Of Crowbars and Grace: Why Devotionals Fail

Spiritual disciplines and practices have always helped Christians.  Now if we could only understand why they work and why they don’t.  

After I caught onto praying the Scriptures in earlier years, I decided to pray my way through the book of Isaiah.  Morning after morning I went downstairs to my basement, and inched through the verses, hunting for scraps of spiritual nourishment.

It was hard work.  Isaiah, like most Old Testament prophetic books, is full of cryptic poetic sentiments embedded in often unfamiliar historical context.  With the exception of clear passages linked to the New Testament (I.e., Isa. 7:14 , 9:6, etc.), praying Isaiah’s words began to feel like trying to wrench open stubborn pistachio shells.

I stalled well before arriving at golden chapters like 40 and 52-55.

The failure mystified me.  I had already established a years-long personal experience of finding manna in the pages of the Bible.  Besides, devotional breakdown wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not when you had a sure thing like praying the Scriptures.

I had unknowingly wandered into the same trap as a lot of other Christians who have a spiritual “formula” that guarantees payoff.  This is more than likely why most all devotional formulas fail.  We love our pet practices, and rely on them, figuring if we just work the system, we’ll hit the mark.

I forgot that when revival occurs, no matter how small, it’s a gift from God.  We don’t need to pick locks or crack safes, not when something is freely offered to us.  God doesn’t stop being a God of grace after you’re saved.  He doesn’t say, “Okay, the first round was on Me, but any further dealing with the Holy Spirit will come at full retail price.”

Even when we’re told to do good works, God doesn’t mean for us to blunder across boundaries, acting as though we are the author of spiritual things, as though we have the power to create, redeem, save, maintain, and transform.  That is a realm reserved for grace.  Grace does all the heavy lifting human beings could never manage.

That kind of spiritual work is monergistic in nature, or, originating in God, and traveling in one direction from Him to us.  I suppose I was trying my hand at monergestic work in my morning devotionals, using the formula of praying the Scripture to make grace happen.  I’ve caught myself doing the same ill-fated thing a number of times since.

Make no mistake though, God expects us to be involved in our Christian lives.  He emphasizes grace, but doesn’t mean for us to become idle, lazy, and non-seekers.  When it comes to morning devotionals, I get out of bed a little earlier, avoid social media and emails, and open my Bible.

I’ve been tempted a number of times to tell myself not to be so habit driven, to “let go and let God.”  But every time I apply the principle of grace to excuse myself from baseline Christian habits, I always begin a long slide backward.  Grace is not code for negligence.

We’re all leery of energy-sapping religious performance, but when God calls us to receive something or allow something, or rest in something, or walk in something, those activities are not considered the antithesis of grace.  They are the complement of it.  Theologians refer to that kind of work done by us as synergistic, or cooperative in nature.

Consider the verse in Philippians that says, “Work out your own salvation…for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).  The will and the work inside you represents the heavy lifting that only God can accomplish—monorgestic work.   If you’re trying to do that part, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.  It’s like trying to deadlift the weight of the world.

Our part is to “work out,” to respond to God, by opening a practical channel so the work already existing in you can emerge.  To “work out” takes some synergistic effort, like making room in my schedule for God, saying no to other early morning activities, settling myself down.  Praying.  Reading.

But religious practices are not like a crowbar to pry grace out of a stingy God.  He is already graciously willing and working.  All I need do is present myself and receive.

Without the need of anxious energy, the Holy Spirit re-speaks the words of Scripture, granting joy, directions for intercession, and even conviction.    The heavenly dew lights ever so gently upon the Words of the Bible.  As we receive those words through prayer, the same dew ends up on our very souls.

I’ve often manhandled this process.  Sometimes the dew falls on half of a scripture, not the entire thing.  I feel the need to push further and finish that verse, or even the rest of that chapter.  My desire to complete something and thus do it the “right” way, overshoots the specific matter God is addressing in me at the moment.

And so I try to accomplish what God is not doing by “oiling” more words than He has given.  If this were my time to study, I could argue that I need to outline, to find the objective of the passage in the cognitive domain (and other, smart sounding concerns).

This isn’t the time for sermon construction, but my stubbornness dictates I push through anyway.  As I do, the words grow harder, no longer plush and green, but a more distinctly brittle, brown.  They wither right past the point where God’s dew and manna stop.  Inside His selected words for the day, there’s glory and grace, praise and peace, power for service.  Outside of them, where I’ve impulsively rushed, there are thoughts and words that hold potential for tomorrow, but not now.

Not yet.

Learn more about this devotional approach in my new workbook, Presence: Praying the Scriptures to Encounter the Glory of God.    

Photo credit:  Alec Dempster



  1. Thank you, John, for this excellent word on drawing closer to God. I relate to your struggles and welcome your insights. May God continue to bless you and your relationship with the Lord in Jesus’ Name.

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