Each week in On the Other Hand, Ben Bartlett defies the common wisdom and identifies the other side of the story of cultural hot-topic issues.

It drives me crazy when people say the measure of their relationship with God is whether or not they’re, “doing their quiet times.”

Science and research can find some pretty amazing truths about the way God has designed us. For instance, check out this blog post (and the stuff it links to) from the Freakonomics guys. Science is showing us that repetition is not the best way to learn and grow in your understanding of a particular subject matter. Instead, a better approach is deliberate practice.  Things like participation, focusing on problems and challenges, and doing basic preparation on your own are superior ways of truly mastering your material.

This leads me to question whether science and research like this should be allowed to speak to the way we educate and improve ourselves as Christians. To be frank, it’s things like this that have caused significant changes in my devotional approach. I do not have a “daily quiet time” as such. I’ve never found forced readings following a particular schedule to be productive. Instead, I tend to zero in on challenges in various texts, answers to specific questions, and careful study for the purpose of writing lessons, articles, and training materials. I still have to maintain a healthy prayer and meditation life, because the relational aspect DOES need lots of consistent time. But I do it at different moments during the day, rather than a set-aside, “quiet time.”

What do you think? Is it ok that I allow my learning and devotional approach to be affected by scientific research and discovery? What are some of the dangers or negative implications of such an approach?



  1. I probably do something very similar to what you do, and I think I might have been turned away from a prospective pastorate because of it.

    Colossians 1:28 says that we admonish and teach men with all wisdom, that we may present men complete in Christ. “With all wisdom” gives us plenty of room to consider things like learning style, interests, abilities and so forth in how we admonish and teach, how we present men complete, whether we recommend a structured “quiet time” or something different.

    The purpose of deliberate time in prayer and the word is to meet God. An arbitrary form does not necessarily accomplish this.

  2. I don’t think it takes science and research to point out the obvious. The non-negotiable is that Christians must spend time in the Scriptures if they want to grow in Christ-likeness (Josh. 1:8, Psalm 1:2, 1 Peter 2:2). Christians should also be disciplined to memorize God’s Word (Ps. 119:11). I think that you would probably agree with these things.

    I find it odd that ‘science’ is telling us that repitition is not as helpful as practice. What, exactly, is the difference? And if there is some kind of difference that I am missing, that does not mean that repitition is totally unhelpful. If you need Vitamin C, oranges might have more than apples, but that doesn’t mean that apples are bad.

    Also, when you say that people shouldn’t measure their relationship with God in light of their “quiet times”, if you mean by that they are measuring their justification by their performance, that is terrible. However, if someone is not spending any consistent time, each day, meditating on God’s Word, then they certainly aren’t progressing in sanctification as they ought to be. This doesn’t mnecessarily mean sitting down at the same time every day to read the Bibloe, but if Scritures aren’t consistently and constantly guiding us, then are we really progressing in holiness?

  3. Rob, thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t be surprised… it’s amazing how dogmatically certain people are of the absolute neccessity of a certain type of quiet time as an infallible measurement of spiritual health. How the illiterate manage to be Christians, I have no idea.

    Brad, thanks for your comment as well. The difference is that deliberate practice takes a different approach to learning. It focuses more heavily on solving questions and problems, and less on repetition. I would say it’s more purposeful at addressing tough areas, whereas repetition merely repeats for the sake of repeating.

    To take your food example, it’s true that apples aren’t bad even when you need Vitamin C. However, it IS the case that to improve your health, different people have different changes in their diets that need to be made. Some need to focus on fruits and veggies, some need to eat less, some need to eat more proteins, etc. The “daily quiet time” model strikes me a bit like prescribing the exact same diet for everyone, regardless of age or maturity or context or individual struggles. Deliberate practice suggests we should encourage people to use Bible study to purposefully attack various areas of faith they are trying to learn more about, rather than just reading geneaolgies because that happens to be this week’s reading.

