This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
I have noticed something that troubles me while surveying common devotional books and guides that many Christians rely on in their daily lives. I have noticed that a common template for your average devotional tends to quote a Bible passage but then follows it with a well-meaning anecdote, or inspirational messages that are vaguely relevant to the quoted passage, or sometimes even trite aphorisms re-packaged with Christian overtones.
I am a middle school Christian apologetics instructor, and I have spent a lot of time focusing on Biblical hermeneutics in class. Mostly I am trying to demonstrate to these young Christians what the differences are between the correct ways to interpret Scripture against the most common incorrect ways. I feel that taking a single verse or couple of verses (mostly done apart from the original Bible context intended) from the Bible and wrapping the author's inspirational prose around it troublesome. Rather than focusing on illuminating the Scriptural meaning of the passage within its Biblical context for the reader's edification, all the focus is on providing inspiration, trite advice, and appealing almost exclusively to the reader's feelings and emotions. Devotions are an integral part of the Christian's life, but my approach to devotions has rested on understanding Scriptural truths through proper exegesis. I think this is what 1 Timothy 4:15 was trying to convey. Are common devotionals hindersome to the spiritual growth of Christians even though they may provide positive and encouraging concepts for the lay Christian? Or do they have their place in Christian edification and growth?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Thank you for this very unusual question, Nickolas! I actually have some thoughts about this subject!
It seems to me that any mature Christian, in the absence of extenuating circumstances, ought not to be using a daily devotional book for his personal devotions. Rather a mature believer should be studying the Bible itself. Rather than depend on simpering devotional thoughts, he ought to be digging into the various books of the Bible themselves, studying, for example, the book of Colossians, using, as time permits, study aids like Bible dictionaries and commentaries to enrich his understanding of the background, concepts, and interpretations of material he’s reading.
So are devotional guides worthless? By no means! I think that a good daily devotional is a God-send to the husband or father who wants to lead his wife and children in family devotions. We men are tasked by God to be spiritual leaders in our families, caring for our wives and educating our children. That is a daunting challenge! As anyone who has tried can tell you, it’s so hard to do on a consistent basis.
That’s where a good daily devotional comes in. After a meal, as you sit around the table, you can read to your family the thought for the day and offer a quick prayer. That is generally a painless way to have a spiritual exercise that won’t bore them or tax their attention span. It requires no preparation or creativity on your part. You just have to have the discipline to do it!
Let me share with you the titles of a couple of daily devotionals that Jan and I use, which we have found really interesting and helpful.
The first is The One Year Christian History by Michael and Sharon Rusten, a couple with a keen interest in church history. Each day you’ll read about some event in church history which happened on that day or about a person who was born or died on that day. It really makes history come alive! You’ll read, for example, about the personal faith of President William McKinley, who fell by an assassin’s bullet on September 26, 1901, and about Archibald Alexander, who founded and taught at Princeton Theological Seminary until his death on October 22, 1851, and how a prizefighter named Honest Munchin rescued John Wesley from a murderous mob on October 20, 1743. Many (perhaps too many!) of the stories concern martyrdoms and are very moving. We find ourselves inspired by the deeds and courage of faithful brethren and servants of the Lord who have gone before.
The second devotional that we have found helpful is Amazing Grace by Kenneth Osbeck, a music director with a love of the classical hymns. It is tragic that these rich hymns are being lost to the church because of contemporary worship services led by garage band musicians. It has been rightly said, I think, that the theological character of a church will be determined not just by its preaching but by its music. Measured by that standard, the American church and churches abroad influenced by it are in real trouble. Many of today’s Christians have never sung the exalted words of Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be?” or the comforting words of “Be Still, My Soul” by Katherina Schlegel or the beautiful words of Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts.” These are wonderful, deep hymns with beautiful lyrics. The church which neglects these treasures will be impoverished for it. This daily devotional tells the stories, one each calendar day, of how these various hymns were composed and put to music. It’s striking how many hymns come out of experiences of deep suffering, which reminds us that health and prosperity are not God’s will for every Christian.
These devotionals do not commit the error you mention, Nickolas, of quoting a Bible passage out of context and wrapping a thought around it (though a Bible verse will typically end the thought for the day). Rather they tell true stories of Christian history and hymnody which provide examples for us today. I commend them to you for use with your family.