Monday, 14 December 2009

evangelical burdens part 1 - the quiet time

Throw off every weight that hinders; so writes the author to the book of Hebrews. These "weights" are things, not necessarily evil in themselves, which stop us living the Christian life to the full. I've been thinking that sometimes evangelicalism, i.e. evangelical churches, pastors, books, attitudes can contribute to the weighing down process in some way. I plan to do a series of posts on certain teachings, attitudes and assumptions that permeate evangelicalism and that result in the weighing down of those trying to live the Christian life.

Something that has caused Christians great stress/trouble is the evangelical doctrine of 'the quiet time'. Here's my problem with the quiet time mentality:

1. It has become an unchurchly means of grace
If you were to ask your average evangelical to describe how to grow in grace, what do you think the average answer would be? I suspect it would go along the lines of the kids' chorus: "Read your Bible, pray every day and you'll grow, grow, grow!" Isn't it amazing that when a question like this is asked, how few of us mention that gathering with the people of God to have his presence mediated through word and sacrament is most important?

I used to wonder why I needed to go to church when I was "getting much more out of" my private prayer and bible readings. Why not just have a quiet time instead of gathering with those I had so little in common with? Now I've got no doubt that this misconception was 99% my fault and down to my thickness, but I would venture to suggest that some of the influence was from many of the books I'd read as a young believer and perhaps the counsel of equally ignorant peers. So this pietistic assumption prevailed, not just in my mind, but in the minds of friends and family; unless you've got the quiet time 'down', you're not growing.

Yet the amazing thing is that there is no text in Scripture, OT or NT, commanding that we have a daily bible reading. There are texts admonishing that we meditate on God's word day and night (e.g. Psalm 1), but as R. Scott Clark noted in this talk, when these texts were written, none of the hearers had access to Bibles. They either had to gather round the mountain to hear Moses speak God's word or make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to hear the priest teach. Even in the NT, when believers were commanded to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly, they didn't have access to bibles. They were dependant upon what they church.

Meditation and prayer should arise out of what we hear and experience predominately on a Sunday as the word is preached, eaten, drunk and splashed! I could say more on this, but I must try to keep this short...!

2. It feeds a works-righteousness ethic
Another problem is the rank legalism that can accompany the quiet time ethic. To see an example of this, look no further than this bumbling blogger. I remember reading "Why Revival Tarries" by Leonard Ravenhill. He said something like "any elder that doesn't pray for 2 hours a day isn't worth his salt". I reasoned that since I wasn't an elder I, nevertheless, needed to pray for at least one hour daily! When I couldn't keep it up, I doubted my salvation. When my friends didn't live up to this, I doubted their salvation (did I mention that I was a total muppet?) Can you identify with any of this?

Being regaled in books by anecdotes of prayer giants didn't help my inner-Pharisee either. Why are we always being told stories about prayer heroes? How about a series on prayer zeros? Every example on prayer I'd ever read about concerned some super-saint who wore out his knees as he began the day with 7 hour prayer times in tearful intercession for those who farted on his face the day before. By the time many of us fail to live up to the high standards set by these prayer warriors, we feel like we've abandoned the faith and that we should just plunge headlong into sin; in for a penny in for a pound after all.

I'm just thankful that my pathetic, prayer-less life is hidden with Christ in God. To have his righteous status stamped over mine is all I'll ever need.

3. It reflects superstitious attitudes.
Every missed a morning prayer time and worried that your day would be 'wrong' as a result? This is a consequence of point 2 above. God ain't a slot machine. He doesn't need my crappy prayers to pacify him. What he needs is the blood of his son.

Is there a way through this sorry state of affairs? Well, let me first confess that I'm writing this as a prayer zero. I'm not very good at daily prayer or bible reading. Nevertheless, the Lord has been gracious to this numpty by showing him the importance of a focus on the public means of grace. When I see the word and sacrament as my spiritual refreshment I am taken out of myself and forced to look towards God's provision in Jesus. It keeps me from tying myself in emotional knots as I wonder if I have gotten enough peace from my quiet time. Second, just pray. Don't focus on a time or place as much as just doing it. Pray all the time, i.e. driving to work, sitting at your desk, lying on the couch, etc. Third, don't worry about duration. Don't compare time spend watching TV with time spent praying for example. We don't have to give God hours and hours to keep him satisfied. He just wants our hearts. Fourth, don't trust in your prayers, trust in Christ for justification - simple but very effective.


Carter said...


I largely agree with you on this. I have found that this feeds an independant mentality that we simply eat up. One has to wonder how we are to function as a church when our motto is, "Every member a minister." It generally results in people who love Jesus but who won't unite around much more than a bare-bones baptistic confession. And as far as spirituality is concerned, I have heard every variation of what you're getting at. It has a great tendency to moralize and reduce the Bible to exactly the opposite of grace, law. It makes it tough for a young guy trying to follow God to feel like he's worth much of anything. How can God be happy with my pathetic attempts?

All that being said, I'm not sure we can ever get rid of this. For one, the priesthood of all believers is simply here being worked out to it's logical conclusion (while of course dismissing any qualifying statements about Church leadership). I think the problem is that we encourage people to be Bereans without an apostle (figuratively, of course). How would you say we are to approach this then? Why do we read our Bibles through the week, and how do we go about encouraging others to do so? Do they need to? And if not, then what checks do we have on falsehood being taught in churches?

It's all very messy, indeed...

John Thomson said...

I have some sympathy with your concerns - especially when they become legalistic rules. The opposite of course is licence. We must keep in step with the promptings of the Spirit.

It is worth noting too that the S on M promotes a kind of 'Quiet time' at least for prayer. 'When you go into your closet to pray...'.