It’s an honor to be here with you and kicking off the conference. Come on, let’s go. All right, Desiring God. So glad you guys made it at one o’clock.
If you have a Bible, I want to start by reading to you a couple of verses from the Psalms: Psalm 142 and Psalm 57. I’ll start with Psalm 142 and then read some from Psalm 57. So if you’d like to turn to those, those will help you. I’ll read over those so we can get them loaded in our mind. We’ll pray and then dive into the text together.
So Psalm 142 says this:
With my voice I cry out to the Lord;
with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit faints within me,
you know my way!
In the path where I walk
they have hidden a trap for me.
Look to the right and see:
there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for my soul.
I cry to you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”
Attend to my cry,
for I am brought very low!
Deliver me from my persecutors,
for they are too strong for me!
Bring me out of prison,
that I may give thanks to your name!
The righteous will surround me,
for you will deal bountifully with me. (Psalm 142:1–7)
And then Psalm 57:
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me.
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
My soul is in the midst of lions;
I lie down amid fiery beasts —
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!
They set a net for my steps;
my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my way,
but they have fallen into it themselves.
My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:1–11)
I’d ask you if you’re willing to take a minute and just ask him that. Pray and say, “God, please teach me something right now.” And then, if you would, please pray for me that the Lord would use me and I’d be helpful to you.
From Spine Injury to Unfettered Intimacy
Well, I’m very grateful to be standing here in front of you today. A couple of summers ago, my wife and I were traveling while I was speaking at youth camps. We stopped at a Starbucks in Dallas. While we were there, a young man stole my wife’s iPhone. Literally ripped her earbuds out, pulled it off the table, and went running out the door, which was fascinating because you always wonder what you would do in that moment. What would your instinctual response be? My wife’s was to yell, and she yelled, “Get him, babe!” Which at that moment, what are you going to do? Be like, “No, I’m good.” You know, you got to roll.
So I took off out the door, chased this guy, turned the corner. There’s a security car, so I start yelling for security until I realized it’s his buddy driving. That was their getaway car, which how they procured, that I have no idea. But all in one moment, he jumped in the car, I grabbed the window, and his buddy hit the gas, and so we went driving down the road together, them in the cab, and me hanging from the door. Which was interesting because they were the age of the kids I had just been teaching, and so I was talking to them like I’m talking to you now. I was saying, “Hey, you don’t want to do this?” And they were talking back to me, calling me “Sir.” It was very surreal.
But at some moment I realized we can’t keep doing this. I either need to get in the car to get out, but this has to stop. And so I let go of the car, they drove off, got arrested, which didn’t honestly feel like a big win for their lives. But I went back and found my wife, and as all the adrenaline seeped out, I remember saying to her, “My back hurts.” And then the next day it hurt a little bit more.
And then the third day I woke up in excruciating pain, and I couldn’t walk. Several doctors’ visits and MRIs later, we found out I had three herniated discs in my lower back. One of them was sticking out almost three centimeters, pressing into the nerves, causing waves of pain to shoot down my legs and threatening to take away the use of my left leg permanently.
And yet, because of some previous back injuries in my life, they said, “You’re a bad candidate for surgery.” And I said, “So, what does that mean?” I remember the surgeon said, “Well, we watch you.” And he said, “And hope your back fixes itself.” So they laid me on my face, on the floor in my living room for a month.
I remember after four weeks I was able to get up, and by the grace of God walked into my surgeon’s office. He was shocked. He said, “Somebody up there must like you.” He said, “I can’t believe you’re walking.” My physical therapist cried. And so when I say I’m grateful to be standing in front of you, I’m really not kidding. I’m grateful to be standing in front of you today.
But I’ll tell you this, if you’ve never taken steroids, they do make you irritable, and they also caused insomnia. I was only sleeping about three hours a night, and so as I laid on my face on the floor, I had a lot of uninterrupted awake time. I filled it with movies, hundreds of movies. I went through all the modern ones, back into the classics, just kept watching them.
