Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Quiet Time Performance

Found this heartfelt post from Tim Challies. I struggle through many of the same things, and echo his sentiments. How do you your quiet times go? What are they like? Might be a good time for a check up. I know it is for me.

be still and know the Lord,


The Quiet Time Performance

Like all Christians, I love my quiet time. I am always thrilled at the prospect of sitting down for a few quiet moments before a busy day to spend some time alone with God—a few moments one-on-one with my Creator. I love to open the Bible and to carefully and systematically read the Word of God, allowing it to penetrate my heart. I love to sit and think deeply and meditatively about the Scriptures and to seek ways that I can apply God’s word to my heart. I love to pray to God, pouring out my heart in confession, praise, thanksgiving and petition. It is always the best and greatest part of my day. I couldn’t live without my quiet time.
But that’s not reality, is it?
I sometimes love my quiet time. I am sometimes thrilled at the prospect of sitting down to spend some time with God; too often, though, I dread it. I’d rather catch up on the news or spend some time writing or reading a good book or find out how badly the Blue Jays beat the A’s the day before. My quiet time is often invaded by little children, demanding my time and attention. Too often I hate to make my way through a difficult book of the Bible and dread spending another day reading through the prophecies of Isaiah. Thinking requires more time and effort than I am willing to give and it usually seems that a quick, cursory prayer is enough to make me feel that I’ve done my duty and asked God to bless my day and to forgive me for being a jerk with my kids the night before. I skim Scripture, breathe a prayer, and settle down to my breakfast.
That’s a little closer to reality, right?

In The Discipline of Grace, Jerry Bridges provides two scenarios and then a question. In the first, he describes a good day. “You get up promptly when your alarm goes off and have a refreshing and profitable quiet time as you read your Bible and pray. Your plans for the day generally fall into place, and you somehow sense that presence of God with you. To top it off, you unexpectedly have an opportunity to share the gospel with someone who is truly searching. As you talk with the person, you silently pray for the Holy Spirit to help you and to also work in your friend’s heart.” We’ve all had days like that. But we’ve also all had days like this: “You don’t arise at the first ring of your alarm. Instead, you shut it off and go back to sleep. When you awaken, it’s too late to have a quiet time. You hurriedly gulp down some breakfast and rush off to the day’s activities. You feel guilty about oversleeping and missing your quiet time, and things just generally go wrong all day. You become more and more irritable as the day wears on, and you certainly don’t sense God’s presence in your life. That evening, however, you unexpectedly have an opportunity to share the gospel with someone who is really interested in receiving Christ as Savior.” Bridges then asks if you would enter into those two witnessing opportunities with a different degree of confidence. Think about it for a moment. If you’re like most Christians, I suspect you would feel less confident about witnessing on a bad day then on a good day. You would feel less confidence that God would speak in and through you and that you would be able to share your faith forcefully and with conviction.
Why is it that we tend to think this way? According to Bridges, we’ve come to believe that God’s blessing on our lives is somehow conditional upon our spiritual performance. In other words, if we’ve performed well and done our quiet time as we ought to have done, we have put ourselves in a place where God can bless us. We may not consciously articulate this, but we prove that we believe it when we have a bad day and are certain that on this day we are absolutely unworthy of God’s blessings. This attitude “reveals an all-too-common misconception of the Christian life: the thinking that, although we are saved by grace, we earn or forfeit God’s blessings in our daily lives by our performance.”
Perhaps you, like me, have too often turned quiet time into a performance. If you perform well for God, you enter your day filled with confidence that God will bless you, and that He will have to bless you. You feel that your performance has earned you the right to have a day filled with His presence, filled with blessings, and filled with confidence. And, of course, when you turn in a poor performance, you feel that God is in heaven booing you and heaving proverbial rotten vegetables in the form of removing His presence and, in the words of a friend, “dishing out bummers.”
Quiet time becomes tyrannical when you understand it as a performance. Bridges provides a pearl of wisdom. “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” Whether you are having a good day or a bad day, the basis of your relationship with is not your performance, for even your best efforts are but filthy rags. Instead, your relationship is based on grace. Grace does not just save you and then leave you alone. No, grace saves you and then sustains you and equips you and motivates you. You are saved by grace and you then live by grace. Whether in the midst of a good day or bad, God does not base His relationship with you on performance, but on whether or not you are trusting in His Son.
Greg Johnson of St. Louis Center for Christian Study wrote an interesting tract entitled “Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt.” Johnson wrote about something I had only recently realized myself. “That half hour every morning of Scriptural study and prayer is not actually commanded in the Bible.” Imagine that. He goes on to say, “As a theologian, I can remind us that to bind the conscience where Scripture leaves freedom is a very, very serious crime. It’s legalism rearing its ugly little head again. We’ve become legalistic about a legalistic command. This is serious.” We have somehow allowed our quiet time, in its length, depth or consistency, to become the measure of our relationship with God. But “your relationship with God—or, as I prefer to say, God’s relationship with you—is your whole life: your job, your family, your sleep, your play, your relationships, your driving, your everything. The real irony here is that we’ve become accustomed to pigeonholing our entire relationship with God into a brief devotional exercise that is not even commanded in the Bible.” So what, then, does Scripture command? It commands that the Word of God be constantly upon your heart. You are to pray, to read the Scripture and to meditate upon it, but you are to do so from a joyful desire, and not mere performance-based duty. You are to do so throughout your whole life, and not merely for a few minutes each morning. Like Johnson, you will come to realize that the “goal isn’t that we pray and read the Bible less, but that we do so more—and with a free and needy heart.”
So do not allow quiet time to become performance. View it as a chance to grow in grace. Begin with an expression of your dependency upon God’s grace, and end with an affirmation of His grace. Acknowledge that you have no right to approach God directly, but can approach Him only through the work of His Son. Focus on the gospel as the message of grace that both saves and sustains. And allow quiet time to become a gift of worship you present to God, and a gift of grace you receive from Him.

