.
Most devotionals follow the same basic structure. They provide a verse for the day followed by a short thought on that verse meant to encourage or inspire the reader. With a little bit of discipline, you can begin each day with a Bible verse and mini-sermon. The results, at least they hope, is that you find yourself inspired and encouraged by the Bible on a more regular basis.
Certainly the intentions behind devotionals are good, but as you know, “the road to hell was paved with good intentions.” I often wonder if the devotions mentality is one of the reasons so many Christians know so little about the Bible. We have been tricked into thinking that the Bible is a devotional, and because of that, we don’t know how to read it.
Consider again how a devotional works. For instance, if you were working through the “Our Daily Bread” devotional, on Sunday you would have read 2 Timothy 3:14-17, Monday you would have looked at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18, yesterday was Proverbs 4:1-7, and today you would find yourself in Joel 2:18-27. Each morning you would look for an inspiring nugget for the day, and the next day you would go mining for a new nugget. There is no effort given to understand how one day leads to the next or to understand how today’s passage fits into the larger context of the book or the rest of the Bible.
This type of study trains our minds to scour the Bible for the inspiring one liners that can get us through the day. We begin to read the Bible like a twitter feed. We wade through all the boring parts in search of the jewel that we can “retweet.” The problem is that the Bible is not a twitter feed. It’s not a collection of one liners and helpful, though unrelated, stories. Instead it is a single book, made up of sixty six books, with a cohesive message.
Reading the Bible like a devotional deters us from ever asking what the author is saying. Reading the Bible like a devotional, for instance, never presents us with the need to ask why Paul would spend three chapters in Romans on sin before ever bringing up justification in Romans 3:21-25. Reading the Bible as a devotional means that we never have to ask what the main point is, as long as we find a point that “speaks to us.”
Let us return to the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Should we really expect devotionals to be the cobblestones of the road to hell? Perhaps that is a little strong, but consider again John 5:37-47:
And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life… Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
In this passage, Jesus condemns the Jewish rulers of His day. The problem is not that they failed to read the Bible, but that they read it wrongly. They had their favorite passages and their favorite laws, but they never understood the main point of the Scriptures. They never realized that the entire Old Testament was about Jesus. And, because they read their Bibles wrongly, Jesus said they stand accused. It isn’t Jesus who accuses them, it is the very Bible that so diligently read every morning.
I am worried that typical devotionals put us at risk of the same problem. We read our five minutes every morning and never walk away with an understanding the main idea of the text. We spend an entire year of daily reading and are never able to articulate how Jesus is the hero of all the Bible. Typically speaking, devotionals rarely offer any advantage over the way the Jewish leaders read the Bible in Jesus’ day.
I am not suggesting that there is never a time and place for a devotional. However, I am afraid that we have let devotionals hijack our brains and our hearts. The Bible is a book that requires serious study. We have become content with spit-baths with a single verse every morning before we run out of the door. We must also strive for times that we can soak in His Word. We can no longer be content with a quick word of encouragement, we must press ourselves more deeply into His word in search of how Christ is revealed in Scripture.