    You say, “if someone is not spending any consistent time, each day, meditating on God’s Word, then they certainly aren’t progressing in sanctification as they ought to be.” That is a very strong statement, and in fact it is one I disagree with. Can a person in prison without a bible not progress? Can the illiterate not progress? Is a pastor who studies scripture 5 days a week, preaches on Sunday, and doesn’t study on his day off necessarily not progress?

    I do say in the post that prayer and meditation should be continual… those things are more focused on relationship with God and less on an arbitrary rule about how much studying is good and how much is bad.

    Finally, you point out that Scripture should constantly and consistently guide us. I totally agree! That’s why I am open to study methods that help me understand more clearly more quickly, so I CAN be guided by those things as I walk through life.

  4. Ben,

    Thanks for the response. I think we pretty much agree on things. But I want to clarify something I wrote. You said, ” Can a person in prison without a bible not progress?”

    I think you are misunderstanding me, and you are underestimating how much the Scripture permeates everything in a Christian’s life. First, a person in prison without, and I mean utterly without, the Word of God cannot progress. This means that the person in question does not know Jesus or any Bible story or the Ten Commandments, or anything that is in the Bible. If he knows the gospel, then he always has Scripture with him. Every scrap he has memorized will permeate his life and change him. You cannot escape the Bible as a Christian, just as you cannot escape the church, even when alone on a desert island.

    So should everyone have a time every day to set aside to meditate on the Scripture? I think that is very healthy, and it does not necessitate reading. We must walk in the Spirit, and that doesn’t simply mean a quiet time every day, but constsant communion with God.

  5. Hey Brad,

    I do think we’re quite close in our thinking. I have a very high view of Scripture, and it is my greatest joy to study, teach, and share Scripture with the church and an unbelieving world.

    What I’m railing against here is an attitude that is quite pervasive in the church; the attitude that a person MUST do, “quiet times,” and that these quiet times MUST be every day, and that the everyday quiet times MUST be separate from studying for sermons or articles, and that they MUST be separate from addressing questions you are having difficulty with.

    So you can have a person who is faithful in their job, faithful in loving their family, praying to and meditating on God, growing in grace and knowledge… and that person will be made to feel guilty by an accountability partner because they missed bible reading two days out of the week.

    Meanwhile, there are people who pull out their bible reading plan, and because they spend several minutes a day reading whatever the plan tells them to read, they feel they are living faithfully, not considering whether that Scripture is speaking to them, not considering whether they understand it fully, not considering whether they are able to answer the challenges the Scripture brings.

    So all I’m saying is that I want to encourage people to be purposeful in their studying, because even if it is sporadic I think purposeful study that grows a person’s spiritual life is more productive than repetetive reading that produces no fruit.

    To get those two switched around… to exalt following extra-biblical rules and downplay the condition of the heart… is to practice a religion similar to that of the Pharisees.

    Again, I think we’re in agreement on the principles at stake here. I’m just taking a moment to challenge those who think “having” bible reading every day is more important than finding the most effective way of “knowing” God through his Word, whatever path is most effective to accomplish that.

  6. I don’t think anyone can make a case for some sort of daily quota of Bible reading and prayer and for the record, the earliest Christians didn’t read the Bible daily at all (they didn’t have one).

    I do think, however that daily Bible reading/prayer is wise. Does that mean that missing a day is sin–of course not, we don’t have an explicit rule that says read x amount of Bible each day. That said, it is a tremendous blessing to be able to both read and have Bible readily available to us.

    That said, its quite possible to meditate on the Word of God without actually reading it or having it in front of you. I suspect we all do this and I think we do it more and more as we grow in Christ.

    I think you guys are speaking past each other just a tad ;) because I don’t think either of you would say that it is fine to neglect God’s Word. We should be thinking about it constantly whether we are able to open up a physical translation of it or not.

