The Daily Devotional – Help Or Hindrance?

Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc

It is a well known and oft-repeated mantra that Christians should read the bible on their own to further develop a relationship with God. But I find a worrying trend among Ghanaian Christians that will rather retard that relationship, if not kill it, and that trend is the rise of the “daily devotional”.

Growing up, I remember there were only a few devotionals that were recommended for Christians to read as a means of “doing their quiet time”. Typically the focus on 1 verse of scripture with a other proof-texts to support the main one, and an explanation, story, illustration etc and some praying points. These were mostly written from a typical evangelical Christian perspective by a wide range of respected Christians sometimes from different church backgrounds, and as much as possible kept the focus on one’s salvation and daily walk with God. Back then, we were encouraged to read the bible for ourselves and then add on these devotionals, but overtime many people who actually desired the ability to have “quiet time” simply substituted reading the bible with reading the devotionals only. After all, the devotionals were also quoting the bible, not so?

The trend however began to shift when every pastor worth their salt decided that their church members needed to not only hear their voices on Sundays, but carry them along all through the week as well. Matters have now deteriorated to the point where everyone who feels they have some level of understanding of the bible wants to write one, and with the advent of social media and chat platforms, easily spread their devotional to friends and family.

In my opinion this trend is however leading us down a very dangerous path – it is blinding us from discovering the bible ourselves in it’s fullness and complexity, and has become a sure means of spreading bad theology amongst Christians, to their own detriment. And here are the reasons why.

  1. It encourages proof-texting. Devotionals pick a verse or 2 out of their contexts, and then try to make sense of the verses on their own. Sometimes the authors try to draw in from the surrounding context, but since these devotionals are meant to be short, they woefully fail at doing this and focus on their interpretations of the the quoted verses. This is a sure formula for distorting scripture, as any single verse in the bible can be quoted to support any interpretation one desires, even including killing people.

  2. It props up individualistic readings of the bible. Most devotionals focus on giving their readers some snippet of encouragement, advice etc on how to live their personal lives. This means that every quoted verse is plumbed for its application to the individual, without realizing and emphasizing the corporate nature of the biblical texts themselves from which these verses are lifted. Where for example Paul is speaking of the church, devotionals teach their adherents to read them as speaking of themselves as individuals. I was amazed when someone was quoting Eph 3:10 from a devotional and feeling abuzz, letting us all know that the rulers and principalities will know God’s wisdom through him, a total distortion of the whole bible’s teaching on the critical nature of the nation of God – the church.

  3. It fails to situate Christians in their place as participants in God’s mission. Because of the explicit focus on giving Christians a personal boost for their daily lives, devotionals fail woefully at bringing to the fore God’s mission of care for one another and care for creation that can only be acted out by communities of dedicated Christians, not by individuals. The bible is meant to guide the life of a community of people who are working to make the kingdom of God felt on the earth today. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. Individualistic reading of scripture promoted by devotionals prevent one from seeing this point.

  4. It hides the complexity of the bible from it’s audience. Devotionals by their nature are very selective of scripture. This means that its readers will get the sense of a bible which is very simple to read and understand, where every verse of scripture is self-explanatory. It propagates the well-cherished Protestant teaching that with a plain reading of scripture and the holy spirit’s help, everyone can come to the same conclusions on bible passages as the writers of these devotionals have. Given the millions of different denominations all stating that their interpretation of scripture is the right one, its amazing the irony of such teaching hasn’t dawned on us yet.

  5. It keeps it’s readers ignorant of the history and background of the biblical texts. By their nature, there’s very little understanding of the history and background of the bible that one can get from devotionals, which actually have a huge impact on how to actually interpret a particular verse of the bible. Some devotionals try to give themselves a sense of going deeper by doing “the greek word means …”, but really, if it was a simple as quoting words from the original languages, we will all still be reading the KJV as the only English translation.

I could go on with more reasons to be wary of devotionals, but I think the point is made. By its very nature, there is no real way that devotionals can make one a better student of the bible. The best it can do is to give you a boost for the day. And frankly that won’t cut it if we are going to produce Christians who actually know what the bible has to say and who will not fall for deception. As they say, “give a man fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” Devotionals are the equivalent of giving a man a fish – Christians who rely on them will never learn to discern scripture themselves. Our churches need to be equipping Christians with the right methods to enable study the bible for all it’s worth, and in addition realize the value of community in the interpretation of scripture. In addition, the false pressure that one must read the bible EVERY DAY is one that needs to be countered – so we don’t fall into the temptation to fill up the “quiet time” slot with rather unhelpful material. Jesus’s didn’t say we need to read the bible daily – he said we need to carry our cross and follow him daily (Lk 9:23). That cross was a cross of self-denial for the other, just as he denied himself for us. What are we denying ourselves for our fellow Christian and even non-Christian on a daily basis?

We are in an unprecedented time in history where the bible is very easily obtainable due to the invention of the printing press, but sadly we are also in a time when the ignorance of the bible is even higher. This is simply due to the fact that those who actually can read aren’t reading it, and those who are reading it haven’t been trained in proper methods of understanding it.

Tips

Here are some tips for you if you are serious about reading the bible for all its worth,

  1. Stop reading devotionals. Some of them may sound like they have some depth, but if you develop the habit of reading the bible yourself, you’ll realise that there’s nothing special about them, and very soon you’ll be poking holes in them yourself.

