Why I Don’t Pray or Study the Bible (Much)

Why I Don’t Pray or Study the Bible (Much) June 10, 2014

While I grew up in the Episcopal Church (the same Episcopal Church I currently attend, in fact), I didn’t start thinking proactively about my Christian faith until I got involved with an evangelical fellowship in college. I learned a lot of unfamiliar evangelical lingo, including “quiet time” (sometimes shortened to “QT”) to refer to time spent in prayer and Bible study. As a friend explained in a talk, if you want to have a good relationship with somebody, you spend time with that person. Likewise, if you want to have a good relationship with God, you must spend time with God, and “quiet time” is how you do that. A few years later, I joined a small nontraditional church in Washington, D.C., where church membership involved committing to several specific spiritual disciplines, including one hour a day spent in prayer and Bible study.

6777742056I regularly failed at maintaining any kind of quiet-time discipline, in college and afterward—and to be honest, I’m still failing at it. I could argue that I can’t find the time, but that’s ridiculous. I regularly find time to read, scroll Facebook, and watch HGTV real estate shows. My problem is that I’m not quite sure what to do with designated prayer or Bible study time. My mind wanders. I get sleepy. I pray for all the people I know who need prayers and then I’m not sure what to do next. If I try to read any Bible passage more complicated than a Psalm, I get bored or confused (Paul’s run-on sentences make me twitchy). I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for when I read. While Bible stories have lots of juicy tidbits (all the mayhem and murder and love affairs), they can get bogged down by strange names and long lists and convoluted descriptions.

I’ve always gained more understanding about myself, the world, God, and what those three things have to do with each other, by reading novels and poetry instead of the Bible or theology. The prayers that feel most nourishing and authentic are the well-worn prayers we say together in church, or prayers I utter spontaneously—a burst of thanksgiving for the first sunny 70 degree day in springtime or Daniel’s safe arrival home from a business trip, a raw cry for help when one of my kids is struggling, a friend shares bad news, or a front-page story strikes me in the gut.

I think my college friend was right, that we draw closer to God by being deliberate about our relationship with God. But I’m not so sure that 30 or 60 minutes of prayer and Bible study is the only or primary way to do that. I think of the human relationships that mean the most to me, with my husband and children. Certainly, dedicated time with them is meaningful. But what reinforces our love and care for one another aren’t only or primarily those special times set apart from the daily routine, but our encounters in the thick of that routine.

Last summer, for example, Daniel and I took a five-day vacation, just the two of us, while our kids were all at camp. We had uninterrupted conversations, woke up without immediately confronting needy children and pets, and picked restaurants without considering the quality of their kids’ menu. We remember that vacation fondly. But what makes our marriage vital isn’t rare adults-only vacations or occasional dinners out, but rather our deliberate attention, listening, kindness and support in our mundane and often chaotic family life. Likewise, any parent of a teenager knows that plopping down on their bed and saying, “Let’s have a talk!” is more likely to elicit suspicion, annoyance, or “Mom, will this take long? Because I really have to finish this social studies paper,” than a meaningful heart-to-heart talk. Instead, some of the most revealing and intimate conversations with our kids happen in the minivan as we drive from activity to activity, or while working together to bake cookies for the school fundraiser.

I wonder if our relationship with God, like our relationship with beloved family members and friends, is likewise nurtured more by our paying holy attention to God’s presence in the mundane, chaotic stew of daily life, rather than by dedicated time set apart from the normal routine. That’s not to discount the disciplines of prayer and study altogether. Christians have developed many ways that we can open ourselves to God through prayer and scripture, such as “centering” prayer (in which we don’t speak to God, but rather quiet the mind to make room for God to speak to us) or lectio divina (a meditative approach to reading scripture). Many Christians make a daily practice of reading a short Bible passage, perhaps with a resource such as Forward Day by Day, or use special devotional guides during Advent and Lent. While I still struggle with daily prayer, I’ve enjoyed trying out the monastic practice of “praying the hours,” which author Phyllis Tickle has made simple for us non-monastics in her excellent series of prayer books titled The Divine Hours.

