One of my favorite authors, Jerry Bridges, describes a common malady among us evangelical Christians as “Prayer Time Guilt”. In “The Discipline of Grace”, Bridges writes: “we’ve come to believe that God’s blessing on our lives is somehow conditional upon our spiritual performance.” We’ve been taught to set time aside for regular Bible reading and prayer, and we want to do this – it’s how we get to know God better. The problem comes in when we grow so busy that we just don’t do it. Forgetting that our relationship with the Father is irrevocable and depends on His faithfulness, rather than ours, we feel guilt and anxiety over not keeping up our end of the bargain.
We women know how challenging it can be to go to work every day, raise a family, keep the household running smoothly, and spend time with God. There do not seem to be enough hours in the day, and yet if we neglect reading the Bible and praying, we will not grow spiritually. Every Christian woman knows this, and most of us feel guilty for failing in this area.
I like the idea of giving God the “first fruits” of my day. It seemed to work well enough in university when I was a new Christian – my first class wasn’t until 8:30 am. I would get up, shower, spend time with God and go to class before gymnastics practice. This was my life. It was all so linear; so predictable.
Then I got married, had a family, and life got more complicated.
“Anxious and Troubled Over Many Things….”
Several years ago, God taught me a lesson about spiritual apathy. I accepted a large, technical Macedonian translation from a British agency. The unrealistically tight deadline made it necessary for me to sub-contract most of it out, and consequently I spent as much time proofreading and revising as I would have spent translating it myself. The agency kept sending revisions to my revisions, questioning both legitimate changes and errors I had missed. For eleven days, I averaged four hours of sleep per night as I tried to satisfy the client.
During this time, my younger children sat in front of the television all day; the older kids struggled through their homework unaided; and I burned several meals. My husband tried to help, but we ended up quarreling with each other. I became nervous and upset, finally succumbing to tears only when the agency short-changed me on the pay. Since I am also a full-time interpreter, driving home from an assignment one night I suddenly realized I was supposed to lead Bible study at church the next day. “Oh NO!” I thought. My Bible had been sitting unopened, for two weeks. I had neither prayed nor reviewed the week’s lesson. “Good thing it’s Romans 9 – election and effectual calling. I can teach it,” I told myself.
That was the day I realized I had a time management problem, and it was quickly becoming a spiritual problem. The peace and joy that marked my daily life was quickly vanishing, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
“…But Only One Thing Matters” (while you still serve your family)
When you are a new mother, having regular devotional time is somewhat easy. You probably won’t go to work for a few months, and babies (although they wake during the night) take regular naps. The home is quiet. You have (some) time. Add to that you’re still basking in the joy and wonder of God’s newest creation, and drawing near to Him in adoration seems to flow naturally. Like many moms, I found myself drawn back to regular devotional life after I became a parent. Suddenly, spiritual matters seem to take on a new sense of urgency. Our single most important job, as parents, is to raise up our children to know and love God. To do justice to this task, I knew I needed to be in prayer daily – not just in church on Sunday.
Then more children came, grew older, and my “job description” changed. It wasn’t just about diapers and milk bottles anymore.
Hours at work increased. Laundry became an everyday task, where once it was weekly. Talking to God was replaced by writing about Him. I tried to justify spending less time with the Lord: “The more I work, the more we can give to your Kingdom, Lord. Laundry and cooking are necessary parts of serving my family…isn’t that what being a Proverbs 31 wife is all about? Besides, writing is my ministry. I’m using the gifts You gave me to edify people. I want to sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary of Bethany did, but she didn’t have kids running around!”
Of course, God didn’t accept my excuses. I had to concede that washing machines, microwaves and vacuum cleaners didn’t exist in 1st century Judea, and somehow Martha and her sister got all the housework done while managing to feed over a dozen men who didn’t call or text ahead of time to say they were coming. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is, He gives us all the same 24 hours in a day, and we make time for what we truly desire. Susanna Wesley had 19 children, yet she communed with God daily. She would famously resort to kneeling under the dining room table, with a towel as a head covering, in order to pray in peace. This was the children’s signal that Mama was not to be disturbed. Thanks to her godly example and loving discipline, the Wesley children went on to change the world. Tenacity always pays off.
Years ago, I used to spend the tranquility of the early morning to rest in God’s presence. It was quiet – I could read a passage of Scripture without being interrupted, and give Jesus my undivided attention. Being consciously aware of His love and presence made a definite difference in how I went through the day. Now, my schedule has changed – like many women, I have a very long drive to work, and much of the evenings and weekends are taken up by driving my kids to athletics. Evenings are filled with the frenzy of cooking dinner, checking homework, and household chores familiar to women the world over. If I do not spend at least some time with the Lord in the morning – even reading a single chapter of the Bible, or praying on my way to work – the busyness of the day will crowd Him out completely.
It’s a balance every Christian mother I know attempts to strike – God has given us our husbands and children as a precious gift, and expects us to invest our time, energy and love first and foremost into our families. Since He’s told us to “pray unceasingly” (Luke 18:1; Acts 1:14), praying silently while peeling potatoes or folding the laundry is a perfectly normal part of life. I have thought through biblical solutions to dilemmas while ironing my husband’s shirts. However, the consistent, disciplined pattern of devotion illustrated throughout the Bible means withdrawing from constant e-mails and crazy schedules and diligently seeking God. Spiritual growth only comes as we do that, although it seems harder to achieve during certain seasons in our life. I have gotten out of balance in the other direction, too – I remember several times, when my youngest child was an infant, getting annoyed that she would awaken and cry when I had hoped to read a Psalm or two. Realizing that Jesus didn’t mind being interrupted by a child, I saw my need to be more flexible.
Abiding in Christ
God’s blessing and sense of nearness in our lives is proportional to our obedience (John 15:9-10). Therefore, if we are walking in obedience to His Word and spending time in prayer, we are “abiding” in His love. The single biggest part of that “abiding” is our devotional life. Obedience that is motivated solely by duty, rather than love, will quickly lead to drudgery. How can we cultivate love for God if we don’t get to know Him, and how will we get to know Him outside of the Bible? Scripture is His way of talking to us – the only source of divine revelation.
In the midst of our demanding jobs, children’s schedules, never-ending housework, and even ministry opportunities (which may be a tempting substitute for “closet prayer”), it is still possible to pursue time alone with God. It may be necessary to give up other things, or even put some projects on hold for a while, but ultimately it is worth it. Just as you can’t pour out of an empty cup, it’s unrealistic to expect to be able to pour into other people’s lives unless you are being fed and encouraged at the feet of the Master.