My problem with “quiet times” (some rest for the journey?)


prayer-hands-bible

If you’ve spent any real time in the Church, you probably are well-aware that there are some practical things that “mature Christians” end up doing (or so we hear) to “pursue Christ” and intimacy with God on days other than Sunday. Usually, this is some set of practices, disciplines, and rituals that surround two key things: the Bible and Prayer.

In the Bible Belt, where I’m from, the common term to describe this is the “quiet time”. This can be a devotional that includes a snippet of Bible verses with some meditations and prayers. It could be reading a passage and then journaling about it. It can even be going through an established liturgy of prayer with rotations of Scripture found throughout (here’s my favorite).

Whatever form it takes, it’s usually a subjective engagement (prayer) with the “objective” revealing of God (the Bible). It is usually rooted in the Bible, and even the prayer or journaling is seen as a response to how God reveals Himself in the Scripture. “Quiet times” are, fundamentally speaking, time spent with God in the Bible.

I’m sure the experience is very different in other branches of the Christian family tree, but at least in Evangelicalism (my bread-and-butter), “quiet times” become the go-to litmus test for one’s own spiritual health. If people are going through difficult times, we nudge them towards the Bible more. If we are to feel spiritually vital, healthy and mature, we gain the impression, over time, that it must flow from regular, disciplined quiet times.

But as I have lived through my own pursuit of the elusive “consistent quiet time”, dealt with decades of feelings of spiritual inadequacy, and seemingly had every time of requesting prayer on my behalf be about trying to get the grace to have these quiet times, I have slowly realized there are problems with how we have conceived of the “quiet time”. Come walk with me a little bit.

quiet time problems

First, for most anyone that has tried and pursued “quiet time” with any sort of regularity, it is anything but a simple and clear endeavor. I’ve realized it takes a very niche type of personality that is able to have a consistent, fruitful “quiet time” for significant portions of their life. For the rest of us normal people, it easily becomes a distraction from the real work of the Kingdom to spend all of our time obsessing over this.

Second, even those of us that find a rhythm in which to engage with God through Scripture and quiet times only end up doing this for a season. Those of us that have been doing this Christianity thing for a while can remember those brief times of our life when (as we remember) we were “pursuing God” the way we want to. Often times, we spend a lot of energy trying to recreate former experiences with God that may have been intended as just that: a season.

Most people–even the “super Christians”–are not able to sustain years and decades of consistent quiet times. Not even our pastors. Stop trying to recreate your over-idealized memory of your college campus ministry-informed spirituality.

Well, there may be an exception. I have found that the older one gets, the more they are drawn to these simple ways of engaging with God. It seems that with age and wisdom comes a greater love, peace, and ability to quiet oneself, and make the time to meet God in this way. Those of us with generations of Christians behind us may remember grandmothers or great-grandmothers that always seemed to be holding a Bible in their lap and reading it any second they could.

When I think of this, it encourages me that perhaps a lot of my own spiritual frustration (and maybe yours?) comes from the inordinate and covetousness desire to want the spirituality of a 70 year-old, when I’m only 27. I have made an idol out of a type of lifestyle God calls weary and embattled saints into as a reward and gift in this life, and have too often grasped at that and have missed God.

But all that isn’t even my biggest issue with “the quiet time”. My greatest frustration with the typical understanding of a quiet time is this:

For most of the Church’s History, Christians couldn’t read the Bible on their own, much less own one to meditate upon.

Yes, the fact that we have the Bible now is a great advantage that we should avail ourselves of at every chance. I do not think the Church would be better off if the “common person” did not have free and open access to the Christian Scriptures.

Also, historically, I know there’s still some question on that statement. The Catholic Church allowed vernacular translations 700 years before Reformation, and people don’t quite know what the literacy situation has been throughout Church History. But, it does seem that the first widely available and read vernacular Bibles weren’t published until the 1300 and 1500s.

In other words, for most of Christianity’s existence, the Bible has not played a significant role in the individual spiritual life of Christian believers.

I simply want to ask all the “quiet timers” out there: do we think ancient spirituality was any less full than ours? Do we think there was an experience of God that was lost and unavailable to those Christians that never had access to their own copy of the Scriptures that could act as the launching pad for their subjective engagement with God?

I don’t think they were missing out on anything.

so what? some practical suggestions

My main point of writing this post is to encourage us towards three things that I think would lead to far more healthy spiritual lives in the long run.

First, and most importantly, we should restore our Sunday communal gatherings as the primary locus of our spiritual lives, rather than our Monday through Saturday personal times.

Before there was a widely published Bible, or the ability to read it, how do you think Christians of old experienced their spirituality? It was anchored to the Sunday gatherings. This was the ultimate “thin place” between the human and the Divine. The “burden” of the Christian life is not on the individual to cultivate depth and intimacy. It’s a community act.

Too often, we feel like spirituality works like this: we take the time, individually and personally, to “fill ourselves up” spiritually, in the hope and expectation that this intimacy with Christ will overflow into our communal and societal life. But the Bible has it the exact opposite way. We are meant to cultivate vibrant, dynamic communal spiritual lives with the hope and anticipation that it will overflow into our personal lives.

