The Limitations of Devotions

by Eric Rauch
One of the most damaging practices of the modern church is the tradition of “devotional” Bible reading. Tragically, it is also one of the most lucrative areas of Christian publishing. Devotionals are produced for just about every demographic under the sun, and they can range anywhere between a short paragraph to several pages in length. The typical structure of a devotional is as follows: a Bible verse or passage is quoted, followed by the writer of the devotional making a few points of “practical” application of the biblical text, a “prayer point” or something similar usually comes next encouraging the reader to pray that the devotional lesson becomes a reality in his or her own life. Quick, easy, and efficient. Devotionals are widely used by many well-intentioned Christians who want to begin or end their day (sometimes even both) with a Bible reading. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Let me first state that I am not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with that. I have been greatly helped by devotionals in my own Christian walk. I have several very good ones that I recommend to people when they ask. But before giving my recommendations of good devotionals, I will first ask a question of my own. Since devotional reading is only meant to be a supplement, I will always ask what the individual is studying or reading besides the devotional. Often it becomes quite clear that the devotional is all there is in the individual’s reading habits. In other words, the ONLY reading that is being done is devotional reading. And this is where the primary problem with devotional reading becomes evident.

Reading the Bible devotionally, while certainly better than not reading the Bible at all, promotes a fragmented understanding of the Bible. Too often, devotionals are used as spiritual crutches that help us to make it through, i.e. they serve as something of an escape from the rigors and trials of the “real world.” While it may be comforting to think of our future home in heaven, the Bible also has much (very much in fact) to say about life in this present world. Far from teaching escapism, the Bible expects its readers to be “busy doing their Father’s work” (Luke 2:49; John 4:34). And how can we know what the Father expects us to do if we are not reading His entire Book in context. Devotional reading may give a particular bit of wisdom about one or two verses each day, but the Bible wasn’t designed to be read (or heard) this way. In fact, “verses” and “chapters” themselves are fairly recent developments, historically speaking. (The Geneva Bible was the first to use them.) The books of the Bible were originally written to be read (or heard) just like any other book—from beginning to end.

I believe that this practice of “devotional reading only” is a major contributor to the crisis in modern biblical understanding. Add to this the lack of expository preaching (systematically going through books of the Bible) in our churches and you have a recipe for confusion on a biblical scale (pun unfortunately intended). In his short book on biblical interpretation, The Bible—How to Understand and Teach It, D.P. Brooks writes the following:

Why is it that some people read and study the Bible for a lifetime and still know very little about it? The explanation is simple. They read the same passages over hundreds of times and get the same wrong or inadequate picture each time. Unless we can break out of our misunderstandings and get into the original meaning of these key words and concepts, we may never understand the Bible. True, we may get devotional value from reading it. God may speak to us in spite of our ignorance. But is this enough? God has given us a book full of rich meanings. I believe he expects every serious Christian to try to get the true picture of what he has revealed.

Someone is always declaring that “we ought to study the Bible itself instead of books about the Bible.” No one who believes that the Bible is the record of God’s revelation of himself to man will disagree with the idea that we ought to study the Bible itself. Nevertheless, the reading of books about the Bible can open up whole areas of the Bible that have been closed to us. Truly helpful books about the Bible can send us back to the Bible with new understanding, appreciation, and insight. (p. 11)

Truly understanding what the Bible is teaching is not possible by simply reading a few key verses. As a matter of fact, the “key verses” of the Bible—the ones that are used by most devotional works—are only “key” because of what comes before and after them. Micah 6:8, John 3:16, or Romans 8:28 depend heavily on the context surrounding them, yet these verses are commonly used as stand-alone verses to teach a view of God that is little more than sanctified humanism. The context, both biblical and cultural, helps to hedge the real meaning of these verses, and should keep us from making our own faulty interpretations based on too little information.