  2. Pray to God to give you the strength to read the bible for yourself.

  3. Read whole chapters of the bible at once. Don’t feel pressured to do so everyday, but if you can then read one chapter a day. To be frank with you, I don’t read the bible everyday, so you are in good company (or rather I’m in good company).

  4. Rediscover Jesus by intentionally reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) once every year. Just read them in chapters.

  5. There is an amazing magic about the Psalms, which I intend to write about soon. But I’ll encourage you to read them on a regular basis. Come up with your own schedule. Anytime you do your regular reading of the bible, read a Psalm to boot, even the confusing ones. I’ll be sharing very soon the songs that we’ve written at church from the Psalms following this practice.

  6. No matter how you do it, start small. A chapter a day and a Psalm a day. Or a chapter a week and a Psalm a week. It’s about consistency, not about “Read Your Bible, Pray Everyday”.

  7. Find friends in your church who are practicing/want to practice reading the bible this way and plan this together so you can share your thoughts with each other. Remember, the early disciples didn’t have bibles in their homes. They had to have the books of the bible read to them and they interpreted it together.

  8. Commit yourself to reading a book by a theologian at least once a year which discusses a theological concept. By a theologian I don’t mean pastors. I mean a world renowned biblical scholar. This is not to condemn pastors and teachers. The goal of this advice is to open you up to learning from people who are not found in your usual comfort zones, but who have dedicated their lives to explaining the bible for both academic and spiritual purposes, and who are aware of the complexities of the bible.

Conclusion

One of the questions I ask my friends who take themselves seriously when it comes to Christianity is this. Are you in the business of producing believers, or you are in the business of producing disciples? Jesus called us to do one of these, and we should know which one by now.

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Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity II – “Touch Not My Anointed”

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity II – “Touch Not My Anointed”

One of the typically abused texts that Ghanaian Christians are quick to quote when their favourite pastor/prophet/bishop etc is under criticism is Ps 105:15

Do not touch my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm” (Ps 105:15).

But are we sure we understand this verse?

What Ghanaian Christianity Means By This Phrase

This has become a blanket statement to prevent any form of questioning of the teaching or practice of church leaders. It’s usage is particularly very dominant in certain circles of Christianity, who limit all their experience and knowledge of Christianity through the lens of their beloved preachers. Any criticism of such preachers therefore elicits not a welcome ear to listen and think through the accusation/critique, but a knee jerk reaction to defend such beloved preachers/prophets, even to possibly naming the critique as a “heretic” or “unspiritual person”. And this is further worsened by such preachers also intentionally exploiting the above verse as a means to defend themselves, leading their followers to assume that that is the proper way to understand this verse.

What The Phrase Means in Context

This is probably the easiest abuse of the bible to detect, yet the dominance of this abuse simply amazes me. This is because one can see what the author of the Psalm is talking about by simply reading the whole Psalm 105 from beginning. The Psalm begins by calling Israel to give thanks to God for what he has done for them.

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name, make known among the nations what he has done” (v 1)

The author then proceeds to state the exact things that Yahweh has actually done for them.

“Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced, you his servants, the descendants of Abraham, his chosen ones, the children of Jacob … He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit’ … When they were but few in number, few indeed, and strangers in it … He allowed no one to oppress them; for their sake he rebuked kings; ‘Do not touch my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm’ ”(v5-15).

It is obvious from the above (paying attention to the portions I’ve boldened) that the Psalmist is talking about how Yahweh protected HIS CHOSEN PEOPLE from harm whiles they travelled from Egypt to Canaan, so that they may obtain God’s promise of ENTERING THE LAND OF CANAAN. In the process, God actually defeats both Og, king of Bashan and Sihon, king of the Amorites just to get his way. These are the “kings” he rebuked (as well as Pharaoh of course). The theme of Yahweh defeating Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites is repeated in many Psalms (Ps 139;135;68) as well as the rest of the Old Testament, and is told to remind the people of ancient Israel how God had led them to “the land”. Even before the reading of the Ten Commandments to the people in Deuteronomy, it is preceded with reminding the people of God how he took them from Egypt, defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, Og king of Bashan before bringing them to conquer Canaan (Deut 2,3).

Therefore the reference to “anointed one” and “prophets” here is but a reference to the nation Israel.

So What?

Obviously the above cannot be used to defend only certain preachers, simply because it doesn’t even refer to them. But as usual, many Christians like to mine the Old Testament to justify what they are bent on doing without first understanding the Old Testament on it’s own terms as a document that records the history and stories of God’s relationship with his chosen people. And when the OT is read only for its “mining” or allegorical value, these are the kind of results we get (an example is the “seven to one” misinterpretation that occurred recently from one of the leading Ghanaian preachers). So having done the correct thing above, let us then indulge the “miners” of the OT and apply the text properly.

If the church is Israel expanded, then this passage is specifically talking about us all as God’s anointed and God’s prophets. None of us is more anointed than the other. The only anointed one is Jesus Christ (which is what Christ means i.e. the anointed one), and we are all anointed because we are a part of his body. In the same way the passage is talking about the nation Israel, let’s be minded to speak of the church as God’s anointed and prophets, and let’s stop giving our favourite preachers/prophets/bishops the free pass to move from being people who are tasked with preparing us for works of service to people who are performing a show for us which we have to accept whether we like it or yes because “they are the anointed” and we are the mere mortals.

If we truly are serious about doing this, we can start the process by simply refusing to refer to such men as “anointed”. How hard can that be? Will a few sacred cows be lost by doing so?

(This article is also published on the SimplyChrist website)