When I was in college, one of my roommates had very long quiet times every day. He would pray and read his Bible for at least an hour every day, if not longer. Sometimes I started my quiet times exactly when he did, but I always finished mine much sooner. I would read several chapters of the Bible and then pray for everything I could think of. If somebody in my Bible study had asked me to pray for their sick poodle, I prayed for it. But for some reason, I always found myself running out of things to say long before my roommate did. I’d look over at him and wonder what was taking him so long. Did he talk slower than I did? Or was he genuinely a better Christian than me? It was a frustrating mystery, and it made me feel like I didn’t measure up. Surely people who had longer quiet times were much godlier than people like me.
It took me many years to really believe that God wasn’t judging me by the length of my quiet times. I can’t say what was going on inside my roommate’s head back then, but I know what was going on inside my own. I had developed an unconscious belief that God was more impressed with people who have longer quiet times, as if He was sitting in heaven with a stopwatch, saying, “Wow! Did you see Aaron sitting there with his Bible for 3 hours? And did you see Matt get up after 30 minutes?” God would shake His head and sadly mark my pitiful time down in His Daily Book of Quiet Time Measurements. My roommate, meanwhile, would be showered with blessings and happiness as a result of his devotion and endurance.
If you had asked me directly whether God loved people more when they were better at quiet times, I’d have said, “Of course not! I know that God loves me unconditionally, and He accepts me on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection.” But I had an unconscious belief system that didn’t match my conscious theology.
As a result of that unconscious belief system, I often operated with the same attitude as the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Remember that story? Wicked King Ahab instructed all the prophets of Baal to gather on Mount Carmel for a showdown with the prophet Elijah. The challenge was this: The prophets of Baal would ask their god to make it rain, and then God’s prophet Elijah would ask God for the same thing. You know the end of the story, of course: Because Baal wasn’t a living god, he couldn’t make it rain. Baal couldn’t do anything at all; he wasn’t real. The God of Israel, on the other hand, sent rain as soon as Elijah asked for it, because He’s the only living and powerful God.
What’s notable for our purposes, however, is the way in which the prophets of Baal went about talking to their god. They danced around and shouted in loud voices. They cut themselves with knives and offered their own blood to Baal. They raved and jumped up and down, and did everything they could think of to do, all in an attempt to get their god to answer them. Why did they do all of that? Quite simply, because they believed that Baal was impressed by their displays of devotion and intensity. Their entire system of worship was built around the idea that Baal demanded lots of religious activity and sacrifice before he would give his people what they needed. That type of worship was typical in the ancient world; most false gods operated on a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” type of system. The more you did for your god, the more the god would do for you.
In contrast, the God of Israel didn’t operate that way. The Scripture is clear, time and time again, that what God really wants is a relationship with His people. We don’t serve an insecure God who needs us to show acts of devotion before He decides how much to love us. What He wants is for us to know Him and to pursue a real relationship with Him. He wants that infinitely more than He wants our rituals and religious exertion.
If you read the Bible, you’ll constantly run across passages like Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” In other words, God wants us to know Him and to love Him. He’s not looking for us to impress Him; He’s longing for us to know Him.
That’s why Jesus warned His disciples not to just babble on and on during prayer (Matthew 6:7). He said that the pagans – the idol-worshipers – did that. They thought their gods would hear them and give them whatever they want if they just talked long enough and loudly enough to get their attention. In contrast, Jesus provided His disciples with a model for prayer that was surprisingly simple and direct. The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) sounds like a normal conversation, predicated on the belief that God already loves us and wants to respond to our requests. The Lord’s Prayer assumes that we’re talking to a God who isn’t impressed by our lengthy quiet times or acts of religious devotion. We’re talking instead to a God who longs to have a relationship with us more than He wants our time, our money, or anything else we think is a valuable sacrifice to give to Him. If we give Him those things, we do so as a response to the reality that He already loves us, not as an attempt to curry His favor.
When we approach our devotional life with that understanding, then, we’ll begin to see that we don’t have quiet times as an attempt to impress God. He doesn’t like us any better if we pray for three hours rather than for 15 minutes. We don’t read the Bible and pray as if we’re prophets of Baal, hoping to manipulate a stingy God into giving us what we want. The value of prayer and Bible reading is that those disciplines allow us to cultivate a deeper relationship with a God who already loves us infinitely. Our devotional life connects us to the Spirit of God and allows us to breathe in His life-giving oxygen on a daily basis. We hear His voice when we read His Word, and we talk to Him when we pray. God transforms our hearts and minds through these practices, and we more deeply understand who He is and who He’s calling us to be. In other words, our quiet time (or whatever you call it) is for our benefit, not for God’s.
When we come to believe that reality, freedom and joy will begin to replace those feelings of obligation and shame that often accompany our devotional lives. We’ll increasingly come to see that we’re approaching a God who isn’t sitting in heaven with a stopwatch, measuring how good or bad we are on the basis of how long and intensely we pray or read the Bible. Instead, we’re approaching a loving Father who greets us like an old friend, a friend who genuinely wants to know us. And the more we’re in this Friend’s presence, the more we’ll grow to be like Him. That type of spiritual transformation is the goal of our devotional life. We’re not trying to wow God; we’re seeking to know Him.
So the next time you have your quiet time, replace that stopwatch with a cup of coffee. Tell your Heavenly Father that you want to know Him, so much more than you want to impress Him. And then ask for the Spirit’s power to make you more like Jesus, and to empower you to obey His Word.