In his work on the Lutheran Reformation, Philip Schaff discusses the home-life of Martin Luther and writes: He began the day, after his private devotions, which were frequent and ardent, with reciting in his family the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a Psalm.
In a letter to Melanchthon, Veit Dietrich wrote concerning Luther during the Diet of Augsburg: No day passes that he does not give three hours to prayer, and those the fittest for study. Once I happened to hear him praying. Good God! How great a spirit, how great a faith, was in his very words! With such reverence did he ask, as if he felt that he was speaking with God; with such hope and faith, as with a Father and a Friend. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘that Thou art our Father and our God. I am certain, therefore, that Thou art about to destroy the persecutors of Thy children. If Thou doest it not, then our danger is Thine too. This business is wholly Thine, we come to it under compulsion; Thou, therefore, defend.’…In almost these words I, standing afar off, heard him praying in a clear voice. And my mind burned within me with a singular emotion when he spoke in so friendly a manner, so weightily, so reverently, to God.
Private devotions, including the reading of Scripture and prayer have always been considered an important part of life by God’s people. The “habit” of these daily private devotions ought to begin early; it ought to begin when we are still young people, a habit to be carried with us through all our life.
Life is hectic and filled with much hustle and bustle. There are so many demands placed upon us today that there seems no end to it. This busy-ness of life is sometimes used as an excuse to forget the important matter of personal and private devotions. “There just simply is no time for such things,” is often the anguished cry that is made. Yet rather than letting this be an excuse to lay aside this important part of life, the very busy-ness of life ought to be added incentive not to neglect Scripture reading and prayer. It was the same Luther whom we quoted above who said in a different place that the busier he was, the more time he needed for prayer and the quiet meditation of God’s Word. It seems paradoxical and contradictory; but it remains an important truth for all that.
Every Christian family has its periods of devotions. In these devotional periods the family itself joins in worship of God. In our homes (although this is not necessarily the only time for devotions) usually these devotions are held at mealtimes. The family together turns to the Word of God and bows together in prayer. This is as it should be. Every child of God closes the day with prayer. In the privacy and quiet of his or her own bedroom, and before sleep brings refreshment and renewed vigor for a new day, the child of God pauses to pray to God giving thanks for the blessings of the day, confessing the sins which have been committed and seeking the throne of Him Who neither slumbering nor sleeping watches over Israel. All of this is as it should be.
When we speak in this article of “private devotions” however, we refer to the need for everyone, but especially our young people, to find some time for personal and private reading of Scripture, for prayer and meditation. The need for this is unspeakably great.
Why Scripture reading?
We can perhaps get at this question best by reminding ourselves of the many figures which Scripture itself uses to describe the Word of God.
Sometimes Scripture speaks of itself as bread. When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness to make stones into bread, He responded by saying: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4). The figure is quite obviously important. There is bread for the body – so sustain our earthly life in the world; there is bread for the soul. The bread for the body, potatoes, hamburger, peas and carrots, will not do for the soul. It was the sin of the rich fool that he thought it would (Luke 12:19). The child of God has the life of Christ within him. This needs nourishment. The Word of God is the only good which will do.
Sometimes Scripture speaks of itself as a lamp and a light – a lamp unto our feet and light on our path (Ps. 119:105). The figure is made against a background which assumes that our way in life is very dark. It is dark because of sin. If we walk in the darkness, we stumble and fall and lose the way. We need a light to find our way in this darkness; a light which will show us the way to walk from here to the house of our Father. There is only one light which can shine unerringly and brilliantly enough to show us this way. It is the Word of God. If that light shines upon our path, we will know the way to go. Without that light we will not.
Then again Scripture speaks of the Word of God as armor and weapons for warfare (Eph. 6:13-17). Paul is speaking of one of the chief characteristics of the life of the Christian. This is warfare. The Christian is a warrior – must be a warrior. The enemies are strong and intent on destroying us. Life is a fight, a battle. It can be no different. It is ordained by God that it should be so. There is enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Life is filled with the noise of the clash of weapons, the cries of wounded men, the hard breathing of those who exert all their energies in fighting. In the midst of the battle stands the Christian warrior called by the Captain of his salvation to protect himself from the enemy’s weapons and called to advance on the battle field of faith in the cause of the kingdom, fighting all the while under the banner of the cross. As Paul describes the armor and weapons which the Christian warrior needs, it is striking to notice that almost all his regalia is the Word of God. His loins must be girt about with the truth; his feet must be shod with the preparation of the gospel; he must carry the shield of faith; he must swing vigorously the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. This is all that will do. Without this armor he is easy prey. Without these weapons he will soon lie mortally stricken on the battlefield of life. But with this armor and carrying these weapons he will stand through all hell and countless hosts of the world hurl repeated attacks against him.
It is interesting and instructive to note that Paul concludes his description of the Christian warrior’s armor with the words: “Praying always with all prayer and supplication…” (Eph. 6:18).
