On Devotionals, or What it Means to be Devoted

When I was young I used to pray for God to rescue me from the boredom of doing my devotions. All those Thees and Thous and henceforths (I grew up on the KJV) was like pouring water on the tiny flame of my faith. So I lowered my shouldered and repeated the words fake it ‘till you make it, fake it ‘till you make it.

But as I grew older, I began to find pleasure and meaning in my Bible reading, and lo-and-behold if I didn’t start to crave it. The Bible came alive to me because it became meaningful. I’d learned enough of the history, the culture, and the languages to make sense of it, and God paired that knowledge with a saving faith which produced in me devotional, mountaintop experiences that I thought were glorious.

But soon the mountain peaked and I began to fall into the adjacent valley. That was when I realized that the Christian life, to shift metaphors, is a lot like crossing the desert. Sometimes you stumble upon an oasis, and sometimes you don’t…for days, weeks, even months. What it means to be a Christian is to struggle with dryness from time to time, and yet, what I find ironic—what really gets me peeved, to be honest—is that there’s an entire genre of books that promise an oasis everyday, all the time. For everybody. They are called “devotionals” and—DUH!—they outsell everything else by the longest country mile you’ve never seen.

One of those books is Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling—it has been thoroughly critiqued in our Reformed circles time and time and time and time again, so I won’t go there—but, in 2013, it outsold 50 Shades of Grey by (again) a country mile. Clearly Mrs. Young is onto something. The back of the book says, “Experience peace in the presence of the Savior who is closer than you can imagine.” There is a “devotion” for every day of the year, so it’s safe to imagine that the author’s goal is to let us experience the oasis of God’s presence year-round, come desert or dust-storm.

Which, if you’re following me, means that her simple little book is like a mobile, bottomless, eternal oasis. Yes, so I’ll take three of them—where do I sign?

Devotionals, by and large, are spiritual get-rich-quick Ponzi schemes in which you and I entrust our spiritual health to a diet of simple sugars.

What is Devotion?

To devote is a verb, meaning “to give over or direct (as time, money, or effort) to a cause, enterprise, or activity” (Merriam-Webster). If there were a picture in the dictionary next to devote, it would be of a man in the foreground with football pads on, drenched with sweat, running up and down the field, while in the background there are his friends laughing, boozing it up, smooching girls, and living young, wild, and free. To devote yourself is to cause yourself to sweat in the struggle. As a boy I was more devoted to convincing myself to fake it than I was to God, because I thought devotion was about feeling pious, which I never did.

But devotion is the result of focus, and focus is all about choices. Steve Jobs said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Steve Jobs was devoted to Apple and the ideal it stood for. He was devoted to next-generation technology which made life easier for the average user. And he literally spent his entire life leveraging his time and energy around that one goal. That is what it means to be devoted.

So we know what the verb means, but what about this noun—devotional. Devotion goes back to the 13th century where it was used to refer to the state of being of that intentional focus. Devotional is fairly new—1648—and means “characterized by devotion.” Hmm. A year later, in 1649, it came to refer to a short worship service wherein people devote themselves to God, presumably in worship. Now-days we have an entire genre of “Devotionals” all with the common element of devoting oneself to God.

Let me just say it like it is. To devote yourself to something—you do it, and you do the heck out of it. The word “devotional” depresses me because it makes an end out of a means. We buy and read devotional books because we think they will cause us to be more devoted…or, even worse, that by reading them, we prove to God (and ourselves) that we are, in fact, quite devoted. We need to wake up. To devote yourself to football means to give up the thousand other things you could be doing and go run drills instead. To devote yourself to the violin means to go isolate yourself with an intimidating piece of music and practice it over and over and over until you get it.

Why do we think that devoting ourselves to God is anything different? I think maybe it’s because it’s an intellectual thing, and not something we’re familiar with. So, for comparison, let me show you what devotion means in an academic context:

Surely the essential ingredients of strength are trained intelligence, love of country, the understanding of its ideals, and such devotion to those ideals that they become a part of the thought and life of every citizen.[1]

If you want to become a person of strength, you have to intellectually devote yourself to the ideals, which implies that you 1) know them, 2) understand them, and 3) do them. Nowhere in there is it sufficient for you to sit down with an emotional book and imagine yourself as strong.

Deep Devotion Comes from Rigorous Academics

What it means to devote yourself to God is that you leverage your entire life around Him and His mission. To experience God in an intimate, personal way, you do the hard work of knowing Him, understanding Him, and doing what He does.

You devote yourself to God by focusing on Him over the thousand other things you could give yourself to.

