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.
John 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.