With the start of fall and children heading back to school, my Instagram feed is once again filled with snaps of book covers laid next to morning mugs of coffee, captioned with inspirational quotes taken from within their pages. Women are getting back into their morning quiet time routine, moms’ ministries are announcing their new fall event schedule, and Bible Study groups are starting up again after their summer break. With the amazing year that Christian publishing has had, there’s certainly no shortage of quality books to choose from. My own Amazon purchase history certainly suggests it’s been a gangbuster year for female authors of faith. But here’s the thing friends: those inspiring devotional books we all love? Most of them actually aren’t Bible studies, and it’s important we carefully recognize the difference.
Devotionals can do a fantastic job pulling us out of our own limited experiences and calling us to look at ourselves and our faith in a new light. They can be inspiring, even challenging, and it would be no exaggeration to call many of them life changing. Yet one key point separates a devotional from a Bible study – a devotional doesn’t require you to have your Bible there with you to read it. When you read a devotional, it may include references to specific scripture or even verses quoted within its pages, but the book is self contained. It can be slipped into your purse and read anywhere from your local coffee shops to the carpool pickup lane, and that very convenience is part of their appeal, especially in seasons of life where time is a difficult commodity to come by.
The problem with devotionals comes when we confuse them with Bible studies, and allow them to step into that vital role in our walk with God. It can be far too easy to feel the encouragement and insight we gather from the writings of wise women of faith, and begin to feel as though our hunger for God’s word is being met and filled. We become like little baby birds, happily accepting the regurgitated nourishment from our mothers beak, already pre-chewed for our comfort and ease, and we no longer feel the urgency to leave the nest and seek our own meals. We enjoy our morning coffee with an inspiring chapter of Christian nonfiction, and we call that our quiet time for the day. Meanwhile our Bibles sit nearby on the shelf and we don’t feel the ache of their neglect.
A true Bible study entails exactly that: a study of God’s word itself, with time spent deep within its pages. It may guide us to certain passages, even offering insights into understanding we might have otherwise missed out on, but ultimately it can’t be read on its own – its purpose is to point us back to our Bibles, and to push us to go deeper in our understanding of its words. it’s inside those very pages we meet with our God, allowing Him to speak His truth over our hearts and lives. There’s a sacred intimacy in reading His love letter to us, and it simply can’t be replaced by reading the second hand interpretations of others. We may gain new insights hearing about someone else’s experiences with God and with His word, but it’s simply no substitute for our own first hand encounters.
Another benefit to reading scripture is that you surrender control of the conversation and leave yourself open to hear whatever God chooses to speak to. When we buy a devotional they are usually topical, and so we can decide exactly what we’d like to hear about. While this is undoubtedly helpful in some situations, it’s also incredibly restricting if this reading is replacing time spent seeking God in his word. When you read Scripture, you have little control over what God will choose to address that day. I often approach my quiet time looking for answers in one area and find myself amazed when God draws my attention to something deeper, something I never expected. How much wisdom do we miss out on when we control what areas we’ll allow God to speak? If the only truth we seek out is topical, how many areas of our life go untouched?
Be careful, friends. Don’t let the abundance of wonderful devotionals keep you from your actual Bible. Seek daily first hand encounters with God and His own words to you. I understand all to well how difficult it can be to find to prioritize quiet time with God, so guard it fiercely ladies, and be extra careful how you spend it. Commit to reading scripture before reading Christian nonfiction, even if it means there isn’t time for both. Be intentional about identifying the difference between a Bible study and a devotional, and make sure to vocalize to your women’s ministries or Bible study leaders how important it is to you to see Bible studies offered that push you deeper into the Word rather than substituting it with easy reads and second hand inspirations. Devotionals can be enriching and entertaining and deeply encouraging, but reading them in place of scripture is like living on processed snacks without ever eating a home cooked meal. We were designed with a hunger for God’s word, and we need to be mindful of what we satisfy that hunger with just as much intentionality as what we choose to eat. The only way to be truly nourished, the only way to continue to be spiritually healthy, and the only way to ensure our continued growth is to feast regularly on the bread of life.