Two thousand years of Christian spirituality commend regular prayer and study disciplines as important to a living faith. Nevertheless, I’m not as convinced as I once was that my failure to have a daily “quiet time” means that I’m failing to connect with God. We connect with God not by retreating from the world into some “spiritual” space. We connect with God when we engage—with attention, compassion, curiosity, and wonder—with the world God created and in which he lived, died, and rose as a human being just like us.

Essayist Nancy Mairs, who teaches writing at the University of Arizona and converted to Catholicism as an adult, has this to say about her own difficulty in setting aside time for spiritual matters, and her ultimate realization that the world of the spirit and the world of bodies and chores and everyday life are one and the same.

There just didn’t seem to be the kind of quiet time [in my life that] I believed requisite for attending to matters of the spirit. What on earth did I think these [matters of the spirit] were? What did I think “attending” to them constituted? Where did I think they stayed while I drew baths for my children and taught my students where to put topic sentences in their paragraphs and painstakingly translated all the Anglo-Saxon poetry of The Exeter Book and made love to my husband and also some other people and boiled quarts of fig jam and took the old, old woman from the bungalow across the street to get her hearing aids fixed and cradled the black cat Freya while she died of feline leukemia virus? So ancient and absolute in Western thinking is the separation of the sacred from the profane that they seem by nature to exclude each other; and so closely are they identified with spiritual and material reality, respectively, that to speak of the interpenetration of soul and body, rather than their (not generally peaceful) co-existence, if one can bring oneself to do it at all, smacks more than a little of scandal. Mystics of all traditions more readily tolerate eruptions of the holy into quotidian routine; but not a lot of mystics go to graduate school, at least at the University of Arizona.

But even us non-mystics can pay attention to how the holy erupts into our quotidian (that is, daily, mundane) routines. I have a sense that, for me and I suspect for some others, this kind of holy attention—the “scandal” of understanding that the material and the spiritual have everything to do with each other—can foster an intimacy with God in a way that even the most disciplined and productive “quiet time” cannot.

Author’s Note: Fellow Patheos Progressive Christian blogger Elizabeth Nordquist responded to this post on her blog, explaining why she has found the solitary “quiet time” style of prayer and Bible study to be fruitful. Her post is worth a read for another perspective on how we connect with God. I’m grateful to Elizabeth for responding, and for pointing out that my original final sentence in this post came across as divisive, in that I seemed to be saying that my way of connecting with God is superior to deliberate time set aside for solitary prayer and study. I did not intend to argue that one form of prayer is absolutely superior to another, but that’s indeed what I implied. I have edited the final sentence to clarify my intention by adding “for me and I suspect for some others…”.

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  • Tim

    I think you’ve hit on the danger that can come with quiet times Ellen: they can be a task to check off a list of spiritual disciplines and the person may not then look for God in the other hours that fill up the day. QTs can be a good pursuit for some people, of course, but a horrible way for others who are not geared to have a relationship with God that way.

  • I knew I would like this post when I read the title: that’s me, too.

    I like the idea that both dedicated, special time AND everyday living/doing time are needed in our relationship with God just as in our human relationships. My husband and I need our “dates,” but if we had a date every day it would lose its specialness and just become another task to fulfill (“I’d really rather watch the hockey game and eat chips with you but I guess we have to have QT”). Likewise, if we only engage with kids and chores and tasks around the house and never stop and say “how are you? how are we?” then we can start to feel more like roommates than spouses. I think our relationship with God needs both kinds of engagement as well.

  • pastordt

    I think that disciplined, set-apart times have their place, especially at certain stages of life. But I don’t think they’re required nor even, as the journey continues, all that helpful. I think maybe each of us discovers, by trial and error, the ways in which we approach God and understand God’s presence as with us in the dailyness of life. Love this reflection, Ellen. Thank you.

  • Timothy Weston

    I used to do these quiet times and have dropped off. They went from a time of looking forward to an item on a checklist. What are some other ways that you have been able to enjoy time with God without closing off for an hour?

    • The “checklist” mentality is something that always bothered me too. I often ponder some faith-related question (often something I’m considering writing about) as I walk or drive, and pray as I take my shower in the morning and just before I go to bed at night. I try to be deliberate about voicing thanksgivings as I go through my day. I consider how particular actions, inspired by and in service to God, could be considered a kind of prayer. For example, I once participated in a peace walk (just before the first Gulf War) and it felt very much like each footstep was itself a prayer. And I find many kinds of liturgy can deepen my sense of connection with God, from a quiet evensong or compline in a darkened church to a raucous Easter morning celebration. Music also provides a favorite way of connecting to God.

