Abide with Me
Helping a new generation of Christians go deeper in Jesus
We live in an impatient, hurried and harried age. Our fathers and mothers in the faith talked about “praying through” or “tarrying in the presence of the Lord” — phrases that imply lingering and time investments. In today’s world, such notions often are either intimidating or uninteresting.
Many of us yearn for greater spiritual depth — perhaps the kind we see or remember in older generations. We don’t often admit it out loud, but there is a longing within us to pray, linger in the presence of Jesus, and live with the gravitas of God. Yet we don’t know how to get there.
Finding the time to go deeper is a challenge because our world has sped up. We are busy ministers and leaders, and there is much to do in our broken world. We tend to press on with our manic schedules and diluted disciplines, happy in one sense to be active, but simultaneously anxious, harboring the nagging realization and conviction that we are more spiritually flimsy than our fathers and mothers in the faith. We have the appearance of spirituality, but not the power. We long to share the spiritual depth of our heroes, but we wonder how we can practically get there. Deep inside we know that if we don’t develop a genuine spiritual depth that only comes from extravagant time with Jesus, our ministries will produce wood, hay and straw (1 Corinthians 3:12–13). In other words, the effort will not last beyond us.
When I wake up, I try to make prayer the first thing out of my mouth.
I’m not where I want to be, but perhaps I can encourage you by sharing my own experiences. Allow me to describe what my “abiding” time looks like — on a good, nontravel day. My prayer is that it will inspire you to grow in your own personalized abiding in Jesus.
I abide in Jesus out of necessity. While discipline is a necessary component, for me it starts with desperation. I know I am a powerless fraud with a wicked and deceitful heart, capable of, and rushing toward, any and every sin unless I daily draw from the wisdom, assurance, guidance, correction, strength and very life of Jesus. My desperation for Jesus empowers my discipline, fuels desire and culminates in delight. None of what follows will be of much help to you unless you are desperate for more of Jesus and make the disciplined and daily determination to lavish extravagant time on Him. It is not easy. If you are going to have the spiritual depth of your mothers and fathers in the faith, you must desire it enough to pay the price to get it. The joy set before you in intimacy with Jesus and divine power in ministry should outweigh the fear of a shallow spiritual life and legacy. Both motivations are legitimate, but joy should lead.
Early to Bed, Early to Rise — and Double-Dipping
For five years, I studied the lives of fruitful missionaries. I could not find one who did not abide in Jesus. All of them spent extravagant time in the presence of Jesus, and all of them did it in the early morning. All of them adjusted their bedtimes so they could get enough sleep. All of them. I’m not naïve enough to suggest that you can tithe your time (two or more hours a day) without giving up something. Start with social media, ESPN, TV and movies. Do the simple math: If you are to have two hours with Jesus every morning before your responsibilities start, think about how many hours of sleep you need each night, work back, set a bedtime, and start chopping expendable activities — ruthlessly.
Personally, I have no problem double-dipping. My prayer time and my exercise time often overlap. I learned this from veteran missionary Jerry Spain, one of my mentors. He ran and prayed. I have learned to do the same. You can run (or walk) for an hour and pray the whole time. Besides, if I don’t move when I pray, I fall asleep or start daydreaming. You can wash dishes, do laundry, nurse a baby, cut the lawn, drive to work ... and pray. I suggest turning off the radio and using every minute of driving time to steer your heart toward heaven.
Bible Before Breakfast
I first heard the term “Bible Before Breakfast” from Cal Olson, another missionary mentor. Honestly, this is hardest for me. Email and world headlines are my siren songs. Once I open that inbox, the concerns of the day pull me in and away. When I wake up, I try to make prayer the first thing out of my mouth — a brief greeting to Jesus, a simple prayer of thanks and a plea for help. Then I try to walk right to my abiding place, passing only through the kitchen to make a cup of chai.
I find it imperative to be in a comfortable place far from my phone or computer. I go to the same place every morning and follow the same routine. It centers me and helps me avoid distractions. I collect everything I need — my Bible, journal, devotional, pen, reading glasses, memory cards and chai — and settle down to hear what Jesus wants to tell me that morning.
Old Dead Guys
I start with what my Chi Alpha friend Eli Gautreux calls “the old dead guys.” I spend about 15 minutes reading a short chapter from a man or woman of God who has gone before us. I find that these writers from the past tend to put more in one paragraph than contemporary authors stretch over chapters. I read slowly, mark up the text and reflect. I’m currently reading G. Campbell Morgan’s The Great Physician after recently finishing John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Pick your pleasure, but men and women like à Kempis, Fénelon, Guyon, Augustine, etc. sure have something to say.