They put a little DVD player by my face and just one after another. I watched them until finally one night about 3:00 a.m. I was watching Teen Wolf Too starring Justin Bateman. I realized, “This has gotten very pathetic and it’s got to stop.” I was like, “What am I going to do? Am I just going to sit here in the silence?” And I thought, “Well, I guess,” and so I turned it off. It wasn’t minutes into the silence that I felt like I felt that presence, that sweet convicting presence of the Holy Spirit come and begin to ask me the question, “Are you ready to deal with me now?”
What I realized was, I was filling my life, even there, immobile, with distractions because I didn’t want to deal with him honestly about this fear in my heart and about my frustration at him for doing this to me. And so, rather than deal honestly with him about what’s going on in my heart, I just filled my life with all manner of distractions.
And you go, “Why are you telling me that?” Well, I’m telling you this because I just don’t think I’m the only person here who’s ever done that. I think if we’re honest in here, a lot of us know what that’s like, that there’s some difficulties and complications in here, and that it’s easier to just hit the gas and get busy. And like speedboats, we just go faster, and meanwhile, we get shallower and shallower.
As I laid there on the floor, I remember I took a risk, is what it felt like in me. I just decided to be honest with God. I began to speak with him in a way that wasn’t neat; it wasn’t tidy. The prayers didn’t all finish with a cute sweet ending to the glory of God. But I just came and poured out my soul honestly to him, and I gave space for him to be honest with me. I got to tell you something, God met with me on that floor. I got back in touch with the reality that there’s a lot of pain in the world, and mine is not even registering in the top ten of human suffering on the planet.
God got me back in touch with the fact of what it means that the world was subject to frustration, and what the groaning of the earth is like, eager for the redemption of the sons. I just felt that sense of yearning, that my struggle with God was met by the mercy of God, and I fell in love with him in a deeper way on that floor, on my face. I want that for you. When I read Psalm 23, I never thought of that verse, “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” as a particularly violent act, but it can be (Psalm 23:2).
And by the end of it, I ended up thanking God for doing that to me, by making me be still so he could restore my soul. I want you to know that kind of unfettered intimacy with him. I’m hoping you don’t need a spine injury. I’m hoping maybe a seminar will do it.
The Quest for Devotion
But they asked me to come here and speak about what is it to have a devotional life — a life that’s devoted to God — and how do I cultivate a life of devotion to him? And it’s a seminar, so I want to give you some practical things. But before we get into the practical, we got to talk about what are the essential pieces. If I’m going to have a life that is devoted to God, that clings to him, if I’m going to commune with him in a real way, in an honest way, before I start interacting with all this content, what does it look like to have it get down into my heart? We need to look at what are the essential elements of a devotional life.
David’s Lowest Moments
I just thought the way to do it would be to look at David in one of the lowest moments in his life because whatever devotional theory we’re going to present here, it’s worthless if it can’t work in the most difficult seasons of your life.
And so we’re looking at David in these Psalms. I don’t know if you picked up on it, but from a moment when David was in the cave. Many of you know David’s stories, I won’t belabor it. But after he defeated Goliath, that was a big uptick for David. He went from shepherd boy to savior of the nation in a moment. In just a handful of verses, you see he picks up a best friend, the best kind of friend you could get, Jonathan. He picked up a wife, he got a serious promotion from leading sheep to leading men. And he became famous.
His enemies were terrified of David. Men respected David. Women were singing songs about him. “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). So catch where David’s life is. His enemies fear him. Men want to be him. Women want to be with him. Try to imagine that, and some of you’re thinking, “Imagine? That’s a Monday for me.” Fine.
For the rest of us, just imagine if your life was an unbroken boulevard of green lights because that’s where David is. And yet in that moment, there’s one person who heard that song, that hated it: King Saul. Said that song galled him. He hated that song. So he hated David, and he was jealous of him. And jealousy congealed into hatred. He tried to kill David twice by himself, and then he ordered a kill order on David.
