Yesterday we mentioned the sense of guilt and obligation that’s built into the structure of “daily devotions” or “quiet time.” That’s the guilt that comes — and is nurtured — for those who skip a day (or week) and fall behind in this practice.
Today let’s look at the other, larger source of vague guilt that this daily devotion practice inevitably produces: The guilt that arises from actually doing this daily reading.
For a sense of what I mean by that, let me tell you about Pagiel, son of Ocran.
Growing up at a fundamentalist church and Christian school, we didn’t just read the Bible every day, we memorized it. We had Bible-memorization quizzes and tests, and all manner of contests and competitions. And frequently, out of the blue, we’d be asked to recite a verse — any verse — from memory.
My go-to verse on such occasions was Numbers 1:13: “Of Asher, Pagiel son of Ocran.” And, yeah, because I was a young smart-ass, I took it even further — memorizing all of Numbers 7, in which Pagiel and his colleagues in all the other tribes take turns bringing their elaborately detailed offerings to the tabernacle:
… one silver charger, the weight whereof was an hundred and thirty shekels, one silver bowl of seventy shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary; both of them full of fine flour mingled with oil for a meat offering: One golden spoon of ten shekels, full of incense: One young bullock, one ram, one lamb of the first year …
(Pagiel son of Ocran, for the record, presented the same offering for the Asherites as Abidan son of Gideoni did for the Benjaminites and as Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai did for the Danites and as all the other “princes” did for all the other tribes.)
But like all young smart-asses, my smart-assery was coming from a place of genuine and important questioning. It was, in part at least, an attempt to ask questions I wasn’t yet otherwise able to articulate. And if this sideways approach to those questions was a bit impertinent and provocative, all the better, because I was growing frustrated with my teachers refusal and inability to address those questions even when expressed in a gentler form.
What had happened was that I’d made it all the way to Numbers. I was doing it — reading the whole Bible all the way through, start-to-finish, just as we’d been urged and encouraged and admonished to do. And I was reading it devotionally, a little bit every morning, prayerfully and with pen in hand, meditating on its meaning and application to my daily life and my daily walk and God’s Plan For My Life. Yet no matter how much I prayed or meditated, there just seemed to be a lot of days when I didn’t find anything that seemed terribly profitable for doctrine, or for reproof, or for correction, or for instruction in righteousness.
And I had been taught and trained to believe that this had to be my fault. If I didn’t see the spiritual lesson and daily-walk application plainly evident in every day’s passage from Leviticus then obviously I just wasn’t doing it hard enough. Or perhaps I had closed myself off from the guidance of the Holy Spirit because of some unconfessed sin in my life. So I earnestly confessed and repented of everything I could think of, and set about doing those devotions as hard as I possibly could.
Eventually, that brought me to the book of Numbers and to the several appearances of our friend Pagiel, son of Ocran. And I knew, because I had been taught this, that I was supposed to learn something from these censuses of the 12 tribes of Israel — something that would bring me closer to holiness and purity of devotion, something transformative. But whatever that something was, I just wasn’t seeing it. All I was seeing, instead, was a bunch of questions — questions that none of my teachers or youth ministers seemed happy to hear or willing to answer. Like, OK, I’ve just memorized this list of tribes, but why come it’s not the same as the lists of tribes we get in, like, Deuteronomy or Chronicles? And where are they getting all this gold and silver from? Didn’t they already use up all their gold making that calf-idol thing back in Exodus? And what about the flour — they’re eating manna and quail because they’re wandering, not planting crops? And, seriously, please, can’t you just tell me what the life-lesson and application to my daily walk is that I’m supposed to be taking from all of this?
Their frustration with my questions and my frustration with their lack of answers both arose from the same problem. We were both working from the same very specific — and misleading — idea about what reading the Bible was supposed to be about and what it was supposed to do for us, what we were supposed to get from it. It was always meant to be a source of daily “spiritual” guidance that would help us to discern God’s will for our life that day and going forward. Kind of like a spiritual horoscope wherein we’d find whatever we expected or sought, mistaking the Forer effect for providence.
This approach sort of worked a bit when we occasionally arrived at one of those rare biblical passages tailored to such a particular form of reading. We’d hit Proverbs or one of those little sections of one of the Epistles that rattled off a series of short imperative commands and we’d think, ah, yes, here is God speaking to us directly. But much of the time we’d wind up frustrated and bewildered because God didn’t seem to be speaking to us so much as speaking about someone else — someone like Pagiel, son of Ocran.
And, again, we would be convinced this was our fault — some lack of passionate sincerity or sincere passion on our part that shut out the clarity of God’s explicit voice expressed in this section of “God’s Word.” And feeling guilty about that made us swallow all the other questions we’d have after reading such passages, thereby preventing us from exploring the things we could have learned from even, yes, those strange and boring passages in the book of Numbers.
Like that bit about the different configurations of the lists of tribes. And how it seemed that different authors had not just different lists, but different perspectives. And how those perspectives were sometimes in tension, or outright conflict, with one another. And how those tensions and conflicts often paralleled tensions and conflicts and arguments still happening today in our communities and sometimes within ourselves. And …
But none of that kind of Bible reading or Bible study was allowed. It couldn’t even be imagined. Reading the Bible meant only one thing — seeking a word from God in the Word of God, immersing ourselves devotionally in the authoritative handbook of Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. And if you didn’t hear that voice, that was your fault. You must be doing something wrong.