The Case for Messy Devotions

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Ah, family devotions, that part of the day when an angelic calm rests upon the whole family; all the disheveled hair suddenly falls into perfectly combed rows; every ounce of energy drains from the body of your five-year-old; and from the oldest to the youngest, determined focus to study the deep mysteries of God’s Word defines the atmosphere of the living room.

If you’ve been doing (or attempting to do) family devotions for any amount of time, you’re probably snickering at how unlike your family this description is. Or if you’re just considering starting regular family devotions, this might describe your aspirations. For those war-weary veterans of family devotions, my hope is to encourage you onward. To those just starting out, I aim to provide a foundation of Biblical expectations, rather than idyllic, Thomas Kinkade sort of expectations.

As Christian parents, we almost certainly have the idea that we should be leading family worship regularly—either daily or weekly—in some way, shape, or form. We know the importance of handing down to our children a love for God and His Word. The challenge comes in with how.

First off, let’s firm up what our objective should be when it comes to shaping what our family should look like. This will then help us define what our devotions should look like. There’d be nothing worse than having an un-Christian home twenty-three and a half hours of the day and trying to shape up into the ultimate Christian family for a half hour in the evening. We want distinctively Christian homes that have distinctively Christian devotions, not un-Christian homes that try to look Christian a few times a week.

Deuteronomy provides the ultimate covenantal mindset for how to shape a Christian home: “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:7).

Notice that diligent instruction of the family is happening at every turn. A Christian parent views every situation as a chance to “catechize” their children in the ways of the Lord. And remember that this command in Deuteronomy 6:7 is preceded by perhaps the earliest creed of God’s people (often called “The Shema”) of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which confesses our duty to “love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Our ongoing instruction of our children should be undergirded by the firm foundation of ultimately teaching them to love the Lord their God!

If our goal is to teach our children what it means to be the people of God, we find that it is often the impromptu moments that hold the greatest weight and teach the most important lessons. I remember trying to get through to our eldest child about why hitting was not kind. Then one day she was pushed on the playground by a snot-nosed bully, and it was there, in that moment, that my weeks of faithfully sowing godly instruction finally sprouted.

So while it is important to set about organizing a particular and regular time of family worship, it is more important to set about building a home that is seeking to become like Jesus at every level of family life. I want myself, my wife, and my children to all grow in Christ-likeness. If I wish to accomplish this, I need to keep in mind that my family is more like a garden than a machine.

Psalm 128:3 paints a picture of a godly and blessed family: “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table.” I need to remember that they aren’t cogs to be oiled and jiggered with, but fragile plants that need nurturing. This means that growth will be the process of patient sowing, weeding, and watering. If a machine is broken, you can call the repairman, and it’ll be back up and running in the hour—but the health of the plant is only shown over a long season of patient cultivation.

Practically, this looks like regularly going out to the garden, plucking up weeds, gently watering, and fostering a habitat in which the plants can thrive. Yelling at them for the slowness of their growth won’t help, and no amount of my sweat will guarantee a harvest. After all, there isn’t an owner’s manual for gardens. All of this is, of course, a spiritual undertaking and thus requires me, as a Christian parent, to cast myself upon the Holy Spirit to bring about change of heart in my family. Only He can produce the fruit, which means I must trust in Him and not in a process, routine, or schedule.

Think of it this way: as a loving parent, you probably have a regular time for dinner that, by force of habit, gets woven into the fabric of the family culture (if you don’t regularly have meals together, there’s a good place to start). At mealtime, especially with little ones, success is not determined by how much milk isn’t spilled, how clean the faces are when the meal is over, or how many potty breaks interrupt dinnertime. The meal is a success if bellies are full.

If you think that because the kiddos wiggled and giggled through family devotions it was a failure, you’re aiming at the wrong objective. Of course, we need to be teaching our children self-control, and we need to be attentive when more formal times of instruction are taking place. However, the success is that your family was together, singing unto God, making it through another Bible verse, learning a catechism (and in our house getting a candy for each correctly answered question), and hearing a story of a faithful saint in history.

Further, in all of this you should bear in mind that part of your broader goal is to prepare your family to join the entire congregation of saints on Sunday. After all, you want your children to understand that they are a part of something bigger than just your family; they are a part of God’s worldwide family, with whom we “break bread” with every Sunday.

If your family devotions feel messy, don’t worry. Your goal is to regularly feed your family both physically and spiritually! Just like every mealtime isn’t going to be a flawless moment that could grace the cover of Martha Stewart Magazine, so every family devotion time probably won’t go off without at least one hitch (e.g., the toddler needs a potty break, someone rings the doorbell, or the squirming nine-year-old spills his lemonade).

Tools like Heroic Life Discipleship’s curriculum can be an immense help in getting things organized for you. Think of it as the spiritual counterpart to a pre-made meal-plan. Of course, we should be training our kids to not spill their milk at supper time and correspondingly to be able to sit still and participate in a mature way during family devotions. But these things come with time and patience. Remember, to circle back to my previous metaphor, your goal is not to fix your family (as if they were a broken machine); they are a garden that needs to be routinely tended.

Above all, trust God and His promise that “Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD; that walketh in his ways” (Psa. 128:1). God blesses a man with a fruitful family if that man fears the Lord and walks in God’s ways. Set about routinely feeding your family a diet of God’s Word. Do this in the car, while you wait in line at the store, when a loved one passes away, when a fight between siblings breaks out, and, of course, at family devotion time. Don’t worry too much if the milk gets spilled along the way.

The Heroic Life Family Discipleship Curriculum provides content for biblical devotions that results in real life application and greater family unity. It makes Biblical concepts easy to understand for younger children while engaging youth as well. We provide tools to help you keep your family focused so everyone can draw observations from scripture and practically implement and experience God’s Word in their day-to-day lives. Learn more about our Family Discipleship Curriculum, coming August 2017! 

Ben Zornes is a freewheeling author who writes on a variety of topics over at his blog, BenZornes.com. He currently is the Executive Pastor at Christ Church in Moscow, ID, and is pursuing his master’s degree at New Saint Andrews College. He has a wife and, for now, two children who jump on him a lot—thus far, no serious injuries to report.

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