Last night my family used our congregation’s Evening Prayer Holy Week service for our family prayers. One of the common terms for these times of hearing God’s Word, meditation, catechesis, and prayer is devotions. What do we mean by devotions?
The word has a cultic, religious connotation. To be devoted is to be given over to or dedicated. It implies actions that demonstrate or prove one’s adherence to their god(s). Family devotions may suggest this time as an act of obedience or duty. To be a devoted Christian is to set aside a time for the Word and prayer. If you are regular in devotions then faith is not in question or jeopardy.
This connotation is carried by the Jewish practices of the Old Testament. There was the mandatory recitation twice a day of the Shema Israel (Deut 6:4). This is followed by commands to teach them to children, to pray them regularly, and the command (taken literally) to bind them to the head and arm (phylacteries.) Other devotion includes the prayers at meals and times of blessing and thanks. This devotion was assumed into Christian practice and modeled by Luther in the Small Catechism with its Morning, Evening, and meal prayers.
Why devotions? The particular struggle is of the simul justus et peccator, the life of the justified sinner. The old sinner wants nothing to do with God in His Word. The new saint loves God and is bound to Him in Jesus Christ. The old man takes these devotions and responds in two ways. Either he hates them and is constantly seeking to undermine your attentiveness to God’s Word. Or the old man loves them and uses the act of doing them to convey a sense of self-justification. “Look at how good you are doing at your devotions this week! Surely, God loves you because you’re so devoted!”
However the new man, the saint of God, needs no compulsion or obligation to hear God’s voice. The saint knows and believes that he is justified exclusively for the sake of Christ Jesus, and even his failed attempts at devotion are redeemed for in the blood of Christ.
So what then are these devotions? I’d like to suggest the term may carry with it unhelpful suggestions of merit or worth. It may carry with it a faulty view of the Christian faith, i.e., we devote ourselves to God. On the contrary, God is obstinately devoted to us, to a most glorious fault. Devotion is not known in our little weak prayers, the whine of spoiled children. Devotion is known by Christ’s passion. He devotes himself to suffering and death perfectly and completely.
If true devotion is known in Christ Jesus only, then our devotion is also known in our receiving of Him. To be devoted is to be bound to Christ, continuing in the gifts He gives. No one can serve to masters (Luke 16:13). The church is devoted to God insofar as they continue in their baptisms, the apostle’s doctrine, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:41-43). These are the gifts that Christians persist in obstinately. God in Christ is completely devoted to us. He has ordained means of the Spirit to give us the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.