Hidden in Your Heart
I encourage you to use a paper Bible and to mark it up with a pen. In his book Brain Rules, John Medina cites research showing that tactile reading — holding and writing in and interacting with a paper book — drastically improves retention. I also think there is merit in having something that contains only the Word of God, not movies, emails, selfies, games or any other number of things. Legacy-wise, a well-read, well-loved, well-marked-up Bible is also a great gift to leave your progeny. They will be able to see and follow the passages and truths that were instrumental in your journey.
As part of my Bible time, I review verses that I am memorizing. I write those verses on a 3-by-5 card that is part of a spiral-bound packet and review them regularly. The spiral binding keeps the verses organized and together, and I can review all the verses in about 5 to 10 minutes. When I have the collection down well, I add another verse.
I have learned over the years that I can’t just stop thinking impure thoughts. I have to replace them. When distractions draw my mind toward what leads to death, I start quoting the Bible verses I have hidden in my heart. Kind of like croquet, the good thought then knocks away the evil one.
Journal and Reflection
I use my journal in one of three ways:
1. I jot down a summary thought from each of the chapters (or group of chapters) I have read. I then try to extract a one-line summary from all the reading — a precept to believe and/or obey — and write it across the top of the page.
2. I write out a prayer.
3. Sometimes the Holy Spirit gives me a thought to preach, an idea to develop or a word of encouragement to pass on. I flip to the back of my journal and scratch out a note or outline and then return to what I was doing before the inspiration came. This way, I can harvest and harness what God gives me without losing focus on the overall abiding response.
Praise and Prayer
I follow the familiar Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (ACTS) structure. I aim to spend 15 minutes on each one. Sometimes for my adoration time I will play worship songs on my guitar or plunk them out on the piano. For confession, I not only open up to the Lord about my sins, but I also confess that He is good, strong and faithful. For thanksgiving, I mention everything and person — good and bad — in my life and worship God for His sovereign goodness in all He does or allows. I try in the prayer time to pray for at least five minutes or more in the Spirit — my acknowledgement that I don’t know what to pray and that I need to cultivate a space for the Spirit to pray through me.
I finish my prayer time with supplication. I have two pages in the back of my journal that help me. On one page (that I have divided out by days of the week), I list the people and nations I am taking to God in prayer. I divide it further into the categories of family, friends, colleagues, pastors, leaders, followers and nations in need of missionaries. Each day, I pray for someone in each of those categories. On the other page, I keep a list of things I am praying specifically for myself. I also list my wife, my boys and upcoming ministry events. I pray over each one.
In essence, then, my preferred morning abiding time takes around two hours. (I don’t time it or watch the clock; I just linger until I am done). Usually the time is arranged like this: 15 minutes with an old dead guy, an hour in the Bible and journaling, and an hour in prayer and praise.
Not everyone has the ability to spend two or more hours at a stretch in prayer and devotions, but many ministers who arrange their own schedules can make this work. Others will have to learn to abide for a stretch in the morning, over the lunch hour and in the evening. We all must also learn the state of abiding, or all-day communion with our Lord.
From the fourth century on, some Christians sought to pray all day long by encapsulating their hearts’ desires into a short sentence — usually not longer than seven syllables. They then picked something that happened repeatedly in a day (like the sound of a bell or the chirping of a bird), and when that event occurred, they would pray their prayer.
I live in Northern Africa, so I try to pray my breath prayer (“Be near me, Lord Jesus!”) every time I hear a loud horn or every time I hit “send” on an email. It starts as a cognitive choice, but over time and repetition, this type of prayer moves from the head to the heart and becomes more reflexive, natural and constant. Breath prayers help me abide with Jesus all day long.
Abiding is by no means restricted to the ideas mentioned here. You may — and should — abide in ways convergent with your personality and wiring. Feel free to dance, draw and sit in protracted silence or employ myriad other ways to linger with Jesus. The baseline includes the Bible, prayer and extravagant time, but abiding times will certainly differ.
As we abide, and as we daily spend extravagant time with Jesus, He will abide with us (John 15:4–5), and we, too, can escape the tragedy of a shallow spirituality and walk with lowly gravitas in the footsteps of the saints who have gone before us — all for the glory of God among all nations.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 edition of Influence magazine.