The Lost Art Of 'Quiet Times'
Life gets busier. That is the experience few of us evade. But what do we give up when the inescapable fact of busyness presses? Though they are the hardest things to relinquish, I have learnt we are to make our selfish and indulgent activities past times. As Christians we are called to live in community, which is life long service and active love towards others, after God. Jesus' call to discipleship involves dying to self and therefore to those things directed solely towards self-gratification. That is an arduous call. As our lives become more crowded with responsibilities, we must abandon selfish pursuits. These pursuits are the places we retreat to, zealously protect, and need to survive.
What has always surprised me, observing my own approach in dealing with busyness, is my readiness to abandon prayer and reading the Scriptures, what we might call 'quiet times'. I can even justify it: 'I am busy serving the church, loving my neighbour, and glorifying God in my life.' Action is—after all—greater than contemplation, isn't it? In fact, I could argue that contemplation is quite selfish; our devotion should seek to actively bless others. Maybe it is these lines of thought which have brought so many Christians to a place that leaves no room for meditation amidst the hum drum of life.
However, Christians through the centuries have emphasised the vitally important and vitality imbibing discipline of meditating on God's Word. They saw it as the one activity we should zealously guard, retaining it at any cost. Indeed, Christians have always insisted on practising daily Scripture reading, meditation and prayer. The obvious danger with any spiritual discipline is legalism, but that risk does not justify the failure to spend time in the Scriptures, serious contemplation, and sincere prayer; nor does busyness. Below are a few challenging quotes I have come across in my reading recently.
In one of Samuel Rutherford's letters he offers some directions for Christian living, a “Christian directory” (this can be found in Letters Of Samuel Rutherford, p70). And in the place of prominence, first on the list, he writes: “That hours of your day, less or more time, for the Word and prayer, be given to God”. For Rutherford, this discipline was not even in question. Only in the second direction does he mention the tangle of “worldly employments”; and that amidst them we should give some thought to sin, judgment, death and eternity, along with a word or two of prayer to God, on top of daily reading. It seems unrealistic or overly pious. But as I read through his letters I was struck by the richness of his relationship with God and how that deep communion overflowed into godly concern and invaluable counsel for the church.
In his irreplaceable work on mortification, John Owen warns Christians against growing “sermon-proof” (p52, volume 6 of Owen's collected works, Banner Of Truth). The cause of this, the ability to have our souls and sin addressed through the preaching of God's Word while remaining unconcerned and hardened, is rooted in the ease with which we “pass over duties, praying, hearing, reading”. Complacency starts at home and extends to the pulpit where are hard hearts are visibly unaffected and sin becomes lighter. Owen continues: “Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season.” Our faith involves being good listeners to God's Word, not merely faithful church-goers. The heart that is not nourished and continually challenged by meditating on the Scriptures in private, is already becoming hardened to it in public.
I will close with some striking words from the 1547 Book Of Homilies. The collection was deftly edited by Thomas Cranmer. While it is widely accepted he contributed just three homilies – on salvation, faith and good works – Ronald Bond thinks the style and theology of the sermon on Scripture is clearly the work of Cranmer's pen. So Cranmer writes: 'What excuse shall we therefore make, at the last day before Christ, that delight to read or hear men's fantasies and inventions, more than his most Holy Gospel? And will find no time to do that which chiefly above all things we should do; and will rather read other things? Let us, therefore, apply ourselves, as far forth as we can have time and leisure, to know God's Word by diligent hearing and reading thereof, as many profess God and have faith and trust in him.'