Part of the answer for this very public pastor is his private time with God.
What does a preacher noted for hisexpository Bible sermons do in his personal devotional life? CHRISTIANITY TODAY interviewed one in his home to find out. He is Charles Swindoll, senior pastor for 11 years of the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California, with a Sunday morning attendance of some 5,000. He is also speaker for the 30-minute, five-day-a-week radio program, “Insight for Living,” and the author of several books, including Improving Your Serve and Strike the Original Match.
Why is your private devotional time important to you?
For four reasons. The first is to help guard against a textbook mentality when I approach the Scriptures. I want to keep my heart warm, and break down the cynicism that easily grows out of a strictly academic kind of Bible study. The devotional time really helps that to happen.
Second, I want to allow time and space for the Lord to speak to me. I’m not referring to skywriting or some audible voice that comes out of the PA system, but times when I sense from the Scriptures, “Oh! that is really what God is saying to me about my life.” It’s a very personalized, please-listen-tome-my-child-I-have-this-to-say-to-you kind of response from God.
Third, I want to gain insight, not only into a passage of Scripture, but also into life itself.
Fourth, I’m sometimes snagged by a relationship that’s broken down, and my tendency is to rush through and ignore that in my time with the Lord. He doesn’t let me. He brings it to my attention and says, “Now listen Chuck, I want you to alter your course. Back up three spaces and come to terms with this.” Or maybe a person has been bugging me about something, or a particular anxiety may be wearing on me. I get a lot of perspective in my time with the Lord.
Are daily Bible reading and personal worship just for those who have a pietistic, mystical makeup?
No, I really believe it’s for everybody. I’ve discovered that every man or woman who has really ministered deeply to my soul had meaningful times with the Lord. I have never been deeply ministered to just on the academic level.
Another argument is that a daily quiet time is legalistic.
It certainly can be—but it need not be. I don’t meet with the Lord because someone else is doing it, or to lay a heavy guilt trip on others. I meet with the Lord for the personal benefit of keeping my heart warm and refreshed. To be frank, there are some days I don’t meet with the Lord, and I still have great days. There are other days that I do, and the bottom drops out. We ought to get away from the rabbit’s-foot kind of hocus-pocus—that if you want to line your pockets with gold you should meet early in the morning with God. That is really foolish.
As preaching pastor of a large church, how do you find any time to feed your own soul and do your personal Bible reading?
We need to discipline ourselves to make the right time, and if it’s not working, to change the time. For some, it’s at lunchtime; for others, it’s early morning. For some people, it’s after the kids are in bed. Back in the fifties my time was pretty much my own, and it was easy to stay with a structured early morning routine. I remember even keeping a special notebook then—kind of checking in with the Lord and checking out. As time has passed I have had to become more flexible; I have been forced to. We now have four children, and the demands have grown until I no longer can say my time is my own. However, I still do reserve time regularly with the Lord. I still make this a high priority in my life.
It’s also important to have a place, and usually the same place each time, but not in some “sacred” spot you can’t reach in less than three hours. The place ought to be easily accessible and private—not on display so that others can watch me in prayer.
Could you describe what your personal devotional time might be like?
When I am with the Lord, I approach him as a very close friend. I’m honest, open with him. I will include singing and reading of the Scriptures, often reading them aloud, sometimes in prayer. I also include times of silence, where I’m just with him. Sometimes I’m on my knees; often I sit at my desk; sometimes I’m here at home. But the focus is always on worship, praise, and adoration.
What draws me to him most are times of crisis, high periods of anxiety, when I’m facing big decisions, and days when I feel I’m lacking perspective or insight, which happens to me every week—in fact, several days a week. It isn’t always just problem solving, though there is some of that.
What benefits do you perceive as issuing from your devotional times?
Some I call “overflow benefits.” In counseling, sometimes the very insight that is needed in assisting a person in his struggle comes right out of the devotional time I’ve had with the Lord. Or on hospital visits, God will lead me to turn to the very verse I had from him in his Word that morning. Sometimes the encouragement of a friend, or one of our children, or my own wife, or a fellow pastor, will grow out of that. It overflows into another life.
I would also add problem solving in the home: a communication breakdown, or a problem with one of the children or the neighbors, financial woes, or sickness, or in-laws, or aging. I will sometimes say, “Lord, give me direction or hope in this particular thing,” and it is remarkable how he will almost lift the print off the page and write it over that problem.
What about the benefits of a personal quiet time for the lay person?