  7. Ben,

    I think that I didn’t understand what you are saying because Drew hasn’t been busting my chops on whether or not I read the Bible every day enough. This is so bizarre to me that I even had trouble figuring out what you and he are talking about.

    Personally, I cannot imagine why a Christian wouldn’t read the Bible every day if they could. If things got hectic and they didn’t, I can get that. But if I talked to someone and he said, “You know, I haven’t read the Bible today, and I really don’t want to and that’s okay.” I’d be like, “Dude, what’s wrong? Are you alright?” There have been days where I haven’t read the Bible, that’s for sure, but I don’t think that means I was “okay.”

    To be sure, I’m not trying to make this a matter of “legalism.” But if a guy said, “I didn’t pray Monday.” I’d say, “Why not?” If he said, “I didn’t want to pray that day, and I don’t have to sit down everyday and pray. That’s legalism. Stop making me feel guilty about stuff.” That would be bizarre to me.

    Seriously, if someone said that you have to have a time in Scripture to “just read” besides sermon listening, sermon prep, lesson prep, and simple interested study….I’d just blow that off. It’s ridiculous. And certainly, people can read the Bible every day and not grow in holiness.

    I think that I am not understanding what you mean by “quiet times.” Do you mean that “quiet time” is defined as time sitting and physically reading a Bible for a certain amount of time every day? Bible reading is certainly an essential discipline, and if someone didn’t have a consistent practice of it that would be cause for concern. But if by “quiet time” people mean “time spent with the Lord”, I can’t imagine that 15 minutes would be sufficient. The entire life is meant to be spent before the Lord, even down to the eating of food. Even when we sin, Christ is there. We can’t get away from him.

    So I think I’m just in a whole different mindset here. If someone came up to me and said, “Have you been spending your 15 minutes a day physically reading the Bible. If not, you are doing lousy as a Christian!” I would think that person was in desperate need of Biblical instruction on what it means to be a Christian.

    I think that we agree. If I sounded weirded out in my first comment, it is because I had trouble understanding what you were talking about, and I’m not certain I still completely get it. I read your post as saying it isn’t necessary to spend time in pursuit of the Lord every day. You aren’t saying that, right?

  8. Hey Brad,

    You’re definitely right… I’m NOT saying time with the Lord is unimportant.

    I don’t know your church experience, but I do know a lot of people are told something along the following lines: One of the best ways to gauge where your spriitual life is, “at,” (as in, whether it is healthy or not) is if you are remembering to do your bible reading every day.

    The reason I am challenging this is because some people feel I am in sin or a bad place spiritually when I am not reading the Bible (as in, physically sitting for a good chunk of time and just reading it) every single day.

    Now, immediately there is a problem here because that “rule” goes beyond Scripture. But more than that, I don’t even think it’s a good gauge of whether your KNOWLEDGE of God is growing… because science shows us that there are effective types of learning and ineffective types.

    All that is to simply discuss the question of how to structure your self-education in Scripture.

    Separately, I think you are right that a life of prayer and meditation and relationship with God ought to be part of our daily lives. That’s part of our relationship with God, and should be as constant as possible.

    Either way, we certainly need to be wise and compassionate in how we discuss these things. There are a lot of Christians going through times of incredible physical, mental, and financial stress, and challenging them for not doing a certain “amount” of Bible reading is neither wise nor loving. Instead, a better idea is to lovingly strategize with them so that they are continually growing in their relationship with and knowledge of God.

    So, as we’ve affirmed a couple times, you and I are pretty much on the same page. I’m just using this column to challenge the conventional wisdom a bit because it’s so easy for us to take “conventional wisdom” to extremes it wasn’t meant to go to.

  9. Ben,

    I think I understand what you are saying, but if I may, I’d like to come at this from another angle.

    How many days can one go without reading the Bible before it is a concern? The concern being not that they aren’t “reading the Bible”, but that the desire for study of God’s Word seems to have waned. I think that using our study habits, meditation habits on God’s Word, time in prayer, and etc., can be legitimately used as a gauge to see how we are.