1 comment:

  1. Christians in a different spiritual milieu than broadly evangelical American Protestants have a wholely different notion of "quiet time," a practice that runs through Christendom all the way back to the beginning, and before that into the dim and misty memory of Jewish devotional life.  Rather than "quiet time as performance," they would (in modern terms of reference) have styled this practice as "quiet time as calisthenics ."

    Specifically, I refer to the formally scripted times of prayer, Scripture reading, and song (hymns, Psalmody, etc.) which one finds in the monastic canonical hours of prayer or in the Daily Office.  The monastic forms are exceedingly brief, taking no more than 8-12 minutes.  The Daily Office -- if it includes the full panoply of Psalm, OT lesson, Epistle, and Gospel -- might take as long as 30 minutes (though usually as short as 20 minutes).  

    Quiet time as calisthenics has the following advantages:

    1.  It leads the Christian through a regimen of Scripture, prayer, and praise that -- if done consistently -- engages and exercises all the spiritual muscle groups, as it were.  

    2.  Consequently, you end up praying all the things our Lord and His Apostles tells us to pray, you feed on a balanced diet of Holy Writ, you join the saints of the centuries in their praises, even if you don't particularly feel like praising the Lord at that moment.

    3. You ~avoid~ evaluating yourself and your quiet time in terms of performance. Ten pushups, 25 jumping jacks, 50 deep knee bends -- if these and other calisthenics are part of a regularly scheduled program of bodily exercise, the benefit derived does not depend one whit on whether or not you think you were stellar in your execution of them, whether or not you "feel good" about doing them.  If you feel lousy, but do them, they give you just as much benefit as if you felt higher than a kite while doing them.  Indeed, doing them when you feel lousy probably confers an additional psychological benefit from having done what is right because it was a good thing to do.

    When I lived amongst broadly evangelical American Protestants, I was taught that the goodness of a quiet time derived from the reading on my emotional meter:  feeling elevated meant my quiet time was good, feeling flat (or, horrors! feeling grumpy) meant my quiet time was sub-par, maybe even bad.  Oh! The Hypocrisy of "going through the motions" of quiet time when feeling spiritually wretched!

    With calisthenics, of course, "going through the motions" is EXACTLY what is required, nothing more.  Feelings are entirely incidental to the benefit derived.  The same is true of quiet time as calisthenics.

    4.  Finally,  the forms of the monastic hours of prayer (the form for any of them are easily revealed by Mother Google) or the Daily Office (find it the same way) relieve the spiritual "exerciser" of any obligation to manufacture the form and content of the quiet time.  This further relieves the Christian of temptations to judge himself (or to imagine others' judgments) as to the wholesomeness or holiness or spirituality of his quiet time.  

    All the above will likely sound unspiritual to broadly evangelical American Protestants, who are unfortunately catechized to believe that their spiritual health and happiness is something they are chiefly responsible to generate on their own efforts.  And, so they aspire to the grace, power, and beauty of the Olympic-grade figure skater, absent the hours of "going through the motions" of calisthenics generally or those calisthenics specially needed by Olympic-grade figure skaters.