Devotion is the conscious commitment to doing those things that will fill our lives with what is good and right. We were designed to be filled by the God who created us. That is how love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control become the shape of our character.
In its simplest form, devotion means dedication. So one person may be devoted to auto restoration, or fly fishing, or bowling. Someone else may be devoted to collecting music or dog breeding. We can be grateful for the cardiac surgeon who doesn’t take the profession half-heartedly, but is devoted to the highest level of competence when he or she takes people’s hearts apart and puts them back together.
Devotion is a word, however, that we more often use for commitments that go well beyond our vocations or avocations. And for good reason.
Devotion runs deep in the human heart. It is about commitments that arise out of the strongest affection and the deepest longing. It is an essentially spiritual motion in the direction of God himself.
Devotion patterns are those habits which develop over time and will bring our longing right to God himself, and the filling begins and continues. Those habits include prayer, worship, and reading and studying Scripture. They are the habits of devotion that the first Christians knew were the spiritual exercises that would make them strong. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
Before even beginning to talk about the specific methods of devotion, however, we need to pause and think through our motives. Actions of devotion with the wrong motives are dangerous. Any one of the following is all it takes to turn devotion into something either powerless or reckless:
1. Try to impress God. Our devotion will never be impressive to God. Devotion is supposed to be as natural to the spirit as breathing is to the body. If a kid tried to show off to an adult about how well he was breathing, the adult may be amused, but not impressed. God wants us as friends and sons and daughters, not performers.
2. Try to impress others. We could try to gain points with some people with public piety, but just a drop of pride will begin to poison our spiritual lives. That is why Jesus so absolutely insisted that we do “acts of righteousness,” like making our offerings and praying, in secret. The actor (the meaning of the word “hypocrite”) plays to the public, and receives the appropriate reward, applause on earth, but no reward, only silence, from heaven (Matthew 5).
3. Try to impress yourself. You won’t convince yourself anyway, so why try?
4. Try to make yourself feel better about yourself. It is not wrong to want to feel right with God. But we need to know as deeply as we know anything else that our relationship with God begins and ends with his loving grace and our openness through faith. Prayers do not take away sin—God does. Bible reading is not the knowledge of God; it is the way we get knowledge of God. Acts of worship do not give us joy, but are the ways we are opened to the movement of God’s Spirit, which does result in joy and, for that matter, brokenness, illumination, affection.
5. Try to have occasional bursts of devotion. Devotion is not a matter of going to one spectacular conference a year, or going to church at Christmas and Easter. You can’t build a marriage on going out for your anniversary each year and being indifferent toward your spouse the other 364 days of the year. Devotion is the accumulating effect of many small acts. It is a rhythm in the background that keeps us in step with God.
So then, what is devotion?
To put it positively: devotion is love. The motive behind prayer and worship and all the rest has to be at its start and at its end an affectionate longing to know God better. What will move us in that direction? The inspiration, naturally, is God’s abundant love for us. This is how one of the German Pietists of the 17th century, Count von Zinzendorf, put it:
Lord, when my eye confronts my heart, and I realize that you have filled my heart with your love, I am breathless with amazement. Once my heart was so small in its vision, so narrow in its compassion, so weak in its zeal for truth. Then you chose to enter my heart, and now in my heart I can see you, I can love all your people, and I have courage to proclaim the truth of your gospel to anyone and everyone. Like wax before a fire, my heart has melted under the heat of your love.
We can be very glad that we don’t need to figure this out on our own. We can follow the lead of others who are wiser than we are, as the apostle Paul put it: “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Philippians 3:17).