    I would caution one thing though: I have found in my life that during trials, I have generally done better, not worse, at ‘devotional’ activity. If someone were in the midst of crisis, and they weren’t having Godward thoughts regularly, that would concern me as well. But I certainly wouldn’t measure things in mere minutes spent reading the Bible.

  10. I haven’t read the Bible today and I’m okay with that. I just wanted to get that out there. It wasn’t because I was too busy either. I just didn’t. And I don’t think this has any necessary bearing on either my spirituality or my progress in sanctification.

    For those who can’t imagine that a believer would not read their Bible on a given day and that they would be okay with that, I think we have to chalk that up to a mediocre imagination. Personally, I can think of any number of instances in which not reading and not having a “quiet time” (who came up with that term anyway?), could not interfere with a days spiritual growth. Maybe I’m just more imaginative.

  11. Brad,

    I guess I’m trying to say that counting numbers of days is the wrong way to ask the question. I’d be more comfortable saying that each person needs to work out how best to know and understand God through Scripture. And one of the best ways they can do that is to get help and advice from an accountability partner or mentor.

    But I just don’t see God telling us in Scripture that you’re being good when you read the Bible a certain number of days in the week and bad when you don’t. I see him calling hearts, not checks on a to-do list. And I certainly don’t see him rating faith according to devotional time.

  12. It seems obvious that some of our catchphrases are more harmful than helpful. We simply can’t say that a Quiet Time, in all its nebulousness, is necessary for spiritual growth. I have in the past taught middle-schoolers that “having a quiet time” is key in their spiritual growth. I should have been more clear.

    I don’t believe anybody that there is value in being able to say you’ve “had seven ‘quiet times’ this week!!!”, but there is much value in studying the word of God (and doing so on a consistent basis). But we’re Americans and we like stats. The numbers are tangible. But Brad is not viewing it as a stat–he simply finds it ‘bizarre’ that some Christians wouldn’t want to read the Bible daily. That is understandable, if a little naive (though that’s just how it came across to me).

    I think it’s impossible to measure my spiritual growth, but if I don’t ever read God’s words maybe it implies that I don’t care what He has to say? But is there anything helpful in tracking our Bible-study stats? In my own experience, Quiet Time counts became either a mark of shame or a point of pride. And as I’ve grown older, the ambiguous “Quiet Time” becomes quite hollow.

    So why don’t we just trash all these little unhelpful Contemporary Christian terminology? Let’s not hold onto empty phrases as though they are the Gospel.

    In the interest of full disclosure: I’m 1 for 3 this week, so I may not be qualified to make any helpful contribution to the discussion. :)

  13. Ben,

    I agree with you in large part. Daily Scripture reading isn’t required by Scripture and shouldn’t be treated as “the evangelical sacrament” as I’ve heard someone say.

    However, typically reformed evangelicals have prized systematic study of Scripture over topical or ad hoc approaches, out of a desire to let the Scriptures form us through “the whole counsel of God.” Thus the common preference for expositional preaching over topical preaching. This would also seem to lead to a preference for systematic, chapter-by-chapter, book-by-book study in one’s private life as well. If daily devotional reading is less helpful because it’s mere repetition, it would seem that a three-month-long sermon series through a particular book would be subject to the same criticism. Do you agree? If not, help me see the difference.

    I would argue that what makes devotional reading and personal study unfruitful in one’s life is not the frequency (daily vs. not-daily), nor yet the method (systematic vs. topical), but the attitude with which we approach it. If Scripture reading and study is treated as a rote duty, it’s unlikely to make one a better disciple of Christ. If it’s done diligently and in prayerful dependence on the Spirit who speaks through the Word, it will bear fruit.

  14. Those are some good thoughts, all. To respond to Jeff, I feel like the conversation is getting away from me a bit here.

