I’m not sure what it is like for you, but taking a pause from the busyness of life to spend time in God’s Word and prayer does not come easy for me. It is thus of little surprise that this activity oftentimes known as ‘Personal Devotion’ or ‘Quiet Times’ are described as spiritual disciplines. I’m not a huge fan of the term because while it is spiritual in the sense that it puts us in a position where we get to build deeper intimacy with God and nourish our hearts with His Word, it is also ‘not spiritual’ in the sense that personal devotional time impacts every sphere of our lives. Taking time out each day to renew our hearts and minds is one of the many means through which we grow in Christlikeness, and if this growth is to be genuine, then it will naturally impact our emotions, habits, and relationships. So I’m hesitant of the phrase ‘spiritual disciplines’ not because it is bad but because it is an insufficient description, but more on this another time.
More to the point, it is a discipline because like all disciplines, it is borne out of a conviction that this particular task is good for us, yet it may not be naturally appealing at the same time. So while I know that maintaining a healthy lifestyle means saying ‘yes’ to certain foods and ‘no’ to others, and while I love the foods I have to say ‘no’ to, discipline means making decisions in order that I might be healthier so that I can be in a better position to love the Lord and the people around me. I know this is good for me. And while I don’t always want to do it, the end goal pushes me towards forming habits that will enable me to be discipline especially on the days when I just want to have one more
tub scoop of ice cream. To be sure, a rich and robust personal devotional life should be and will be borne out of a transformed heart that sees it not only as a duty but also a delight. But for many, reaching this point will take time, patience, and perseverance.
This is the journey that I’ve been on for awhile now, and I’ve been wrestling with ways that I can grow in my delight of God’s Word. As one who is entrusted with the task of preaching and teaching it, the temptation is always to study Scripture in order to teach Scripture rather than studying it to nourish my own life. So I’ve been trying out a range of reading plans, methods, times of day, and even Bible translations that will help me grow. Therefore, after lots of trial and error, I’d like to propose that pausing with a pen and paper is an excellent strategy that will help cultivate a rich devotional life, and here are broadly three reasons why.
1) Change Gears
I love my technology. My mobile phone is an extension of my short term memory, my computer is where I get all my work done, and my tablet is the bridge between these two devices, allowing me to read, preach, and be entertained through it. As such, one of the things I’ve tried throughout 2017 is to do my quiet times on electronic devices. My iPad gives me a split screen option, which means that I can have Accordance opened on the left hand side (with my favourite Bible translation – the CSB – on the top and a simple commentary on the bottom) while having an app like Pages opened on the right hand side. This means that without having to turn any pages at all, I get to study a portion of Scripture and meditate on it with the left side of the screen, and then take notes, pray, reflect on them through the App on my right side of the screen.
I’ll be really honest with you: this really worked. This meant that I could carry one thin device everywhere I went in order to do my devotions, so it could be in a cafe, at the office, or in a different corner in our apartment. It was super convenient and it was super quick.
However, while it was incredibly quick and convenient, the medium (namely, the device) itself reinforced a particular posture with regards to the task that I was undertaking. You see, devices for me are used for productivity – it is all about getting things done. It is about firing off an email, punching out an essay, editing a photo. And the quicker and smarter these things get done, the better. And perhaps subconsciously, using technological devices for a task which can feel counterproductive (like personal devotions) has turned it into a productive thing to do, thereby making reading, reflecting, and praying something to tick off as quickly as possible so that I can switch apps to reply to an email. Now to be sure, you may not struggle with this issue and you may be able to separate your tasks really well. But that’s not me.
As such, I’ve found picking up tools that I rarely use today (ie: the pen and paper) very useful for engaging in an activity that is special to my day. It forces me to switch gears in my mind. It reflects and reinforces that the next 30-45 minutes is going to be important, and it minimizes distractions that come by notification or curiosity.
2) Slow Down
Now because I rarely use the pen and paper these days, I find myself writing very sloooowly. And this was my frustration very early on, which is why I opted to use my tablet instead. However, upon deeper reflection, I realized that being slow is not always a bad thing. Indeed, rather than typing up things that come to my mind straight away, writing forces me to think carefully before writing because there is no CTRL-Z or Backspacing option. It forces me to reflect even more deeply, and it leads me to produce sentences and trains of thoughts that are more well thought out and more representative of what I really think and feel.
So while I may not be able to write down everything I think about the passage, I get to write down what is important and what has pierced my heart. On this note, it has also moved me towards meditating on shorter portions of Scripture rather than reading large chunks. As such, ever since switching to paper and pen, I’ve spent time on approximately 3-5 verses per day. Now to be sure, I’m reading through the Pastoral Epistles right now so it is easy to mine buckets of gold from a single preposition, and so reading through different genres will shape how I reflect on the passage. Nevertheless, the principle remains: not having as much pace to reflect has led me to read smaller portions, thereby fostering deeper and not speedier meditation.
And this is good on so many levels. It is a vivid reminder that God’s Word is an ocean that can never be fully navigated, a buffet that can never be completely consumed, and a person that can never be fully known. Therefore, rather than trying to foolishly navigate, consume, and know it all, a pen and paper has slowed me down so that I’m taking it one step at a time and basking in the little that I know day by day. Moreover, this whole process reminds me of my finitude. It would be fair to say that our culture is largely marked by its obsession with productivity. They say that you are what you produce, and if you consume more than you produce then you’re deadweight to our society. However, this is crassly contrary to Scripture which says that you are who God made you to be. And this is an image of God who is created to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Therefore, in the face of a narrative that is telling us to do more quicker, slowing down with a pen and paper reminds us that it is okay to be not productive. In fact, we may not always learn something during our devotional time. Sometimes, ‘all’ we get is time to pray and cry out to God. But that is good.
3) Think Back and Give Thanks
Lastly, one of the great treasures of pausing with a pen and paper, presumably with a journal, is that it becomes a time capsule. Sometimes I like to flick back on pages that I’ve written in the past, and I get to see the prayers that I wrote, the anxieties I expressed, and the fears that I once held which I was able to bring it all before God.
Many of these anxieties and fears exist, and some of the prayers remain unanswered from a human perspective. Yet, so many prayers have been answered, fears and anxieties have been cast away, and newfound joy and peace has filled my heart. And to have written records of this journey in chronological form is just remarkable. I journaled quite intensely for a number of years while I was in uni and I have a library of those books. And now I get to look back at them to see my prayers for my family who were serving in Malaysia, my prayers about my relationship with Sherilyn and the eager hope I had that she could be my wife, and my concerns about ministry and life. There is something so profound about being able to look and think back upon these things and just give thanks to the Lord for what He has done. Perhaps this could be an antidote to the human tendency towards forgetfulness, because if we examine our hearts carefully, the Israelites of the Old Testament weren’t the only ones who kept forgetting the Lord’s faithfulness – we do too. So perhaps it’d be wise for us to devise and adopt certain strategies that will guard our hearts from grumbling, and this may be one of them.
As such, you may completely disagree with my proposal and that’s fine. What works for me in this area may not work for you, and praise God for this especially since Scripture does not give us a ’10 step to Personal Devotion’ guide. I’m just conscious that this may aid some of you, and it would bring me great joy to see a generation of people seeing spending time with God through Word and prayer each day as a delight.