If we would give ourselves, heart, mind, and soul (c.f., Deut 6:4–6), to the task of knowing God as He has revealed Himself in history and through His Word, I’m convinced that these things called devotionals would start to look like scams. C. S. Lewis, who himself battled with depression and spiritual dryness, said:

Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.[2]

A couple more examples. A lot of people think the book of Deuteronomy is boring (I know I did!), but it became my favorite after I spent a whole semester poring over the Hebrew in really long, laborious times of study. Why? Because of what Deuteronomy does in the Bible—and the function the Bible plays in your soul when it gets in there, way down deep and lodges itself in your gut. See this quote from my lecture notes:

Deuteronomy sets the standard for the most devotional things in the Bible. It is a dictionary of definitions in Biblical Theology. Deuteronomy defines devotion. To love God is defined in Deuteronomy. How do you “love” God without knowing what “love” means? Who says our American definitions are right? How can you know you are “loving God” if you don’t even know what love means?

How can you not be overwhelmed with meaning and passion after a whole clean install of hearty, Biblical, inspired definitions?

Mark Dever tweeted this a while back: “The greatest joys stem from the deepest truths. (See Luke 15:21–22).” That passage in Luke is about the prodigal son, where he falls at his father’s feet and speaks the truth about himself, that he had sinned against his father and was no longer worthy to be called his son. And at that point, the party erupts.

The experience of intimacy with God, of spiritual mountaintops, comes, not from an emotional tickling of the ears, but from a real, ordinary experience of profound Truth.

How to Devote Yourself to God in Your Study of the Bible

When we read our Bibles, D. A. Carson says we have to learn to integrate our devotion with our academics. He says not to buy into the academic and spiritual dichotomy (the idea that spirituality is something other than academics). True biblical spirituality is about knowing God and keeping his commandments. Never in the Bible are we told to feel good feelings about God. Not because they aren’t important, but because they are effects. We are commanded to love God, and Deuteronomy defines love as a (very unsexy) choice of the will to keep God as the frozen-chosen of our affections, to chose to value what He values (namely, His glory), and seek its improvement over everything else we desire. When we do, sooner or later our emotions will catch up and we may even feel butterflies about Him. But those are not the point. Nor should they be some sort of sign of spiritual maturity (as they are in typical devotionals and Evangelical churches). It’s just a sign that you’re human (and emotional).

In my darkest times of spiritual doubt and physical distress, I found the most courage to keep pressing on in the real meat of the Word, not in these simple ditties we call devotionals. Tim Keller, in his wonderfully helpful book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, quotes John White on the same concept:

Years ago when I was seriously depressed, the thing that saved my sanity was a dry as dust grappling with Hosea’s prophecy. I spent weeks, morning by morning, making meticulous notes, checking historical allusions in the text, and slowly I began to sense the ground under my feet growing steadily firmer. I knew without any doubt that healing was springing from my struggle to grasp the meaning of the passage. If sufferers have any ability to concentrate, they should do solid, inductive Bible study rather than devotional reading, because in most depressed people, devotional reading is stopped altogether or degenerated into something unhealthy and unhelpful.[3]

To devote yourself to something is, in part, to worship it. Part of being human means to worship everything, all the time. Mike Wilkerson is great here:

“You worship what you live for, whatever is most worthy of your attention and devotion….You can’t turn off worship. It’s your basic human wiring. To not worship is to not live. It’s like a garden hose stuck on full blast. You can aim it at the grass, the car, or the shrubs, but you cannot stop its flow."

This is the most important sentence you may read today: To devote yourself to God means to worship Him over everything else in your life. And since our lives are riddled with competing gods, it takes more (much, much more) than a 5-minute “devotional” to secure our devotion to Him and His mission. But, not all devotionals are as openly deceptive as Sarah Young’s. Some are really good.

How to Use Devotional Books

I know a lot of people who love their Devotionals—like My Daily Bread, Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening, John Piper’s Solid Joys, and many others. These can be helpful because they are short, quick reminders to help you through your day. The thing to watch for is this: If you make the warm-fuzzies the goal, you make devotion to God about you, in which case the “devotional” is really just a chance for you to devote yourself to feeling good about yourself.

So just because you like the book doesn’t mean it’s profitable for you spiritually. You have to discern it: is it meaty enough to help you know, understand, and follow God? If not, it’s doing you more harm than good because it’s starving your soul while making you think you’ve been fed. I get really mad at cheesy, gimmicky devotionals because they are selling you what they ultimately can’t fulfill. And there’s nothing that depressed me more than a fellow, weary desert-wanderer who believes that every mirage, everywhere, all the time, is an oasis.

  1. Robert Hutchins, The Great Conversation, pg. 61.  ↩

  2. C. S. Lewis, On the Reading of Old Books.  ↩

  3. Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg. 290.  ↩