    If you had opportunity to meet me, you’d see that I’m a fanatic about Scripture study. If you look at my discussion with Kiel regarding Rob Bell, you’ll see that I’m committed to knowing and understanding and responding to Scripture’s authority in all of life. If you were to take my Sunday School classes, you’d be in for intesive, systematic study of Scripture very rarely punctuated by topical studies.

    The question I’m addressing is not whether it’s good to know Scripture. That’s a silly question for an evangelical to be asking, because it’s the core of our entire worldview. Instead, the problem I’m trying to address is the widespread commitment that I see in the church of using consistency of Bible reading times as a good measurement for spiritual health.

    The reason this is wrong is twofold. First, it focuses on numbers rather than condition of the heart. And second, it ignores the question of whether Scripture study is being done effectively, in a way that helps a person to grow in knowledge and wisdom.

    So all I’m challenging is the notion that your number or consistency of quiet times = spiritual health.

    The larger question of HOW best to study is a good one. I think, Jeff, you’re right that my post sounds a bit like an argument for a topical approach, and for that I’m sorry. I didn’t quite mean that. I more meant that Scripture is to be studied with a goal of understanding, using methods that are effective for achieving that end. My desire is to stand in opposition to those who read merely for the sake of reading, without finding ways to grow in understanding.

    A good example might be a friend I knew at an old job. For three years she led a bible study, read the bible every single day, and was a fervent evangelist for her church. But when I asked her to articulate the gospel, she couldn’t aside from being good and attending church. She had read far, far more consistently than I had, but without understanding.

    So I would say the primary issue in Scripture study is the heart, and the next most important issue is studying that gleans true understanding. All I’m trying to say is that neither of those is necessarily tied to “daily readings,” though that’s a perfectly fine thing to do if you are so inclined.

  15. Really though. Jesus, Paul, Peter. These guys spoke topically and used a topical approach to unveil the meaning behind the Scriptures. Just because some teachers are bad at topical sermons doesn’t diminish the power of a well-accomplished topical sermon.

  16. I mean, to be fair it’s not like they had the whole cannon available to them – in fact, most of them were kind of speaking off the cuff. Really, the whole of the Bible is topical, in some sense, but I don’t think that really proves any point about how we should preach.

  17. So if he had the New Testament available to him, Peter would have spoken verse-by-verse on Romans or something at Pentecost? What he did was come before the people with a topic, Christ as promised fulfillment, and demonstrate how that was so via the Scriptures.

    Look, I’m not saying that expositional preaching is bad. It has its place. My point is that there is nothing wrong with topical preaching so long as it does no damage to the text—and the preacher’s job is to make certain it doesn’t. So there should be none of this ridiculous bias against topical sermons and lauding expositional ones instead. I’ve heard good topicals and horrid expositionals. And vice versa. Judge a sermon on its ability to accurately and helpfully proclaim Christ to his people.

    My feeling (backed by experience and thought) is that exposition works better for teaching than it does for preaching. Just the nature of the beast.

  18. Seth,

    I agree that the issue isn’t one of a particular style being inherently better.

    I think the main thing is that it tends to be more protective… expositional sermons, especially in a series, force the preacher to a) deal with every text, b) reconcile problems in the text honestly, and c) confront the larger themes and contexts the authors were conveying.

    Topical preaching, I think, is a far easier format for proof-texting, and proof-texting is the most powerful way to teach disproportional brands of Christianity suited to the preacher’s liking. Dangerous mix.

    Christ and the apostles are different in that their, “sermons” were almost always focused on either the kingdom of God or the implications of the gospel. Making those the major themes of your sermons most of the time seems like a great idea to me.

  19. Seth,

    The Bible wasn’t written topically. When Paul wrote letters, he didn’t categorize them by topic. When we keep the emphasis on exegetical preaching, we are simply teaching and preaching the Word of God as it is written. You can preach topically if you wish, I don’t know anyone who says that you should never do this. But if you want your people to understand the Bible, the meat of preaching and teaching ought to be exegetical.