And you see the bottom drop out of David’s life. In just a few verses, you see him lose his house, lose his wife, lose his job, and he’s got to run. You see as he’s hunted, he loses his mentor, never going to see Samuel again. And he loses his best friend. He’ll see Jonathan one more time, and then you’ll hear about Jonathan’s death and have been powerless to do anything about it.
In desperation as everything falls apart, he runs to the only place he can think of, to the Philistines, and they recognize him. So he has to pretend like he’s crazy and start drooling on himself to get out of there. And then finally, it says that he landed in “the cave of Adullam” (1 Samuel 22:1).
He goes from castle to cave, from the highest of moments to the lowest of moments. What’s beautiful about David’s life is in that moment, we get an experience of his life that’s not unlike the experience of NASCAR. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to NASCAR. It’s a great cultural experience. I’d never seen so many airbrushed T-shirts in my life.
But I went one time and was bored to tears watching these cars go around. I don’t know if you love NASCAR; I was just confused. Why is this exciting to us? But I saw these people just laughing and having a blast. I finally tapped one of them and was like, “What am I missing here?” They all had these big headphones on with these little receivers.
They were having a blast because as they just watched these cars wing around, they would punch in numbers, and it would let them tap into the conversations between the drivers and their pit crew. So as they saw a guy get cut off, they would hurry up and tap that number. That guy would be like, “I’m going to kill him.” And they’re like, “That’s great.” They had this whole different experience because they got on the inside of those intimate conversations.
The Window into David’s Devotion
Here with David as you watch the bottom fall out of his life, we get a window into his intimate conversations with God. That’s what those two Psalms are. They’re titled Psalms of David when he was in the cave. We hear how David interacts with God in the lowest moment of his life, and as we watch him do it, he gives us a window into what authentic devotion to God looks like.
The Critical Element of Honesty
The first thing you see in Psalm 142, he says, “With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (Psalm 142:1–2). Do you see what’s happening? As he begins, he says to God, “I’m pouring out my complaint. I’m telling all my trouble to you.” The first thing David does, and I think the first critical element to a devotional life is we get honest with God. It’s an honest heart that David pours out what’s going on in him, with unfettered access.
It’s interesting; I talk to young people about what it is to have a devotional life, and many want to start with technique. So what do you do? Do I got to read through the Bible for a year? Do I get a devotional plan on my phone? What do I do? And they just want to talk about how to read the Bible, and that’s all they want to talk about.
I’m certainly not denigrating reading the Bible. I’m an advocate of it, and we’re going to talk about it in a second. And yet the reality is, if all you do is sit in front of the Bible, that is not sufficient. Because many of us know you can sit in front of a Bible and read it, and it accomplishes nothing in your heart. It can not only accomplish nothing, it can make you worse. Paul said that “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). There’s a way of interacting with the Bible that you could read it, and all it does is make you arrogant and an insufferable person to hang out with. So there’s a way to read the Bible that’s detrimental to you.
It’s interesting, Jesus, when he gave his first parable in the Gospel of Mark, do you remember it? It’s the parable of the soils. He told that story of the farmer throwing seeds out to different soils. And then when his disciples asked him to explain it, he says, “The seed is the word of God.” And what’s interesting about it is the given in that story is the word will go out. The word of God will be proclaimed, it will be heard, it will be interacted with.
The only thing that will make a difference between it being fruitful in your life or not is the preparedness of the soil. And some of us, if we’re honest, we have maybe spent every morning this year getting up reading our Bible, but not saying, “What’s going on in my heart?” Not preparing the soil of God. “What’s happening in me? Am I discontent about this frustration in my life? Am I disappointed in you that I haven’t achieved this yet?”
We don’t attend to that. We just read the Bible, say, “I did my devotional moment,” and walk off. We’re like somebody that takes seed and just throws it out on your driveway and then wonders why crops aren’t growing. That doesn’t make any sense. Go out there and smash it against the concrete and go, “Well, but I do it every morning.” Yeah, but it’s weird. You need not only the seed of truth, you need to prepare the soil.
