“He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.”All who have committed ourselves to cross-cultural ministry seek to “bear much fruit.” We know that Jesus is not here talking primarily about the “fruit” of new converts (as Paul apparently was in Romans 1:13), but the obedience that consists mostly in loving as He loved. Nevertheless, we also know that if we replicate the love of Christ towards one another, the world will take notice. Many will ask questions of the hope within us; some of those will receive our answers as the very Word of God, and come to saving faith. So, the challenge remains: How to abide in Christ so as to bear much fruit? He tells us: His words must abide in us, and then we shall pray effectively. But how, amidst the challenges of life in another culture, can we find time to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd? So many needs; so much to do; so many pressures; so little time. Not to mention our own laziness, lack of self-discipline, and natural tendency to rely on the flesh to accomplish our goals (which we sometimes confuse with God’s). Here are a few tactics that have helped us over the years, both in Taiwan and in the U.S.: It starts with going to bed early enough to get up early enough to spend time along with God. That means avoiding late-night TV, videos, and computer activity.
In the morning, I first fix myself some herb tea, and Dori some real tea. Then I open my Bible for a daily routine that, with variations, has stood the test for several decades. If you read five Psalms and one chapter of Proverbs a day, you can complete the Psalter twice in one year and Proverbs every month. I followed that practice for about thirty years until recently, when I reduced the Psalms to one a day. To allow more time for meditation, I try to read each psalm in several different versions of the Bible. You may use various languages (English, Chinese, Spanish, French, Greek Hebrew, etc.), which is a good way to review the languages you took long ago, and to keep your Chinese current. Or you can read different English translations. Be careful here, however. Only the more literal ones deserve careful study and thought (New King James, New American Standard, English Standard Versions). Others, including even the NIV, depart too much from the original, though they are useful as interpretations in modern idiom. In order not to neglect the Old Testament, I try to read it at least once every two years, but preferably annually. You have to follow some plan, which for me is usually just the canonical order of the historical, poetic, and prophetic books: One chapter from the histories another from the prophets each day, alternating with the other poetical books often enough to read them every year or two. Then I move to the New Testament. Again, different patterns suit different people; and some are better at various stages in your journey. I have found that I need to read at least one chapter in the New Testament a day, or I forget the riches of truth God has stored up for us there. More often, I read a passage in the Gospels and also one in the Epistles. Two comments about intensive Bible study: Contrary to the advice of many, I use some of my quiet time for intensive study of passages on which I am to preach or teach. But I do so from a devotional perspective, not an academic one. That is, I ask God to reveal Himself to me through the portion of His Word that I am studying. Second, five minutes in a good concordance can pay better dividends than twenty minutes in a commentary. When I get behind, as I often do, or when I don’t have enough time in the morning to complete this whole course of reading, I try to find a few minutes later in the day – perhaps at lunch, in the afternoon, or before bed – to catch up. Sunday afternoon provides another opportunity for getting back on track, or for reading the Bible just for pleasure.
Bible Memory and Meditation
But all this reading does no good if we don’t meditate on His word day and night (Psalm 1:2). Obviously, we can’t ponder every verse when we’re traversing so much Biblical terrain. We have to stop and study one shorter passage each day in order to reap the most benefit. You can either spend a lot of time on one book, or pick something valuable from any one of the longer sections you have read that day. What works best for me is to begin by asking God to show me what He wants me to know, or focus on, each day. He always answers that prayer. After reading a few chapters from the Bible, I usually take time to do something physical – exercising, walking, or (now that we’re in the US), weeding the garden. Meanwhile, I meditate on what I’ve read. Putting the body into gear seems to activate the mind also. What about Bible memory? That seems to be the key to abiding in Christ, since only then can His words really “abide” in us. You can follow one of two methods: Either learn a variety of verses on different topics from all over the Bible, or memorize sections. If have found the latter to be easier, because you have the context to help you remember. Thus, favorite psalms; the Sermon on the Mount; Romans 5-6, 8; shorter epistles like Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Titus – all these have provided people with food for the soul. When I can’t sleep (which is all too often!), or I’m facing temptation, or having to wait in line (and have forgotten to bring a book), it helps immeasurably to call up some passage of the Bible and just think about it over and over. But when do we get time for memorization? And how do we retain what we’ve tried to inscribe on the tablet of our heart? Review, review, review! At my age, learning new passages seems harder all the time, so I often have to content myself with going over what I’ve done in previous years> Carrying cards with Bible passages on them on walks or errands gives you a few minutes to refresh your memory. Another way to get the Bible into your mind and heart is by listening. You can absorb, or at least be exposed to, great quantities of God’s Word as you walk or drive, just by turning on the tape recorder or CD player. If find tapes of the Bible in Chinese especially helpful.
