Over the years, I’ve received many requests from people looking for devotional literature. The one person wants a book of devotions for retired couples. The other wants a book for engaged couples. Still another is looking for something for their teenager. I used to search high and low for things I could recommend for these niche needs. No longer.
Now I recommend that people just start with reading the Bible prayerfully. Why is it that everyone feels they need someone to make the Bible relevant for them? It’s almost as if we’ve returned to the stereotype of the medieval church: everyone talks about the Bible but no one reads it for themselves. The Bible seems to have become a mysterious book which someone else has to interpret and apply for us.
Not to Replace Scripture but Supplement
That said, there is a place for devotional literature. There is a place for authors to share their meditations on sacred Scripture. There is a place for us to learn from our forebears how to pray and think Christianly. Yet these things ought never to replace our going directly to the source for ourselves. They should be supplementary.
Moreover, I wish we could lose this idea of niche devotionals — the devotional for the unemployed single mother, the devotional for the engaged couple, etc., etc. This trend is reflective of the narcissism of our day: everyone needs something crafted exactly for their personal, individual needs. Whatever happened to the Catholic Church? Whatever happened to the communion of saints? Whatever happened to being able to think and apply general truths to your individual needs?
Types of Devotionals
There are different types of devotionals. There’s your traditional devotional which has a reading for each day of the year. Usually each day has a Bible passage to read, often just a verse or two. Most of the time the author expounds and applies that Bible passage, although there are now some devotionals which might rarely or not at all involve a reading from the Scriptures.
There are also devotional books developed out of sermons. These books go into depth with one or more Scripture passages. The purpose is not primarily intellectual, but spiritual and transformative. The Puritans and other older writers are well-known for this type of literature.
Finally, there are devotional books composed of prayers. You can read through these in a meditative fashion and then use them as the starting point for your own prayers. You can also pray them for yourself as they’re written. A deeper and richer prayer life can be gained by listening in to other saints’ communication with our God.
Cautions with Devotionals
Besides the niche concern, I see three other prevalent issues with devotional books. The first is one I hinted at above: devotions disconnected from the Bible. Beware of devotional books which are just presenting an author’s ideas. Those ideas may be based on the Bible and consistent with the Bible, but the less explicit that becomes the greater the risk of not being able to discern truth from error.
A second prevalent issue involves working with the Scriptures in a way that misses their redemptive focus. For instance, I’ve encountered devotions where Old Testament figures are exclusively treated as positive or negative examples for believers today – with no consideration of how they connect to Christ and the gospel. Christ said that the entire Old Testament points to him, but there are devotions which miss that entirely. That’s sad.
A third common issue is a superficial treatment of Scripture. I have a lot of appreciation for Charles Spurgeon and his gospel instincts. He wanted to preach Christ and that’s miles ahead of many other preachers past and present. His popular Morning and Evening devotional book was based on Scripture and sought to proclaim Christ. Nevertheless, there are moments where the leaps he makes are difficult (if not impossible) to justify.
It really is an art to be able to write a 300-400 word devotion that expounds Scripture appropriately, brings Christ and the gospel to bear on the reader, is theologically sound, and at the same time easy and pleasant to read. Not everyone can pull it off well. Let me highlight some which, in my opinion, can be recommended.
The Valley of Vision – Various authors, edited by Arthur Bennett
This has long been one of my favourites. This is a collection of prayers from Puritans and Puritan-minded folks. Prayers are here from Thomas Watson, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon and many others. My only complaint about this volume is that it doesn’t tell you where the prayers are from or who wrote which prayers. This book is also available in a bonded leather edition. It would be a great gift for young people doing public profession of faith.
Meditations on Divine Mercy – Johann Gerhard
Still on the subject of prayer, there’s this volume from Johann Gerhard, a Lutheran theologian from the seventeenth century. I just recently discovered this and it’s beautiful and powerful. Throughout Gerhard is either quoting Scripture or working with scriptural concepts.
The Great Gain of Godliness – Thomas Watson
Thomas Watson is my favourite Puritan. People with a stereotype of the Puritans as obscure and difficult need to read Watson. This is a great one with which to start, an exposition of Malachi 3:16-18. Here’s a sample quote: “Let us get love to Christ. Love is a holy transport. It fires the affections, steels the courage, and carries a Christian above the love of life, and the fear of death. Many waters cannot quench love (Song of Sol. 8:7). Love made Christ suffer for us. If anyone ask what Christ died of, it may be answered, He died of love” (p.10).
Unseen Footprints – Peter Feenstra
This one contains 260 meditations based on various Scripture passages. At the rate of five per week, a family or individual reader could work through it in a year. In the process, the author will take you through most of the books of Bible in succession. Feenstra works closely with the Scriptures and brings biblical teaching to bear on believers as they live in today’s world. The book is replete with contemporary application. Most importantly of all, the author is careful to be Christ-centered.
Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms – Various authors, edited by Peter H. Holtvluwer
Because of our narcissistic age, many automatically think the Psalms are primarily about us. Yet the New Testament teaches us to regard them first as the songs of our Saviour and then, only in connection with him, are they about us. This collection of devotions works on that premise. Authored by 16 Reformed ministers, Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms touches on each of the 150 psalms. Each psalm has at least two devotions, even the short ones like 117 and 131. Psalm 119 is the notable exception with 11 devotions. There are also two appendices. One has devotions on psalms related to events in Christ’s ministry; the other has devotions on psalms for seasonal events like Thanksgiving. Highly recommended.
The Pearl of Christian Comfort – Petrus Dathenus
Finally, there’s this classic by Petrus Dathenus. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was involved with the production of our liturgical forms as well as an early edition of the Genevan psalter in Dutch. As Joel Beeke aptly summarizes it on the back cover, “This succinct treatise lets the light of Scripture shine clearly on the practical issues involved in teaching and living the doctrines of sovereign grace.” Dathenus powerfully points Christians to an all-sufficient Saviour as the true “pearl of great price.”