I think a person who does this on his own gains a familiarity with God. As J. I. Packer put it, “They come to know God” in a deep, meaningful way. They’re not eating predigested food. They also become familiar with God’s Word so that when the bottom drops out of their life they don’t need a tape from Chuck Swindoll. They simply need to open to Psalm 27 and read. When we get really hungry or lonely—the crisis times—there’s nothing like fixing your own meal and seeing God supply the need.
What are the primary enemies of satisfying personal Bible reading?
Persistent sin, for one. One of my profs used to say, “A dusty Bible and a dirty life go together.” When I’m struggling with a particular sin, I tend to have very little interest in biblical intake: the sin blocks it.
But without a doubt, the most practical battle I face is just the same old pressure-of-time problem. Just as I have to set aside time to work out to keep my weight down, so I have to set aside time to be with God. What used to defeat me was that I thought it took a couple of hours. To be frank, five to ten minutes of meaningful time with God can be absolutely sufficient. We don’t have to turn people into one- or two-hour-a-day Bible wonders.
Some particular battles I’ve fought that have kept my times with the Lord from being highly productive have been:
• Just putting it off—procrastination;
• Getting sidetracked, falling into the professional trap of following the nuance of a verb or a parallel passage down some academic rabbit-trail.
• Becoming so preoccupied with pressures around me that I’m reading black words on white pages—they’re not really registering.
What do you do when you come up empty—when you hit nothing but dry spots?
That definitely occurs; maybe I’m preoccupied, or maybe there’s something that blocks receptivity. When that happens, I try not to panic and think I’ve suddenly lost the Spirit. But not only does the Bible have dry spots, so does the newspaper. So does every novel I’ve read. So do people—even in relationships like marriage there are dry spots. This is the most normal thing in the world, and tomorrow will be different.
I try not to get derailed over a brief dry spell. When it comes, I don’t Unger two hours trying to force the Bible to say something fresh. That’s like trying to get sap out of a hoe handle. It isn’t going to come.
You would not be worried, then, if a person came to you and said he’s not getting a warm devotional feeling or thrill out of his personal devotions every day?
No. I don’t think the Bible is full of big-time tingles. In fact, I’d be worried if he said he got a thrill out of it every day. I’d wonder who he’s listening to or what book he’s reading.
Another thing: not every day is “my day.” There are some days when the Bible says a lot, but I’m just not plugged in for some reason. When I’m in the wrong frame of mind or my mind is on some anxiety, maybe what I need to do is spend that time in prayer or take a long walk. I may be suffering from a physical block or some emotional drain that I’m not even aware of. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and to think that at 6:00 A.M. tomorrow we can plug in to everything we need to get from God’s Word is being pretty unrealistic.
Back to structure: How do you keep from reading Ephesians all the time and get into Micah? How do you discipline yourself to dip into all different types of biblical material?
One of my desires in my time with the Lord is to keep it fresh. There are few things worse than the old, dull routine of always reading through the Psalms, or Ephesians. I vary the diet: Old Testament, New Testament; biography, narrative; one verse, a whole chapter or a whole book; sometimes an entire life, or a particular segment of a life. It may be the temptation that Samson failed; the anxiety that Paul lived with in 2 Corinthians 11; the battle of God’s will in Acts 16 where the doors finally closed on Paul and he had to face the fact there was something else for him. When I go through times like that I try to find a passage that would relate to it and see what it says to me.
I would say to guard against a routine. Don’t go too long, and don’t try to go too deeply or you’ll wind up doing an academic study. Occasionally enjoy your devotional time with another person—your mate, one of your children if they’re old enough, maybe a close Christian friend. Remember Jesus’ words: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Devotional time is the same way. It’s to benefit us; we’re not made to fit into some particular scheme.
Do you have any other suggestions for keeping your devotional life fresh?
Try a long walk with the Lord. Carry a Testament and select a short psalm or several verses from the New Testament and meditate on them while you’re walking. Another thing I do is commit a verse or passage to memory and then meditate on those words while jogging. It also helps make the two or three miles go by faster!
More in the past than recently, I have kept a day-to-day journal—not a diary—describing what God has been doing in my life, areas in which he has been dealing with me. It’s a personal dialogue with God, where I write down the things I think he’s showing me. It is a very personal thing; even my wife has never read my journal.
Another way to keep it fresh is to pursue a particular goal for a month—the same New Testament letter each day, for example, or the prayers of a biblical character like Daniel or one of the prophets. Another would be the pursuit of one subject or a biblical character. There are many devotional guides you can use to guide you through a particular Bible study, like cassette tapes. The problem there is that you tend to get too involved in the recording, getting only what the other person has suggested.
Do you make it a point to keep your pastoral and devotional Bible study entirely separate?
