‘Just Not Feeling It’

How Routine Awakens Devotion

“Not feeling like it.” In the daily pursuit of Christ, I fear no phrase has hindered me more.

A few moments’ reflection reminds me of the silliness of such a feelings-based spirituality. A farmer will find nothing at harvest if he sets aside his plow with a wave of “not feeling like it.” A pianist will end her performances embarrassed if she takes a “not feeling like it” attitude to her practices. A couple will greet their anniversary with an unromantic sigh if they allow “not feeling like it” to govern their marriage.

Yet how often have I sidestepped habits of grace with a subtle, unspoken “not feeling like it” — and have expected to somehow still mature in faith and love and feel the spontaneous joy of the Spirit?

Any number of reasons stand ready to endorse the lazy slouch. “I don’t want to be a hypocrite.” “I have so much to do today anyway.” “I’ll get more from Scripture when I feel like reading it.” And perhaps the most common: “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, today’s spiritual potential — today’s comfort, joy, power, life — disappears on the winds of whim.

Reclaiming Routine

To some, the word routine carries the stiffness of stale bread and the rot of dead plants, the stuffiness of library books never opened and attics dusty with age. The very thought of routine spirituality — planned, scheduled, disciplined — seems to undermine the ministry of the life-giving, freedom-bestowing Spirit. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17) — and where the spirit of routine is (we may think), there is bondage.

The dichotomy, however, is self-imposed, self-imagined. If routine smells stale to us, the problem lies in our own sniffer. No doubt, routine can be made stale and dead, as any flower can be trampled underfoot or any sky cloaked with smog. But routine itself remains good, the friend of freedom and joy.

We might call any number of witnesses to testify on behalf of routine: Daniel, who “got down on his knees” and prayed “three times a day” (Daniel 6:10), whether lions waited or not; Peter and John, who went to the temple “at the hour of prayer” even after Pentecost brought the Spirit (Acts 3:1); or our Lord Jesus himself, who spontaneously defeated the devil’s lies, after fasting for forty days, because he had routinely memorized Deuteronomy (Matthew 4:1–10).

But perhaps the most striking ode to routine appears in Psalm 119.

Routines Like Riverbeds

None who read Psalm 119 would diagnose its author as dry; none who take up his psalm can sing it in hushed tones. The man sounds as alive as a spring sparrow, as exuberant as the exclamations in so many of his sentences. He isn’t always joyful, but oh, how he feels, freely and spontaneously. The whole psalm is a living pulse.

“Blessed are you, O Lord!” he shouts (verse 12). His soul, like his song, “is consumed with longing for your rules at all times” (verse 20). Both midnight and early morning may find him awake (verses 62, 147), too ecstatic to sleep, for “your testimonies are my delight” (verse 24). His hates and his loves burn too bright to be hidden (verses 104, 119).

“Under God, routines carve riverbeds in the soul where the streams of spontaneous love run deep.”

We might imagine such spontaneous affection lives beyond our reach, the possession of a super-spiritual personality. Pay attention to the psalm, however, and you may notice something that rivals the intensity of his feelings: the consistency of his routine. Scripture poured out of the man’s heart only because he had previously, even fastidiously, “stored” it there (verse 11). “I set your rules before me” was the watchword of his life, no matter the day (verse 30). With a devotion that might make us uncomfortable, he declares, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules” (verse 164).

Disciplined memorization, daily meditation, planned prayer and praise — under God, such routines carve riverbeds in the soul where the streams of spontaneous love run deep. They raise windmills in the heart to catch the breezes of the Spirit. Routines cannot give life of themselves, but they do invite life with all the readiness of a field furrowed, planted, and waiting for the rain.

String and Tune

Psalm 119 (and the rest of God’s word) gives us a robust category for spontaneous spirituality, for prayer and praise that fill the nets of ordinary moments and threaten to sink us for joy. But we have little hope of experiencing spontaneous devotion apart from the unspectacular business of routine. Daily we let down our nets; daily we take them up again; daily we wait for Jesus to bring the catch.

