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How many times have you asked yourself why it is that what you most wish to harvest becomes what you cultivate the least? I think we can all agree that the stresses infiltrating our lives today can often be overwhelming: Child care, health issues, finances, work, and – oh yeah, I need to spend time with my Creator! Isn’t it interesting how prayer and Bible study become afterthoughts; burdening “tasks” that get trumped by the tyranny of the oh-so-urgent? It is surprising how rarely they actually get crossed off our things-to-do lists.
Surely enough literature has been published on personal devotions to sacrifice an entire forest of trees, yet still we find ourselves thinking, “How can I possibly make time for God today? He’ll be there tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll have time tomorrow.” We don’t mind putting God on the back burner - as long as our superficial spirituality is not revealed to anyone else. But, having shallow roots eventually takes its toll.
Take, for example, the great Sequoia trees in northern California that have been cherished by generations of admirers. There was one particular 400-year-old Sequoia that towered 240 feet in the air – almost the length of a football field. One day this impressive tree suddenly and without warning toppled to the ground with a thunderous crash.
Experts later concluded that the tree’s root system had been compromised by years of foot traffic. All of the well-meaning admirers of the stately tree were to blame for its destruction. Today, forest officials have fenced off some of the oldest Sequoias for protection, but for this particular tree it was too late.
We, too, are likely to topple just like the giant tree when we lack deep spiritual roots. Our root system is compromised when we fail to spend time with God in prayer and Bible study, when we artificially inflate our spirituality by casually quoting a few choice Bible verses, and by sporadically attending church.
Secretly, many Christians yearn for a closer relationship with God but lack the know-how necessary to expand their root system. Consequently, they carry the secret guilt of taking Him for granted. I was one of these Christians until I recently experienced a paradigm shift in the area of personal devotions.
My mentor and friend, Pastor Wayne Cordeiro, senior pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, Hawaii, taught me a new method for self-feeding. I can testify, after putting it to the test for roughly one year now, that it has transformed my relationship with God. I taught this method to my own congregation recently, and the results have been astounding and immediate. For more information, check out: enewhope.org or mentoringleaders.com. A few basic materials are needed to get started. The first and certainly the most important is a Bible. I would recommend the NIV, the New International Version, or the NLT, the New Living Translation. Both Bibles are “thought-for-thought” translations, so they read fluidly. The Message, by Eugene Peterson is a beautifully written narrative; however, because it is a paraphrase, I recommend it as a Bible companion. If a word-for-word translation is preferred, the NAS, or New American Standard, is also very good. It is also helpful to keep a Study Bible with footnotes and commentaries close at hand.
Once you have chosen your Bible, having a reading plan is imperative. Implementing a reading plan keeps us from playing “Bible Roulette”, where we simply open up the Bible and say, “Here! Speak, God!” I recommend a chronological method to read the entire Bible in one year.
The next thing you will need is a journal. If God is going to speak (and He is) and we are going to deepen our spiritual roots (and we are) we must have a way to record what He is teaching. I like the Life Journal, an inexpensive resource that also includes the chronological Bible reading plan. The Life Journal is available for purchase online.
The last resource that I suggest to have handy during your devotions is your calendar or some sticky notes. Why? Because that pesky “things-to-do list” often interrupts our time with God. If I have my day planner or some paper nearby, I have a place to write down intrusive thoughts such as “make that dental appointment”, and then I get right back to the important business at hand with the Lord.
Once my materials are in place, I carve out a block of 30 to 40 minutes of uninterrupted time. The first 20 minutes are focused on reading God’s word utilizing the chronological Bible reading plan. The plan normally includes three to four chapters a day. Speed-readers will likely finish sooner than 20 minutes, but the goal here is not to try to revive speed-reading tips or to tackle the text at 700 words per minute. The purpose of this method is to come with a humble heart and say, “God, speak to me as I read your Word.”
I pay careful attention as I read to that quiet, still voice of the Holy Spirit and underline certain Bible verses that seem to jump out at me. On certain days H
is message to me will take some time to discern, while on other days it immediately knocks me right upside the head. I usually underline four, six, or eight verses by the time I’ve finished reading, and then I begin to look for the one word or impression demanding my attention—one or two verses at most, as more than that becomes too much to metabolize in a meaningful or memorable way.
