Having taken new job and moved my family to a new city after spending the last five years planting and pastoring a church, my wife and I recently found ourselves visiting churches.
One Sunday, the pastor at a church we were visiting ended his sermon by pleading with the congregation to devote themselves to the personal study of Scripture. He said, “if you want to grow in your relationship with God, you have to study the Bible for yourself.”
As much as I value personal Bible reading, I couldn’t help but wonder, if personal Bible reading is the only true route to true spiritual growth, how did the majority of Christians throughout the short history of the church managed to make any progress in their spiritual formation?
The idea of a personal quiet time is a relatively new concept. For the vast majority of Christian history, believers have not had the privilege of personally studying the Bible. Prior to the printing press, personal quiet time was not possible except for a privileged few. For much of Christian history, the primary context for spiritual formation was in community, as people gathered together to listen to and discuss God’s Word.
Individual Bible reading is certainly worthwhile, but I think we—especially in the Western church—may be prone to lean too heavily on our personal views of the Bible. Given that Peter felt the need to inform his readers that no passage of Scripture is a matter of one’s own personal interpretation (2 Peter 1:19-21), we should be aware of our potential to interpret the Bible in a way that is favorable to ourselves. The human heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).
One of the many reasons God gave us the church is to help us approach Scripture more humbly. If we hope for our quiet times to be life-giving and God-honoring, we need to compliment them with the discipline of talking about our personal studies with our brothers and sisters in Christ. As we engage in personal devotion, we must remember that God has called us to live in community with other believers, requiring us to balance our personal insights with the counsel of other believers and our personal applications with the needs of the community around us.
Look to Jesus
In my time as a pastor, I can’t tell you how many times I counseled church members who were racked with guilt because of their failure to consistently have their personal quiet time. I’ve seen people drop out of missions projects because they felt they needed to get their personal devotional time right before they minister to others. I have talked to young people who were convinced that if they just read their Bibles more, they would stop having so many lustful thoughts.
I too have interpreted my life circumstances through the narrow lens of personal study. While in seminary, I blamed my singleness on a lack of passion in my personal devotional time. In an accountability group in college, I often responded to the other members’ confessions by asking them about the state of their personal quiet time. In each of these instances, an over-emphasis on the importance of personal devotion resulted in an unhealthy focus on self whereas Scripture calls us to persevere in the faith by looking to Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2). If reading the Bible is causing us to focus on ourselves, we are doing it wrong.
Setting our personal devotional time up as the singular key to growth is tempting because it puts us in charge of our sanctification, a practice Paul described as “foolish” (Galatians 3:3). I often wish spiritual growth were as simple as reading the Bible and praying once a day. Truthfully, however, Scripture’s directives concerning sanctification are much more nuanced.
Scripture calls us to grow not only by reading God’s Word but by speaking it in love (Ephesians 4:15). In fact, so many of the ways we are called to pursue spiritual growth require community. We are called to grow by loving one another, suffering and mourning together, serving one another, bearing each other’s burdens, and using our spiritual gifts for the edification of the body (1 Thessalonians 3:2; 1 Peter 4:1-2; Romans 12:15; Philippians 2:1-11; Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 4:10-13; 1 Peter 4:10-11). All Scripture is breathed out by God, but each of the ways Paul commands Timothy to utilize Scripture for spiritual growth imply the presence of community (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Our personal quiet times must not remain personal, we must “encourage each other with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
A Communal Approach to Personal Devotion
Jesus often went to solitary places to pray and encouraged His disciples to pray privately and persistently. Moses and the prophets enjoyed intimate personal communion with God. The Psalmists constantly encouraged believers to meditate on the law of God (Psalms 1:2, 119:97, Joshua 1:8). Devoted personal study of Scripture is of immeasurable value to Christians who are privileged with access to a Bible translated into their native language.
So how do we engage in personal devotion without neglecting the power and importance of community? First, I would challenge pastors and teachers to widen their scope when teaching on spiritual disciplines and sanctification. Personal devotion is one of the primary means God has given us to grow in our relationship with Him, but we must not preach this means in neglect of the more communal disciplines. If, in addition to personal prayer and Bible study, we grow by loving each other and speaking the truth in love to one another, how might we challenge church members to practice those imperatives? Sadly, I don’t think that is a question many pastors are exploring.
Secondly, I would challenge Christians to discipline themselves to talk to brothers and sisters in Christ about the insights they’ve gained from personal study. For me, lately this has been as simple as discussing insights from my personal study with my wife or discussing Sunday morning’s sermon over lunch with friends. For you, this discipline might look completely different, however it looks, we must remember that Christ calls us to speak truth to one another. This simple discipline helps guard against falsely interpreting Scripture to please ourselves and challenges us to consider our neighbor as we study.
Don’t stop studying the Bible on your own, but rather refuse to read it solely for yourself. Scripture calls us to a personal devotion that refuses to remain personal.
Drew Dixon works at LifeWay Christian Resources as a content editor for Discipleship in Context. Drew also serves as the editor-in-chief of GameChurch.com and writes regularly for Paste Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture and Think Christian. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82.