Devotion in Theology

Last month I came across the following statement from CS Lewis quoted on the Tolle Lege website.

For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.

The quote is reputedly from Lewis’ God in the Dock1. I would agree wholeheartedly, except I would add that the pipe is optional.

The quote captures something I had realised previously but never put into such concrete terms.

Over the years I have used a variety of ‘devotional books’ and I have found some to be much more helpful or incisive than others. For the most part those that have been more helpful are those where the daily reading is an extract from a much larger work rather than being written specifically as a short devotional piece.

I think the reason for this distinctive is that larger works don’t need to provide a context for each paragraph, whereas a short devotional piece feels compelled to both set the scene and provide some teaching or purpose within a few paragraphs. As a result devotional pieces tend to be shallower and more pithy. Paragraphs pulled from larger works can be deeper or fuller precisely because they are part of a larger story and context which may or may not be relevant to the reader, but there can be significant and impactful truth contained within those paragraphs.

As I reflected on the devotional works I have used which came from a larger corpora I would include:

  • Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest where the material was extracted by his wife Biddy from Oswald’s lectures, talks or books.
  • Watchman Nee’s The Lord My Portion which contains extracts from Nee’s latter writings.
  • DA Carson’ For the Love of God which was probably purpose-written to be read as a daily portion but seeks to paint a broader canvas of God’s redemptive history and purposes so reads as more ’theological’ than ‘devotional’.
  • JC Ryle’s Day by Day which offers readings and comments on the Gospels extracted from Ryle’s commentaries.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with devotional books (in principle, anyway), but reflecting on deeper theological works may lend themselves to increased devotion beyond what a devotional may do.

  1. I’m not disputing it, I just haven’t verified it nor read the book myself. ↩︎