Any Christian who has attempted to spend time with Jesus consistently knows what it’s like to fail. We open our Bibles on January 1 with the best of intentions, only to run out of steam by February. There are as many things to sidetrack us as there are hours in a day: work, kids, friends, husband, roommates, health problems, household responsibilities, TV, phone, sleep, worries, to-do lists. Even if we manage to carve out space for quiet time, it’s hard to turn off the internal noise. No wonder so many of us bristle when we hear the phrase “quiet time.”
The words remind us of a failed ideal, and we’d rather avoid the topic than be reminded of our failure.
Maybe part of the problem has to do with our expectations of what our time with Jesus should look like. We tend to give spiritual credibility to the woman who wakes up at five o’clock in the morning to read her Bible or the person who prays for an hour every day or the mother who journals while sitting in her perfectly situated nook. Although certain believers in certain seasons of life are able to achieve these ideals, the rest of us struggle with a vague feeling of guilt whenever we compare our feeble efforts with these pictures of modern sainthood. Deep down we’re ashamed of our hasty Bible skimming and distracted prayers.
We know there’s more to the Christian walk than squeezing in a few words with God before nodding off to sleep every night, but we’re not sure if we can expect much more from ourselves.
As someone who is very driven and achievement focused, I have always taken pride in my successes and drowned in shame over my failures. As I struggled to spend time with Jesus as a teenager, I saw myself as the one solely responsible for having a close relationship with the Lord. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of the fact that God’s grace isn’t just for salvation; it’s also what makes us grow. So it’s no surprise that my striving for an ideal quiet time became a recipe for guilt.
When I went for a week straight without missing my quiet time, my spirit soared. But when I missed a day or two (or ten), suddenly my very salvation came into question. I became overwhelmed by discouragement, and my only hope was to try harder the next day and pray that this time the habit would stick. My relationship with God became something I needed to personally master instead of something to deeply enjoy, and reading the Bible became obligation instead of worship.
I was mired in guilt-motivated quiet time, and I was sinking fast.
The truth is, we do have big things to feel guilty about, and I don’t just mean the little mistakes or occasional errors we sometimes slip into. Rather, I’m talking about huge, cosmic, earth-shattering guilt. Whether we realize it or not, every one of us has each committed acts of high treason against the God who made us. Instead of honoring him and thanking him, we’ve rejected his rightful rulership over our lives and made ourselves king in his place. We’ve acted arrogantly, rebelliously, and selfishly toward God, and we’ve harmed others along the way.
So there’s a legitimate reason for us to feel guilty, because without grace, we are guilty. But thanks be to God for Jesus! Because of his sacrificial death, we can now experience God’s full pardon and mercy. Not only have our past sins been forgiven, but so has every wrong we will ever commit. Because of Jesus, we are welcomed into God’s heart and God’s family, and we are given the Holy Spirit to live in us and guide us. Because of Jesus, we can live free from shame. While it was right for guilt to drive us to the Cross, the Cross is where our burden of guilt gets removed for good. Though we still struggle with sin and evil desires, the ultimate battle has already been won! For those who love Jesus, guilty is what we used to be; holy is what we are and what we are becoming.
This means there’s no place for guilt when it comes to spending time with Jesus. If guilt is the driving force, we will end up reading the Bible and praying only to soothe our conscience rather than to connect with Christ.
Spending time with Jesus is a relational activity, not a guilt-driven obligation. He doesn’t want us to swim in shame for missing a Bible reading—he desires genuine, joy-filled communion with us. And for that to happen, we have to kick guilt to the curb.
But if guilt is not our driving force, how can we be motivated to establish a daily quiet time? This is where it’s helpful to understand the difference between having to do something and needing to do something.
The fact is, doing daily devotions is not actually a requirement or a religious obligation for Christians. In other words, it’s not a “have to.” However, it is a desperate need.
Having to do something means you have no choice or flexibility in the matter. Needing to do something means you’ll be worse off if you don’t.
Just as we need to brush our teeth, eat our vegetables, and move our bodies to be physically healthy, we need to read the Bible and pray to keep our walk with God healthy and strong. Of course, our growth is an act of grace on God’s part; it’s not something we accomplish on our own. But God tends to work when we show up with humble hearts, ready to be changed.
But even though God is full of grace, that doesn’t mean we can coast through life without discipline or intentionality. While false guilt is not a good motivator, there is a place for holy conviction. Guilt is the feeling of having done something wrong. Conviction, on the other hand, is holding to a firm belief. While guilt dwells on the wrong committed in the past, conviction involves choosing a new path for the future.
Perhaps the most significant difference between conviction and guilt is that although conviction may hurt like guilt sometimes, it doesn’t leave us wallowing in shame. Instead, conviction shows us the path out. Conviction is necessary for spending regular time with Jesus. Without conviction, a daily quiet time will remain nice in theory but will never become a consistent routine.
If you find yourself always focused on how you’ve failed in your daily quiet time, then you’re living in guilt mode. But if you’re looking ahead to how you can create or improve your quiet time because you firmly believe it’s a worthwhile habit, then you are living by conviction.
The details of what that obedience looks like, especially when it comes to Bible reading and prayer, are different for every believer and for different seasons of life. There’s no list of rules in Scripture about how to do daily devotions. Rather, relationship with Jesus is a way of life. Communicating with God in prayer and seeking the truth in his Word isn’t just an item on a to-do list; it’s a road to follow. This means there’s freedom for each of us to seek Jesus in the way that works best for our unique personalities and life circumstances. It also allows us to be individually responsible for these rhythms without condemning those who do things differently.
Adapted from Quiet: Creating Grace-Based Rhythms for Spending Time with Jesus, by Naomi Vacaro, releasing in April 2022 from Tyndale House Publishers.