As we consider what routines might serve spontaneity best, we might helpfully think in two broad patterns: morning devotions and midday retreats. If morning devotions string our guitars, midday retreats retune them. If morning devotions inflate our hearts toward heaven, midday retreats give the bump that keeps us skyward. If morning devotions plant a flag for Christ on the hill of dawn, midday retreats beat off the afternoon foes ascending the slopes.

Morning Devotions

In all likelihood, we learned morning devotions as part of Discipleship 101. Repent, believe, and read your Bible every morning. But for that very reason, we can forget just how powerful and formative this pattern of seeking God can be.

There is a reason the psalmists prayed “in the morning” (Psalm 5:3), and sought deep satisfaction “in the morning” (Psalm 90:14), and declared God’s steadfast love “in the morning” (Psalm 92:2). There is a reason, too, we read of Jesus “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark,” to commune with his Father (Mark 1:35). The morning’s first thoughts and words may not set an iron trajectory for the rest of the day, but a trajectory they do indeed set.

“We have little hope of experiencing spontaneous devotion apart from the unspectacular business of routine.”

Though we have new hearts in Christ, we do not always awake ready to live new. Our old man awakes with us, clinging close; Vanity Fair opens early; the devil waits, winking. Apart from some kind of Godward morning routine, then, we are likely to express throughout the day not spontaneous praise, but spontaneous pride; not spontaneous gratitude, but spontaneous grumbling. And so, in the morning, the wise want the first voice they hear to be God’s. They want the first words they speak to be prayer.

We will not always leave our morning devotions deeply moved. But if done prayerfully and earnestly, consistently and expectantly, then our devotions will set a tone for the hours ahead. We will walk into our day with guitar stringed, more ready to play a song of praise.

Midday Retreats

As valuable as morning devotions can be, however, souls like ours often need more to maintain a lively, spontaneous communion with God throughout the day. As the hours pass by, our strings lose their tune; our hearts drop altitude; our flags wave opposed. So, God gives us another pattern to live by:

These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6–9)

We are too weak, too forgetful, to live by morning devotions alone. As we walk through the day, we need promises wrapped round our wrists like watches. We need to wear truth like eyeglasses. We need a world adorned with the words of God.

Signs, frontlets, doorposts — such words sanction our creativity. They invite us, for example, to sanctify space, writing God’s words on mirrors and walls, car dashboards and desks. Some might replace their phone’s screen saver with a promise from the morning’s reading; others might write down a verse and slip it in their pocket. A friend in college, taking Deuteronomy 6:8 literally, sometimes drew the armor of God on his hands, a vivid reminder of the day’s spiritual warfare.

These words also invite us to sanctify time. Many would find help from retreating once or twice a day, even for a few minutes, to find a silent spot, hear again God’s words, and cast the day’s accumulated burdens on him. We might also benefit from simply pausing briefly before meetings or new tasks to settle our souls in Christ.

Finally, these words invite us to sanctify conversation. “You . . . shall talk of them,” God says — and not just in some places occasionally, but everywhere often. God means for his words to infiltrate our small talk and passing comments, our summaries of the day and our pillow-time reflections. Such conversations might start with a simple “What did you read today?” to spouse or roommate or friend.

However they come, midday retreats offer a pause and parenthesis in the day’s chaos, an oasis in the wilderness of tasks and temptations, a small Sabbath in the middle of packed afternoons, retuning our hearts to the morning’s song.

Revived and Rejoicing

The next time “not feeling like it” threatens to derail a good routine, we might confront our feelings with the words of David:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
     reviving the soul; . . .
the precepts of the Lord are right,
     rejoicing the heart. (Psalm 19:7–8)

God’s word revives the soul and rejoices the heart — which suggests we will sometimes come to God’s word with souls asleep and hearts unfeeling. We will sit before an open Bible not wanting to read or pray, perhaps wanting to do anything else instead. And right there, in the midst of a difficult routine, God may revive our drooping feelings with a word.

When we allow “not feeling like it” to keep us from routine, we are like a man who avoids medicine because he doesn’t feel healthy, or who avoids fire because he doesn’t feel warm, or who avoids food because he doesn’t feel full. But when we engage in routine anyway — prayerfully and expectantly — we may walk away revived and rejoicing, our souls alive with spontaneous praise, “not feeling like it” nowhere to be found.