About two decades ago, by the light of a blazing campfire, I heard the voice of the Lord. With many tears, and a palpable act of surrender, I went from being a girl who merely knew about the Lord to one who redeemed by and fully devoted to Him. The following day, when the summer camp staff sent us back into the real world, they advised us to do several things to keep our fledgling relationships with the Lord alive: pray, attend church, and do devotions.
Throughout the rest of my life, this phrase, “do devotions” came up again and again. Christian leaders often encouraged me to do devotions. Christian friends confessed their struggle with doing devotions. When I felt distance growing between me and God, I felt pressure to do my devotions. Now, as I scroll through Instagram, I see beautiful flat-lay photographs of people doing devotions. Doing devotions, for many, is an essential part of the Christian faith.
But not for me. I don’t do devotions anymore.
Let me explain.
First of all, what does it mean to “do devotions”? This Christianese phrase is often used and its practice often exhorted, but it doesn’t always have a clear definition.
My impression has always been that to “do devotions” involves a portion of the day, ideally the morning, set aside to do one or more of the following actions: reading a devotional text written by a well-respected Christian, reading a portion of Scripture, praying, worshipping.
These practices in themselves are not a problem. In fact, many of these are important spiritual disciplines! I take no issue with any of those practices.
One of the things I do take issue is, however, is the phrase itself.
The Problems with the Phrase
The phrase “do devotions” makes no sense. Outside of the faith, do you know anyone who does or talks about something called “devotions”? I don’t.
I do know people who are devoted to persons, values, and causes. I know people who devote time to things and people they value. I do know people that demonstrate their devotion through their actions.
In its typical usage, the word “devotion” is not something that can be done. The Cambridge dictionary defines devotion as: “loyalty and love or care for someone or something.” Grammatically, it makes no sense to do loyalty, do love, or do care, and it makes no sense to “do devotion”, let alone “devotions” (the plural form of this unquantifiable word).
Devotion, rather, is a quality that is revealed through devoting something to that which one is devoted to. A man reveals his devotion to his wife by devoting to their marriage, because he is devoted to her. But we would never say a man “does devotions” to his wife. It simply makes no sense.
Beyond that, the phrase “do devotions” is slyly self-focused. When we use the phrase “do devotions”, and especially “do my devotions”, we verbally reveal that the focus is on the action itself, for it does not even speak to the recipient of the action. We can “do devotions” without even referencing the object of our devotion.
If we used the word “devotion” in its proper usage, we cannot separate the subject from the object of our devotion. The statement “I am devoted”, or “I am devoting myself”, or “I am showing my devotion” begs the question: “to whom?” The answer is, then, to the Lord. He cannot be separated from the devotion when we use the word properly.
So we can be devoted to the Lord and devote ourselves to Him, and our actions can reveal our devotion to Him, but to “do devotions” is nonsensical and puts the emphasis on our actions.
Which leads to the next issue.
The Problems with the Practice
In my experience, doing devotions was a works-based practice. I know not everyone feels this way, and for some, the practice of doing devotions is always flows out of a soul that simply loves to be with the Lord. But for me, and for many honest Christians I have spoken with over the years, doing devotions became a task to cross off of the I’m-a-good-Christian to-do list.
When I didn’t take time to do devotions, there was a sense of shame, a feeling of, “Oh, no, I’m a bad Christian!” or “What’s wrong with me that I don’t want to do devotions?” or “How will God ever love me if I can’t even sit down for ten minutes with Him?” This sense of shame did little to draw me nearer to the God of grace, but rather made me wont to avoid Him.
When I did muster up the gumption to do devotions daily, usually after a retreat or week at Camp in which I was reminded of its importance, I would often find myself rushing through it to get it done instead of meditating on the truth in Scripture and spending time sincerely enraptured with the person of God. It did little for my spiritual growth, but it did make me feel a little better about myself, seeing as I could cross devotions of of the list. I’d an adopt an, “At least I tried!” mentality and went on with my day, thinking I had done enough.
This is all wrong. Devotion to the Lord cannot be compartmentalized. Squeezing in a few minutes for God the morning is not enough to sustain us, and I hardly believe it’s what He desires of us.
So why does the Church still push it?
Doing Devotions as Legalism
I don’t think the concept of doing devotions is bad. There is something comforting about routines, and something rewarding about self-discipline, and to set apart for the Lord is a beautiful thing. We are exhorted throughout Scripture to meditate on the Word and pray, and the practice of doing devotions is a way of doing that.
