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.
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.