How to Have a Devotional Life Without Becoming a Monk
Recently the residents of a Florida apartment building awoke
to a terrifying sight outside their windows. The ground beneath the street in
front of their building had literally collapsed, creating a massive depression
called a sinkhole. Tumbling into the ever-deepening pit were cars, pavement,
tarmac, and garden furniture. The foundations of nearby buildings were seriously
weakened. Sinkholes occur when underground streams drain away during seasons
of drought, causing the ground at the surface to lose its underlying support.
Suddenly everything simply caves in, leaving people with a frightening suspicion
that nothing, even the earth beneath their feet, is safe. Many people live their
lives over one of those sinkholes, never realising that at any moment, under
the right pressure, they are on the verge of a sinkhole-like cave-in. In the
feelings of numbing fatigue, disillusionment, irrational fears or deep despair
we may sense something within us about to give way. What causes our world to
sink into a bottomless pit? The neglect of our inner world, our hidden self
and our relationship with God. We spend our time and energy establishing life
on the surface. We rate our lives in terms of success, popularity, wealth, and
beauty. Our outer public world is easy to deal with. It's measurable, visible,
and expandable. Our outer world consists of work, play, possessions, and a host
of acquaintances that make up our social network. But all the time our inner
world may be ignored or starved and no one except us knows. Our public world
is filled with pressurising demands on our time, our loyalties, our money, and
our energies. And because this public worlds is so visible, so real, we struggle
to ignore all its seductions, we give in to its demands. They scream for our
attention and action. We like to be needed and the result so often is that our
private world is cheated and neglected because it doesn't shout quite so loudly.
It can be effectively ignored for large periods of time - until it gives way
under pressure to a sinkhole-like cave-in. The author Oscar Wilde was one who
paid scant attention to his private world. With his public humiliation, Wilde
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease... Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. I grew careless of the jives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber, one has some day to cry aloud from the house-top. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace."
When Wilde writes, "I was no longer the captain of my soul," he describes you and I when our inner world is in shambles, when life is caving in. This morning we were considering the world of the demonic and how Jesus overcome the forces of evil. I believe the greatest spiritual battleground of our day is your private world. Fred Mitchell, a leader in world missions, used to keep a motto on his desk that read, "Beware of the Barrenness of a Busy Life." He understood the potential collapse that follows when the inner world is ignored. The Florida sinkhole or the Beachy Head land fall is a physical picture of a spiritual problem with which you and I must deal. So let me ask you a question, "Are you taking time regularly to order your inner life?" "Is there a private world beneath the noise and action on the surface?" "How are you cultivating your personal relationship with the Lord?" I promise you, if you work at cultivating your inner life you will develop the spiritual strength and resilience that will bear up under the pressure at the surface, what ever the world throws at you. Few people have had to wrestle with the pressures of a public world more than Anne Morrow Lindberg, wife of the famous aviator. She jealously guarded her private world and wrote some insightful comments about it in her book "The Gift from the Sea."
I want first of all .. to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in factto borrow from the language of the saintsto live "in grace" as much of the time as possible... By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer... when he said, "May the outward and inward man be one." I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.
Tonight I want us to discover how you can develop that inner life without having to become a monk or a nun. The Apostle Paul once said that his motivation in life was to know Jesus, "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death" (Philippians 3:10). The ultimate purpose of our Christian life is not to evangelise the world or give our lives in Christian service. These are the consequences. God's ultimate purpose is for you to become like Jesus Christ. This means that we are so much into Him, and have Him so much in us, that we are progressively transformed into His likeness. If that is God's purpose, then lets spend a little time examining how Jesus maintained his own relationship with God His Father.
1. What did Jesus Use in His Devotional Life?
There is a clue in Jesus final prayers from the cross, Jesus prayed from the Psalms. When He uttered the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He may have been crying out in despair, He may have felt at that moment that His Father had forsaken Him, even as He took upon Himself the sins of the world. But it is a fact that when Jesus hung on Calvary's tree, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself' (2 Corinthians 5:19). At that crucial hour on the cross, Jesus was praying the 22nd Psalm. He had memorised it. At a time before numbers were used to designate psalms, the first lines were used for that purpose. In citing the words, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Jesus let us all know the psalm He was praying. The significance of that Twenty-second Psalm in relationship to Jesus' death and resurrection is all too obvious, even to the casual reader. Not only does this psalm give specifics about what happened on that incredible day of our atonement but more importantly, this psalm ends on a note of triumph. Despair is turned into victory in this psalm. And in praying this psalm, Jesus anticipated His own victory over the grave and the good news that we have been living with for almost two thousand years. We believe, as a good Jewish boy and young man Jesus used the Psalms as a prayer book. It is in following the example of our Lord that the Benedictine monks made praying the psalms a part of their spiritual discipline. They learnt that the Psalms covers the whole spectrum of human emotions and concerns and can give expressions to the deepest longings of the heart. That is why you should consider using Psalms in your personal devotional life. Whether you're looking for words to express that sense of ecstasy that accompanies those times when you are caught up in gratitude with the rest of God's creation (Psalm 148) or you are looking for ways to cry out to God to relieve depression (Psalms 42 and 43), you will find the help you need in this precious book. In the Gospels I believe you will find that Jesus quotes the psalms more times than any other Old Testament book. For Jesus, the Psalms and other Scriptures were a strength and guide for His devotional life. Do not neglect your unhurried reading, meditating, memorising of the Word of God.