Jesus said there’s some that though they will hear the words of God, but as soon as persecution comes up, and it withers and dies. There’s many of us that we know all these things about God, we know so much of what Piper’s going to say because we read all his books. And yet for some of you, you read them all. But in the first moment of opposition, you doubt God’s fatherly love for you and you doubt his control over your life. The love of God and the power of God in your life instantly becomes in doubt the minute persecution comes.
Or others of us, he says, “It’s like the weeds choke out the truth and make it unfruitful.” And he says, “Those weeds are like the desire for riches,” or my favorite is, he says, “Or the desire for other things.” That you can sit and have a quiet time every morning, but if growing in your heart is passionate desires for other things, he says it’s going to choke this word and it’s unfruitful. I need the seed of truth in a prepared soil. I need a heart that’s ready to receive him. And how do I do that?
What David does and what he advocates to us is a heart that comes to God, deeply and honestly. That I come real to let God deal with the real me. Because what I want is what Paul prayed for the Philippians. He said, “it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge” (Philippians 1:9).
There’s a place for knowledge, for the attaining of understanding of the words of God. He says, “But it’s meant to sink into your heart and to become love.” Paul told Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love” (1 Timothy 1:5). So if your way of intersecting with the Bible is not becoming greater love for God or people, you’re doing it wrong. And so he says I have to approach the word in a way that it sinks down into my heart and stirs my affections for God.
But I’m here to say to you, you can’t have intimacy without honesty. You can’t. Try it with somebody. We all know people like that, that no matter what question you ask them, they always come back fake. “Hey man, how you doing today?” “Fantastic.” “Okay.” And you see him and you know things aren’t okay. You know that they’re having difficulty at home. You know that his life is fading. “How you doing, buddy?” “Fantastic.” “Okay. Okay.” We’re never going to be real deep. There’s never going to be deep intimacy in us because you won’t be real.
And some of you maybe the most Christian thing you’ll do this week is not read another book yet, but it’s to sit down and just assess the soil of your heart and say, “God, I can keep loading into my mind all these wonderful thoughts, but deep in my heart I feel a resentment for you because I haven’t arrived at the place I wanted. I feel a deep fear because I’m not sure you’re going to come through for me.” I’ve got to plow that up. I’ve got to set that out before him and let him address the soil. That’s what David does. That’s what we are meant to do.
I commune with him, and that’s what the psalmist gives us permission to do. You know this, that all through the Psalms, it’s unfettered crying out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted” (Psalm 25:16). “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1)
David is willing to say things to God that I thought were disrespectful when I was young. I realize it’s not disrespectful to be honest. “I’m lonely. I’m afflicted. I’m distressed; that’s what I am, God.” And as I come honestly with what’s going on in my heart, it gives him access to me that he can take the truth of his word and set it into my soul.
And yet what’s interesting about David is David doesn’t stop there, and some of us don’t like the idea of being really deeply honest with God because you know people that just cry about their problems, and that’s all they do, and you don’t want to be that person, but that’s not David. Watch David. In a few months from now, he won’t still be complaining about Saul. In ten years from this moment, he won’t be in a support group going, “And then Saul was mean to me.” He’s not going to do it. He gets honest. But that’s the beginning, it’s not the end.
Gaining Perspective Through Truth
And you see as soon as David gets honest, he adds the second piece that’s essential. Then he gets perspective. He doesn’t stop at the emotions, but he doesn’t neglect them. David has an open heart, and then David has an attentive mind.
He pours out his complaint, but before the poems are over, he begins to speak truth to himself. He ends Psalm 142 saying, “Bring me out of prison.” And then he says, “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (Psalm 142:7). And then in Psalm 57, you hear him doing even more. He says to God, “In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge . . . I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. . . . [He] will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!” (Psalm 52:1–3).
He begins to preach the words of God into the place where he needs to hear it, his soul in the midst of its distress. “This cave is not my refuge. God is my refuge. King Saul does not decide my fate. God determines his purposes for me. King Saul will not rule this place, God Most High does.”
