AuthorRees, Stephen from Banner of Truth magazine
Do you remember the resolutions you made at this time last year? I would guess that many of us resolved at the beginning of 2015 that every day we would have a ‘quiet time’. We told ourselves that this would be the year when we at last we would establish a pattern of daily Bible-reading and prayer. I wonder how many of us have kept the resolution we made back then. The fact is that many of us make exactly the same resolution year after year. And year after year, it’s fizzled out after a few months, weeks or days.
So let’s make it again. Alright, you’ve never kept that resolution before. But don’t be discouraged. And don’t let the thought of past failure stop you from trying again. The great God who made and rules the world wants you to spend time regularly, alone with him. He wants to talk to you and listen to you talking. He treasures you, and he treasures the time you spend together. So tell him that you plan to do this for him. Give him that joy and keep giving it to him every day. And you’ll find that as you give him what he asks for, he gives you back more than you can imagine – his love, his help, his friendship.
Let me give you some practical counsels. I’ve got five.
1. BE REALISTIC
Many of us set out with romantic dreams of how much time we are going to spend in daily prayer and Bible-study. I read in my teens a book which told me that any believer who spent less than two hours a day in prayer was unfit for any sort of Christian service. The book left me guilt-ridden for years, feeling that there was no point in my trying to pray unless I had a clear two hours to give, and the self-discipline to give it. The fact is that for some of you, to find fifteen minutes a day will be a triumph. You’ve got children who need your attention from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. Or you’ve got an employer who tells you to be ready for a trip to Glasgow at 6 on Monday morning, warns you that you won’t be back till midnight and still expects you to be in the office at 9 am on Tuesday. You’ve not got two hours. And if you ever do – miraculously – find that dreamed-of two hours, your brain is so weary that you can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time. So be realistic. If that’s the situation God has put you in, forget for the present your dreams of a two-hour quiet time. Plan instead to make use of the fifteen minutes when your children are in the bath. Or when your travelling companions on the Glasgow trip jump out of the car at the service station for a coffee (you’ve had the forethought to bring a flask). Decide now that that quarter of an hour is going to be spent talking quietly to the Lord (or sobbing on his shoulder if that’s what’s you need most).
Of course, thankfully, most of us aren’t that busy. Most of us do have some slack in our schedule. The time we spend glancing through the news headlines (is it really that important to know about the latest political-correctness-gone-mad scandal or the latest new-research-shows-that-all-previous-research-has-been-wrong shock?). Or the time we spend relaxing in front of the TV (though of course I’ve never met a Christian who admitted to watching anything other than gardening programmes and nature documentaries!). Or the time we spend trying out new recipes (when actually everyone in the family prefers baked beans on toast to any new-fangled French frippery). Most of us could spend more time alone with the Lord, if we were determined to, and planned ahead.
The important thing is to be definite. If you do have a more leisurely life and can give two or three hours a day, then by all means set them aside for the Lord and give thanks that he’s given you that freedom. But if it’s honestly true that you can only find a regular fifteen minutes a day when you’re capable of staying awake, then decide that that’s going to be your regular quiet time. And don’t feel guilty that you can’t give more.
Remember that the Lord Jesus said, “To whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). That applies as much to our ‘quiet times’ as to anything else. If the Lord has given you lots of free time, then he expects you to give lots back to him. If he’s allowed you very little free time, then he knows the sacrifice you have to make to set any of it aside for him. Think about the story of the poor widow with her two copper coins. The little she was able to give was worth more than the huge contributions others were able to put in.
Superstitious followers of false religions imagine that the more hours they spend in prayer, the more pleased God will be. Jesus warned his disciples against thinking in that way. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). What matters to God is not that your prayers should be lengthy, but that they should be real.
