November 16, 2021
For those who are in Christ, God’s Word in Scripture is the ultimate authority for worship and conduct. So what role do devotional books play in a Christian’s spiritual growth? In anticipation of the release of the first volume of his devotional Truth For Life, Alistair Begg sits down with Bob Lepine to discuss his devotional practices, the value of “quiet time” with the Lord, and why the best devotional reading is always that which turns us back to the Bible.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Bob Lepine: First of all, I think this devotional is a gift to all of us, and I know listeners are anxiously excited to get a copy of it. Tell me about your own use of devotionals throughout your life. Are you a five-in-the-morning-quiet-time, get-up, spend-an-hour-with-the-Lord guy or not?
Alistair Begg: Well, I usually get up every morning—except on really depressing days. But, no… Yeah, actually, the older I get, the earlier I do rise. But from the very beginning, in my growing up years as a child, devotions around the breakfast table were part and parcel of my life. So, I think the ones that I remember were probably Daily Light, where we had that little book that was always there beside the table, which would have a verse or two, and then, if I remember correctly, there was a kind of story of worth. Usually I paid more attention to the story than I did to the text, which is, of course, one of the dangers of, I think, a certain kind of devotional. But so, that was sort of an established pattern for me.
Then, as a schoolboy, Scripture Union notes were part of my life. They came out. You picked them up. I can’t remember where we would get them, but they went, you know, I think a couple of months at a time. They were more scriptural—as you would expect, called the Scripture Union. And that’s where they had the series of questions to ask of the text: Is there a command to obey? Is there a promise to accept? Is there a sin to avoid? What does this teach us about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit? So that it started you at least on a journey that said, “I’m not reading this in the hope that some peculiar blessing will arrive from nowhere but that I’m looking into the Word that I might understand why it’s there, what it means, why it matters”—that kind of thing.
So, you know, fast-forward through all the years, and that has sort of continued with me. The importance in British Christianity of your quiet time—you know, if you read John Stott, you’ll find that he, you know, wants to argue very, very much for making sure that we have that quiet time, and so I’ve tried to make sure that I’ve paid attention to that, and still do.
Bob: You’ve benefited from and encouraged others to read Spurgeon’s devotional thoughts, the Morning by Morning and Evening by Evening. Are there others that have stood out to you as being foundational devotionals that you’ve fed off of through the years?
Alistair: Well, the Spurgeon one was not part of my growing up years. You know, I’ve come to that later on. And, you know, yeah, of course, we make use of that, and I think people benefit from it. It has, of course, archaic elements to it.
Yeah, what—Streams in the Desert. That was one. Daily Light—which is not actually the same as Radio Bible Class—but Daily Light, I have various editions of that, nice leatherbound ones. And what was in there was a sort of thematic approach to passages of the Bible, which, you know, ties together, you know, sort of loosely connected verses, which works against really figuring out why they’re there or what they mean and in what context.
But in terms of, you know, saying, “I want the entrance of God’s Word to bring light into my life, I want it to shine on my pathway,” that kind of thing, those were part and parcel of it.
Bob: Colossians chapter 3 says we are to set our minds on things that are above. I think turning to a devotional alongside whatever Bible reading you’re doing on a daily basis is one of the ways that we set our minds for the day, or in our day, on heavenly things. It’s really easy to be consumed with the things of this earth, and we need to be diligent to set our minds, don’t we?
Alistair: Yes, definitely. I mean, the… And I think there are peculiar challenges now—or opportunities, depending on how you want to look at it—but, you know, given the fact that our phones give us access to everything, which means that everything is clamoring for our attention simultaneously. When you had to wait for the newspaper to be delivered, then you could read your Bible before it arrived. If it managed to reach you before, you know, then you had to make a decision. Now, when you waken in the morning, I have, you know, the Truth for Life app, which is saying, “Come on,” but I also have The Times of London. And so I’ve got the constant challenge, you know: Am I gonna go to the Scriptures, or am I gonna go to The Times? And, you know, some days I go one way, and some days I go the other.
But your point is well made: that we want to be, if you like, turning to the events of the day in light of the unerring truths of Scripture, so that we’re, if you like, reading our newspapers through the lens the Bible rather than the other way around.
