Why have a quiet time?
Recently I read “Why I Don’t Pray or Study the Bible (Much),” a Patheos blog post by Ellen Painter Dollar. She recounts how her time in an evangelical college fellowship was her first exposure to the discipline of daily Bible reading and prayer. “As a friend explained in a talk,” Dollar writes, “if you want to have a good relationship with somebody, you spend time with that person. Likewise, if you want to have a relationship with God, you must spend time with God, and ‘quiet time’ is how you do that.”
Dollar pushes back against this idea of building a relationship with God through dedicated personal prayer and Bible reading. “I think my college friend was right, that we draw closer to God by being deliberate about our relationship with God. But I’m not so sure that 30 or 60 minutes of prayer and Bible study is the only or primary way to do that,” she writes. She then explains how, in human relationships, closeness is built through shared (and often ordinary) life experiences, and defends her own practice of simply experiencing fellowship with God throughout her day in the normal situations of her life.
Some of Dollar’s skepticism about prayer and Scripture-study comes from her underlying assumptions about the nature of both. I believe the Bible is complete truth, God’s perfect revelation of himself, and essential for a Christian’s life and godliness. Likewise, I have a high view of prayer as one of God’s primary means for communion with his children, for glorifying himself, and for accomplishing his purposes.
Dollar would probably acknowledge theological disagreements with me on these points. But I think even among theologically conservative Christians, the priority of regular personal worship is not well understood. A recent national survey found that while 56 percent of Americans believe the Bible to be “the actual or inspired word of God,” only 37 percent read it at least once a week. And deliberate daily times of individual Bible study and prayer (what the Westminster Confession calls “worship . . . in secret” and what Dollar calls “quiet time” and what I grew up calling “devotions”) are sometimes viewed skeptically as legalistic or as a potential idol by even Reformed brothers and sisters.
While affirming the whole of life as worship, and also proclaiming the primacy of corporate worship, we sometimes neglect to press ourselves and others to daily private worship.
Dollar’s narrative reveals how a common evangelical argument (“If you love Someone you want to spend time with him”) can be inadequate. And I’ve taken her words as an opportunity to consider a better explanation that I can give to others—and preach to myself.
So why should we study the Bible and pray as a dedicated, daily event?
(1) God commands it.
No, the Bible doesn’t contain chapter-and-verse Thou Shalt Have 45 Minutes of Devotions Every Day. But the Bible is filled with direct imperatives to pray and compelling incentives to meditate on Scripture.
We are commanded to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17), to overcome anxiety with prayer (Phil. 4:6), to intercede for other Christians (Eph. 6:18), and to receive encouragement from the One who prays for us (Heb. 7:25). About the Scriptures, God tells us they are sweet, valuable, and necessary for wisdom (Psalm 19); they are the right subject of our meditation (Psalm 119); they contain every truth a Christian needs (2 Tim. 3:16-17); and they are a powerful Spiritual tool (Heb. 4:12). We dedicate ourselves to praying and studying the Bible because in those activities we obey the Lord and benefit our own souls.
Much of this benefit, of course, comes to Christians through our most important spiritual discipline: the worship of God by his gathered people on the Lord’s Day. (I would agree with Dollar that personal devotions are not the “only or primary” way to draw near to God; the Westminster Confession upholds public worship as more solemn and obligatory than secret worship.) But a Scripture-and-prayer-shaped life will also necessarily include specific quiet times.
(2) We are weak.
These days, my children are learning catechism about the three offices of Christ (prophet, priest, and king). One of the questions asks, “Why do you need Christ as your prophet?” The answer applies as much to 35-year-olds as to 5-year-olds: “Because I am ignorant by nature.” We have no native wisdom about God on which we can rely.
As Jen Wilkin writes in her new book, Women of the Word, “How can we conform to the image of a God we have not beheld?” I would love to go through my days, witnessing the hand of God in every moment of the mundane, praising him for every blessing from his throne. But the truth is I am ignorant. I don’t even know what to look for, how to trace the providential kindness of my Father on my calendar, or where to expect his frown or his smile. Though God is certainly present in my to-do lists and my interactions with my children, he is best revealed through his chosen means: the Bible. And unless I have hidden his Word in my heart, unless I have meditated on Christ my prophet—he who is the Word incarnate—I will go through the hours always seeing but never understanding.
I would also love to spend my days in communion with my listening Father, making every breath an exhaled prayer. But, again, I am weak. If I do not dedicate myself to times of prayer (and I cringe to think how often I do not) I forget that I depend on spiritual realities in the midst of temporal realities. As the hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” I pray and read my Bible because without it my heart, soul, mind, and strength will always immerse in the visible and forget entirely the One who is invisible.
(3) Jesus did it.
This example is where we best see the truth in the relationship argument for personal devotions. In his excellent book Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves writes, “The Christian life is one of being brought to share the delight the Father, Son, and Spirit have for each other.”
Jesus has a perfect love for the Father and the Spirit and perfect union with them. If anyone could have practiced a relationship with the Father while simply acknowledging him throughout the day, it would be Jesus. But how did he, the God-man, outwardly demonstrate his love for the persons of the Godhead and his desire for Trinitarian relationship while living on the earth?
He prayed, and he read the Bible.
Jesus’ withdrawal from the crowd for private prayer is explicit throughout the Gospels (Matthew 26:36, Mark 1:35, Luke 9:18). And it is evident from Jesus’ preaching and teaching (Luke 4:16-27) that he was knowledgeable in the whole Scriptures in a way that could only have come from dedicated study.
If Jesus expressed and experienced his relationship with the Father through a “quiet time,” if the One who was, in fact, eternally one with the Godhead still took intentional time for personal prayer and Bible study, we would do well to follow his pattern. Because, yes, if you love Someone, you do want to spend time with him.