For the last several decades, the Navigators ministry and its descendants have been using the acronym TAWG (Time Alone with God). The more general vernacular for this practice is “quiet time,” or perhaps “devotions,” but whatever you call it, there is a clear culture that aims at spending extended personal time studying the Bible (and perhaps praying or journaling as well). It is a wonderful practice, stemming from a fierce desire to know God in His word.
The idea of being by yourself to commune with God (in prayer, at least) has some biblical precedents. Daniel 6:10 says that Daniel devoted three different sessions in his day to pray to God. The gospels also mention several instances of Jesus’ withdrawing to be by Himself, usually to pray(Matthew 14:13, Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16).
But TAWG is a practice that was born in an individualistic and moralistic culture, so it inherently carries individualistic and moralistic dangers. Thus, I offer a “beware” here, certainly not with the aim of eliminating the practice, but with the aim of seeing the potential dangers of what is inherently a good thing.
Danger #1: Compartmentalization
One problem with establishing a certain segment of your day as your time to “meet with God” is that you can unwittingly preclude yourself from meeting with Him in any meaningful way elsewhere. We know that “God does not dwell in temples made with human hands” (Acts 17:24), that “if I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:8). In fact, the New Covenant reality is that the Spirit of God dwells in our hearts, so not only is God generally omnipresent, He indwells us wherever we go.
Therefore, we ought not relegate Him, or our communion with Him, to any specific time or location. The rampant practice of compartmentalization often yields a form of practical atheism where thoughts of Jesus do not follow us into our daily routines, so we don’t think and feel like Christians as we face the world.
Practically speaking, I believe that meditation is the lynchpin here. I don’t mean some sort of mind-emptying, mantra-repeating Eastern discipline; I mean Romans 12:2-style mental renovation. I mean living and walking in the truth of a glorious gospel that didn’t stop being true when you shut your Bible and walked out of the house this morning.
Danger #2: Pharisaism
Horatius Bonar said it well: “All fancied sanctification which does not wholly arise from the blood of the cross is nothing better than Pharisaism.” Now, it is obvious that TAWG may be (and hopefully always is) a means to the end of knowing the love of Christ at the cross, but such a quantifiable measure of growth demands a little vigilance. I have seen too many students (including myself) judge themselves spiritually worthy by going “7-for-7” on quiet times one week, then plunge themselves into self-condemnation when the next week they go a paltry 3-for-7. As Flannery O’Connor masterfully put it, “The best way to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin.” The best way for many Christians to avoid the reality of their sin is by looking to their quiet times as a quantitative measuring stick for godliness. No missed days, no sin. No sin, no need for repentance. No repentance, no receiving of mercy. And the gospel is circumvented.
For those who are in ministry, be wary of assessing a student’s spiritual maturity simply by their consistency in the Bible. To be sure, a desire for God’s word can be a sign of maturity, but motives matter. The Pharisees had their scriptures down pat, but they were a group that was arguably the farthest from God in the history of the world. As an alternative to measuring quiet times alone, try to major on the fruit of the Spirit when assessing maturity. Love and joy matter big time.
Danger #3: Isolation
In Colossians 3:16, Paul exhorts the church in Colossae with these words:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
The exhortation of 3:16a, like many others in the New Testament, is often received by modern American readers as one aimed at the individual. But the corporate context is ignored. Were this verse written in the modern vernacular of the South, it would read, “Let the word of Christ dwell in y’all richly…” It is a call to the collective practice of getting the word soaked into the community through verbal sharing of the truth. In the first century, there was likely not strong competition between the personal study of the written word and the corporal verbal sharing of that word. After all, the printing press was not invented for another 1400 years, and the vast majority of people in the ancient Near East were illiterate. So what they did was gather together to hear the word preached and then speak it to one another throughout the week as they did life in community. Ought that dynamic to have changed once the printed word and subsequent literacy arrived on the scene?
The danger here is determining your Bible intake to be a strictly personal affair, therefore (inadvertently?) precluding any communal interaction over the scriptures during your daily conversation. This practice yields spiritual isolation and leads the inevitable daily conversations down the path of surface interactions, or worse, unchecked worldly ones.
Danger #4: Dichotomizing Worship and Ministry
We are a ministry that is committed to teaching others how to study the Bible. We therefore spend lots of 1-on-1 time with students with our Bibles open, helping them learn to chew on the scriptures and point them to Christ in every passage (John 5:39). We even teach the students to teach other students this practice. But somewhere along the lines, a subtle and sinister message has crept in: “I can worship Jesus during my TAWG, but I can’t when I study with another person.” One is fueling, the other is draining. One is rest, the other is labor.
While I understand that personality differences matter here, this mindset is indeed a danger, and it actually incorporates the first two dangers above. It compartmentalizes worship, relegating God to one’s personal closet, and it can become a Pharisaical practice, where dutiful obedience without happy overflow is a means to being an acceptable laborer before God and man.
We are called to glory in Christ together as we pore over the scriptures. We are called to confess our sins to one another, to repent together, to offer gospel grace to one another. From the current state of our mainly individualistic practices, it will likely be a real fight to get there. But fight we must. There is robust, worship-filled, communal life on the other side.