Let me talk to you about tradition. For many of the Christian people I know, the word ‘tradition’ does not lend itself to warm, comforting thoughts. Instead, we think of places like Mark 7, where Jesus condemns the Pharisees for abandoning the Word of God on favour of the traditions of men. The word ‘tradition’ therefore makes us think of man made rules that we follow without really thinking about it and without really thinking about whether or not these traditions are consistent with the Words and commands of God.
But whilst this is what tradition can often become, it is not how tradition often starts out. Traditions, at least within Christian circles, often begin when godly people develop ways and means of consistently living for Christ and then follow through on that with self control and self discipline. Tradition begins when others find these things helpful as well and so they follow the example of these godly men and start to teach others to do the same. And so on and so on, down through the years, until the habit and the practice is taught and followed in such a way that the ways and means develop a significance in our minds that actually eclipses the very thing that these ways and means were devised to serve.
Hence — the danger of the ‘Quiet Time’. It may be that this is something that you have not heard of. It may be that this is restricted to the British Christian circles that I have been in throughout my Christian life. The quiet time is a form of devotional time. It has become a tradition. There are a few things I have picked up over the years that sort of ‘fence in’ the quiet time. I wonder if any of these ring true for you:
- The formula is basically a short time of reading/studying the bible followed by prayer.
- The standard, and most familiar pattern is a time ratio of roughly 2/3 reading the Bible to 1/3 praying.
- So 20 minutes reading and 10 minutes praying, or 10 minutes reading and 5 minutes praying, or 30 minutes reading and 15 minutes praying for the really godly.
- The time frame would normally be 30–45 minutes. Less than this is acceptable on days when you have to be up early, or are travelling, or sleep in accidentally. More than this is acceptable but for some reason, if your quiet time is regularly longer than an hour, that is somehow not so good…
- Commonly people will use Bible reading notes or a Bible reading plan of some kind
- Commonly people will use a prayer planner/diary of some kind where certain categories or people are allocated to a specific day of the week,
- Ideally, the quiet time will happen every day, and follow a consistent pattern every day, becoming a habit and part of your daily routine
- Ideally, the best time of day to do it is first thing, before your day would ideally start. So if you need to be up at 6am to get ready for your day, then get up at 5:30am for your quiet time.
Let me stress at this point, traditions are not inherently wrong or unhelpful. They become unhelpful when the tradition becomes more important that the thing it is intended to serve — when the ways and means develop a significance in our minds that actually eclipses the very thing that these ways and means were devised to serve.
Here are 3 markers of this, applied specifically to the quiet time.
- If you are asked about whether or not you have ‘done your quiet time’, your instant internal response is either a sense of pride and achievement or guilt and shame.
- You do a quiet time every day as you know that reading and studying the bible is a good thing but you have never really thought about it and therefore do not really know how your daily ‘quiet time’ habit serves that goal and what you are actually wanting to do by reading the bible and praying every day.
- Doing it has become an end in and of itself. Therefore, you feel good for having done it, but cannot really remember what you read, how it impacted you and how you think your life should be different because of it.
In a worst case scenario, you end up in the situation I found myself in a several years ago. My morning ‘quiet time’ became an exercise in reading a bible passage, answering a few comprehension question and then playing the exercise of match the gospel truth and personal application to the passage. Once the main point and main application were written down — job done and we could move on.
This is a tradition, that based on many conversations with individuals in small groups I have led over many years and based on my own personal experience with it, that I feel is becoming dangerous. It is becoming something that eclipses the very thing that it was intended to serve. I have been deeply saddened by the number of conversations I have had with young guys, riddled with guilt over their performance failures with regards to the daily quiet time. I have been even more saddened by conversations, thankfully fewer of these, with young guys fully satisfied with their daily quiet times, despite not really being clear on why they were doing it and how it was helpful.
It is for this reason that I have ditched the idea completely. I simply now think of it as a devotional time. The name is irrelevant really, it’s an adjective and not a noun. It’s meant to describe what I am doing and not be the name of something I do. I have given time to thinking about why I am wanting to do this every day and less about what I am doing, though this is still important.
So, this is meant to be an expression of relationship with Jesus. An opportunity to listen to him and pray to him. An opportunity to deepen my knowledge of him as he reveals himself by his word. Crucially, these aims are best served if you think of it over time. There is no pressure for each and every single day to be a ‘hit’. No pressure for each day to be life changing. No pressure for each day to meet some pre-determined requirements. Over time, the cumulative effect of the transformational power of the Word of God will be brought to bear.
Here are some key things to consider. One of the hallmarks of the Christian circles I have been in is a desire in Bible Study and in preaching to focus on the main point of a passage and therefore a main application. In addition, normally in sermons and Bible studies a plan will be set for which passages of the Bible will be covered on which days. Therefore, when you meet to study Mark 6:30–56 or if that is the passage for the sermon this week, normally you would expect to cover that whole passage and for the main points and applications to be drawn from the whole, in the context of the rest of the book.
Personal Bible reading need not operate in exactly this way. Let me explain what I do not mean, and then illustrate what I do mean. I do not mean that when we read the bible in private we are free to draw up whatever understanding we want and whatever application most suits us. Grappling with the text in context and seeking to think through what the author is trying to communicate is always a good approach. What I mean is that most passages of the bible contain far more gold than you would ever expect a preacher to flag up in a sermon. It is ok to meditate on something that encourages you or challenges you, even if it is not the main point of the passage. Maybe as you read Mark 6:30–56, you find that something really strikes you in the first 4 verses and you want to dwell on that. Meaning that tomorrow you will read the same passage, or the next part of the passage you intended for today. That’s ok. The aim is to deepen our knowledge of Jesus Christ and our love for him — not relentlessly stick to the bible reading plan.
My aim in writing this is to liberate us. What was devised to help godly people know, love and serve their Lord more and more, can very easily become a harsh and tyrannical task master. Reading the Bible and praying to God should never be source of guilt, never a source of shame, never make us feel pressure and stress about getting it done. Instead it should be wonderful opportunity, as often as we can, for as long as we have capacity, to sit at the feet of the Good Shepherd and listen to his voice. To let him lead us into knowing him more and following him more closely. To let him deepen and strengthen our dependence on him and trust in him as he makes promise after promise and repeatedly demonstrates his faithfulness. To bring our cares, concerns, hopes and fears to him in trust.
Part of the issue in Mark 7 is that the traditions of men had turned something that God gave as a blessing for His people into a burden for them. My longing and my prayer is that the blessing of reading the Bible and praying to our Father, remains a blessing for us all. My sadness comes from the times I have seen it turned into a burden by the traditions of men.