What about prayer, the other key to abiding in Christ? You know the usual suggestions, such as following the ACTS rule (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication). I‘m sure we all turn our Bible reading into prayer, especially when we’re in the Psalms. Here’s something else I’ve found quite useful: Diving the Lord’s Prayer into seven petitions, I take one of them each day of the week as the focus for my prayers, from “Hallowed be Your name” (Sunday) to “Deliver us from evil” (Saturday). You married folk might be interested to know that I intercede for all those whose weddings I performed, and some which I have attended on Thursday (“Forgive us our debts…”). Some people keep prayer lists. I have done that on and off, though not consistently. When I do, I find it very encouraging, since God really does answer most of those requests! In fact, informal studies have led me to believe the He grants about 95% of what we ask. (The problem often is that the remaining 5% are the ones we want most! But that brings us to the problem of unanswered prayer, a topic for another day.) How to organize the lists, which seem to grow and grow? Once again, the Lord’s Prayer forms a useful outline, divided by days of the week. That keeps it down to a manageable size each day.
Journaling has become popular in recent years. For unreflective types, it could open up new vistas of self-understanding. If you are forgetful of past lessons, as I am, reading over what God has taught (or tried to teach!) in former days can refresh your memory and re-set your sights upon His goals and promises. But introspective, melancholic people (like me) should be careful. I once had to throw away several years of spiritual diaries because they were so depressing! Much, much more profitable is the age-old, time-honored, and almost universally ignored practice of writing down something you have learned from the Bible. If there is one thing, aside from meditating upon passages which I’ve memorized, that enables me to “get something out of “ the God’s Word, that certainly must be the simple act of writing down a few observations. What I discover is that insight comes with the actual writing. Somehow, the pen (or keyboard) activates the brain. Many find Bible study guides quite helpful. For years, I worked through Search the Scriptures (IV Press). Since that ground-breaking work, dozens of others have appeared, but none have surpassed it. My present practice is to force myself to write a brief expository devotional message on one passage a day, as many days a week as I can muster the self-discipline to do it. I often use this as part of my sermon preparation, but you could adapt it to other Bible teaching opportunities also. (You may request these from me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or read them on my Web site (www.civirginia.com). The main thing is to have a plan, and to follow it.
This article would not be complete without something from Dori. Her morning quiet times (which last about almost an hour) include Daily Light; Bible reading following the lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer; and Scripture Union study guides. When I asked if she had anything else to share, she replied, “Don’t forget the value of small group Bible study! Those years in OMF Bible studies made all the difference to me.” Speaking of Dori, I should add that she and I pray together, at least briefly, after breakfast and supper each day that we can. In the evenings, we read that day’s evening portion of Daily Light also. Don’t get the wrong impression! We are not super-godly, spiritual powerhouses. Sometimes – perhaps more often than not – our prayers are routine, even dull. But we do find that this simple exercise draws us closer and brings God into our life. Single people could do the same with a prayer partner (which both Dori and I also have). After all, Jesus did issue some pretty awesome promises to “two or three gathered” in His name!
Jesus warned us against practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them. Writing this article has exposed me to that risk. It’s also confronted me with some of my consistent challenges. These include forcing myself not to rush through my quiet time in order to get to the day’s work; trying to praise God for His inherent excellence and intrinsic goodness, rather than just thanking Him for the blessings He has bestowed or – even worse – asking Him for more! I often feel that my devotional life is shallow and thin, devoid of heartfelt adoration and wonder. I solicit your prayers for revival. The good news is that when we are spiritually dull, God sends some excruciating pain our way to impel us back to Him with fervent prayers and ardent longing! May God gives us grace to “abide in the Vine,” that we may bear much fruit. Wright Doyle April, 2004
A word about devotional books. For most of my life I have not employed them, but recently I have been greatly blessed by some classics, which have moved me beyond my own very shallow and limited inner life into depths of devotion experienced by saints in previous years. Dori and I both read Daily Light, which contains Scripture passages arranged according to a theme for each morning and evening. I like the version edited by Anne Graham Lotz (Published by J. Countryman, a division of Thomas Nelson). Lancelot Andrewes’ Private Devotions was given to me some years ago by a friend. I have never seen anything quite so profoundly Biblical. No wonder: Andrewes translated much of the King James Bible. His confessions of sin and his masterful prayers of praise are, I think, unparalleled in their beauty and power (Baker). Devotional commentaries can kindle a fire of love for God’s Word. Matthew Henry’s (in the one-volume edition published by Zondervan) leads the pack, but David Dickson on the Psalms and Charles Bridges on Proverbs (both from Banner of Truth) never fail to stir my heart. The old Puritans excelled in combining solid Bible study with practical application. Early in my Christian walk, my soul was fed by such works as Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence and Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment A newer compilation of prayers derived from Puritan writers, The Valley of Vision has re-introduced these ancient worthies to my times with God. All these come from the Banner of Truth Trust. Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening and his classic on prayer, have warmed my heart many times. Millions have found his sermons to be deeply satisfying as well. This list would be incomplete without a reference to the American edition of The Book of Common Prayer, composed mostly by the vastly learned Thomas Cranmer during the English Reformation. The modern version is easier to read, but its watered-down prose and sometimes questionable theology have made me return to the 1928 version (Oxford University Press).