Setting aside some “devotional time” each day is a practice that many, if not most, Christians prioritize. During that time, whether short or long, various activities may be engaged in. These are intended to foster greater “devotion” to God: prayer, study of the Scriptures, singing of hymns, devotional meditation, etc.
But many Christians also read a selection from a “daily devotional book.” These books contain short readings on topics of spiritual significance. Hugely popular, devotional books are a major sector in the religious book market. Many people purchase one or more new ones each year and read them as part of their daily devotional time.
Unfortunately, many of the best-selling devotionals are popular not because they produce greater devotion to God but because they give the reader a sugary “high.” They aim to make the reader feel better, but they do little to stimulate significant spiritual growth.
In an article analyzing the popularity of devotional books, author Jen Wilkin noted that most of these are based on a two-fold premise concerning “daily devotion”: (1) it involves being inspired, and (2) it involves being comforted. But while devotion to God is a biblical concept, there is more to it than feeling better emotionally. Read the following words by Wilkin several of times and give them a chance to adjust your thinking:
Are the words of devotional books profitable? Some, but not all. Emotion is certainly an expression of devotion but is not its sum total. Biblical words of comfort are profitable, but so are words of correction. Both are words of life. If devotional reading is our primary vehicle for formation, we run the risk of malformation and — worse still — of forming God himself into an idol, one who comforts without correcting, seeks relationship but not repentance, dotes but does not discipline, and is our companion but not our commander (Christianity Today, October 2020).
So identifying a good devotional book requires that we first understand what devotion means. It means to be consecrated or set apart for God’s special service. When we spend time each day in “devotional” activities, those should result in our being more “devout” — that is, we are more intensely interested in serving God and we have a better sense of what His service requires of us. “Devotion is not mere feeling, but action: It serves and it obeys” (Wilkin). As Jesus taught in Matthew 6:24, being “devoted” to a master and “serving” that master are inseparable.
Concerning the Scriptures, Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16,17, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Scriptures are “profitable” because they provide four things: doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. Providing these things to us perfectly, the Scriptures are our source for the Lord’s “words of eternal life” (John 6:68). There is not a devotional book in the world that can give us what the Scriptures provide, but to whatever extent such a book can be an “aid” to us, shouldn’t we want it recognize the priority of these same four needs: doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness?
With the above thoughts in mind, I suggest that you ask these questions about any resource (not just books but any other devotional aid) you might consider using:
- Does it provoke and challenge me in a healthy, biblical sense (Hebrews 10:24)?
- Does it contribute to my spiritual formation or my malformation?
- Does it result in my being more devoted (“set apart for special service”) to God?
- Does it provide correction as well as comfort?
- Does it promote service and submission in my life?
- Does it call me to repentance and change?
- Does it encourage me to take the next step in my obedience?
But finally, there is one more thing to say, and it is the most important thing of all: not even the best devotional book should take the place of studying the Scriptures and prayer. To quote Jen Wilkin one last time: “Devotional writing, when done with excellence, may supplement our time in the Scriptures, but it must not subordinate or supplant it.” To which this writer says a hearty “Amen!”