I don’t like devotional books.
I rarely get swept up in emotional worship experiences.
And as much as I’ve wanted to be the girl who sings with her arms raised, eyes closed and heart full of joy, I just end up fixated on whether or not I’m flashing sweaty armpits to everyone around me (spoiler: I probably am).
For years, I participated in small groups and Bible studies feeling like there must be something wrong with me. I couldn’t connect to the kind of devotional, emotional spirituality so many of my friends seemed to enjoy; and most of the time I’d rather study the details of Paul’s arguments about justification than meditate on a Psalm.
Then I came across an essay by C.S. Lewis called, “On the Reading of Old Books,” and it completely changed my perspective. “For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books,” Lewis wrote, “and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.” Years of worry that I was unspiritual or a bad Christian began to melt away. Lewis continued:
I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.
Swap the pencil for a laptop and the pipe for a beer and he’d nailed my experience exactly. But if C.S. Lewis of all people was on my side, why did it seem like we were hanging out alone?
You see, the American church has done an excellent job of catering to a devotional or emotional style of spirituality—and that’s a good thing! But it’s also a bad thing, because it leaves a lot of us, the ones for whom “nothing happens” when we try to grow closer to God that way, out in the cold.
This is a shame, not only because of the feelings of frustration and inadequacy it can cause people like me, who don’t fit the devotional mold, but also because Jesus showed He was more than capable of loving and ministering to both of these spiritual styles.
Remember Mary and Martha, the sisters of Bethany? These women were on the opposite ends of the emotional-intellectual spectrum of spirituality. When Jesus came to raise their brother Lazarus, each sister met him with the exact same lament: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus does not respond to them identically.
To Mary, He gives emotional comfort, openly grieving with her. He doesn’t explain Himself or the circumstances; He simply weeps with her. She seems content with this; an explanation is not what she seeks.
To Martha, however, Jesus offers intellectual comfort through teaching. When Martha says “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask,” she’s not just making a statement; she’s challenging Jesus to fix her situation. And Jesus challenges her in turn, pushing her to examine the depth and source of her faith. Though tears were what Mary needed, just weeping together would not have helped Martha.
Mary is emotionally comforted by Jesus’ empathy; Martha is intellectually comforted by His word.
The story doesn’t present either spiritual style as better than the other; it presents a Savior who can love and use them both. As the corporate body of Christ, we must have the same adaptability. So what does that look like for intellectual types in the modern, American church?
Don’t be scared to speak up.
If you want to study some heavy theology instead of another devotional book, say so! I was afraid for years to tell people that devotional-style books didn’t resonate with me, because I thought I was the only one. But I’m not; and you’re not; and I’m betting that even those who have a more emotional spirituality would be up for trying something new with you.
Figure out new ways to participate.
If the current roles available at your church don’t fit with your spiritual gifting or style, create new roles. For example, if you don’t feel comfortable leading an emotional prayer time, ask if you could instead read and briefly explain a passage of Scripture which is relevant to the topic at hand.
Practice emotional spirituality—sometimes.
It’s important to engage in spiritual practices which work for you, but for those of us on the intellectual end of the spectrum, there’s a real risk of emotional disengagement. Just as we have a unique perspective to offer our more emotionally oriented friends, so we need to learn from them. It may feel strange or awkward, especially at first, but Jesus never said following Him would be easy.
Extend grace to people you don’t understand.
Though it may be a natural human tendency to do so, we needn’t value heart over head, Mary over Martha (or vice versa!). Both have important contributions to make to the body of Christ. “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord,” who is as deft with Martha’s challenges as He is with Mary’s tears.
is a writer in St. Paul, MN. She is the weekend editor at The Week, a columnist at Rare and a fellow at Defense Priorities.