Spiritual Growth: What Constitutes True Spiritual Devotion?
By Li Cheng
I Believed That Spiritual Devotion Consisted of Persistently Reading the Bible, Saying Prayers and Singing Hymns
I remember the first time I went to church and listened to the pastor give a sermon and, afterward, I came to have some knowledge of the Lord Jesus’ salvation and I expressed my desire to believe in the Lord on the spot. As I was leaving, the pastor reminded me that, “To live as a Christian, one must practice spiritual devotion.” I asked the pastor, “What is spiritual devotion? How do we practice it?” The pastor then told me, “Spiritual devotion is reading the Bible, saying prayers and singing hymns of praise every day. When we pray, we must pray for our families, pray for the weak brothers and sisters in our church, and pray for the servants of God. We must persist with reading the Bible and singing hymns every day as well, and we must keep doing it without interruption. As long as you practice spiritual devotion diligently every day, then your spirituality will continue to develop and you will draw closer and closer to the Lord, and then God will be gladdened.”
I therefore began to practice as the pastor had said. Every morning at 5am on the dot I would get out of bed and begin my spiritual devotion. First, I would read two chapters of the Bible, then I would sing hymns, and then I would pray like the pastor had told me. I kept this routine all through the seasons, and I persisted with my prayers even though sometimes my legs went to sleep from kneeling for so long. Several years went by, and I believed that I would be able to obtain more enlightenment through the practice of my spiritual devotion, that I would understand the Lord’s words more and more, and that I would become on ever more intimate terms with the Lord. But in reality, despite being able to recite some classic verses from the Bible and remember some words that I often used in prayer, I still didn’t understand anything at all about the Lord’s words, the Lord’s will or His requirements. It got to the point where I would even doze off or slumber during spiritual devotion, and I couldn’t feel the Lord’s presence in the slightest.
I asked a number of preachers as well as many brothers and sisters about how to practice one’s spiritual devotion in order to draw close to the Lord, but the way they practiced their spiritual devotion was pretty much the same as how I’d been practicing. They also got up early to pray, read the Bible and sing hymns in praise of the Lord, without achieving any obvious result either. Some even fell asleep while they prayed. This caused me great consternation: I’d been practicing my spiritual devotion over the past few years just as the pastor had told me, so why hadn’t I achieved any good result? Was this way of practicing spiritual devotion not commendable to the Lord? What exactly was the Lord’s will?
What Constitutes True Spiritual Devotion?
One day, I visited Sister Song at her home for Bible study. When I asked how to practice spiritual devotion in order to earn the Lord’s praise, Sister Song brought out a book entitled The Scroll Opened by the Lamb, and read a passage from it: “A normal spiritual life is not limited to such practices as praying, singing hymns, participating in church life, and eating and drinking of God’s words. Rather, it involves living a new and vibrant spiritual life. What matters is not how you practice, but what fruit your practice bears. Most people believe that a normal spiritual life necessarily involves praying, singing hymns, eating and drinking the words of God or pondering His words, regardless of whether such practices actually have any effect or lead to true understanding. These people focus on following superficial procedures without any thought to their results; they are people who live in religious rituals, not people who live within the church, and much less are they people of the kingdom. Their prayers, hymn singing, and eating and drinking of God’s words are all just rule-following, done out of compulsion and to keep up with trends, not out of willingness nor from the heart. However much these people pray or sing, their efforts will bear no fruit, for what they practice is just the rules and rituals of religion; they are not actually practicing God’s words. They focus only on making a fuss over how they practice, and they treat God’s words as rules to follow. Such people are not putting God’s words into practice; they are just gratifying the flesh, and performing for other people to see. These religious rules and rituals are all human in origin; they do not come from God. God does not follow rules, nor is He subject to any law. Rather, He does new things every day, accomplishing practical work. … When people live amidst rules and have their hearts fixed on methods of practice, the Holy Spirit cannot work, because their hearts are occupied by rules and human notions. Thus, God is unable to intervene and work on them, and they can only continue living under the control of laws. Such people are forever incapable of receiving God’s praise” (“Regarding a Normal Spiritual Life”).
The passage the sister read shook my heart. I had previously studied theology and had read many spiritual books, both ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign, and I’d listened to many recordings of sermons by famous preachers, and yet I’d never seen nor heard anyone who could explain in such crystal clarity what constituted true spiritual devotion and the results achieved by practicing spiritual devotion. Moreover, the passage exposed what the situation of our spiritual devotion had been all along—some rules and deviations certainly existed in our spiritual devotion!
Afterward, I came to understand through the sister’s fellowship that spiritual devotion does not mean persisting in reading the Bible, singing hymns and saying one’s prayers every day, for with true spiritual devotion it doesn’t matter what one’s external practices are like or how well one observes religious rite, or how long one practices every day. Instead, it is the result that is important; that is, it depends on whether or not our spiritual devotion can enable us to obtain more enlightenment and illumination from the Holy Spirit, whether or not it can enable us to have a better understanding of God’s will and whether or not it can enable us to draw closer to God. For example, we don’t sing hymns just to go through the motions, but rather to practice quieting our hearts before God. When we sing hymns, we are able to obtain the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment and guidance, and thereby understand God’s will. Prayer is not just reciting the same old words over and over, day after day, year after year, or believing that the longer one prays and the more one says in prayer then the more it accords with God’s will. Instead, prayer is opening one’s heart and confiding in God about all the things that are in one’s heart and all one’s practical difficulties. Prayer is coming before God, seeking His will, and searching for the path to practice. Reading the Lord’s words is not done just to understand the literal meaning of the words and to arm ourselves with spiritual knowledge and doctrine so that we can then preach it to others or resolve the problems of our brothers and sisters. Instead, we read the Lord’s words in order to contemplate them, to understand the Lord’s will and requirements for us, to be able to better practice the Lord’s words and to practice in accordance with the Lord’s will.