    And by the way, when you read a sermon in the Bible, it may be topical itself, but the book that contains it isn’t.

    So go and read your Bible today.

  20. Seth,

    It could be that you are more imaginative. Or it could be that you are just rank lazy. I don’t know which it is. But I bet you didn’t go the entire day without at least thinking about God, and when you think of God, I hope that your thoughts are Scripturally informed.

  21. @Ben – I agree that in theory, expositional sermons should keep a preacher honest, but in my experience listening to a lot of different expositional preachers, theory rarely meets praxis. The reality of what so many expositional preachers do is that they’ll take a text, pull out one or two ideas from it and then talk about those idea for the duration of their sermon, making their sermons into what are really topical sermons—albeit topical sermons that bunny-hopped from a verse-by-verse Scripture reading.

    I’ve actually only heard one pastor who truly preached expositionally. He went verse-by-verse through each text and explained everything while he went. Of course, this was more teaching and less preaching. I think an expositional approach is great especially for teaching, but I don’t think it makes great sermons.

    As you spoke of an expositional approach in check/balance terms, I think another helpful tool is for pastors to remind themselves that they are bringing to God’s precious people (for whom he suffered) his holy word, which he values at least as greatly as he values his own name. It’s a little more difficult for pastors to consciously bring their biases and carelessness to the table when they realize how unfit they are to be dealing with God’s word. I think this kind of humbling is probably more effective than creating an artificial structure (expositional preaching) that pastor’s actively seek to escape at every turn.

    Again, I think exposition is essential in determining the meaning and purpose of each passage of Scripture and that pastors must engage in this during their time of preparation. I just don’t see it as essential to preaching and actually believe it makes for sermons that are not quite so good (all else being equal).

    @Brad – “The Bible wasn’t written topically.” Well, except for where it is written topically of course. Regardless, this doesn’t inform the purpose of preaching. If the purpose of preaching is to deliver unto the saints the gospel that they might be refreshed in the power of their salvation to go forth in renewed desire to live out their in-Christ identity, then the best way to do that is to deliver to the people Christ. Every week. He must be found under every stone in the Bible. That is the preacher’s topic, week after week.

    There is a difference between preaching and teaching. My pasotr preaches and I teach. Our goals in these two activities is different. His goal is to raise up the whole man. My goal is to raise up the mind. And among the tools I sometimes use: exegetical teaching. Not always, but depending on the lesson I hope to instill, exegetical teaching is sometimes the right idea. Certainly not if I’m going to explain the Abrahamic or Mosaic covenants. And probably not such a good plan with almost any OT passage (as they are so very decompressed). But perhaps with the epistles or other more densely packed passages.

    As far as “quiet time” goes. I don’t do any such thing. I read Scripture fairly often. I think about it a lot more than I read it. I think about God, Christ, and my faith a lot every day. And you should know by now that my thoughts are scripturally informed.

  22. @Seth – “I’ve actually only heard one pastor who truly preached expositionally. He went verse-by-verse through each text and explained everything while he went. Of course, this was more teaching and less preaching. I think an expositional approach is great especially for teaching, but I don’t think it makes great sermons.”

    That’s a caricature of expositional preaching, though sometimes preaching done this way can be expositional. But true expositional preaching goes by units of thought or meaning, which almost always span multiple verses. Expositional preaching is taking a thought-unit of text, whether that’s one verse, several verses, a chapter, or several chapters, and explaining it such that the main idea of the text is the main idea of the sermon.

    Preachers who exclusively preach verse-by-verse tend not to deal equally with all of the genres that are present within Scripture, tend to focus on didactic passages at the expense of history, narrative, prophecy, and poetry, and often give short shrift to the flow and development of an author’s thought as it progresses over the course of an entire book. Not all of them do, of course, and non-verse-by-verse preachers can do this too, but that’s the general tendency.

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