The depth of our understanding of devotion to God seems to be in inverse proportion to the number of words spoken about it. These days, thousands of sermons about the love of God are on the internet, millions of devotional books are sold each year, and there are people who make their living teaching people about the “devotional” life — but even so, our concept of what it means to be devoted to God often seems to have little substance. The more we talk about it, the more superficial our devotional practice becomes.
One of our difficulties stems from the post-modernism of our age in which subjective feelings are held to be the final arbiter in all discussions. Applied to devotion, what this means is that many people define “success” in their devotional lives as having warm feelings about God. But while our feelings are certainly involved in devotion to God, there is much more. How we feel about God emotionally is a matter of great significance — indeed, the word “passion” is not too strong a word to describe how we should feel — but Jesus frequently emphasized that our feelings are not an end in themselves, as is often the case in popular devotional practice. Although post-moderns take it for granted that love is to be defined subjectively as a feeling, it is not defined that way in the Scriptures (cf. John 14:21; 15:10; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 1:6).
For one thing, our feelings are not under our direct control. If you’ve ever tried to command yourself feel a certain way, you know how futile that exercise is. Our feelings are an indirect by-product of our thinking and our doing; so if we want to change our feelings, we must change (a) what our intellect believes to be true about a situation, and (b) what our volition decides to do about that situation. (This insight is, by the way, the basis of the treatment of depression and other mood disorders in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. When a person’s intellect and will are adjusted in the direction of greater truth, their emotions will improve eventually. But their emotions won’t improve simply by the therapist saying, “You ought to change the way you feel about this.”)
In its most basic sense, to be “devoted” to something means to be “set apart” or “reserved for a particular purpose.” In the Old Testament, for example, Joshua told the people of Israel not to take for themselves any of the things from the city of Jericho: those things were “devoted to destruction” (Joshua 6:18). The Christian, then, is to be devoted, or reserved, for the Lord’s special use — and devotion to God would mean maintaining His reservation of us, not just in theory but in actual practice. It involves doing whatever the Lord has reserved us for, not only maintaining our separateness in a negative sense, but positively doing the things that our separateness is meant to make us available for.
In the memorable words of Psalm 40:8, David said, “I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart.” This heartfelt desire to know and do God’s will is what devotion is primarily about, as Francis de Sales wrote, “True devotion is a constant, determined, prompt, and active will to do what we know is pleasing to God.”
Devotion, then, is not a passive idea but an active one. We can see this in Matthew 6:24, where the Lord said we cannot “serve” two masters. We will either “hate the one and love the other” or we will “be devoted to the one and despise the other” (ESV). Whichever master we “serve,” that is equivalent to “loving” and “being devoted to” that master. Similarly, Paul defines “serving” a master not in terms of how we feel about that master, but in terms of obedience: “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16 NKJV).
So in practical terms, what would “devotion” to God look like? Consider these characteristics as examples (perhaps you could think of some others):
- Passion, love, warm enthusiasm for God, His people, and His work in this world.
- Singlemindedness, wholeheartedness, focus, and concentration in pursuing a right relationship with God.
- Obedience, service, and good deeds.
These things are profoundly important. And an activity that would foster this kind of devotion to God would qualify as a “devotional activity.” To say the least, setting aside a “devotional time” in our schedules each day is an extremely wise thing to do. Is there anything on our agenda more important than this?
Like most valuable things, devotion to God must be grown and developed. As I have written elsewhere, we must learn to be adept at devotion. Like athletic prowess (1 Corinthians 9:24-27), devotional strength must be built up by constant, disciplined practice over time. Paul reminded his young friend Timothy of this when he said, “Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all” (1 Timothy 4:15).
So in our devotional time each day, may we aspire to the goal Peter held before his readers when he urged them to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).