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Recently, a Christian counselor whom I have been seeing said something that was a revelation to me: “You can read your Bible and be sinning.” As I let her words sink in, the truth hit me like a ton of bricks. God does not care about external devotion as much as He cares about internal devotion.
From the time I was a little girl, I was taught, “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” (Some of you may remember this catchy children’s song.) In the Basic Seminar, Bill Gothard encouraged his listeners to make a vow to read the Bible at least five minutes every day. I made this vow as a teenager and strove to keep it. At the time I thought, “Surely it must be a great sin to neglect to read the Word of God, which is able to make us wise.”
In a recent conversation with a friend, who also is a former Advanced Training Institute (ATI) student, we reminisced about our experiences in the EXCEL program at the Dallas Training Center. One of the disciplines required of us was recording in a notebook how much time we spent each day in Bible reading and prayer. If we spent less than 20 minutes, we were asked to give an explanation. It was as if spending less than 20 minutes was shameful. Bible reading often became a duty, and, at times, a drudgery, rather than a delight.
At Training Centers, students were expected to rise very early, as Bill Gothard teaches, so that they might spend a long time in Bible reading and prayer. Personal devotion time was followed by a group “Wisdom Search” where we were encouraged to make certain we had a rhema (a special word from the Lord) from our personal devotion time that we could share with the group. The more profound and “spiritual” it was, the better, especially if you were trying to impress a staff member of the opposite sex. Once, I remember reading my Bible in a common area hoping a staff guy might notice how “spiritual” I was.
Naturally, my mind was not always focused on what I was reading. With great spiritual pride, I would often compare the biblical insights I had found with what others had shared and feel a sense of superiority when my insight was especially “deep.” On the flip side, I would feel discouraged if I did not have something enlightened to share, or if others shared an insight that I was about to share. Whenever it would be my turn to pray in a group, I would try to use lots of Scripture and make sure it sounded spiritually mature.
I would also practice “crying out” like Bill Gothard teaches, being sure to “humble myself” by lying flat on my face on the ground. I believed that if I did not have a good quiet time, then God would not bless the work of my hands and establish it.
While Bible reading and prayer and other spiritual disciplines are very important, looking back, I can’t help but see that in my devotion, I was overlooking my relationship with God as well as His grace. My focus was on the legalistic formulas I had been taught — the right way to read the Bible and the right way to pray. I was so intent on trying to find some “hidden insight” in Scripture to share with others and praying for personal victory over my many sins, rather than just letting God speak to me through His Word and worshiping Him for who He is, not because of what He does or doesn’t do.
In the past few months, I have been re-examining the legalistic mindset that controlled so much of my earlier Christian life. Some days there is little desire to read my Bible or pray. My prayers have become much shorter and are sometimes as simple as, “Lord, help me!” or “Lord, thank you!”
Because I heard and memorized so much Scripture out of context, I am somewhat wary when I approach God’s Word or hear it preached. Some days, my Bible does not even get opened. Yet, the same grace that carries me when I do read the Bible, carries me when I do not. And when I do read, it is often just a few verses. Yet God feeds and ministers to me through those verses. I am learning that He cares much more about my heart and that I am seeking Him than He cares about how much or how long I read.
I’m also learning to know God as my Shepherd, who “leads me beside the still waters and restores my soul.” His love for me is not based on my level of devotion to Him. Nothing I do can make Him love me any more or any less. I don’t have to “prove” my love for Him. I simply rest in His love for me. And out of that love and grace, I am transformed into His likeness.