Works For Me Wednesday: Devotional Tips

I’ve been pondering what to write for this week’s “Works For Me Wednesday” since last week (is that a sign of addiction? 🙂 ), and this topic keeps coming to mind. I hope it’s not inappropriate for WFMW: I know many of the participants are Christians, and for me, if there is something out of kilter in this part of my life, it affects all the rest.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, “devotions” or “having devotions” is the time spent in the Bible and prayer. Others call it their quiet time or their “God and I” time or other terms.

Hopefully if you are considering devotions, you already feel it is important to read the Bible, but if you need to be encouraged along those lines, some reason to read the Bible are here.

When I first became a Christian as a teen-ager, the church I was in then had a strong emphasis on reading the Bible through in a year. I am so glad, because I think that, more than anything else, got me grounded spiritually. There are many advantages to reading the Bible through in a year: it kept me focused; I knew where to read next instead of wandering around aimlessly; I discovered choice nuggets in places like II Chronicles and Zephaniah that I probably would never have discovered otherwise; it kept me balanced; it helped me understand passages in their context; and each time through I would understand the passage more. There are, however, a few disadvantages: I felt like I couldn’t stop and ponder anything because I had to keep going in order to finish the day’s reading in the time frame I had, and if I fell behind it would get awfully discouraging trying to catch up. So after some time I continued to read the Bible through, but not necessarily in a year. I feel free to stop and meditate on a particular truth I found or to study it out further. I usually read a couple of chapters a day, but I sometimes stop after a few verses or sometimes go on and read more. Then sometimes between books, I take a break and work through a Bible study book or do a word study or topical study.

Most “reading the Bible through” plans encourage reading from both the Old Testament and the New, or reading a passage from Psalms or Proverbs along with the day’s scheduled reading. I think that is probably to help you through some of those “drier” books like Leviticus. 🙂

I think this is one of those areas where anything is better than nothing, though, so if someone says, “I’m sorry, I just can’t get into Leviticus,” I would say that’s fine. Maybe some day you’ll get back to that, but reading somewhere in the Bible is better than reading nothing.

Probably for most people the first big battle is getting regular about it. It does help to make a regular time and place for it. I like to have devotions in the mornings because my mind isn’t as cluttered as it is later on. I get up a little earlier than everyone else so it is quiet, and I have my shower first so I am awake. There were some years during the getting-kids-off-to-school morning rush when the best time was after everyone left for the day. The best time for some people is in the evenings.

There are some seasons of life, like when there is a new baby in the house, or vacation times, or when company is there, when it’s hard to maintain that regular time. It’s easier to let that time slip then, but if we go back to the “anything is better than nothing” principle, we can grab a few quiet moments here and there.

Once some semblance of regularity is maintained, the next big battleground is keeping our minds on what we’re doing. There is a quote from John Donne which expresses it well: “I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in and invite God and His Angels thither; and when they are there, I neglect God and His Angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.”

I think the biggest help in avoiding distractions is to be actively looking for something rather than passively reading (more on that later). Another help is to keep a notepad nearby so that when something else comes to mind, as it so often does, like an item I need to get at the store or someone I need to call today, I can jot it down so I don’t forget it later and so my mind can acknowledge that it will be taken care of and not keeping going back to that thought.

It helps to “get in gear” as we begin. I often pray, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalm 119:18), or asking the Lord to make my heart “good ground” that the seed of His Word can fall upon. It can help, also, to ask Him for something from His Word to carry with you through the day. Some people like to begin listening to, singing, or reading through a hymn. I like to start off with the reading from Daily Light for the Daily Path for the day.

Ps. 66:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” We need to ask Him to search us, show us anything wrong, and enable us to get it right so we don’t block the channels of communication.

On to some general tips:

  • I was advised early on to look for a command to follow, a warning to heed, a promise to rely on, and even to underline (this was before highlighters were invented :)) those things with different colors (red for warnings, blue for promises, black for commandments, yellow for verses about salvation. etc.) or marking beside the verse with different symbols for each category. The point isn’t “coding” your Bible, but to use that as a method to think through what the passage is saying and how to apply it.
  • Ask the old journalism questions: who, what, why, when, and how. What is being said to whom by whom? Is the promise there to all people or only to a specific person or group?
  • Notice recurring words or phrases, like the phrase “let us” which occurs three times in Hebrews 10:22-24, or the recurrence of the words “know” or “knowledge” in II Peter 1:2-8.
  • Underline verbs in passages like I Cor. 13 (the love chapter) or Proverbs 2:1-5 (about the search for wisdom).
  • In some of those long sentences of Paul’s, going back to basic English can help us understand them better: find the subject and verb to learn what the sentence is actually about, and then see how the phrases fit around it.
  • When reading the epistles, it can be helpful to write them out as they were originally written: as a letter without the chapter and verse markings.
  • Use a basic dictionary. One exercise in Changed Into His Image by Dr. Jim Berg instructed the reader to go through I Corinthians 13: 4-8 and write the definitions of the major words on a separate piece of paper, then write the verses out using those definitions. That was one of the most rewarding studies I have ever done. Even though that passage isn’t hard to understand, going through that exercise opened it up in a fuller way.
  • Some passages lend themselves to charts and diagrams, like the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 or the different sacrifices in Leviticus. That kind of thing really appeals to some people, and it’s easy to compare the similarities and differences that way.
  • Sometimes it is edifying to have some type of Bible project to study out. For instance, you might look up all the references to “the fear of the Lord” to see exactly what it is and how it manifests itself, or the references to “the fool” in Proverbs so you know what kind of behavior to avoid. Matthew 4 tells us Jesus countered Satan’s temptations with the Word of God, and it’s strengthening to look up verses on the specific temptations we face. Once when I had a fleeting thought doubting God’s goodness in a certain situation, instead of just telling myself, “Don’t be silly; you know God is good,” I began to search out verses that spoke of God’s goodness. Not only did that result in knowing my God better, but it fortified my soul against that doubt. Using a concordance or computer Bible program or even Bible Gateway helps with those kinds of studies, and we can supplement those studies later as we come across verses in other reading. Once I heard someone say that Jesus never claimed to be God, and I knew that Jesus did in fact proclaim His deity. So as I read through the Gospels, I put a “C” (for “claims”) beside each verse where Jesus said something about Himself that indicated His Deity. He may have never climbed on a mountaintop and said the phrase, “I am God,” but His deity is all throughout the gospels. When I do a study like that, I usually write all the verses out in one place (I used to do it on index cards, but now I keep it on the computer) so I can refer back to it or add to it later on.
  • Sometimes we divide our devotional time into separate prayer and Bible reading times, but we can combine the two. When we read a verse that convicts about a particular sin, we can confess it immediately. When we read something that tells us about God, we can thank and praise Him immediately. When we read a character trait that we need to incorporate in our lives, we can acknowledge that need and ask for help and grace.
  • On very familiar passages, try to imagine you are reading it for the very first time, that you are there watching the events occur, or that you are reading and trying to convey it’s truth to someone who has never heard it before.
  • Something that Jim Berg advocates in his book it to look for the Person, the Lord, in our reading, not just the principles.
  • Remember that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16) – even the genealogies and Leviticus. We can ask the Lord for help in some of those drier passages to see His purpose for them. For instance, from the genealogies we learn that: God keeps records; God keeps detailed records; God knew all of those people whose names we can’t pronounce and cared about them; He knows and cares for us the same way.
  • Much has been written in recent years about journaling. I stopped doing so some time ago because, for me, it was too easy to spend most of the time and thought during devotions on “what I thought” rather than what God had to say to me. But journaling can be a good way to process what you’ve read and help make it more permanent in your own mind.

There are many good books on this subject. One is Tim LaHaye’s How To Study the Bible For Yourself. One I just read recently was Jason Janz’s Alone With God: A Practical Plan for Dynamic Devotions. His plan might seem a little regimented to some, but he invites the reader to adapt it. The basic idea is that if you don’t have some type of plan for your devotional time, you’ll drift and not benefit from it: having a basic format helps keep you on track just like writing things down on a prayer list helps keep you focused and helps you remember what to pray for. He has a lot of good tips and practical advice as well. Another good book is What Do I Know About My God? by Mardi Collier. I’m in the middle of the book, but I have heard her speak on this topic of how she wanted to get to know God better, and, at her husband’s suggestion, read through the Psalms, making notes of everything that was said about God. That led to a study of several years throughout the Bible. She tells about that study and how it has impacted her life in her book.

There is much more that could be said (and if I don’t stop soon, I’ll almost have a book, myself! J ). There are days and seasons of life when we might only have one verse to carry us through the day – and it is better to read one verse and truly get something from it than to read 10 chapters inattentively. But there will be some times we’ll be able to read and study a little more intensively than others. However we “do devotions,” we can ask God to show us Himself, that we may know Him, love Him, and serve Him better.

And that works for me. 🙂

For more tips, visit Rocks In My Dryer‘s place.

10 thoughts on “Works For Me Wednesday: Devotional Tips

  1. This is wonderful. I wish someone had taught me this when I first started reading the Bible. When I first began I started doing topical studies (for instance I struggled with fear and so wrote out every verse I found on fear.) When I was nursing my first daughter I used that time to read the Bible straight through. My first read through was in The Promise, a paraphrase Bible, kind of like the message. This really got me started, then the next few years I read through in different versions so that now I have a pretty good sense of the meanings of many verses and have, in reading through, memorized quite a few verses.

    Your post is wonderful. As a small group facillitator I would that more women knew how to rad and study the Bible, and actively did so.

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  3. Thanks so much, Heather!

    Some of this grew out of an open discussion concerning devotions that we had in our ladies’ group one month. So many ladies struggled with devotions. That led to a section in our monthly newsletter with encouragements and practical tips.

    It’s so vital to our spiritual lives — yet so easy to let slip.

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  7. Excellent. Like you, the “read the Bible through in a year” plans often leave me feeling behind and rushed. I love your idea to read it through — perhaps just not in a year. I like the idea of stopping at a place that feels right, rather than “powering through” a particularly dry passage just for the sake of doing it. Thank you.

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  9. I just discoverred this! How wonderful. I’ve been stalling in my devotional time recently, so hopeful this will jump-start me again. And what a cool resourse to share with new believers. I posted the link on my Facebook page. Hope others see it too.
    Thank you.

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