However, doing devotions is not the only way to do that. It seems to me that there is extra emphasis on this practice that is not spelled-out in Scripture. Doing devotions has become, in my opinion, a fruit of legalism, not grace.
In general, I think the Church still struggles with legalism. Much of our religion still revolves around what we do or don’t do instead of focusing on what God does, who He is, and who He has made us to be. In my opinion, many Christians still operate under a works-based salvation, prioritizing what we do above all else, secretly believing that our good works will win us favor with God.
That is a total and complete fallacy, and many of us know that. But Christians can preach grace while still operating under a works-based paradigm. We may say we believe in salvation through grace alone, but we may still live as though what we do counts.
And for many, doing devotions counts.
The Relationship between Faith and Works
I wholeheartedly believe in James’ oft quoted statement, that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” (James 2:17, ESV). There are countless examples in Scripture of the marriage of faith and works.
The problem is this: many of us get the relationship between the two confused. Faith cannot exist without works, for faith in Christ and His transformative grace in our lives is what brings about good works. As James states in the following verse: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” (2:18, ESV). When grace is at work in our lives, our works will reveal our faith,
But works cannot save us. Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Having faith in God is the only righteous we can do (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4, Hebrews 11).
Still, many of us still think we can achieve righteousness through what we do, whether faith is the motivator or not. Unfortunately, I believe that is why so many of us we make a point to practice the Spiritual disciplines, including doing devotions.
I fear that doing devotions has become another form of practicing religion without requiring faith. I fear that it has become a time for us to busy ourselves with doing instead of quieting ourselves before the Lord and being with Him. I fear that the practice of doing devotions can actually interfere with the mindset of having continual communion with the Lord who demands all of us, not just a portion of our time.
Instead of doing devotions, I’ve made a point of being devoted to the Lord. This devotion can take many forms. It can include time set aside for intentional communion with God in the morning, of course, time to read and reflect and pray, but it is not limited to that.
Let’s go back to the example of marriage. A man who is devoted to his wife may sit and spend twenty minutes in the morning with her before he leaves the home, and that can be a meaningful time of intentionality. But if the twenty minutes are all he offers her throughout the day, is that time a true mark of devotion? What if he is distracted during those twenty minutes; will his wife feel his devotion? What if after the twenty minutes of time with his wife, he goes off and focuses all of his attention to another woman – is he still devoted to her then? The answer is obvious.
Rather, a man who is devoted to his wife will show his devotion in all that he does. That will include intentional time, of course, but it also will include how he honors her throughout the day by the decisions he makes, the way he speaks of her and to her, and the commitment he has to her, even when his heart may not be in it. A man’s devotion to his wife is demonstrated longitudinally, in many forms, over many circumstances. His devotion is not only revealed by his actions, but also determines his actions.
I believe being devoted to the Lord is similar. It is far more comprehensive than merely doing devotions. It’s also way more involved. It requires us to recognize that our relationship with the Lord is all-consuming, and that our faith isn’t something that can be compartmentalized. True devotion is not something you can check off of a to-do list; it’s a lifestyle.
And I’m not going to sit here and say that it’s always going to be rainbows and butterflies, either. Just as in any other relationship, there will be days where your heart won’t be in it, days in which sacrifices will need to be made. But to be devoted to the Lord means to be loyal, caring, and loving despite the difficulties, and the reward is worth it.
For as we devote ourselves to the Lord, we will recognize how devoted He is to us. He does not limit communion with us to a small portion of the day; we can call on him at any time, day or night. He, like a devoted spouse, delights in the intentional time we give Him. He also delights in the check-ins throughout the day, the way we honor Him with how we speak about Him to others. He can handle our honesty, He can handle our mess, He can handle the seasons in which we just aren’t feeling all that in-love. But He does expect all of us. He wants our full devotion.
For me, being devoted to the Lord means learning to acknowledge Him throughout the day, invest intentional time with Him when I can, confessing my insufficiencies to Him instead of ignoring Him in my shame, and rejecting the fallacy that I can control His love for me by my actions. Being devoted means committing my full self, warts and all, to Him and trusting in who He is and what He can do instead of what I can do. Being devoted means believing that He will continually refine me when I come to Him in faith, knowing I will be received, and corrected, with love.
I don’t do devotions, but I am fully devoted to the Lord as He is to me.
This, I believe, is far better.