Devotionals. Little books with dated pages, referenced passages, and daily reflections. Collections of prayer, thoughts, and contemplations from the world’s most prominent preachers, speakers, and theologians. They’ve become a part of our routine and faith experience. They’ve provided wisdom and insight to believers all around the world. However, what happens when the little books begin to replace our time spent in God’s word? Is there a difference between meditating on scripture quoted in a devotional and reading the Bible itself? I’d give the short answer, yes. How I came to that answer is a longer story.
All of my life, I’ve been an avid reader as well as an avid book collector. I first began reading devotionals as I entered my pre-teen years and began my own journey of faith in Christ. By following the recommendations of youth leaders, friends, and the internet, I had a nice collection going.
Reading other people’s thoughts in the little books helped me interpret the Bible by letting someone else read the boring and confusing passages. I received the same impactful truth without having to do any of the lengthy work. Devotionals were quick and easy to read, providing me with my daily Jesus pick-me-up without making me late to school.
Eating from Someone Else’s Plate
Up until two years ago, I was content in my routine of reading a devotional during my daily quiet times. I truly believed that what I read each day was strengthening my faith in the best way possible.
It was common to see me sitting with my own worn copy of My Utmost For His Highest, a journal bulging with notes, a case of highlighters, and my crisp, clean Bible by my side. If you looked more closely, however, you would see that worn devotional open to the correct date, lying beside a blank journal page and surrounded by a scattering of fluorescent highlighters. That devotional could show up to a costume party as a rainbow, while my Bible could be resold on eBay under the description, “Like New.”
I saw nothing wrong with the array before me. In fact, I saw the opposite. I believed that all of those things were the best tools to show me who God was and what my relationship with him was supposed to look like. Which they did, to a degree. But a decision to spend nine months seated with only the Bible in my hands told me otherwise.
On September 21, 2017, I began a nine-month journey of complete immersion in the Word of God at YWAM’s School of Biblical Studies. Up until then, I had never heard of a school quite like that one.
A Feast after Famine
I had to read through the Bible, cover-to-cover, five times in nine months. My peers and I spent up to seventy hours a week reading, studying, and learning about the Bible through daily teachings. Our evenings were spent seated beside a shelf of Bible dictionaries, doing research on historical context, geographical facts, and other background information. What was missing from these shelves? Commentaries.
Commentaries are much like devotionals. They present a certain individual’s interpretation of scripture and are a good resource for understanding a specific passage. As much as I wished I could have read N.T. Wright’s commentary on Revelation, I couldn’t. Instead, we were tasked with the simple reading, observation, interpretation, and application of scripture. This model of reading and studying the Bible forced us to step out of our twenty-first century Christian shoes and into those of the original audience. It confronted us with the reality that, while the Bible may have been written for us, it was not written to us. And that reality made all the difference.
By reading the Bible without any insight from others’ interpretation, I experienced the truth of the author’s statement in Hebrews that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of the soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” During those hours spent in the word, God spoke to my heart through conviction, revelation, and inspiration. Sitting there with only the Bible before me, the Holy Spirit spoke through every passage to redefine my values, beliefs, and worldviews.
Reading the entirety of the Bible taught me about God’s sovereignty. Not just his general sovereignty, but specifically his sovereignty over my interpretation and engagement with scripture. As I committed myself to the lengthy work of reading and interpreting, I had to grapple with confusing passages and read boring ones aloud, word-for-word just to stay awake. While I may have once avoided engagement with those passages because of the effort required to understand them, it was in those wrestling moments that God spoke to me. I came to learn that he has inspired scripture in such a way that when we devote ourselves to engaging with its entirety, we will hear him speaking in the midst of every text no matter how obscure.
The word of God is holy and divinely inspired, which means that the time we spend in his word is special and unique. It is a powerful means by which the Spirit speaks to each Christian believer. It is not simply a stack of pages bound together but is alive with his Spirit.
Scripture tells us that learning from godly leaders is important for growth as a believer. Much of what I learned from godly leaders in their devotional writings was formative in my first years as a believer. I don’t want to say that devotionals are unimportant, since my faith has been built up by their presence in my life.
I simply think that we enter dangerous territory when we begin reading a devotional rather than reading the Bible itself. Solely relying on a devotional to read and interpret scripture means that we miss out on the impact that reading it was intended to have. We begin to rely on others’ beliefs and interpretations, rather than God’s direct revelation through our own reading of the Bible. That is not to say that those beliefs and interpretations are necessarily wrong but relying on those texts robs us of the opportunity to hear from God through his word.
While reading devotionals can strengthen our faith in many ways, we must not neglect the holy, divine words of God. It is important that we take the time to sit down with the Bible to read, wrestle with, and prayerfully consider its message. It is in those moments that God will speak to and transform our minds and hearts.
Cover image by Priscilla Du Preez.