Book Review: Overcoming Your Devotional Obstacles

If you’ve ever tried to develop a habit of Bible reading and prayer time (often called devotions or quiet time), you know it doesn’t take very long at all to run into some obstacles. The first one is usually making time: busy schedules crowd out quiet time or urgent needs come up in the midst of it. Then when we do get a few minutes, we’re easily distracted. If we can rein in our attention and focus, we don’t always understand what we read or know how to apply it to our everyday lives. And if we do understand, we forget what we’ve read within minutes. We see cozy Instagram photos of people with their open Bibles and steaming mugs of coffee and wonder why our devotional time seems to far so fall below the picture-perfect time others experience.

Devotional ObstaclesJohn O’Malley tackles these issues in Overcoming Your Devotional Obstacles: 25 Keys to Having Memorable Devotions. I appreciate that he deliberately chose a positive, encouraging title rather one with a negative cast, like Seven Reasons I Fail in My Devotions. His purpose, he writes, is not assigning fault or blame, but rather “putting tools in your hand to help you go from defeated to victorious in your time alone with God.”

The author emphasizes that our relationship with God is based on grace, not performance. Our devotional time is not meant to try to impress Him (or anyone else). Devotions are not a work to gain favor with God; they’re a means of communicating with Him. But there are ways to improve our understanding of His communication to us.

Our Quiet Time with Him is more about discovering His presence than finding the perfect Bible reading plan or study method. If we complete a Bible reading plan and did not discover His presence, we may have checked off the box for the day on our daily Bible reading plan, but we missed Him.

When we do not spend time with God, we deplete ourselves. We deplete our peace, joy, and strength. When limiting our access to time with God, we tend to lean on our own understanding; we are filled with doubts, and we consult our own heart instead of the mind of God (Proverbs 3: 5-6).

Jesus said that His sheep know, hear, and follow His voice. Your time with the Lord is about listening. God’s Word is the answer to every human need. Read not to accomplish book or chapter count. Read and listen.

If it takes you five years to read through the Bible, you are not less of a Christian. Read it at a pace that you can comprehend it and receive something from it.

The author discusses each of the obstacles mentioned above: finding time for devotions, battling distractions, improving comprehension, discerning how to apply what we read, understanding cultural differences, and retaining what we read.

I loved the author’s description of application as “the intersection of Bible learning and Bible living.”

I particularly liked his illustration about understanding and learning from the different culture that the Bible was written in. He likens it to taking a friend to a family reunion. The friend won’t know the histories, background stories, and quirks of all the family members, so you’ll likely have to explain some references along the way. “Culture is the system of beliefs, values, and ideas of a people in a certain time period.” However, “God and His Word are transcultural.” The author suggests some resources for finding out more about the cultural aspects, but above all other resources, he reminds that the Holy Spirit indwells believers and teaches us from God’s Word.

I also appreciated the tips for retaining what we read, something I don’t remember seeing in other books about devotions. One tip was to write down on a 3×5 card three key points from the verses read and then read and think about the verse and those points several times throughout the day.

The author advocates a lot of 3×5 cards, however. I counted at least four that he recommended filling out: one for a verse to meditate on; one for recording the time spent and main truth learned; one for writing down several statements about why we read the Bible; and one to write down your expectations for what God will do through His Word. He notes that one can use a journal, electronic device, etc.

The author includes some Bible study plans, lists of resources, and work sheets.

My only point of disagreement in the book was with the author’s statement that “Applying Scripture to your life is what brings the Word of God to life.” I know what he means: we don’t benefit and really learn it unless we apply it. But I always wince when I see someone speak of “making the Bible come alive.” God’s Word IS alive (“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” – Hebrews 4:12, ESV; “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” – John 6:63b, ESV). We’re the ones who need to be brought to life. But I know the author believes these truths, so the disagreement was with the wording.

This book is immensely practical and to the point with little to no fluff. It is an excellent resource for anyone who is trying to establish a devotional time or who has run into any of these obstacles in their own quiet time.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

21 thoughts on “Book Review: Overcoming Your Devotional Obstacles

  1. I’m so glad you liked it. I thought it had a lot of different, practical suggestions. I’m with you on the 3 x 5 cards. I prefer a notebook, but that’s just me.

    • I just saw your review on Amazon when I looked there this morning! I wonder if you had mentioned it at some time, and that’s what led me to it? I don’t remember, but I agree – very useful and practical tips.

  2. I love keeping a journal and I have used index cards in the past when i was a new Christian trying to memorize scriptures. I used to display them around the house too when the girls were little to expose them to the Word each day. I’ve taught on this topic several times in the small group ministry I lead and one thing I always tell women Barbara is that just like we cultivate our marital relationship and our parent-child relationships, so too must we be intentional about spending quality time with our Savior/Heavenly Father/Lover of our soul….because it is in those quiet moments that true intimacy occurs and that is our goal as Christ followers…..true intimacy with Him so we can allow Him to guide, teach, correct, and show us His purposes! We should WANT to make the time and then do NOT allow ANY THING to distract us. Easier said than done sometimes but it IS possible. I try to spend some quiet time reading my short devo/scriptures in the morning before leaving for work, and then a bit longer time in the late afternoon or after dinner…….once you get in the habit, you will CRAVE that time alone with Him!!!!

  3. Sounds interesting; I can just imagine my 3×5 cards littering the room though, ha! The bit about understanding the culture etc. is so true! 20 years ago I visited Israel (our pastor leads tours 2x or more each year). It was amazing how that trip made various Bible places and concepts come to life. Prior to that, I’d read over place names particularly and substitute “blah blah.” Now, I can actually picture Beth Shan or imagine how Peter’s mother-in-law’s house might have looked. So helpful.

    • Some years ago a woman in our church shared with the ladies’ group about her trip to Israel and how it opened her eyes to so much of the Bible. I don’t think I’ll ever go, but I’m so glad there are resources that can convey some of that to us. I’m glad you got the opportunity to visit in person. What a neat experience!

  4. Excellent review, Barbara. I buy more books because of your recommendations than anyone else’s. I know I can trust you…and I understand about God’s Word is already alive…but it sounds as if he has some really good ideas and tools to help. Thank you, friend!

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  7. It takes time to develop a good habit of daily devotion. To successfully do this, someone has to do it consistently. It doesn’t have to be a long period daily, but consistency matters alot.

    • That’s true. I often like to say “Anything is better than nothing.” We think we can’t spend time with the Bible unless we have 30 minutes, and it’s great when we have that much time. But when we don’t, we shouldn’t neglect God’s Word–He can give us what we need in smaller bites.

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