Bob: When you went to work on this devotional, what was your hope or your goal for us, as readers, that we would get out of our engagement with what you presented?
Alistair: Well, I think the same as when you and I endeavor to teach the Bible: that it would be more than simply an awareness of what the Bible says, but that through the work of the Holy Spirit, that it might lead us into, if you like, a divine encounter with God—that through the Scriptures coming alive to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we don’t simply find out things that we need to know, but we meet with God in a particular way. And so, the hope is that that is actually what happens: that the Word of God does the work of God and that the way in which material unfolds, hopefully, the particular passage of Scripture for the day will do just that; it will help to unfold the Scripture, and it will not be a distraction to the Scripture.
Bob: And you see devotional reading as different than Bible study. Talk about how those fit together and the benefits of each for our lives spiritually.
Alistair: Well, I think we have to guard against the notion that devotional has to do with our hearts and leaves our minds outside, whereas, you know, Bible study is all about the mind and leaves our hearts outside. Ideally, the best Bible study stuff leads us to a devotional commitment to Christ, the one of whom the Scriptures speak. And ideally, devotional reading causes us to think properly about things.
So, yeah, there is a distinction, insofar as when we think in terms of Bible study, we might be doing word studies, we might be trying to understand how this fits within the broader context of things, in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be true in just devotional material. We’re not trying to set a particular passage in Mark’s Gospel within the overall sweep of the Gospel of Mark or with that in relationship to, you know, the Old Testament canon and so on. That’s beyond the scope of a devotional encounter. But we want to make sure that, you know, it is through our minds to the heart.
Bob: So, as a Christian is ordering his spiritual life and his spiritual disciplines, where does devotional reading fit into our week, and where does Bible study fit into our week? How would you recommend to somebody that they engage with Scriptures using these different tools?
Alistair: Well, you know, my own personal approach to things is to just take M’Cheyne’s Bible readings and to be reading through the entire Bible in a year. And so, you know, some people have never even launched into such an adventure. And so, I would hope that, for example, making use of our devotional material would not circumvent that kind of approach—that it would be an important part of the day, but that it would be supplemental to everything else that’s going on in terms of our being encountered by the Scriptures.
Bob: So, if the option is reading the Bible or reading your devotional, you’d say read the Bible.
Alistair: Absolutely. Yes. Yeah, that’s good. But that hopefully, somebody who is engaging with the Bible in this way would find that their devotional reading leads them to say, “I want to find out more about this”—that it will then lead them to Bible study, and that, hopefully, that that will be set within the context of a local church environment where the Bible is actually being taught to them in a way that is helping them to realize that the big picture of the Bible is a picture that we can get ahold of and grapple with.
Bob: I remember early in my Christian life, as I was beginning to read through the Bible in a year—I think it was January fourth—my assignment was Genesis 9 through 12. And I got to the end of Genesis 12, and I had so many questions about what I had just read about the Tower of Babel and about the calling of Abram out of Ur and the Chaldees, and where is Ur, and who are the Chaldees? It was hard for me to go on to Genesis 13 when I had so many questions about the earlier passages. You would say we should continue to plow through, even if our mind is littered with questions—continue reading the Bible, and yet try to answer some of those questions at the same time?
Alistair: Well, you know, it’s a judgment call, isn’t it? Because we don’t want it to become… You know, I often say to people—they want to start reading the Bible; I say,
“Well, why don’t you just start reading the Gospel of Mark? Don’t let’s launch into Genesis and Exodus at the moment. We can start at Mark and work our way around. We’ll eventually come to Genesis.”
Yeah, it depends on how our minds are. You know, if you’ve got an investigative mind that stumbles over these things or wants to unpack them, then it will become a more tedious journey, I think, than someone who’s more superficial like myself, who is saying, “Well, I’ll get back to that at some point, but I must keep going.”
Yeah, I think it’s good, actually, just when we’re reading the Bible in that way, to have a notebook and just to make a note of things that are there for further investigation, if you like. Because otherwise, we won’t get very far very fast at all, because, you know, we’re gonna have questions all over the place.
