By Shayne Looper
Many Christians from various doctrinal streams and denominational traditions practice some kind of devotional exercise each day. These exercises are known familiarly as “doing devotions,” or “having a quiet time,” and usually include Bible reading and prayer.
Some people also employ a devotional guide. There are old favorites like The Upper Room and Our Daily Bread, as well as popular new books like Jesus Calling. Christians from liturgical backgrounds often use the daily readings from the lectionary, which guide them through short texts from the psalms, the Old Testament generally, the New Testament letters and the Gospels.
The goal of these devotional times is not the fulfillment of a duty but the transformation of a person. Christians don’t “do devotions” to stay in God’s good graces but to come close to him. They believe the promise of St. James: “Come close to God and God will come close to you.” There is absolutely no merit in that, but there is a great deal of hope.
A disciplined devotional practice helps a person know God, just as regular conversations help a person know a wise friend. And, as in conversation, there is understanding and disclosure on the part of both parties. Oswald Bayer pointed out this dynamic in the devotional practice of the philosopher Johann Georg Hamann: “In reading [the Bible] he was read and in understanding he was understood.”
A regular time of prayer and devotional reading places a person in God’s hands as an instrument for good in the world. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book on the Psalms, “The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer. The morning prayer determines the day.”