  • $105158253

    Sounds like an excuse.

  • JWL

    The daily tasks and observations you describe, set in a context of serving and observing God, are surely one form of prayer. Since we are advised to “pray constantly”, that cannot mean kneeling with eyes closed. Leaving the phone off the hook so we can talk to God in an instant, or He to us, must be an important form of prayer.

  • WendyShinyo

    I loved this post … it is not an excuse; it is real. I am not Episcopalian, but quiet times are the times to get in touch with “what is.” “What is” IS God revealing her (OK, him) self to us in our lives at this moment. It doesn’t matter what you do to get there … if not John, then maybe that the garden needs watered or the trash has to go out … whatever. Are you there for that?

    • rob


  • guest

    Sorry, but this is just plain wrong. I know it is difficult to read the Bible and pray, and I don’t believe in setting quotas, but we should all challenge ourselves to study and pray. When we base our relationship with God on our own feelings, or books and poems that we like, we aren’t getting to know God or worshiping Him, we are worshiping ourselves. We either believe in God, as described in the Bible, or we don’t. If you choose to believe in some other deity that only comes from the fluffy-sunshine parts of the Bible, your own feelings, or collections of poetry, that’s your right. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that it is possible to believe in the triune God of the Bible without the Bible part (including Paul’s “twitchy” letters). The Bible is the primary source the Lord gives us to determine what we believe and how we are to act. If as Christians, we acknowledge the sinful and fallen nature man, then we also acknowledge that man cannot find God without knowing His word because His righteous will runs counter to our nature. If we don’t acknowledge that, we might be “religious” or “spiritual,” but we are not Christian. Believing that Christ died for us, means believing that we were hopelessly, helplessly, doomed without Him. And that knowledge is what drives us to discipline ourselves in study and prayer, the knowledge that we need Him to tell us, because we can’t do anything good without Him.

    • I actually spend quite a bit of time reading and studying the Bible. The post is about my rejecting the idea of the “solitary hour” as the primary/only way to connect with God, not a rejection of prayer or Bible study or spiritual disciplines.

      • rob

        I dissagree there. You can’t be “studying The Word” while you are doing something else. If you are “taking out the trash” as Wendy suggests as an alternative to John, then you are “taking out the trash.”

        The dedicated “QT” is what you might consider “due attention” to something as great as God…no?

        When you watch TV, are you golfing? No! You are taking time to watch TV.

        When you are golfing, are you posting last week’s customer service stats at work?

        So the dedicated time for God is of lesser importance to you than cooking. I can say this with 100% certainty, as I know that “if you cook, you are taking time to cook.”

        I bet you have a favorite TV show like I do. Don’t ever get between me and the screen during The Walking Dead. THAT is dedicated time.

        There are some times and places where sluffing-off, or multi-tasking are simply not possible.

        • I don’t believe that I said anywhere that when I read/study the Bible, I’m doing it while taking out the trash or golfing or cooking? I don’t set aside time every day specifically for “quiet time.” I do, however, spend a fair amount of time reading the Bible, reading other resources/commentaries on the Bible, listening to scripture read in church, listening to sermons, reading other writers’ interpretations of Bible stories, writing blog posts about particular passages or Biblical ideas, etc. And when I’m doing those things, I’m giving my full attention to them. This post is not a rejection of prayer or Bible study. It is questioning one particular MODEL of how we are to pray and study the Bible (by setting aside a certain amount of time each day to do that in a focused way). That model is frequently presented as the primary and only way to foster our relationship with God. I am arguing that there are other ways of praying and studying the Bible for those of us for whom the solitary hour doesn’t seem to do much other than breed frustration, as well as exploring how the set-aside solitary hour might stem from our entrenched notion in Western Christianity that the spiritual is more valuable than the material, so the only/best way to foster a spiritual life is to remove ourselves from our material concerns.

          • rob

            OK…so less “scripted” or “not-so-scheduled.” I get it.