Bob: Yeah. I’ve also had the experience of reading through a devotional or a couple of chapters of the Bible and closing the book and not remembering anything I’d just read. I was doing it. I was checking it off my list: “I know I’m supposed to do this.” But I was distracted while doing it. How can I come to a devotional or to the Scriptures and really get the most out of it? What kind of prayer should I pray as I open the Word?
Alistair: Yeah. Well, I mean, again coming back to the Scripture Union notes, they had all of that covered. I think we were supposed to pray, “O Lord, open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things out of your Law, out of your Word.” Now, you can pray that, of course, as we can pray anything, in a perfunctory fashion. But when we actually mean it…
So, again, it has to do with little things like, where are we? What time is it? You know, what is my objective in doing this? If it is, as you say, because the way my mind works is, I just have certain things to do in the day, and this is one that I have to get through in order to get on to the next thing, then there’s precious little gonna be gained from that, I think. I’m almost tempted to say just forget it. You know what I mean? Because it’s like asking somebody a question you don’t even want the answer to, you know, because you’re supposed to appear to be interested in somebody. It’s actually rude. Right. Because it’s like “Hello, I must be going.” You know, “Good morning, God. Thank you. Goodbye.”
So, I think, again, setting a place, setting a time, whether it’s lunchtime or whatever time it is, where you can actually be quiet and be outwith the framework of other things… You know, it’s not impossible to do this sitting in the middle of Starbucks—we can do that—or riding on the train as we’re going into London or wherever we are, Chicago. No. But when you think about being devoted to somebody and spending time with somebody and being in their presence and wanting to “look them in the eye,” as it were, undistracted by everyone and everything else around you, then that’s an entirely different approach to things. And somewhere along the line, we want to be developing that kind of intimacy.
I mean, Brother Lawrence spoke about, you know, practicing the presence of God—which, of course, we recognize is true all day, every day, everywhere. We realize that. But to be able to say—and I’m always struck by people who say, “You know, that’s where his Bible always was. That’s where you could find him sitting. You could count on him being there.” I mean, I think of the end of Francis Schaeffer’s life, and Edith said of him that he had reached a point where he could no longer read his Bible as he would normally have done, but he kept it by his bedside, and he used to pat it. You know, like, I mean, you’re not gonna pat it just… No, it’s because it was everything to him.
Bob: Yeah. Is it typical for you or is it occasional for you that when you open a devotional or you come to God’s Word, that when you’re done, you go, “That was the word I needed for today; God just spoke to me and gave me the thought, the perspective, the orientation”? Does that happen regularly or occasionally for you?
Alistair: Yeah, I would say if we are actually intent on doing that… Like this morning, in our pastoral team meeting for prayer, as we read Psalm 15 and Psalm 16, I said, when we had concluded reading it around, I said, “Okay, what is your phrase for the day?” And so people called out phrases. I said, “Regard it as a boiled candy, as it were, that you’re gonna take with you into the day, and when your mouth is dry, you can pop it out and suck on it for a while.”
So, if one is approaching the Scriptures in that way, actually looking for that, for a phrase, then yeah, you will get a phrase. I mean, “I have set the Lord always before me.” You say, “Well, I’m not sure that I have, but I know that I want to.” Or, “My heart is glad and my hope in me rejoices.” You say, “Well, I’m not sure that I have been this glad or it’s rejoicing. I’m not sure my work colleagues would immediately attach that to me.” So that instead of it being just there as an affirmation, which it is on the part of David the psalmist, it can be something to me.
However, you know, when you’re reading like—you know, I read Jeremiah 40 today. Now, admittedly, I didn’t go looking for a phrase, but a lot of it just passed me by. And I said to myself, “If I’m going to really come to terms with Jeremiah 40, I’m gonna have to go back and read this again, and read it more slowly, and find out who in the world everybody is here.”
Bob: I think about conversations I’ve had with my wife through the years. And there have been those where I’ve been engaged, and there have been those where I’ve been distracted and thinking about other things. And often my wife will say, “Did you hear what I just said? Are you really… Where are you? What are you focused on?” Right? And when I come to God’s Word, I have to come with an intentionality that “I’m here to hear from you, not just to show up and get my spiritual brownie points for the day.”