There are several different words used in Scripture for prayer and they mean different things. One word means “prayer in general.” It includes all different kinds of prayer: petitions, praise, thanksgiving, etc. Another word means “petitions.” It is the word used to describe our bringing of our needs to God. And yet another word speaks of what our Heidelberg Catechism refers to when it says that prayer is the chief part of thankfulness. Not necessarily is thankfulness the chief part of prayer – although this too may sometimes by true. But prayer is the chief part of thankfulness. All kinds of prayer are important. All are necessary.
It must have made a profound impression upon the disciples that they saw how often the Lord Jesus Himself resorted to prayer. It was not at all uncommon, especially in times of crisis, that Jesus would spend a whole night in prayer. How strange. Jesus was perfect. He had no sin. He was Emmanuel – God with us. Yet He needed prayer; needed it desperately and often. Moved by this, the disciples asked the Lord; “Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).
On the wings of prayer we are carried into the presence of the Most High God. In the sanctuary of prayer we are brought consciously into the throne room of Him Who is our Help and Strength. All sorts of wonderful things happen when we pray – truly pray. We are overwhelmed with the consciousness of the greatness of Him Who is our Savior. And praise breaks forth from our lips. This is necessary if we are to achieve the chief end of man: to glorify God forever. We are moved deeply by the greatness of the salvation which is our inheritance and our portion. If some sense of the greatness of our salvation catches at our hearts, the result will be that all our grumbling and complaining, our dissatisfaction and criticism of the ways of the Most High get stuck in our throats. We are thankful. We may have a long list of needs which we think it well to bring to the throne of grace; but the list is drastically shortened and the items on it are remarkably altered in God’s presence when there, bowing before God, we see that the only need we really have is an abundance of the Spirit to walk as saints in life.
Prayer is communion with our heavenly Father. It is the fountain f strength. It is the nearest to heaven we get in this valley of tears. It is the way to peace and quietness of spirit. It is the joy of the believing heart. Paul speaks somewhere of the need to pray without ceasing (I Thess. 5: 17). He means, no doubt, that all our life, each step of the way, we must walk in the consciousness of God’s presence. This will never happen except we have time to enter the sanctuary of prayer.
Scripture reading and prayer go together. They are two sides of the same coin. They are two halves which make a whole. They complement each other. It is impossible to pray in the right way except we pray according to the Scriptures. These Scriptures must then be deeply in our hearts and minds; they must conquer us and be ingrained into our very being, if we are to pray. But we cannot read Scripture in such a way that the Scriptures speak to us unless we read them prayerfully and meditatively. The Scriptures speak only to those who have the Spirit to lead them; only to those who bow humbly before them; only to those who say all the while they read: “Lord, speak, for they servant heareth.”
Why devotions? And why personal and private devotions?
The first question first.
While it has been true throughout all ages that the saints of God have needed these quiet moments of prayer and meditation upon the Word of God, the urgency increases as the days move on towards the end.
The night of sin grows darker. Who can doubt it? Look around you. How much more then do we need the light which only God’s Word can bring. The battle gets hotter and more fierce. We had better be sure that our armor is firmly buckled on and our weapons ready at hand. A gluttonous world thinks only of its belly; but its belly, stuffed with fat, goes to the grave for all that. And the grave opens to hell. The bread of life is what we need to nourish us to eternal life.
These are days of fierce temptation. Who can stand? Only he who stands in the strength of God and Christ. Many are the sins which we commit. Is there forgiveness to be found anywhere else but at the foot of the cross? We live in a world of compromise and ungodly tolerance. Someone has said, and rightly so, that tolerance – in the sense in which it is meant today – is the worst sort of intolerance: for it is tolerance for all but the truth of God. It is hard to be different. It is hard to stay pure. It is hard to walk as pilgrims and strangers. It is hard to stay on the right side of the chasm that separates by grace the wicked from the faithful. Always we are building bridges across this chasm to reach out to pull the world to us – or allow the world to catch us in her slimy clutches. Prayer and the Word of God will alone keep us on the right side of this chasm. It will hold us tightly so that we cannot and will not want to escape. Do we now have problems with dress? with music less than Christian? with the tug of pleasure? with dissatisfaction over the preaching and worship services? with countless other temptations which drag the young people – even of the church – away from the safety of the antithesis? If we have no time for devotions, it is no wonder. We can expect nothing else to happen.
Why personal devotions?
Worship in Church is congregational – and is fundamental for all of life. Devotions with the family are times for the family to bring the needs of the family to God and share in the communion of a Christian home before the throne of God. But each of us has his (or her) own problems temptations, sins, reasons for gratitude and praise. We must seek, alone in the quietness of the communion of our own hearts with God, the help that we need.
I speak to you who are the young people of the Church; and, therefore, the Church of tomorrow. If you do not create this habit now, in the days of your youth, most likely you never will. God knows how much shall be required of you when you take our places in the pews, in the consistory rooms, on the pulpit, in the classrooms, in the daily defense of the faith. Now is the time to form these habits which will serve you in good stead in the fearful years ahead. Do not fail. The issues are too urgent.
Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 10 February 1971