            I don’t think “scheduling” is terribly valuable or “true” to real faith. Of course Islam adheres to a rather stringent schedule. Makes the genuine seem questionable. But hey…that’s Islam.

          • Hmmm. I guess “less scripted” is a way to express my point. But then I think of the highly scripted liturgies I find very meaningful (I’m an Episcopalian). I think it’s more about the assumption that we have to go off by ourselves and get out of the fray to connect authentically with God. And considering Islam actually raises some additional points for me. I like the idea of stopping whatever you’re doing to pray for a few minutes. That practice speaks to the material/spiritual and sacred/profane connections that I think make prayer meaningful. You’re praying in the midst of your daily life, not apart from it. And there’s a communal aspect to Islamic prayer that appeals and strikes me as quite different from the Christian practice of “quiet time” done as a solitary individual. You’ve gotten me thinking!

  • Daniel

    This is what most religious people do. Instead of studying their religion, they just make up feel-good platitudes and call themselves christian, jewish, etc.

    • rob

      Daniel. What the heck is “studying religion?” As a Christian, I would really love to know…..(know if you even understand the definition of words you use). Or are you a child under 11-yo? “Study their religion…” I doubt you’ll explain, but … whatever pal.

  • BT

    This article resonated with me. Thank you. The whole QT thing just never worked for me. This does: your statement above that the prayers that seem most authentic are those traditional ones we repeat together and those spontaneous ones we say when confronted by something beautiful or tragic or evil or transcendent or troubling or …

  • Episteme

    I for one just believe that a relationship with God doesn’t have to be about “quiet time” and only quietly praying and studying scripture. I’ve been working on doing the Liturgy of Hours lately — I’m horrible at it and I’m typing this as I realize that I’m an an hour late for rushing my way through Vespers. But I’ll throw in one or two brief prayers for some additional things then get back to reading up on complex theology. For me, at least, reading scripture is what I do when I’m at the ambo at weekday mass in the morning serving a ministry for my parish. And My idea of good prayer is when I’m helping the Saint Vincent de Paul guys lug food items around or doing a Knights of Columbus charity project and we realize what we’re there for…

    “I think my college friend was right, that we draw closer to God by being deliberate about our relationship with God,” you said. That’s true, but deliberate can *also* mean that you deliberate on how you approach your use of the word and prayer. Go to a church scripture study with friends from church and pair your social needs — and the apostolic camaraderie that the church is built on — into your felt need to interact with prayer and the Bible. Remember, the Holy Spirit is latched onto us all for dear life, Jesus & crew never quit galavanting for a minute in the Gospel (why do you think the apostles tried to nap every time He stopped to pray!), and the Father is in a constant cycle of Creation & Destruction — we expect that we need to be in a monastic sort of quiet appreciation of the divine & the sacramental whenever possible because of church history, a bit of dogma, and lots of Catholic marketing, but they *do* call us on Earth the Church Militant for the reason that we’re supposed to be basically on our feet living the Good News and catechizing it with service and the adventure of Christian Life as much as possible…

    • I very much resonate with all you’ve said here–praying the hours (something I have really loved doing, and don’t do as much as I should), seeing action as a kind of prayer, and the corporate/communal nature of scripture study and prayer in the context of worship and church community interactions.

  • Guest

    Personally, I have always viewed the assertion, “You MUST do This or That if you are going to be a Good Christian,” as spiritual bullying. I also find those who take objections to their method as threatening, to be a sign they are really not that secure in their touted practice.
    Sometimes praying the Liturgy of the Hours is immediately refreshing, and sometimes it is not. Ditto for “Bible Study” — reading is not studying, and sometimes the words sparkle and sometimes they are smeared in drabness (c’mon, how much of ‘study’ is either ‘share the ignorance’, or swallowing what some learned professor thought once upon a time?) Ditto for “quiet time”.
    I have never been fond of the masochistic practice of forcing through. The Spirit lists where it wills, and sometimes that barrenness MAY be something to get through, and sometimes it may be you need to adjust to changes. The Spirit knows, but do we listen?
    Not everyone is Mother Teresa to force through 40 years of spiritual barrenness. But there are a lot of people who they can do it like her.