That’s the name used of God by Melchizedek when he proclaims it over Abraham, when Abraham saw God deliver him from the five kings, and David looks at his distress under the one king, and he calls his mind back to Genesis and says, “God Most High delivered Abraham from the kings, that same God will deliver me because of his steadfast love,” as I said.
And he begins to preach the covenant of God to himself. And so he opens up his heart to see where the wounds are, the difficulties are, and he applies the truth there, and that’s what we’re meant to do. I get honest and I get perspective. I have an open heart and then an attentive mind to the words of God. And then I begin to load my mind with thoughts of God so that they might stir my affections for God. By the end, he will sing out in worship even in the cave.
Transforming the Heart and Mind
Derek Kidner said it this way, and I love it. He said the fight had almost gone out of David, perhaps until he prayed the God-centered prayer of Psalm 52:5. That he was concerned for his soul. He poured it out, but he didn’t stop. Then he turned up, and he was transformed by the renewing of his mind. He did what Colossians advocates, “Set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). That the way devotions work is I load my mind with thoughts of God to stir my affections for God. That was Paul’s prayer, “That your love abound with knowledge.”
And as David opens his heart, he begins to pour into it truth, and that changes him, and that’s what we are meant to do. That’s what we’re meant to do. There’s a moment in the allegory Pilgrim’s Progress that I love. Do you remember when Christian is on that narrow road on the way to life, and what happens? He sees an easier road, so he takes it. He sins. And as he walks on that road, do you remember when Giant Despair grabs him and takes him home into the castle of doubt and beats him up?
What’s interesting about the story, and it was always so weird to me, is that the giant would go home every night in the story and talk to his wife. His wife would ask the giant how his day went, and the giant would say, “Well, I was beating these guys.” His wife would go, “Okay, well, tomorrow show them the skulls of the dead, then beat them.” The giant’s like, “Okay.” Then he’d go do that, and he’d come back, and she’d ask, “How’s the beating?” They’d talk about the day, and she’d give him some more pointers on how to beat them.
I’m reading this and wondering, “What is happening with this? His wife’s coaching him up on this?” But you know it’s an allegory, so all their names mean something. I looked up the giant’s wife’s name, and it’s Diffidence. I had to look up the word “diffidence.” It means reticence or hesitancy to come before God.
As you read the allegory, you realize that it was diffidence, reticence, and unwillingness to come before God that kept Christian beaten up by despair and locked up in doubt. That’s what happened. How did it change? Christian fell on his knees and poured out his heart to God. As he poured out his heart, he realized, “Oh, as I’m weeping before the Lord, I remember the key of promise that he gave me, which unlocks any lock in Doubting Castle.” It’s the most anticlimactic part of the book. He’s like, “Oh yeah, I have this key.” Then he gets out.
But how did he do it? By getting rid of his reticence to come before God. “Let me come before you with all the ugliness still on me. As I pour out my heart before you, even in the midst of doubt and despair, your promises come and set me free.” That’s what happened here.
So in my devotional life, what I do to achieve this is I get two different color pens. I do it that way because something happened to me in seminary. I learned how to exegete the Bible in a brilliant way, and I loved it. It was great to accurately work through the text, but it destroyed my devotional life. I would sit down there and just exegete, “Oh yeah, that’s what that means. Oh, purpose statement.” Now I would just unpack the text, but I would never let it speak to me.
So what I had to do is get two different color pens: the Bible color and the Ben color. Mine was blue. I could look at the text, and if there was no blue on the page, I realized I wasn’t letting the Bible address me. Now what I do is I start with my color. I begin there.
I watched a movie years ago when I was in high school called Madness. The movie was all about a guy whose frontal lobe was severed by a railroad spike. I don’t have time to tell the story; it’s disturbing anyway. But it removed from him any kind of restraint on his emotional state. Then they reenacted it, him screaming at God and crying like, “I’m happy. I hate you.” He was just all over the place. That’s how I pray.
