Having a quiet time won’t necessarily keep you from sinning.
This was my big realization the other day. It’s shocking, I know, but it’s completely true. I had a great quiet time earlier this week. I even journaled two full pages worth of thoughts and applications from the text. I felt like I’d aced morning devotions. It was great.
Then, later that day, I sinned. And it wasn’t just one of those little mistakes that we easily justify or gloss over; that would have been acceptable (side note: my consideration of some sins as “acceptable sins” is already a red flag; there are no such sins). No, my sins were more discouraging: giving in to laziness, losing my patience with people or situations, following my heart over wisdom. These weren’t just little slip ups; these are more ingrained, ongoing issues. These reveal that there’s still a lot of work to be done in my heart. These reveal that I’m still very much in Romans 7.
This upset me. I had done my part: I’d read the Word, I’d prayed and focused, and I’d even done it in the morning so it would take effect early on and influence the rest of the day. But, even with a solid start to the day, it still wasn’t long before my flesh reminded me of its presence and power. I was broken by the experience.
In short, I felt let down. However, upon closer observation, I realized that it wasn’t God who had let me down. It wasn’t his Word either. In fact, my sinfulness later on didn’t lessen the truth of Scripture or of God himself at all. In reality, I had let myself down.
My problem wasn’t that my time with God was ineffective, but that I was looking at it all wrong. I’d slipped into a view of quiet times that was more works-based, more law-like, more end-in-itself oriented. My problem wasn’t so much in the quality of the time as much as it was in my concept of what the time was for. You see, I believed, albeit subconsciously, that if I did what God wanted me to do, I’d have a great, holy day. I thought that if I simply spent time with the Lord at the start of the day, I’d be free from sin and full of joy for the remainder of my waking hours. If I pressed the right button, I’d automatically get my fix of sanctification for the day. It wasn’t about truly getting to know God and letting him change me through that relationship; it was about checking off a box on the “Good Christian’s Daily Checklist” and moving on to the next task.
I’m starting to see that the Christian life doesn’t work like that. Maybe having a daily time of Bible study and prayer, or going to a worship service each week and taking notes, or joining a small group to do life with, or trying not to cuss, or working at fleeing from known sins and weakness in your life, or simply bouncing your eyes from those things you know you shouldn’t look at – maybe these things aren’t just items on a checklist. Maybe the Christian life isn’t one of works-based living. Paul seems to be dealing with this kind of issue in his letter to the churches of Galatia. In chapter 3, Paul argues essentially that it’s inconsistent to believe that a salvation that comes by faith apart from works of the law should then be worked out through strict observance of the law. In Romans 6 and 7, he makes a similar point when he writes that followers of Christ should not use their freedom from sin to therefore sin freely, but instead should live as “slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Romans 6:19). The point seems to be that Christ has paid the price, doing what the law never could. To live again according to the law is to live as if Christ died for no purpose, a point Paul references as he emphasizes his new life in Christ by grace (Galatians 2:19-21). Works of the law don’t save us, therefore works of the law can’t sanctify us either.
So why do we emphasize the importance of a daily time of Bible study and prayer? I think it’s because these disciplines draw our hearts near to God’s. It’s the relationship that matters: the surrender to the Father’s will, the pursuit of a Christlike life, the opening of our hearts to the work of the Spirit. To quote Paul again:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Again, we read:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The goal of the Christian’s life is identification with Christ, to truly know him (Philippians 3:7-14; 1 John 2:6). I’m not sure it could be stated any more succinctly than John the Baptist put it when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We spend time in Bible study and prayer not because it’s law, but because it draws us nearer to our Lord. We wish to know him, to be changed by him, to live for him in a manner worthy of his calling (Ephesians 4:1). We study and pray not to simply have sinless days, but to live well the new life we’ve been given. And, chances are, we’ll fail often. I doubt we’ll ever stop growing and learning this side of glorification. But, I believe that as we follow him, seeking his kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:33), he’ll continue to lead us and grow us as we walk on this earth. I believe that when we sin, we still have an advocate interceding for us (1 John 2:1-2).
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.