  • Paul

    I like the analogy of a parent trying to talk with their teen. It is hard for the teen to understand the loving intention a parent has when the parent wants to engage in a heart to heart conversation with their child. If it were up to me, I would want my teen to be able to drop everything and just talk with me meaningfully. Even if it’s just for a moment. I want my teen to know that my relationship with him is more important to me than whatever else is going on in my life. And I want my teen to know that he should consider our relationship equally important.

    Likewise, I believe my God would want that kind of time from me; to simply drop everything and say, yes God, I love you too.

  • Cheryl Spooner

    People are wonderful and you can certainly learn a lot of things from
    them. But I have found that God has deep messages for us within Holy
    Scripture, messages that we can’t get elsewhere. Why? Because His
    writings are love letters to us to tell us how to find our way around
    barriers and obstacles. They are there to help find the “real” Jesus,
    and not the Jesus society wants us to believe exists: the powder-puff
    Jesus, or the Jesus who says everything as cool as long as you know His
    No one says you have to spend an hour at a time praying and
    reading Scripture, especially if, as you have admitted, you don’t know
    how to do that or even where to start. Fifteen minutes of just quiet
    time away from family, hidden in the bathroom or in a closet or even in
    your car, can be very effective in renewing your energy. Just listen
    for five minutes, even if you don’t hear anything at first. It takes
    time to get used to hearing the quiet voice God uses to speak to us.
    Then another five minutes reading Scripture, after first asking the Holy
    Spirit to help your understanding, is plenty for a beginner. Finally,
    spend the last five minutes meditating on what you have read.
    with some easy but powerful books, for the Bible i a library of wisdom.
    Begin perhaps with one of the Gospels, reading only one chapter a day
    (or less is if the chapter is long). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can
    become your best friends as they describe the Jesus they met and
    followed. Contradictory verses? Just read and keep asking the Spirit
    for meaning. Journal your questions and findings. Eventually, you will
    begin to grasp a clearer Jesus than you ever imagined existed, one who
    will walk with you when even your family doesn’t seem to understand
    you. One who will put you in touch with a love you never knew existed and who will deepen your love for others.
    you could begin with one of St. Paul’s readings, perhaps Galatians or
    Ephesians. Paul didn’t teach a different Jesus, he just brought that
    Jesus into a clearer perspective. He showed his own fire of love for
    the Savior, one that we should hope to emulate.
    However, be assured
    that as soon as you try to grow closer to Jesus, Satan will stir things
    up and make a chaotic mess of what before seemed a calm sea. Stick with
    your time with Him while telling Satan to get out of your life.
    Eventually, you will gain more control over these temptations to stop
    reading Scripture and stop praying. You will soon find yourself falling
    deeper and deeper in love with the Jesus of Holy Scripture. That’s exactly what Satan wants you to avoid.

  • Yonah

    Perhaps the issue at hand is what and when is there an authentic reason or ground for prayer and texts. When I was in seminary, the evangelical catholics among us Lutherans took to the notion that they ought to try Catholic retreats…which involved sitting in a cell for a weekend. I declined.

    In my experience, prayer and textual study happens when there is an acute reason for it. I have already a general dna in the texts from the regular lectionary readings throughout the years…that repeated and cyclical practice does, in my experience, accumulate a certain back-burner competency in general. So, sometimes there are reasons to go back and find those aspects of texts that pop up from the memory…for good reason. Something happened today…perhaps something that also happened to Hosea or Jonah.

    Something is always happening with us…even the question if God is happening with us. You could pray about that. You could ask if whether anyone who had the same question in previous generations had the same question…and what did they do about it.

  • Rachel Srubas

    Greetings from Tucson, AZ. I appreciate this honest reflection. A gentle correction: Nancy Mairs earned a Ph. D. from the University of Arizona, but does not teach on its faculty.

  • Pam Mathews

    Good post. For me, daily quiet time is good but it has for periods of time been ruined by those feelings of obligation=guilt that came with my Evangelical upbringing. I also grew up thinking if every day there wasn’t some major spiritual breakthrough I had messed up. Like several other commenters here, the liturgy of the hours has really helped me. It centers me in the morning but it’s concise and I can absorb the wisdom of others rather than being pressured to do something big on my own every day. I do add my own reading and Bible study on occasion but only when it feels mostly free of guilt and when practical concerns can truly be set aside.