After spending 20 minutes in my Bible, I turn to my journal, spending the next 20 minutes using the acrostic “S.O.A.P.” The “S” stands for Scripture. The first item I write in my journal is the Scripture verse that seemed to speak to me the most. The next letter is “O”, the Observation. I write down what I observed from my most important Bible verse. For example, when my Bible verse was Matthew 7:12, “Do for others what you would like them to do for you,” my observation was rather simplistic. I wrote: “Jesus wants us to be focused on others, not self.” The idea here is just to make a few simple observations, usually stating the obvious.
Some people, particularly those who are new to the Bible, quickly learn the importance of context in understanding the verse. I recommend John Stott’s “Understanding the Bible” as a devotion companion for quick overview and contextual help. It’s a classic that you can pick up anywhere.
The “A” is for Application. I write whatever I feel God is telling me, as He guides me by saying, “Here, this is what I want you to apply.” Continuing from my previous example of Matthew 7:12, here is what I recorded in my journal:
I shudder to think how many times in the course of a week my thoughts and actions are focused on myself. What I want . . . what I deserve . . . what’ll make me feel better, or more valuable. But I know that when that’s my focus, I’m not doing what Christ wants.
The last letter in the acrostic is “P”, which stands for Prayer. At this point, I spend time talking with God, and write down my prayers in order to have a record when God answers.
Before I finish the day’s reading plan and close up shop in my journal, I give the day a title based on what God has taught me. My title for the Matthew 7:12 day was “Others – Not Self.” I also record this title and page number in the beginning of the journal, which then becomes my table of contents. The table of contents helps me keep a running index of what God is teaching me, which I can revisit for lengthier times of meditation and reflection.
One member of Faithbridge wrote how the S.O.A.P. method has helped:
I never realized how extremely important to my spiritual growth a little devotional organization could be . . . . Now I can find and relate exactly the impression I received in quiet time when I want to reflect on it or tell others about it.
Christians who already spend disciplined time with God may not find the S.O.A.P. method to be revolutionary, so I would challenge them to take the devotions one step further. Once a week, try spending an additional 20 minutes having devotions with at least one other person. This person can be a friend, a spouse, or several different people in a group setting. I first experienced this with Wayne Cordeiro and a group of pastors, and it was powerful. Essentially, after a typical 30-40 minute silent personal devotion time, we went around in a circle reading our journals aloud and sharing what the Lord had said to us that day.
I suggested to my congregation that they have devotions together with their spouse or a smaller group of people at least once a week, although some may choose to meet even more frequently. For those who are unmarried, I recommend finding a group of friends of the same gender in order to eliminate any distractions. The beauty of this extended devotional time is that it can take place anywhere. Pastor Cordeiro’s church in Honolulu has 10,000 people, and their devotional groups meet in locations all over the city. They gather at Starbucks, in offices and private homes - in restaurants all over the city, tables are filled with their little Life Journals.
It’s a powerful experience to see what happens when a whole church simultaneously reads through the Bible, getting fresh Bread every day and sharing their impressions with one another. There is something so energizing about being able to share, “Here’s what I feel like God said to me today,” and then hearing what He communicated to others through the same passage, in the same block of 30-40 minutes.
Since teaching the S.O.A.P. method, Faithbridge has seen God meet our congregation in a real and personal way like never before. Here is a letter I received from one of our members:
Pastor Ken, when you suggested that we all journal, God reached down and put a hand on my husband! When I asked him that afternoon if he would like to read the Scriptures together at night before bed and share our journal findings…HE SAID YES! Just as simply and naturally as if I had asked him to watch a movie together. He asked me where his NIV Bible was and said that it had been too long since he had read it. We started our journey last night. I don’t know all of the things that God has laid on his heart to get him here… I’m just glad He did. I can’t even really describe the joy I feel. It’s beyond description!
There are many effective methods for drawing people closer to their Creator, but this is the method I have found to be the most helpful. As a pastor, I yearn to see my flock feeding itself from God’s fresh Bread, making sure it has the tools to establish a deeply rooted relationship with Christ. Such roots can withstand even the fiercest weight, as evidenced in Jeremiah 17:7-8:
“But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat, or worried by long months of draught. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.”