2. When Did Jesus Cultivate His Devotional Life?
"Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!" (Mark 1:35-37)
Clearly the disciples at this stage had another agenda. But Jesus was undistracted from his priorities. Early in the morning, while it is still dark - that's the best time to develop your devotional life. Before the post arrives to distract you, before the telephone tears you away, before the days agenda consumes your energy, get up, find a place alone and read your Bible and pray. There is no substitute or better time. But it was not the only time Jesus cultivated his relationship with the Father. When ever there was a crisis or big decision to make, Jesus would find a place to be alone with God. No where is the purpose of Jesus' quiet time better described than in the account of His praying in Gethsemane just prior to His crucifixion. This was a time when He must have experienced intensive inner turmoil. He, who knew no sin, had grown into the awareness that on the following day He would Himself become sin (1 Corinthians 5:21). He must have been painfully repulsed by what He knew was going to happen to Him at Calvary. Jesus knew that on the cross He would accept the punishment for humanity's sins. Oh, the agony that Jesus, the Sinless One, must have endured in the garden overlooking Jerusalem as He realized the full enormity of what was about to happen to Him. What kept Jesus on the course that had been set for Him from before the beginning of time was what happened to Him in the quietude of His time in Gethsemane. For Him, this time of stillness was a time of yielding and being prepared by His Father for the struggle with those awesome and ugly forces of darkness that were already closing in on Him. Through His time alone with the Father Jesus was able to confess "Not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39). But isn't it a bit rigid to suggest the best time to develop a devotional life is the early morning? This is how one saint put it, "Why tune up your instrument at the end of the concert?" Once Mother Teresa was asked, "When you pray, what do you say to God?" She answered, "I don't say anything; I listen!" Intrigued, the inquirer asked, "When you pray, what does God say to you?" Mother Teresa's answer was, "He doesn't say anything. He listens!" It is in such listening that we hear the soft still voice that, paradoxically, says nothing. But the stillness in such times of prayer moves more powerfully than an earthquake, a hurricane, or a raging forest fire. For this to happen, in mind and heart, we must retire to "a secret place" where in quietude He can penetrate our being. Prayer and biblical reflection go together. We need to read the Bible more like we would read a love letter, feeling the emotions and experiencing the power in the poetry of the words. There is something that comes from meditating on Scripture that penetrates the psyche and permeates the soul in such a way that no tongue or pen can explain. Perhaps the most common mistake we are prone to make in our devotional reading of Scripture is to read it as though it were a textbook. There is a place for the study of the Bible, but in times of personal devotion, the Bible becomes much more than a book of theology. Soren Kierkegaard once said that reading the Bible is like coming to a street corner and waiting for the traffic to pass before crossing the street. And while you are waiting, you overhear the conversation of the two women in front of you. They are oblivious to your presence, but as they talk, you realize that the conversation is about you. And what they say reveals to you things you never suspected about yourself. When I read the Bible in the power of the Holy Spirit, it's just like that. Though it was not written to me, I sense that it was written for me. I don't hear just what the Bible says to people in places long ago and far away. Rather, I feel as though I am overhearing messages that were meant just for me. In my devotional reading of Scripture, as distinct from my times of study, I feel my soul being opened up to glimpses of Truth that are incredibly personal. Its good to aim to read the Bible from cover to cover at least once a year but it is more important to read it devotionally, reflectively, prayerfully, consciously in the presence of God.
3. Why did Jesus Emphasise the Importance of a Devotional Life?
As Jesus moved to leave the garden, He came upon His disciples sound asleep, and there was a painful sadness in His voice as He asked them, "Could you not watch with me for one hour?" (Matthew 26:40). His sadness may have been for them as well as for Himself. They, too, were destined to endure temptation and trial in the hours that followed but, unlike Jesus, they were not prepared. For them, what might have been a time for spiritual regeneration had become another hour of sleeping. Jesus knew that, without a time for the renewal of their hearts and souls, they would not be ready for what was awaiting them. On the day that followed, Peter, who had vowed that under no circumstances would He ever betray His Lord, would do exactly that when questioned by a teenage girl as he warmed himself by a fire. James and John, who wanted to share Jesus' power when He came into His kingdom by sitting on His right hand and on His left, would be nowhere to be found when He stood before Pilate and needed witnesses. How sad to see after three years of training, his key disciples had not yet learned the discipline of prayer and biblical reflection. The story is told of a student at a theological college who arrived at morning prayers too late to share in the service. As he rushed up the steps to the chapel, he ran into one of his tutors coming down the steps. He exclaimed, "I suppose I missed the service!" "Oh no!" answered his tutor. "You missed the prayer time. The service is just about to begin." He was right. Prayer time is not a time for escape from the world. Instead, it is a time to prepare for engagement with the world. I have nothing against monasteries, but for me, my devotional meditations are times to get ready to live and do ministry in the larger world beyond them. But how can we attempt to serve God and live for God if we have not first, daily, drawn our strength and inspiration from God? I want to follow Jesus into the real world He came to save and not embarrass God by not cultivating my inner relationship with Him. So who needs a devotional life? You do - unless you want your life to become a sink hole.
Material has been drawn from Gordon MacDonald, "Ordering Your Private World" and Tony Campolo, "Following Jesus without Embarrassing God"