The Quiet Power of Ordinary Devotions
As Christians, we are not interested in merely reading our Bibles. We want to be moved, inspired, changed by what we read. We do not wake up early simply to pass our eyes over the pages of Scripture. We come to meet God (1 Samuel 3:21). We come to taste honey and gather gold (Psalm 19:10). We come to “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). That means days of ordinary devotions, as we’ve all experienced, can be all the more disappointing.
As any faithful Bible reader knows, many devotional times come and go without fireworks. We may get alone, ask for God’s help, read attentively, and then rise up feeling — normal. Our time in the living, active, inspired word of God has felt spectacularly ordinary.
Sometimes, the ordinariness comes as a result of our lingering blindness to glory. I, for one, feel a kinship with those disciples on the Emmaus road, to whom Jesus said, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). God save us from foolish minds and slow hearts, which so often close our eyes to the light of his revelation.
“The grace of God sometimes lands on us like lighting, and sometimes falls like dew.”
Yet the cause does not always lie in us. If we are reading our Bibles rightly, in fact, we should expect many mornings of ordinary devotions: devotions that do not sparkle with insight or direct-to-life application, but that nevertheless do us good. Just as most meals are ordinary, but still nourish, and just as most conversations with friends are ordinary, but still deepen affection, so most devotions are ordinary, but still grow us in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Saturated with Scripture
As a new Christian in college, I carried in my pocket a packet of Scripture-memory cards from the Navigators. On one of the first cards, I found 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” I believed Paul’s words readily, having felt firsthand the profit of books like John and Romans, Philippians and James. Scarcely did I realize then, however, that Paul would have thought first of passages quite different from these — passages from which I struggled then (and still do now) to find the same kind of encouragement.
Consider, for example, some of the God-breathed, profitable Scripture Paul had in mind as he wrote 2 Timothy:
- Solomon’s discussion of wisdom in Proverbs 2:6 (2 Timothy 2:7)
- Isaiah’s prophecy of the cornerstone in Isaiah 28:16 (2 Timothy 2:19)
- The story of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16 (2 Timothy 2:19)
- The account of the Egyptian magicians in Exodus 7–9 (2 Timothy 3:8)
Few of us would dip into these passages for immediate edification. Few of us would offer them as our first illustrations of God-breathed, profitable Scriptures. Many of us, after stumbling through such pages of God’s word, emerge on the other side feeling unchanged, uninspired — ordinary.
We can strive to avoid such experiences, of course, by staying safely in those parts of Scripture where we have felt God’s breath most powerfully. And yet, if we want a soul not merely sprinkled but saturated with God’s words, our only option is to carry on a long, patient acquaintance with passages that seem obscure. With passages that, upon first, second, or even fifth reading, leave us feeling quite ordinary afterward, but that slowly reveal the scope of God’s glory and make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
Devotions Without a Devotional
Perhaps our impatience with days of ordinary devotions comes from the expectation that daily devotions should be like devotionals. A devotional gathers perhaps a month’s or a year’s worth of daily readings, each designed to give a boost toward Godward thinking and living. And the best of them do so quite well.
Daily devotionals have a place in the Christian life. (I would have to ditch Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening if I thought otherwise.) Yet we do well to remember that, in giving us Scripture, God did not intend to give us a typical daily devotional. If he had, the chronicler might have spared us his genealogies, Ezekiel might have skipped his extended temple vision, and the author of Hebrews might have left out Melchizedek.
If a daily devotional is like a photo album, with each page offering a self-contained snapshot of glory, Scripture itself is like a mural, with each day’s reading comprising only a centimeter of the whole. Some days, we happen upon a centimeter bright with glory, perhaps Psalm 23 or Romans 8. Other days, a dark image appears before us, as when we read prophecies or stories of judgment. Still other days, we find a section that simply mystifies us, the kind that we would never find in a daily devotional.
Over time, though, we begin to grasp a glory in this mural that a snapshot could never give: a swirl of brightness and darkness, clarity and obscurity that coalesces into a masterpiece. And on those days, we will not wish that we had stayed safely within the snapshots of glory.
Grace Like Dew
We can rarely judge the value of our daily devotions, then, by considering any day in itself. In fact, initial impressions can deceive. High-octane devotions do not always lead to spiritual growth, and ordinary devotions often yield more fruit than we expect. J.C. Ryle once preached,
Do not think you are getting no good from the Bible, merely because you do not see that good day by day. The greatest effects are by no means those which make the most noise, and are the most easily observed. The greatest effects are often silent, quiet, and hard to detect at the time they are being produced. Think of the influence of the moon upon the earth, and of the air upon the human lungs. Remember how silently the dew falls, and how imperceptibly the grass grows. There may be far more doing than you think in your soul by your Bible-reading.
“Ordinary devotions are not the enemy. Like the manna in the wilderness, they too are from God.”
The grace of God sometimes lands on us like lighting, and sometimes falls like dew. During some devotions, God places us in the cleft of the rock and lets us catch the trailing edge of his glory as he passes by (Exodus 33:18–23). During others, he shrouds us in darkness so that we cannot see (Isaiah 50:10). Yet if we read patiently and faithfully, not trusting in our wisdom but crying out for God’s, then the grace of God, though perhaps hidden in the moment, will in due time reveal its silent working.
Sometimes, then, we do well to ask of our morning devotions not “What were my feelings?” but “What, over time, are the effects?” Regardless of what I feel on any given morning, am I coming to treasure more of Christ’s multifaceted glories? Is God’s word making me a more holy husband, wife, brother, sister, friend? Am I growing in my readiness for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17)?
Manna and Milk
Ordinary devotions, of course, are not the ideal. We do not hope to come to our Bibles and walk away unmoved — or, worse, confused. We hope rather to “behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18) and walk away full of praise. And when this hope is deferred, it too can make the heart sick.
Yet neither are ordinary devotions the enemy. Like the manna in the wilderness, they too are from God. They too nourish and sustain us, even if imperceptibly. If we will patiently, faithfully eat the food God provides, ordinary days will give way to the milk and honey we long to taste again.
And in the meantime, how good it is for us to be thrown back on God, knowing more deeply than ever that if we are to see at all, he must give us sight. How good to sing with the psalmist, “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us” (Psalm 123:2). In God’s good time, if we do not give up, the unfolding of his words will give light (Psalm 119:130).