When I sit down, I take that blue pen and say, “Here’s my heart, Lord.” I pour out everything in it, even if they’re really disappointing and sad things to say. I say, “I don’t want that to be true. I’m lonely today, and I’m scared, and I’m afraid you’re not going to show up for me in this area, and I’m going to fail, and it’s all darkness forever.” You’re like, “Wow, that’s heavy.” But I don’t stop there. Then I pull out the word of God and begin to write it, and I write it in black because I want it to be a deeper and bolder color. Then I let my transient emotions wrap around the text.
Before I leave, I ask myself, “Which will dominate my decision-making today? Will I operate out of Ben’s transient emotions, or will I let them submit to and be transformed by the enduring word of God?” That’s what I do. I have an open heart and an attentive mind, and it moves me. That’s what happened to David.
Even preparing to speak at places like this, I know for me, I used to always get so nervous before talks. I would be in the back and just be like, “God, you gotta come through. God, you gotta come through.” Finally, I stopped myself and asked, “Ben, what are you so nervous about?”
I just started paying attention to my soul. I said, “Are you nervous that God won’t be glorified? Is that really the problem?” They’re like, “Lord, I’m just afraid your purposes will be thwarted.” Like, “No, it’s not that.” So I asked myself, “So what are you worried about, Ben?” Then I realized, as I was honest about my heart, I’m worried that I won’t be glorified. I really hate to admit that. But it doesn’t help me to pretend that insecurity isn’t there. It doesn’t remove the insecurity; it just adds ignorance to the equation, and that’s not a win.
The win is to look at the insecurity and go, “God, that’s so sad.” And then I apply to it the truth of God’s Word. “But your approval is what matters to me. And the point of a sermon is not to justify myself; it’s to honor you and to help them.” And so I give myself over to the Lord, and then I stand in the corner of the room and I pray over you because I remember Jesus had compassion on the crowds and he taught them many things. It was a compassion for people that propelled him to preach. And as I take the insecurity of my heart and open it and drop into that open soil, the seed of truth, it becomes glory. It becomes worship, and that’s what I want for you.
It’s what I want for you, an open heart and an attentive mind before the Lord. And you are in good company when you do that. That’s what Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, did he not? This is a system that works. I pour out my heart, I rest in the Lord, and then I move.
Practically, what are ways to do that? Let me tell you in one minute. Let me give you three things that I think can help us.
One is I think you need consistency. I think you need consistency: a time, a place, and a plan. A time where you can focus on the word of God, a place where you’re undistracted, and a plan of what you’re going to approach. For me, I read through the whole Bible. I’m just constantly moving through it, but I’ve taken the pressure off to do it in a year. Because as I put that pressure on me, and some of you that’s not pressure, but for me, suddenly my devotional time just became Bible speed reading time. That’s not the goal.
The goal is an honest communion with God between Ben and the Bible. And sometimes that’s a chapter. Sometimes it’s two or three verses. I’ve given myself that freedom because the goal is a communion with God, and that can happen over a single verse. And so I’m moving through the Bible. It’s good to have a plan. Sometimes I write books of the Bible out because it makes me go slow, and then I write out my own words as well. But I find a time when I can focus, a place where I can go and be undistracted, and then a plan of how I approach it. I found that that helps me.
I’ve never met a strong Christian who does not meditate every day on the words of God. I’ve never met a weak Christian who does. And so I come consistently before the word of God.
But not just consistently, I come creatively, creatively that when I was dating my wife, I didn’t just have one phone call with her from 8:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. where we just stirred one’s affections for one another. “Okay, talk to you tomorrow. All right.” And hung up. We harnessed every means of communication possible. We would hang up talking, “You hang up.” “No, you hang up.” “No, you hang up.” “No, you hang up.” And then we’d hang up and text. Then get to the office, an email, and then get smoke signals. “You’re the greatest.” We just grab anything to communicate.
And so for me with God, I’m constantly looking and saying, “How do I harness the world around me? How do I use music?” Martin Luther extolled music. A second only to the word of God, because by her, all the emotions are swayed. He said, “I love music because it helps stir my affections for God.” For me, I used to take walks at night, that I would go out.