I had never sought results in my spiritual devotion, but instead had practiced it every day as though I was just completing a task. When I sang hymns, I would sing aimlessly; when I prayed, I would always harp on the same string, repeating the same words over and over; when I read the Bible, I would only understand some literal meaning of the words and would arm myself with a little spiritual theory. I simply never pondered why the Lord had said what He said, what His will and requirements were behind the things He said, and what truths I understood within His words, and so on. Comparing myself with the passage that Sister Song had read, I finally saw that my spiritual devotion was nothing but following rules and engaging in religious rite—it was not true spiritual devotion and was simply incapable of earning God’s commendation. I earnestly contemplated this passage and I saw that not only did it expose the root cause of why we achieve nothing with our spiritual devotion, but it also showed us the path to practice. This passage was truly so helpful and beneficial to me! I wanted to read more, and so I borrowed the book from Sister Song.
How to Achieve True Spiritual Devotion
After I got home, I read several passages one after another. One of the passages said: “The way that people believe in God, love God, and satisfy God is by touching the Spirit of God with their heart and thereby obtaining His satisfaction, and by using their heart to engage with God’s words and thus being moved by the Spirit of God. If you wish to achieve a normal spiritual life and establish a normal relationship with God, then you must first give your heart to Him. Only after you have quieted your heart before Him and poured your whole heart into Him will you gradually be able to develop a normal spiritual life. … If your heart can be poured into God and remain quiet before Him, then you will have the opportunity and the qualifications to be used by the Holy Spirit, to receive the enlightenment and illumination of the Holy Spirit, and even more, you will have the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to make good your shortcomings. When you give your heart to God, on the positive side, you can attain deeper entry and attain a higher plane of insight; on the negative side, you will have more understanding of your own faults and shortcomings, you will be more eager to seek to satisfy God’s will, and you will not be passive, but will actively enter in. Thus, you will become a correct person” (“It Is Very Important to Establish a Normal Relationship With God”).
As I contemplated this passage, I understood that if I wanted to have a normal spiritual life, then I first had to let go of all those old rules and practices of the past, to withdraw my heart from all people, events and things in the outside world and quiet it before God, and to pray to God, read God’s words and contemplate God’s words with an honest heart. With anything I didn’t understand, I knew I had to pray more and seek more with God—I couldn’t just give God’s words a cursory glance and skip over them. Only by practicing in this way could I obtain the enlightenment and illumination of the Holy Spirit and establish a normal relationship with God. When we pour our hearts into God’s words, we finally discover whether we act according to our own desires with the things we encounter in our lives or whether we practice in accordance with God’s words, we discover that there are some things in which we do not entirely practice according to God’s will, and we discover that there still exist in us some deviations and deficiencies, and so on. When we reflect on these things, we look for the path to practice in God’s words, then we introduce it into our lives, practice it and enter into it in order to resolve our real problems. Only a spiritual life that can achieve these kinds of results constitutes true spiritual devotion. Once I’d understood this, I began to practice and enter into it: When I practiced spiritual devotion, I would pray to the Lord about all the problems and difficulties I encountered every day and seek for the path to practice from within the Lord’s words. When I prayed, I told the Lord everything that was in my heart and spoke truthfully to Him, and I entrusted the Lord with all my practical difficulties and asked for His help; I was no longer following rules and engaging in religious rite or saying the same old words in prayer. When I read God’s words, it no longer mattered how much I read or how much I could memorize. Instead, I focused on contemplating and seeking the Lord’s will and requirements, I reflected on whether or not I practiced according to the Lord’s words when I encountered issues, if not then why, and what I should do the next time I encountered such an issue, and so on. After practicing in this way for a time, I felt like my relationship with the Lord was becoming more and more normal, I often felt the enlightenment and guidance of the Holy Spirit when I read the Lord’s words, and when I prayed, I would feel moved and would clearly feel that the Lord was listening to my prayers. Thank the Lord!
The book, The Scroll Opened by the Lamb, also fellowshiped about what constitutes a genuine spiritual life, how to establish a normal relationship with God, what constitutes a genuine church life, and so on. The more I read, the clearer it all became and the more I enjoyed it. Furthermore, this book explained many things which I had previously never understood in the Bible. Through reading this book, many problems that had perplexed me before were resolved, and I suddenly saw the light, as though clouds had drifted away and revealed the light of the Sun. I felt as though this book could not have been written by any ordinary person, for it was too edifying, too beneficial, and I couldn’t help but think of the Lord Jesus’s words: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will show you things to come” (John 16:12–13). The Lord stated clearly that, when He returns, He will tell us all the truths we do not yet understand. This book was able to explain it all so clearly—could it be that the words in this book had emanated from the utterances of the Holy Spirit? I studied the book carefully and read the title, The Scroll Opened by the Lamb. My heart skipped a beat as I thought suddenly: Could it be that this book is the small scroll that is prophesied many times in Revelation? But the sealed small scroll can only be opened by the Lamb…. Thinking these thoughts, I couldn’t sit still for a moment longer and, after I’d prayed to the Lord, I took up the book and hurried over to Sister Song’s home …
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