We don’t pray by ourselves to “practice” praying together; we pray together to build us up to pray on our own. We don’t read Scripture by ourselves to speak it to others; we read it together, so we can be reminded of it when we’re alone. Sunday is not meant to be the culminating emotional experience of a week spent in deep fellowship with God. That’s why we have church on Sunday and not Saturday. Sunday is supposed to be the inauguration of another week of Resurrection New Creation life pouring out from the church into the streets and lives of all of us.

And so, the gathering of God’s people is meant to be our spiritual sustenance. Not an idol, mind you. But it is where we actually take in Christ’s body, both in bread and the company of others. No matter what your personal spirituality looks like through the week, this is where Christ feeds you.

Secondly, this should remind us that our Christian “work” is not primarily to do quiet times. It is the love and service of the world as we usher in New Creation.

I was trying to imagine what the spiritual lives looked like of people without a personal copy of the Bible. It probably consisted of going to church on Sunday, hearing the Gospel, seeing and inhabiting its movements in the liturgy, and then they went home and lived their life pretty normally. They probably got up and worked their jobs, raised their kids, and tried to live as ethically as possible and love those around them as best they could. They probably prayed when they could, but that was probably reserved for Sunday, mostly.

It is in our Christian Kingdom work that we “know” God and develop intimacy with Him just as much (if not more) than when we’re by ourselves locked in a room all alone with a Bible and journal. As we live and move in our bodily existence as members of his Kingdom, it changes our emotional and spiritual chemistry. If we get to have a quiet time now and then, then good for us. But it’s not the point. We should really relax when it comes to our obsession of cultivating this in our lives.

Thirdly, this should gives us the freedom to have “Wordless” times with God.

This is more of my own personal baggage, I’m sure, but I often feel a subtle guilt if I’m spending any time pursuing God and Christ when there’s no “Bible” in it. If I’m not reading or praying Scripture, it somehow feels less “substantive”.

The Bible-centric “quiet time” tends to diminish the role and presence of the Holy Spirit. Too often, we substitute the Bible as the third member of the Trinity and kick the Spirit to the curb.  We forget that the Spirit is the One that searches the thoughts of God and weaves those thoughts into our souls. He doesn’t just “point to Jesus’ words” as I have heard way too often. Jesus submitted to the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit seemed to be doing a whole lot of talking at Pentecost, and it was not just Scripture that was being spoken. Further, it meets us in our deepest groanings and prayers. He doesn’t simply “remind us about Jesus”.

God has much to say outside of the Bible. I have too often felt guilty for engaging with God for long seasons and stretches without the Bible. And yet, when I do this, I’m actually participating in what the spiritual lives of most Christians in history have looked like. I’m in very good company. And so are you.

So feel free to pray, dance, sing, or simply love without a Bible being tethered to you at all times. God is glorified and he is near, even in those moments.

conclusion

Look, I love the Bible. The fact that most all of us have our copies lying around is a huge testament to the glorifying Providence of God, and it’s a gift we should love and cherish deeply. But the Bible points beyond itself, and so should the People formed by it. As Hopkins reminds us, “Christ plays in ten thousand places”, not just the Bible. This offers us great freedom.

The way the Christian is meant to sit under the Bible, as is most clearly represented in the Bible and its history, is not the personal, individual study and application of it. I simply can’t think of this really showing up all that much in the Bible itself (and no, Psalm 119 is not about the canonical Scriptures). What we see most often is that Christians are meant to sit under the authoritative proclamation of this good Word, and have that proclamation be infused by the Holy Spirit to become a place in which we meet God.

If this shapes and forms us to read it on our own, then praise God! If we have a Holy Spirit conviction and wooing towards these intimate, quiet times with God, then we are in disobedience to not make that happen. And further, we should pursue these sorts of times and moments with God. But I fear what happens when this pursuit becomes ultimate, to the denigration of our communal and societal living and flourishing.

I fully understand that this post flows form a certain cultural and historical position, informed by my own “church baggage”. I acknowledge this may make my perspective incomplete, reactive, and unfair. To the extent that this is so, I pray you ignore this post. But for those run ragged in the pursuit of these elusive things called quiet times–for those that resonate with what I’m saying here–I pray this serves as an encouraging, refreshing reprieve granted by the God who speaks to us still.

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7 thoughts on “My problem with “quiet times” (some rest for the journey?)

  1. I love hearing your thoughts on this. Also raised in the cupped hand of evangelicalism, I can really relate. I always enjoy my “quiet times” (though, admittedly, partially for the feeling of accomplishment they bring me), but with two young kids and a full-time job I just flat-out forget to even talk to God some days. On the other hand, I have deep admiration for those who manage to be so well-connected to God throughout their daily life, have seen how it transforms people like Sunday-church just can’t, and aspire to be like that. From my own personal experience, “quiet times” are incredibly great ways to connect with God, but they have to be more Spirit-led than to-do-list-led. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I got here through your link in the comment stream on Daniel Kirk’s blog about “personal” relationship with Jesus. Although I love my “quiet times” and find them to be very helpful for nurturing my own discipleship, I really appreciate your historical observation about the availability of the Scriptures in more ancient Christianity and also your suggestions about the primacy of our corporate engagement with the proclaimed word.