2. BE REGULAR
Yes, I know. It’s not possible for everyone. You may have to work shifts which change frequently. Family life is full of crises and emergencies which may wreck all your carefully planned schedules. But, in as far as it’s possible for you, have your quiet time at the same time – or times – every day. Why? Because otherwise, it almost certainly won’t happen. If you say, “I’ll squeeze it in when I’ve an hour to spare,” you’ll never find that hour. It has to be “I’ll get up at six o’clock each morning and spend the first hour of the day with the Lord”. Or “I’ll go for a walk in the park during the lunch break, rain or shine, and pray as I walk”. Or, “I’ll ask my husband to take charge of the kids at 6.30 pm each evening, while I go upstairs to the bedroom to read my Bible”.
If you want to teach yourself a foreign language, you have to have regular sessions. Ten minutes one day, then a couple of days gap, then a two hours catch-up session before another three days of neglect, rarely produces progress. The same is true when it comes to practising a musical instrument, keeping the house tidy or even eating properly. People who don’t have regular meal-times but eat whenever they feel like it, usually finish up either malnourished or grossly overweight. If we want to walk with God, we need to make a regular appointment with him and keep it.
David tells us that his regular practice was to set aside time in the morning to seek God. ‘O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you’ (Psalm 5:3). But if that was his chief appointment time each day, it wasn’t his only one: ‘Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice’ (Psalm 55:17).
Daniel followed the same three-times-a-day routine. ‘He went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days’ (Daniel 6:10). Daniel was the busiest man in the country, personally responsible for the smooth running of the entire province of Babylon. But he still made that three-times-a-day commitment – and he kept it. And he carried on keeping it, even when he knew that it might cost him his life.
If you can only have one regular time each day to seek the Lord, I’d suggest that you try to make it the start of the day. Many believers have found that it’s best for them if they can spend the first hour of the day with Him before all the other responsibilities start crowding in. It was so for the Lord Jesus himself. On the days when he knew he would be busiest, ‘rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed…’ (Mark 1:35).
But again, don’t feel guilty if you find that doesn’t work for you. Some of us have family duties first thing in the morning. Some of us only really start waking up a couple of hours after we’ve had our breakfast. Till then our minds are so fuzzy we can’t really think about anything clearly. If that’s you, a mid morning quiet time may be better, or during the evening after the children have gone to bed. Find out what suits your circumstances and personality best and stick with it.
3. BE UNEMBARRASSED
Jesus warned his disciples not to be ostentatious about their praying. ‘And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward…’ (Matthew 6:5). The point Jesus was making was that we mustn’t pray with the goal of showing off to others how ‘spiritual’ we are. But he didn’t mean that nobody should ever find out that we pray! The fact is that if we are people who pray regularly, it can’t be kept a secret. Jesus went on to say, ‘But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (verse 6). Do that at the same time every day, and the people around you will soon ask what’s you’re up to. And it won’t stay a secret very long!
Some Christians are so anxious not to show off their spiritual life that they feel awkward about letting anyone else know that they have a regular quiet time. The phone rings while Mandy’s praying. She picks it up just in case it’s the school ringing to say little Jenny’s ill. It’s not. It’s just a Christian friend ringing for a chat. Mandy knows she really ought to get back to her quiet time. She won’t have another chance to be on her own with the Lord today. But she can’t bring herself to tell her friend what she was doing. She only needs to say, ‘Do you mind if I call you back later? I was actually in the middle of my quiet time. I always have it around this time’. But she can’t say it. She’s afraid that if she does, she’ll come over as hyper-spiritual. She wouldn’t mind putting off her friend if she were on her way to the bathroom. But she’s embarrassed to say that she’s praying.
Don’t be. It’s as natural for a believer to pray as to breathe. Meditating on God’s word is as normal for us as eating. Why shouldn’t other people know that we do it?
4. BE ORGANISED
I’m talking now about the way we actually use the time we’ve set aside. Now, at the beginning of the year, is a good time to review whether you’re making the best use of it. Again, there are no rules about how you divide up your time. But there are three things that should have a place in every believer’s quiet time.