No, I don’t. People often say, “You know, Swindoll, you are especially gifted in the area of application.” What they don’t realize is that that application has really grown out of my time with the Lord in that particular passage. I don’t operate on two islands—one a quiet devotional time with the Lord, and the other some special Bible study for teaching.
I just can’t separate my devotional use of the Bible from my preaching use of it. And to be frank, I don’t want to. What I really want is a two-fisted punch: I want to have a good, solid, accurate grasp of the passage, but not to the exclusion of a warm, gracious touch from God. In order for that to happen, I really believe devotional time with the Lord is essential.
Do you bang away pretty hard in the pulpit at the necessity of having a quiet time?
I do not address it that much from the pulpit. I would hope that my modeling it is enough to whet people’s appetites to do that kind of thing in their own lives. I think it’s obvious to anyone under my teaching that my thoughts are not just cranked out of a commentary, but come from my times with God. I don’t say, “Now, everybody listen up. I just had three hours with God, and he showed me …” We shouldn’t be parading our piety, but modeling authentic Christianity. That’s magnetic and winsome in itself.
What versions do you use in your personal devotions?
In my own Bible study I’m using the New American Standard Bible. However, it is not uncommon for me to use the Living Bible and the New International Version, which read a little easier than the NASB. I’ve always enjoyed J. B. Phillips, and still find him terribly refreshing.
Over your 20-year span as a pastor, have you followed one of the guides that takes you through the whole Bible in one year, or devised some plan of your own?
I really have never found outside plans that useful. I cut my teeth on the old Navigators “Search the Scriptures.” That was very helpful until I began to do my own inductive study. Then I felt I needed to move into a program of Bible reading and study I could devise for myself.
But if you were talking to a person back where you were 30 years ago, would you offer him some type of daily Bible-reading structure—say that of Navigators or Inter-Varsity?
Certainly. And I don’t believe we should play favorites. We’re not a headquarters for Inter-Varsity’s program or “Walk Through the Bible,” any other organization helpful though these may be. So from time to time we make different methods available.
Would your counsel be that it’s good to have a plan to get started in using the Bible in personal devotions?
Oh, yes. I certainly did. And occasionally I will go back to one for maybe a month.
Could you give a bit more guidance for those who do use devotional aids?
I would stress variety. There are times when A. W. Tozer—maybe one of his short articles out of The Root of the Righteous, Of God and Man, or Born After Midnight—will just hit the spot, and it’s all I’ll need to spur me onto the right kind of thought for the day. F. B. Meyer has also written a number of helpful things. I personally don’t benefit much from the day-today-type volumes—Friday, September 4, read so-and-so.
One of the most popular isDaily Light.
What I find—and I don’t have Daily Light in mind—is that those day-today things are not exceedingly accurate with the biblical text. The devotion seems to drift into an other-world type of mysticism that doesn’t minister to me deeply. I’m a meat-and-potatoes, bone-and-muscle type of guy, so I don’t need nine lessons drawn from how the pearl is produced by the oyster. I like the more concrete: “Jesus covers three things in his statement: The hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the need for discipline in our life …” and so on. I draw a lot from that kind of stuff because it’s right from the text.
How do you respond to people who say, “I barely made it through high school” or “I try to read the Bible, but I can’t understand it?”
That person needs a version of the Bible that’s earthy, that’s concrete. Anybody who cannot read the Living Bible is illiterate; it’s easier to read than a sports page. Now, he will never do serious Bible study in the Living Bible, but that’s not why Ken Taylor wrote it. He wrote it for folks who find themselves tangled up in the “thee’s” and “thou’s” and the “begets” in the old versions. There are versions and biblical helps today that can assist a person who feels he can’t get it. That person also may need some discipleship and encouragement. If a pastor of a small church can give individual time to one of his struggling deacons or elders, two or three weeks of meeting with him could pay years of dividends.
Do you and your wife ever read the Bible together?
We do. We have time together each morning. But it is not always Bible reading and study together. It is not uncommon for us to end our times in prayer with each other regarding some direction that’s needed at that time or some problem that we’re working through in our separate but related ministries.
Do you think your four children have picked up your hunger for the Bible from what they’ve seen in your life?
Yes, and it is beautiful to see how the Lord has become their very close friend. He is not an ecclesiastical kind of stained-glass individual who is reserved for Sundays. We have a realistic relationship around our home. For example, the children are never corrected in their lifestyles because I’m a minister. The reason is always, “You are a Christian—what would you want to do as a child of God?” It is not, “You need to do this because it will make your dad look better.” Christ is really a friend of ours—truly the Lord of our home. He’s easy to live with.
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