The term “quiet time” was coined in the late nineteenth century from the Christian and Missionary Alliance movement. By the 1940s, it replaced the Anglican concept of “the morning watch.” The morning watch focused on prayer requests while the new “quiet time” focused on Bible study and meditation.
InterVarsity’s 1945 booklet “Quiet Time” popularized the term among evangelical university students. The term went mainstream when Billy Graham started using it in the 1950s during his crusades.*
There are three main problems with the modern concept of a “quiet time” that I wish to address in this article. Let’s take them up one at a time (and please don’t skim lest you miss the nuance).
1) Quiet time has been the source of guilt in evangelical circles for decades.
Here’s how it works. Your pastor tells you that God wants you to have a daily “quiet time” — which essentially means praying and reading your Bible.
You’re inspired by his words, so you begin with zeal. After a week or two, you miss a day. Then another day. Then the guilt trip begins.
Here’s the narrative that replays in your head:
“God is upset with me. If I really loved Him, I wouldn’t miss my quiet time. Jesus died for my sins, and I can’t even spend 10 minutes with Him each morning? I’m a sad excuse for a Christian. In fact, God has just finished carving out a new 2 x 4 by which to beat me silly. And I deserve it.”
The guilt you feel over missing your quiet time is now an obstacle standing in the way between you and your Lord. And that obstacle leads to additional missed quiet times.
Months roll by and the pastor preaches another sermon on the importance of prayer and Bible reading. More guilt. But this time it motivates you.
So you try again. Things are great … for a week. Then you miss. And the guilt trip starts all over again.
After several months of living under three tons of “missed-quiet-time” condemnation, you are in need of a travel agent to handle all the guilt trips you’ve been on.
Years go by, and nothing changes with respect to your quiet time. It’s still hit and miss. You’ve just become accustomed to living under a pile of guilt, which ends up hurting your relationship to Jesus Christ — whether you realize it or not.
2) You leave Jesus Christ behind after your quiet time.
For those disciplined enough to have a daily quiet time without missing, something happens that you aren’t even aware of. You begin your day with the Lord, but you leave Him behind in your room when your quiet time is over.
In other words, you go about your day without ever considering Him again unless someone mentions Him or you turn on a Christian radio station (or worship CD) in your car.
So you get an A+ on keeping a consistent quiet time (yay!), but a D- on living in the Lord’s presence throughout the day.
Why? Because no one ever taught you how.
3) Your quiet time will eventually grow stale. Sooner than later.
I’ve said it many times, but I’ll say it again: Everything eventually wears out except for Jesus Christ. That includes every spiritual discipline that humans have ever imagined or experienced (be it reading your Bible, praying, singing, fasting, interceding, speaking in tongues, etc.).
You and I are in need of acquiring more tools in our spiritual toolbox so that whenever a spiritual practice runs dry, we can pick up another tool to take its place. In this way, everything stays fresh.
So what’s the solution to all this?
The antidote for number one — guilt — is simple. I’ve addressed it thoroughly in elsewhere, but the reason why you feel guilty about missing a quiet time is because you are unwittingly basing your worthiness before the Lord on your work instead of on His. And you’ve accepted a man-centered narrative that puts you at the center instead of God’s narrative.
If you get clear on the value of the blood of Christ and what makes you worthy in God’s eyes, and you’ll be forever freed from a guilty conscience when it comes to any religious or spiritual activity.
The fact is, God loves you exactly the same regardless of how often you pray or read your Bible. His love for you isn’t based on any of those activities.
Another important point to consider is this. Treating one’s failure to keep to a regular “quiet time” should never be treated like explicit sins described in the Bible (like lying, gossip, stealing, slander, etc). There’s no command saying, “Thou shalt have quiet time of reading your Bible and praying every day.”
The fact is, 90% of the first-century Christians couldn’t even read. And that’s been mostly true since around the 19th century. Even today, approximately 1 billion people are illiterate (about 16% of the total population). Shall we condemn them all?
As I explained in elsewhere, many evangelicals have merely updated Pharisaism with an ever-changing Mishnah of behavioral expectations that I’ve dubbed “The Christian Expectation” — and the famed “quiet time” is a part of it. Thankfully, Jesus Christ destroyed the entire code and gave us something higher.
Unfortunately, some people have taken the above insight and washed their hands of the whole practice of spending time with the Lord in the name of “grace” and “freedom.” But this only reveals that their motivation for spending time with Him wasn’t love. It was guilt. Thus once the guilt is removed, they have no desire to know the Lord better.
Quick personal note: I spend time with the Lord virtually every morning. It looks nothing like the typical “quiet time,” however. And if I miss a day, I don’t feel the slightest bit of guilt. In addition, I’ve discovered various ways of living in God’s presence throughout the day. And I’m not spiritually inclined nor disciplined by nature (which means there’s hope for all of you who are like me).
For problems two and three, I’ve just finished writing an essay called “Aware of His Presence” which will be a supplement to my upcoming book on the kingdom of God. Once the book comes out, you will have full access to the article, which is profoundly practical.
This blog post is long enough, so I will end with this point.
* Source: Morning Watch to Quiet Time: The Historical and Theological Development of Private Prayer in Anglo-Protestant Devotionalism, 1870-1950 by Gregory Johnson.