Alistair: Yeah, I think the one thing that we really have to guard against is the idea of, you know, a blessing, as it were, sort of popping out of nowhere. Now, that’s not because we don’t believe that God pops little blessings out of nowhere. We absolutely believe that. But I don’t think that should be our MO. You know, the hymn writer says, “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings; it is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings.” You know, and we know what that means: that all of a sudden, you know, just the sunlight, you know, appears on a cloudy day, on a spiritually cloudy day; on a dark November day, the Lord, you know, picks up our spirits. And we rejoice in that. But if, you know, if that’s how we quantify whether what we’re doing is right, whether it’s good, or whether it’s beneficial, we’re probably gonna be more disheartened than heartened.
Bob: Yeah. One of the rhythms of your life is to be focused on a passage of Scripture for hours during a week as you prepare to preach on Sunday. So I know you’re regularly meditating on, reviewing, considering a particular text. How does daily devotional time fit together with that kind of regular Bible study?
Alistair: Yeah. Um, you know, I have sort of agonized over that from time to time—like, “Well, wait a minute. Why are you reading, you know, 2 Samuel 11? That’s not your devotional time.” You know, “You’re borrowing from your devotional time to do your study time.” And I used to get myself all tied up in knots, you know. Maybe I was right to tie myself up in knots, but the knots have unraveled for me a long time ago.
I remember the late R. C. Sproul being asked a similar question, and he said, “Look, all my reading of the Bible is devotional reading,” you know. So whether I’m preparing to teach it or whether I’m reading it for whatever, it’s devotional in the sense that it brings me to Christ and therefore brings me to my knees and therefore, you know, takes me wherever.
But with that said, there surely is a difference between, you know, the readings in the Psalms and, for example, our studies in 2 Samuel. But they work hand in glove with one another, so that when you come to one of the Psalms—like, for example, the Sixteenth Psalm this morning, which says it’s a “Miktam of David” (nobody really knows what that is; it’s probably a musical term), and then when you read his poetry, and you set it within the context of the unfolding story of his life—then, you know, the devotional aspect of it and the instruction that is contained in recognizing that he’s not writing these little poems in a vacuum; they are his meditations in the midst of the story of his life.
Bob: And you mentioned a musical term. How does our personal devotional time interact with our times of personal worship, and where does music fit into that for you? Do you sing alone in your car as you drive from place to place? And I’m not talking about Paul Simon and the Beatles. I’m talking about singing the hymns of faith.
Alistair: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes I try and sing by myself, but also I have, you know, access on my phone to, you know… I have Fernando in there. I have CityAlight in there, from Australia. I have all kinds of things in there. And I even have old country-western singers who are singing, you know, “I come to the garden alone.”
And, yeah, for me, the lyrics of hymns have been a huge part of my life. And I often say to people, if they’ve found that they are getting dried up, as it were, in their reading of Scripture, sometimes a good hymnbook will help them sort of rekindle the flame. Because the best of hymns are essentially people’s interaction with the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures, so that the best of that material will take us to the Bible, not from the Bible. So, yeah, those things matter a great deal.
I’ve noticed also that they are a huge part of my wife’s life—that, in fact, she is probably engaged more with material that I’ve never ever heard that is actually wonderfully helpful in this very element of one’s devotional life.
Bob: Our friend Alexa keeps us populated with hymns and songs that we can fill our kitchen with. And that’s a nice tool to have.
Alistair: It sure is.
Bob: If you’re talking to somebody who says, “My time in God’s Word has been dry and a desert time, and I’m doing it as a discipline, but I just am not finding that in his presence there is fullness of joy, as Psalm 16 tells us,” what do you recommend to them?
Alistair: Well, a number of things. I would say to them, you know, “How are you handling the other means of grace that God has made available to you? In other words, are you isolated from God’s people? Are you engaged in a local church? Are you participating in Communion? Are you serving in the gospel?” You know, to find out if there’s a sort of general declension on the part of this individual, that they’ve sort of stepped away from things. If that is true, then it’s no surprise that the Scriptures would not necessarily be sparkling, as it were, with gems of insight for them. The Scriptures are always true, all the time, but our perception of them…
Now, if the person says, “Yes, I am involved in all of that, but somehow or another, I’ve just sort of hit a wall when it comes to the way I’m doing things”—well, then I would say, “Probably a good time to change the way that you’re doing things and perhaps to make use”—and, again, we’re talking devotion now, not study—“of a paraphrase.” If you’re studying the New Testament, J. B. Phillips, some of his turns of phrase just open things up again. Sometimes using a different translation of the Bible—a straight translation, moving from, you know, the NIV to the ESV or to the CSB or whatever B there are. I mean, there’s a lot of different ways we can go here.
