Devotions and Bible study.
Years ago Dr. Carroll Trotter, Professor of Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary gave me some profound advice about the disciplines of personal devotions and Bible study. Having taught and served as pastor for many years he wanted me to understand the significance of a personal devotional life, especially for someone who would experience the constant motions of Bible study. Dr. Trotter reminded me that as rich and vital as my preparation to preach and teach would be, I should develop the discipline of personal time with the Lord in the consuming routines of ministry, mission, and service. Thirty-eight years later this distinction is a primary bullet point when I am coaching pastors, church staff members, and others serving as spiritual leaders at church, in the classroom, the workplace, or in the home.
It's wrestle-mania for every believer, the dynamic interchange between head knowledge and matters of the heart. Several years ago author and pastor Richard Foster reckoned the superficiality of our times in Celebration of Discipline: The Path of Spiritual Growth (Harper and Row, 1978) as a predictable outcome of spiritual immaturity. His profound conclusions elevated Celebration of Discipline to a top twenty spot in contemporary Christian literature and it remains a standard today. What were they? Essentially, Foster reasoned that more knowledge wasn't our way out of the shallows. No, spiritual depth was the issue. The need of the hour then, and now, is not for smarter Christians. It is for deeper Christians. And, deeper pastors, church staff members, spiritual leaders, parents, and believers in every walk of life.
In personal experience for thirty-eight years it has been the fine line of personal preparation for teaching and preaching, and moments alone with the Lord. Exposure to Scripture in any reputable format touches our lives and changes them. In my first pastorate, circa 1980 I started keeping a journal of "ah ha" moments when I studied in my duties as preacher and teacher of local churches. Even in the most academic mode I could muster with my simple mind those "ah ha" recollections were formative in my personal development. Learning to translate and interpret God's Word always resulted in moments of personal growth and additional exploration. There was never a time when even my most rigorous study didn't add bullets of personal depth to my faith.
Still, the velocity and complexity of life---being a husband and father, serving the spiritual needs of four congregations, seeking further academic qualifications, being a witness to the people in my circle of influence---and the rigors of daily existence often crowded out the "still moments with the Lord" that Professor Trotter had recommended. Somewhere back there, and I don't recollect a specific turning or pivot point, God reminded me of the need for moments of Bible reading, personal reflection, and prayer. They are the rudimentary elements of a personal devotional time.
American revivalist and philosopher Jonathan Edwards wrote about a believer's devotional experience.
A true Christian. . . delights at times to retire from all mankind, to converse with God in
solitary places. . . . True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places, for
holy meditation and prayer. . . . It is the nature of true grace, that however it loves
Christian society in its place, yet it in a peculiar manner delights in retirement, and secret
converse with God.
That is, of course, a convicting thought from one of the nations premier spiritual leaders. Even more, there are the further examples of Jesus and the people of faith in Scripture that direct us to more than academic study, as essential as it is. If Jesus is to be our example we know that he was alone with God as a practice of faith. Take note---
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a
desolate place, and there he prayed.
Mark 1: 35, ESV
But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to
hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate
places and pray.
Luke 5: 15-16, ESV
Motivated by his enormous devotion to Christ and his many hours in the Word of God the Apostle Paul wrote---
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the
light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6, ESV
There is something profound about those moments when the Lord has shone in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God. Perhaps another evidence of what will bring us from the shallows to the depths.
Practical James wrote, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you" (James 4:8, ESV). In my mind this nearness is discovered most clearly in those quiet moments with him, those special times of Bible study and prayer in our personal devotions.
Yes, preparing to teach at church, in the family, and in our witness to the others in life is significant, an important element in our knowledge of Scripture and life. But, if we're going to go deep, there is the need of personal Bible study, prayer, and reflection. It is the remedy for the superficiality of our times.
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