When I was in college, I had a church that had a prayer time. You would sign up for for one hour a week. I signed up from eleven to twelve on Sunday nights. I feared my church enough to know if I signed up, I would really do it. And so I signed up to pray. I remember the first time I did it as a young man kneeling by my bed, and I prayed for myself, my roommates, the college campus, the city, the state, the globe, and then looked at the clock, and it had been like a minute. I’m like, “Dang it.” I fell asleep, felt really bad about it.
And so the next week I was like, “All right, do over.” I decided to pray in my closet because I knew God had said there was something spiritual about praying in your closet. But in my closet, it was just piled with dirty clothes. I got in there and I’m like, “Oh, it’s kind of warm and dark.” I just fell asleep even faster. So I realized the only way I’m going to do this is walk around the neighborhood. And the only way I could do it and not just have weird thoughts rolling in my head, the kind of half a sentence was if I talked out loud.
So on Sunday nights if you wanted to find me, you’d have to drive around the neighborhood. I’d be the guy walking around. Neighbors probably thought I was crazy because I’d be out there at eleven being like, “And then he says to me . . . “ I’m just talking to God about what’s going on in my life.
Finally, I just pulled up in a high school football stadium. Every Sunday night I would just sit there under the stars and pour my heart out to God. I fell in love with him in a football stadium. That was our place. With my morning devotional time, it was just a secret place.
Now, me and my staff once a month, have a day with the Lord. We all go out someplace, have breakfast together, and then we spend a whole day. I love it whenever I bring on new staff, they’re so scared of that. They’re like, “We’re going to have a day long quiet time?” I’m like, “Just come.” And they go.
What usually happens is we run out of time, that as we give that space to God, where I open up my heart and I let the seed of truth sink into it, he meets me there. And so you find a consistent place, you find creative ways to meet with him.
Then the last I would say, you find community. People around you who can speak the word of God to you, that we would extol and encourage one another as long as it’s called today, that we wouldn’t be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
You need buddies like Randy, who I remember telling him one day about something going on in my life while we were watching a basketball game. And then he just flipped the TV off and I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “What I’m doing is I’m going to pray for you.” You need friends like that.
Sometimes being alone in your room with the Bible is not the best thing. Martin Luther discovered that when he was depressed. He said, “Sometimes you just need the company of a good woman.” By that he meant his wife because she made him laugh and not take himself so seriously. Other times he bawled, and that’s okay.
I get consistency, creativity, and community, so I can open my soul so that the word of God can drop in.
Cultivating the Fire of Devotion
Last thing, thanks for your time. I read a book a few years ago about fire. When you want a fire to really burn, you need three things. They call it the fire triangle. You need heat, you need fuels, logs, and things that’ll burn. You need the wind to blow to spread it. That’s what you need. You need heat, fuel, and wind.
I was out a few weeks ago with some buddies out at a hunting lease. I’m from Texas. We were out there, and as we’re out there, they had had a fire that night that they had left. I was gone. I came back the next morning, and you could still see smoke rising, but it was all white. There was ash. I leaned down there and I just pushed the ash away because it smothers the coals.
As I pushed the ash out of the way, there really were some coals left in there. So what I did is I began to drop fuels onto it: wood, sticks, grass, and then I began to blow. Those once-fading embers became a flame, became a roaring fire. That’s what you are meant to do. That as I sit with God, I ask him to sweep away the embers, the weird insecurities or distractions that keep me from him.
What I find is he uncovers, if you are in Christ, there is a deep burning for him in you. And then you load your affections for God with thoughts of God. Because what you think about is what you care about, what you care about, you chase. And yet, for Paul, he prayed that our love would be filled with knowledge. That I ask God, “Oh Lord, as I take the words of God and put them next to my soul, would your Spirit blow on them? May the wind of God blow so that the words of God landing upon my soul becomes a flame of affection for him.” That’s my prayer for you.