When I became a Christian in the early 90s, the most oft-used piece of Christian jargon was the phrase 'quiet time'. Used to describe the half-hour (at least) block of time which all Christians enjoyed each morning in prayer, worship and Bible study, it was also the biggest source of guilt for me as a young Christian. 'How are your quiet times?' our youth leaders would ask each week; a question which would always provoke a lie, and then further feelings of shame, in response.
Because if I'm honest, I didn't actually manage to spend half an hour each morning in the presence and pursuit of God. As a particularly ill-disciplined teenager, I barely even found time to wash in the morning before school, let alone open up the Scriptures. In fact, I used to lock the bathroom door, turn the shower tap on, then sleep against the radiator for five minutes. You probably didn't need to know that.
As a teenager, 'quiet times' were sporadic and random. I never managed to form a habit of doing them, and when I did carve out time to pray or read the Bible, I did so without structure. As a result my personal faith was based largely on my relationship with my youth leaders, and so when I left their group, it's little surprise that my interest in God waned considerably.
If you believe in God, then deep down you probably wish you spent more time with Him. Yet in an age of distraction and indiscipline, settling into and maintaining a sort of monastic rhythm of spirituality is tricky to say the least. That phrase 'quiet time' is loaded with so much negative baggage that it probably needs to be thrown into Room 101, but the principle – that we should try each day to spend some time talking to God, listening to Him, and reading his word – remains a solid gold way to make sure our faith gets prioritised properly.
Here, then, are just a few ideas to help those of us who struggle to have a daily 'Q___t t__e'.
1. Remember grace, not guilt
I can't underline how important this is. When I think back to my teenage quiet times, the thing I remember most clearly is the sense of guilt at not being very good at them. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that God wasn't interested in my feelings of failure; as a loving father He simply wanted me to invest in our relationship. That has to be the prevailing rule for our 'devotional' lives; that God's grace means that we do them not because of sense of duty, but because of the joy and growth that comes from a closer daily walk with God.
2. 'Pray continually'
Believe it or not, this command from Paul to the Thessalonian church (1 Thess 5:17) is liberating, rather than a reason to feel even more inadequate. Paul's definition of prayer is like always-on 4G internet access – he's always connected to God, and is aware of him in every moment of his day. Whether we're in church, or standing in the checkout queue, there's no reason why we can't refer to God as if He's standing beside us (although this may draw some strange looks in Tesco). Seeing prayer in this way, rather than as something we dial into at specific times, frees us from the guilt that we're not spending enough time with God.
3. Define what's important
What should we try to 'do' when we spend time with God. The answer to that will differ slightly depending on our theology and church background, but all of us would probably agree that we should try to do at least three things every day: communicate with God, listen to him, and read something from the Bible. Traditional approaches to the quiet time also add in various extras – from reading the thoughts of a learned scholar to committing to some sort of physical activity. By focusing on the most important aspects of personal devotional time, we give ourselves a fighting chance of achieving them.
4. Understand your personality
For some people, sitting in silence for an hour is only slightly more preferential to being dipped in boiling fat. For others, it's heaven. That's why the one-size-fits-all approach to devotional time doesn't work; it's also why we should feel free to define the nature of our engagement of God. Provided that we're honouring Him with our full attention, doing our best to engage heart, mind and soul, it doesn't really matter whether we're sitting cross-legged on the side of a mountain or driving along the M6 listening to a recording of the Bible. Create your own rituals that enable you to do the important stuff regularly, and liberate yourself from the outdated idea that time with God has to be taxing and dull.
5. Embrace technology
The fact that we've got smartphones in our pockets is a chief source of distraction – but like all things they can be redeemed. Thanks to the innovative work of developers around the world, a range of apps have been developed to help you choose a moment of reflection above another game of Candy Crush Soda. Among the best is Alpha's Bible in one Year (BIOY) app, which provides daily old and new testament readings, as well as reflections from Nicky Gumbel.
6. Unplug regularly
On the other hand, one of the most helpful ways to increase and enable concentration is to remove or disable your technology. Step away from the computer, turn off the phone (or even better, leave it at home), and you're immediately much more likely to be able to focus on God. Building regular moments into your routine when you 'unplug' helps you to increase self-discipline and prioritise the stuff that matters.
If you've always wanted to spend more time with God, but fear of failure or lack of time have held you back, why not use this week as a fresh start. A devotional life doesn't have to look like seven half-hour doses of falling asleep in a Bible and listening to a worship CD that you don't even like. What matters is taking some time out in a culture of constantly competing priorities and literally 'devoting' ourselves to God. How you go about that is entirely up to you.