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  5. I enjoyed reading your article. I do see your point in not feeling like we had to have the spirituality of a 70 year old when we are still in our 20s. I am currently 24 soon to be 25 in June God willing. Yet in you article I saw something’s in which I wanted to speak with you about. You stated that back in the day many Christians did not have access to the bible so you picture hem going to church on Sunday and living regular lives of kids and work during the week. Yet in reading the scriptures this does not seem to be the case when looking at how much time they spent together. Clearly it was not say day meetings then back to life. The scriptures state: All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. Meaning everyday was a “Sunday” meaning worship and fellowship. I think of the scripture that states seek first the kingdom and all these things will follow. Also scripture that states where two or more are gathered Jesus is their. I believe that the disciples were more fortunate because they spent everyday fellowshiping in devotion not just Sunday. Today most people are devoted more so to regular task of life and feel fine committing strictly on Sunday’s. That is fine if yu goose to have your quiet times with god. Yet if you are only focusing and devoted to god on Sunday, it becomes a dangerous place. Personal experience. The bible states faith comes from hearing the word, the word found in the bible. The beareNs for example in the bible listened the searche the scriptures for the Truth. They were commended. Showing even when the direct preachers spoke this did not substitute gods truth in the word. Reading the word is important because their is a gurantee that it comes from God. While hearing preaching is great if you are not like a berean searching the word for yourself then your faith… I am typing on my phone. Sorry for spelling errors I balance 40 hours of work along with full time school with devotion to Gods kingdom and spending time with God. Hopefully I am clear, and would love to speak with you. I really do appreciate dialogue about Gods word. Thank you!

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    • I do appreciate the comment. Thank you. You were very helpful in reminding me that there was a whole history of God’s people I neglected–the Jewish people. It was the Old Testament Scriptures the Bereans were diligently studying. And in the Jewish family, there was a high value for the Scriptures. And yet, I did have a few things I’d like to add, probably due to not communicating myself clearly originally! Haha.

      – Acts doesn’t say how often they were gathering to hear the Apostle’s teaching (and our earliest Church documents point out that from its earliest days, the Christian Church gathered weekly on Sunday).
      – And, it’s interesting that Acts doesn’t say that they devoted themselves to “Scripture”, but hearing teaching, living life together and eating (whether or not that verse is talking about the Lord’s Supper is debatable). My point is that, just like the Jews, it seems that the earliest believers didn’t have their spiritual lives revolving around some “ideal” of private, individual Bible Study “quiet times”. Instead, they built a RHYTHM to their lives where ALL parts were sacred and increased their closeness to God–not just “spiritual” things like Sunday worship, Bible study, or evangelism.
      – One tip for Bible interpretation I’ve learned: you can’t build your primary foundation of ANY part of theology or Christianity based on the Book of Acts. It’s not a theological letter, it’s a story. It’s DESCRIPTIVE, not PRESCRIPTIVE. And most of the things happening there are the first time they ever happened, and they wouldn’t necessarily stay that way.
      – Though the Jews had a high value for the Scriptures, all the evidence seems to indicate that they didn’t think of it in terms of a set “canon” of sacred texts, but a living, growing organism. They didn’t start setting down the final list of books until the Christians started using their Scriptures for their beliefs. The Jews then, at this point, decided they ought to figure out the final list.
      – The verse about “where two or more are gathered” is about church discipline; it’s not talking about how “church is all the time” or something like that.
      – And lastly, and VERY importantly, remember that whenever Jesus’ disciples said something about wanting to have Jesus stick around or just set up shop and have “everyday fellowshiping in devotion to God” (like Peter said at the Transfiguration), Jesus HIMSELF said that it was better that this not be the case. He told his disciples it was GOOD for him to go, or else the Holy Spirit would not come. He didn’t say that it was good for him to go because we’d have the Scripture, but because the indwelling Spirit would be able to infuse sacredness into ALL things, whether we are eating, drinking, working, raising our kids, or studying the Scriptures.

      So yes, the Bible shapes and forms the people of God, but there are many, many more ways that it does this than just through private individual Bible Study. Quiet times are not the one-size-fits-all lifeblood of the Christian. They are one tool among many, and a tool that most of church history hasn’t had nor focused upon. So the Bible is important and essential, but it is not everything. Christ is all in all.

      Sorry if I sound combative. I got really reamed by a guy last night who was frustrated that our weekly Bible Study was spending some more casual time getting to know one another rather than studying the Scriptures. I know that’s not what you’re saying, but it’s still fresh. Thank you so much for your comment, and please don’t let my tone keep you from doing so again!!!!

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