Also, sometimes even just changing the time in which we’re doing things—that we just have found that we’ve turned this into a routine that has lost any kind of life.
Also, if we always read the Bible in our minds, as it were, then why not try reading at least passages of the Bible, reading them out loud? Read them out loud in a way that causes you to process them differently, just because of the fact that you can hear your own voice reading them out.
Maybe even as well to say, include a spouse or a friend or something in the process—decide that you’re gonna read together the same passages of Scripture over a period of a month, so that when you’re together, you can actually talk about what you’ve been discovering.
Bob: I think this is a great insight, because in our desire for regularity and to be disciplined, we can find ourselves in ruts, and the idea of shaking up the discipline and the workout is a way to get out of that rut.
Alistair: Yeah, I think it’s true of all kinds of things. People say, “You know, I used to absolutely love balsamic vinaigrette—until I completely sickened myself of it. And now when I see them coming with it, I say, ‘No, please, do not bring that stuff near me.’ And they say, ‘Well, what happened to you?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. I just lost interest in it’”—you know, because you just had so much of it.
Now, you say, “Well, you’re not saying that you can have so much of the Bible that you lose interest in it”? No, I’m actually not saying that. But I’m just recognizing that the analogy holds in some measure.
Bob: The daily devotional that you’ve created will take someone maybe two minutes to read your passage for the day, your insight on the Scripture. There’s a Scripture verse. That kind of a spiritual snack, it’s a healthy snack and can help your metabolism get activated, can’t it?
Alistair: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I would say that a devotional such as what we’ve done is a supplemental aid to our own ongoing reading of the Bible. It’d be a disappointment to me to think that this became, you know, the sum and substance of somebody’s approach to the Bible. Now, it may be that in the beginning of the adventure, that is exactly what is the case. And hopefully, then, it would lead to a greater time spent in, a greater desire for the Scriptures themselves. And one of the things that we’ve done in the devotional is make sure that at the bottom of the page, we’re directing people to passages of Scripture that will be correlative to what is being said.
Bob: Do you intend to read your devotional this year?
Alistair: Yeah, actually, they sent me a, whatever you call it, a prepublication copy. And I was struck by how nice it was, and I actually looked up a couple of—I was with some people yesterday, and I said, “Let’s look up your birthdays and see what, you know, what it says on your birthday.” I also looked up July the Fourth to see if we had done anything with July Fourth, and—well, I’ll just leave other people to discover whether we did or we didn’t.
Bob: Well, it is nice when you’re reading your devotional to go, “I agree with this guy. What are you saying here?”
Alistair: Well, I tell you what: what is amazing is when I read it and I go, “Somebody put their hand on this, because it’s a lot better than the way I said it,” you know? So, like everything else, it’s a product of the shared giftedness of those around us, and I’m the beneficiary of those who make my life better by their presence and make my work better by their insights.
Bob: Well, and we are the beneficiaries of your study and your insight. You mentioned Dr. Sproul. I asked him one time, after I’d heard him preach on Psalm 51, and I said, “How long did it take you to prepare that message?” And he looked at me and smiled, and he said, “About five minutes.” And then he said, “And about thirty-five years.” And if we are in God’s Word, that’s the reality: that we can now come to the Scriptures, and it’s more alive to us, as long as it’s the regular rhythm of our life.
Alistair: Yep. Yeah. And also, isn’t it fantastic, as well, the way we can… It’s not like any other book, either, where you can read it and reread it and reread it and discover things that you never noticed before or have it made application to your life in a way that would never have been a point of application had we not just gone through all these various parts and pieces of our pilgrimage.
 Psalm 16:8 (ESV).
 Acts 2:26 (paraphrased).
 William Cowper, “Sometimes a Light Surprises.”
 See Psalm 16:11.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.