First is the study of Scripture. We need to hear God speaking to us every day. If we are to be servants of the Lord, we must listen – like the Servant of the Lord – to our Master every day. ‘Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear…’ (Isaiah 50:4-5). Where do we hear the voice of God? In the words of Scripture.
So make sure that every day you are exploring the Bible. There are different ways of doing that. Some of you may decide that you need to read through the whole Bible this year. That will mean roughly four chapters a day. (There are various Bible reading schemes that will tell you which chapters to read each day. Murray McCheyne’s schedule is readily available online1). Or you may decide to move more slowly. Maybe you should read just one chapter a day, but digest it thoroughly. Alec Taylor’s Bible-reading notes will take you through the whole Bible in five years and give you a helpful brief commentary on each chapter. (Of course there are many other daily Bible notes to choose from but Alec’s are clear, thoughtful and practical – you can download them from the God’s Glory Our Joy website). Or maybe you’ll decide that for you, the most helpful thing is just to look again at the passages we have read in our church meetings. In each of our Sunday services, we read at least two Bible passages, and often quote many more. So on Monday and Tuesday, you could read and study the passages that we quoted in our Sunday morning service; on Wednesday and Thursday move on to the passages we used on Sunday evening; Friday and Saturday, go over again the passages we read in our midweek meeting.
So use whichever of these approaches suits you best at the stage you’re at in your pilgrimage. They’re all useful. The important thing is to have an approach! Some believers never do any systematic Bible-study. Instead they just dip into their Bible and pick out a randomly chosen favourite verse. You won’t get a balanced diet that way! ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4 ). As the years pass by, you need to have fed on every word of Scripture. That isn’t going to happen unless you plan your quiet times carefully.
So Bible study comes first. Then there’s meditation. I suppose I could have simply included that under Bible study. But for most of us, it is helpful to draw a line between the two, at least in terms of the way we use our time. Suppose you have set aside an hour for your quiet time. You may decide that you will spend the first fifteen minutes simply reading the Bible, working out what the passage says and means. But at the end of that fifteen minutes, move on. Move on to meditating on what you have found in that passage. Turn it over in your mind. What truths have you discovered? It’s not enough to understand them. You must feel them. You’ve read a passage that talks about the world to come. Then use your imagination to think about that world and the joys you will experience there. Chew over every promise. Apply to yourself every warning. Work out the relevance of every command to yourself. Talk to God about it all. Remember Psalm 1: ‘Blessed is the man whose…delight is in the law of the Lord and in his law he meditates day and night’ (verse 2). It’s as you meditate that you put down deep roots and draw living water from the river of God’s grace.
And then, there’s prayer. Of course, real meditation will already have led you into prayer. As we meditate, we share all our thoughts with God. But again, there comes a point when we need to move on, and lay other matters before him in a systematic way. Many of us find it’s helpful if we start with praise and thanksgiving. Then we move to confession – asking forgiveness for particular ways in which we’ve grieved the Lord. And then we turn to requests – for ourselves, for others, for the church, for God’s work throughout the world. Others may use the Lord’s prayer as an outline (and remember, it is a daily prayer – ‘give us this day our daily bread‘). If we do, our prayer time will fall into two main divisions – first, prayer for God’s glory – his name, his kingdom, his will. And then prayer for our needs – provision, forgiveness, protection. Again, what really matters is that as the year goes by, we’ll be praying for all the things God has commanded us to pray for.
Keep a prayer-list. If you’re a member of this church you already have a prayer-list – you have a list of the other members of the church and you’ve promised to pray for them all. So decide how often you’ll pray for each one, and when. But there are many other people and situations you need to pray about. List them out. And keep a section in your notebook for particular things you’ve asked for. Keep a record of special requests – and of God’s answers. Make a note of the date when you asked – and the date when God granted your request.
