25 January 2018

Plagued by Quiet Time, Part 1

Is it more Godly if you light a candle?

Ah, the Quiet Time -- also known as "daily devotions", "time with God", and "personal Bible study." It's supposed to be one of the great blessings of the Christian life. I've chosen to title this post "Plagued by Quiet Time", because -- ironically -- it oftentimes feels more like a curse than a blessing.

Incidentally, I somewhat dislike the term "quiet time." It's an innocent phrase loaded with pious connotations, so that I'm left with no convenient way to refer to a literal quiet time, a stretch of several minutes or hours in which noise is absent. If I were to go to the library or for a walk alone on a nature trail, to me, that is "quiet time." If I were planning to read and study my Bible, well, I could easily specify that.

I also admit to having negative childhood associations attached to "quiet time." When I was young, parents, youth leaders, and Sunday School teachers would ask: "Did you have your quiet time?" This would strike the fear of unfulfilled obligations into our hearts, similar to Santa Claus asking, "Have you been a good girl/boy this year?" And if we had not been faithfully checking off the quiet time box (we usually hadn't), we would fidget and squirm and promise to do better. After all, we were told, how could we expect God to bless us if we weren't consistent in our quiet time?

I was pondering this recently, and it occurred to me that "quiet time" is yet another one of those areas of the Christian life where we tend to let a confused mixture of personal assumptions and others' expectations be our guide. Not all of those assumptions may be wrong, of course, but I do think they deserve to be unpacked and examined. (At least, I'm not completely confident that they're wrong. I just know they either haven't worked for me, or they've left me with too many answers that don't seem quite satisfactory. Perhaps I'm not the only one.)

Assumption 1: You must have your quiet time in the morning in order for it to "work."

This point is almost unanimously agreed upon among today's Christians. Not only must you have quiet time every day, it must be in the early hours of the day: before you go to school/work, or -- even better -- before sunrise. (Of course, there are those who say it's okay to have quiet time on lunch break or before bed, but they're definitely outliers.)

"God's mercies are new every morning," we quote, with emphasis on the morning. What we don't say, but unconsciously infer, is that His mercies are old and worn out by bedtime. God's grace is like a parking meter; it expires after so many hours. But this is an assumption on our part, and an erroneous one at that. God is just as ready and willing to bless in the late evening hours as He is in the morning (Psalm 127:2).

There's also a view that says quiet time in the morning is the right way to go because we need to expect a word from God for each day that we can carry with us throughout that day. Going to sleep is like hitting the "reset" button, and when we wake up, we need a fresh word from the Lord, because yesterday's word was for yesterday. This is one of those ideas that I really can't say is "wrong" -- I don't have much personal experience with it, for sure. But I will point out that God isn't on the same waking/sleeping schedule we are. The word that He spoke yesterday can be just as relevant today. (Incidentally, there aren't always hard lines for everybody between "yesterday" and "today" -- just ask anyone who struggles with insomnia!)

Then there's the popular view of one's day as a performance or marathon of sorts for which mental, emotional, and spiritual energy is needed, and Scripture is the "food" that provides such energy. I definitely won't oppose that idea, but I will add that food eaten in the afternoon and evening can be just as nourishing as food eaten in the morning. If we're going to draw exact parallels between physical and spiritual food, we'll have to admit that eating consistently and healthfully is ultimately more important than what hour of the day we eat.

A. The Psalms talk about seeking God in the morning.

Indeed they do. They also talk about seeking God in the evening. In fact, both times of day are mentioned frequently:

            Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. (1:2)

O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch. (5:3)

Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice. (55:17)

But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress. (59:16)

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; (63:5-6)

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. (77:2)

I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit: (77:6)

O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. (88:1-2)

But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. (88:13)

I rise before dawn and cry for help; I put my hope in your words. My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, that I may meditate on your promise. (119:147-148)

Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. (143:18)

Given the sheer variety of verses that talk about praying and meditating in both morning and evening, I think we can safely assume that the writer of Psalms is not trying to dictate a particular time of day to communicate with God. Instead, I believe he is highlighting the fact that we should be seeking Him constantly, all day long.

B. You should have quiet time in the morning in order to give God your best.

Smuggled in here is the assumption that first is synonymous with best; i.e., the first hours of the day are always the best ones. It's true that in the Old Testament, the "first fruits" of harvest were considered to be the best, and they were supposed to be reserved as an offering to God. Yet these days, when we're talking about time, the first hours of the day may not always be the best hours. There are various reasons why this may be the case, from health issues to night shift jobs and everything in between.

The biggest potential pitfall, in my opinion, is that slavish adherence to "the morning" tends to foster compartmentalized thinking. It's very easy to regard that hour (or half hour, or fifteen minutes) after we get out of bed as "God's time", and the other 23 hours as "our time" to do with as we please: Good, now I've checked quiet time off my list; I can get on with my actual life...

Does that mean falling into this mindset is inevitable? Not at all. It's just that being legalistic about certain times of day makes it that much easier. At least, that's been my experience. Maybe it's just me.

Continued tomorrow...

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