What do Bible teachers do for fun on a Friday night? They check the Amazon lists to see which Bible translation holds the top spot.
The last time I looked, it was the New International Version (NIV). The NIV has been the best-selling translation in the US for decades, but on Amazon’s rankings, the translation sat at No. 5, beat out by two children’s Bibles, an audio Bible, and at No. 1, a popular devotional guide that somehow made its way into the Bible category.
The devotional far outshone the Bibles on the list, boasting 5,800 five-star reviews in 18 months. Seeing it in the top spot was a reminder of how many Christians rely on daily devotions as a formative practice and how big a business devotional books have become.
But how are these resources forming us? Does a devotional yield devotion in the biblical sense?
Again, I scanned through the descriptions for other popular devotionals on Amazon. Among the 10 bestsellers, one offered 365 days of “inspiring, unexpected, humble teaching on grace and love that will prepare you for the day ahead.” Another provided “an inspiring Bible verse to reflect and meditate on throughout your week.” Still another promised that readers would “be inspired to activate living your life on mission.” The takeaway was clear: Daily devotion involves being inspired.
But another defining element also emerged consistently in the descriptions. One book was “designed to help alleviate your worries as you learn to live in the peace of the Almighty God.” Others promised “words of encouragement, comfort, and reassurance of God’s unending love,” the ability to tackle life “with the wisdom and comfort of the Bible.” Another takeaway: Daily devotion involves being comforted.
According to the bestseller list, to be devoted is to be inspired and comforted. But according to the Bible, it’s something much more.
The Bible uses the term “devoted” to mean consecrated, or set apart for special service. As a museum devotes a wing to displaying a particular art form, so God devotes us to display his image. Yet we sometimes mistakenly equate devotion with emotion. Devotion is not mere feeling, but action: It serves and it obeys. Jesus made this connection when he taught that “No one can serve two masters … you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24).
Compare those bestseller descriptions from Amazon to Paul’s words: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, CSB).
While best-selling devotional books offer formation through inspirational words of comfort, true Christian devotion–the formative practice of being set apart to serve–is founded on inspired words that correct.
Are the words of devotional books profitable? Some, but not all. Emotion is certainly an expression of devotion but is not its sum total. Biblical words of comfort are profitable, but so are words of correction. Both are words of life. If devotional reading is our primary vehicle for formation, we run the risk of malformation and–worse still–of forming God himself into an idol, one who comforts without correcting, seeks relationship but not repentance, dotes but does not discipline, and is our companion but not our commander.
It is one thing for Amazon to confuse a devotional book with a Bible. But let it not be said of Christians that we have done the same.
The inspirational words of humans are a paltry substitute for the inspired words of God. Devotional writing, when done with excellence, may supplement our time in the Scriptures, but it must not subordinate or supplant it.
Peter captured the preciousness of divine speech in his pleading question to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”
Christian, to whom shall you go for words of life? For formative words, daily applied, to devote you to sacred service and submission? Amazon is happy to provide you with authors. But forget not the author of all things. Like the flowers on a devotional’s dust jacket, human words fade. But the Word of the Lord–ever profitable for both comfort and correction–endures forever.
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