Bible-study – meditation – prayer. These are the basics. Of course, there are many other ingredients you may add to the mix. I find it helpful to sing. Often when I come to my quiet times, I feel so cold-hearted and spiritual things seem very unreal. But singing a hymn and sharing the thoughts of the hymn-writer often warms me when nothing else seems to. Or maybe you’ll use a catechism or one of the great confessions of faith in your quiet time. These great summaries of truth can speak to us very powerfully. Each one of us must decide what will help us most in our own walk with God.
And of course, there are times when all our planning is blown to the wind. We may have our prayer list but when we come to pray we may find ourselves overwhelmed by some grief, some joy, some mega-problem. And our prayer list is forgotten. All we can do is sob or laugh or groan. Well, those may be the most important quiet times of all – the times when the Holy Spirit himself prays through us ‘with groanings that cannot be uttered’ (Romans 8:26). God honours our careful planning, but he loves to hear the heart-cries of his children.
5. BE BOLD
What is the greatest hindrance to approaching God? A guilty conscience. Why do I so often feel reluctant to close the door and begin my quiet time? Nine times out of ten it’s because I feel I’ve failed him in some way and I don’t want to have to face up to it. I know that if I begin to talk with him, I’m going to have to start by confessing my failure, asking for forgiveness, and turning from the sin, whatever it may be. And I shrink from doing it.
I’m no different from our dog Hunter. Usually, when I come into the house, Hunter runs to welcome me, tail wagging, eager to let me know he loves me. But not always. There are those days when I have to call for him. And he emerges from his hiding-place under the stairs, his tail between his legs, his ears flat against his skull. And I ask Anne, ‘what’s he done?’ He’s helped himself to my dinner. Or he’s destroyed one of my treasured possessions. And he’s expecting my wrath. So he hides away from me.
Adam, guilty and ashamed, hid among the trees of the garden. And when we’re guilty and ashamed, we hide from God. We use any excuse to avoid the confrontation with the one we’ve wronged. We’ve often sung, ‘bold I approach the eternal throne’! But how hard it is to approach God boldly when we’ve sinned.
Yet we must.
‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who was at all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16). ‘…he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’ (Hebrews 10:18-22).
However great our failures, we are invited – encouraged – commanded to come confidently into God’s presence, and we are assured of a loving welcome. Our Father has no wrath left for us – he has poured it all out on our great older Brother, the Lord Jesus. It is Satan, the great Accuser who tells us that we are unwelcome, or that we must wait to come until we’re in a better state. The truth is, ‘If you wait until you’re better, you will never come at all’!
Satan may use any sin or weakness on your part to make you feel guilty. But he will take special delight in exploiting any failure to keep up your daily quiet time. He will use every means at his disposal to make you miss one day. He will use good things and evil things to distract you; he will tell you that you’re too tired; he will exploit the comfort of a cosy lie-in to keep you from your appointment with God… and then, when he has succeeded in his scheming for one day, he will overwhelm you with guilt and make you feel defeated and helpless. And so when the next appointment comes, you’ll feel reluctant to keep it, and you’ll be more ready to be distracted. One day without a quiet time will become two, and two will become three… And then he’ll tell you that there’s no way back. You’ve failed again and your case is hopeless.
Be bold! If Satan has trapped you into missing your quiet time, or if you’ve dawdled it away, don’t be shamed into missing your next appointment. Come confidently, call God your Father, tell him you’re sorry, claim forgiveness through Jesus’s sacrifice, and start again. And don’t try to catch up with whatever you’ve missed. The thought of catching up with the Bible chapters you’ve missed, or clearing the backlog of people you should have prayed for, may become a crushing burden. Just leave them with God. Begin over with the next chapter, the next page of the prayer-list. And enjoy your time with the God who loves you for Jesus’s sake.
If we are believers, saved through Jesus’s blood and righteousness, adopted as God’s children, it is our duty to spend time with him each day. But it can also become our delight. Don’t let anything rob you of that delight in the year ahead.