Don’t Check the Boxes

My Breakthrough in Morning Devotions

I’ve been doing the same Bible-reading plan for years.

Quite simply, nothing has shaped me these last two decades like learning (and re-learning) to slowly work through the day’s assigned readings morning after morning, month after month, year after year. This particular plan has four short readings per day, and 25 days per month. It moves a reader through the full terrain of Scripture in twelve months. That makes for about fifteen minutes per day, at an average reading pace — which is too fast for Bible reading (more on that below).

Not that this habit of starting each day with open Bible (and coffee) is always clean and easy, but it’s far more automatic and enjoyable and fruitful now, twenty years later, than at the beginning. It’s amazing how a longstanding, daily habit can change you — not just in terms of psychological pathways and external actions, but also how a soul can be formed and conditioned.

We tend to overestimate how much we can change in the short run, and underestimate how much we can change in the long run.

Condition the Soul

Souls really can be conditioned, like bodies can be conditioned. In fact, our souls are perhaps all the more “conditionable” than our stubborn bodies (“brother ass,” as C.S. Lewis called the body). God made our minds and hearts to be trained and retrained. They are plastic, to borrow the term from neurology. You can train them in greed (2 Peter 2:14) or train them in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).

“Souls really can be conditioned, like bodies can be conditioned.”

Among many profound benefits of starting each day with God’s voice is how this first-thing encounter with God through his word shapes, trains, and conditions our inner man. After years of Bible reading, I know I have a painfully long way to go, yet I don’t want to overlook the deep blessings and joys of early-morning soul-steeping in the word of God.

Why Not Check the Box?

Over the years, as far as I can tell, perhaps the single most significant “breakthrough” for me in daily Bible intake was learning to ignore those little boxes next to each of the daily readings. If you’re a box-checker, I cast no stones. I simply share my own weaknesses and flaws by testifying to the breakthrough. Silly as it may sound, when I stopped checking the boxes, something started to change in my attitude toward God’s word.

Why would I not check the boxes? There they sat, immediately to the left of each assigned passage — conspicuously empty, practically calling out to me to fill them. But what I began to own in my own soul is that ending each reading by checking a box was promoting or reinforcing the wrong approach in me. When the arc of my “time alone with Jesus” was moving ever toward checking a box, I was orienting on the wrong end. I needed to retrain myself, by omitting that final step, to reinforce in my soul that I wasn’t sitting in front of Scripture to accomplish the day’s first to-do. I wasn’t here to achieve. This was not labor but devotions.

“When I stopped checking the boxes, something started to change in my attitude toward God’s word.”

Later in the day, I might do the hard work of studying the Bible or working to produce some article or sermon. But for now, first thing in the morning, I had God’s word open first and foremost to receive, to see Jesus, to feed my soul on him. What my soul really needed to start the day was him, not some small sense of accomplishment. I needed to encounter and enjoy the risen Jesus, not cross off the day’s first task.

I know now that there is a little hit of dopamine in checking boxes and crossing items off a list. But in time, I grew unsatisfied with that. I didn’t want to confuse the joy of completing a task with the enduring depth and riches of finding my soul being fed, being genuinely made happy in Christ through his word.

In retrospect, I can see that learning not to check the boxes then led to several other dominoes falling.

Slow Way Down

At an average reading pace, it takes about 70 hours to read through the whole Bible. Break that up into 300 days (25 days per month), and you have less than fifteen minutes per day. When I was pressing to check boxes, I could knock out the day’s readings in ten or twelve minutes. And by the end of the fourth reading, I hardly could remember what I had read in the first or second, or even fourth, passage.

When I stopped checking the boxes, it helped me to remember that I wasn’t there to finish the readings but to feed my soul. This freed me to slow way down in my reading speed. I could read at the slowest, most deliberate pace I found enjoyable, and stop to re-read any sentence or paragraph that was particularly unclear, or especially sweet — and still the full time elapsed would be less than half an hour.

In the book Meditation and Communion with God, longtime seminary professor Jack Davis waves the flag for “a more reflective and leisurely engagement with Scripture” in our day (20). According to Davis, the nature of modern life, and the “information overload” we have through television, smartphones, and endless new media “makes a slow, unhurried, and reflective reading of Scripture more vital than ever” (22).

Off the Clock Devotions

Another domino that soon fell was learning to set aside enough time to be able to lose track of time. What some in the work world call “flow” I found to be immensely helpful for morning devotions. I needed to sit where I wasn’t staring at a clock, or hearing one tick, or checking the time every few minutes. The rest of my day so often seemed timed and on the clock. In these morning moments before the risen Christ, I needed to lose consciousness of time, to read slowly and re-read, to explore cross-references and rabbit trails across the canon.

Some days the first assigned reading met and fed me. Other days little to nothing struck me in the four short readings, and I would review them to find somewhere to linger and feed. But neither happened well “on the clock.” There was no reliable timeframe I could assign to genuine soul feeding. So I needed enough space to linger before God without rushing off to the next part of the day.

For starters, I’d recommend half an hour, with the glad expectation that it will grow over time as your appreciation deepens for these quiet, unrushed, morning moments over God’s word.

Move into Meditation

Finally, and most significantly, not checking the boxes freed me to move from slow, unhurried reading into meditation, and then from meditation into prayer.

As I would move through the day’s readings, I was on the lookout for some patch to pause and feed, to really press into my soul, a place to meditate over some particular word from Christ to me that morning. Such meditation is a lost art in our day — not Eastern meditation in which you empty the head, but biblical meditation in which you seek to fill your mind with God-revealed truth and seek to press it into the heart.

Meditation, then, can serve as a kind of “bridge discipline” between Bible reading and prayer. I used to finish reading the passages, check the boxes, and then pivot pretty unnaturally to praying through lists, for myself, my family, friends, ministry partners, and missionaries. Learning to move from unhurried Bible reading into a few minutes meditating on a particular paragraph or verse helped me to focus and feed on a specific divine glory for the morning, and then make that the springboard into and theme for my prayers.

Enough for Today

I won’t pretend that not checking the boxes is for everyone, but maybe like me you’d be helped to take some defiant step to remind your soul, “I’m here to enjoy Jesus.”

One last note: when I stopped checking the boxes, I no longer felt the pressure to “go back” and make up any readings I hadn’t completed the day before. This freed me to really focus on feeding my soul today, to “gather a day’s portion,” rather than try to make up for yesterday, or last week. I realize that for new Bible readers, it may not be quite so easy. You need context to understand verses aright. That’s important. But I would have you take heart that getting a more intuitive sense of the context grows tremendously over time, as you make the annual journey through Scripture, and supplement your reading with various studies.

As George Mueller (1805–1898) so memorably said, his first business every day was to have his soul happy in God.

Leaving the boxes empty has helped me with that.