Morning, Christian books and authors told me. If you want a half-decent prayer time, morning is the time. Start praying in the morning. First thing. Rise and shine and start your day with Jesus. It’s the best way!
At the time, I was in college, and “morning” was not in my vocabulary. I stayed up ridiculously late at night, slept in until right before I had to get ready for class, and often sprinted out the door with a granola bar in one hand and a textbook in the other. In defiance of those many Christian books, authors, and teachers, I often did my Bible study at night, in the wee small hours, right before I went to bed.
And you know what? I was fine. I grew a lot spiritually during those years!
But sometimes I worried if I was doing it wrong. And that’s because there are a lot of people (Christians in your church, pastors, teachers, authors, even me!) who will give you guidelines for “best practices”: the best and most effective ways to do everything from amping up your prayer life to studying your Bible. There’s an entire market for this stuff. And when you start comparing what you do to those best practices, you start feeling like you don’t quite measure up.
I want to be clear: in and of itself, learning about “best practices” isn’t a bad thing. You can learn a lot from other people. Sometimes you want to learn how best to pray more effectively. You want a richer prayer life. You’re curious about how to be more consistent. What you’re doing isn’t working like you wish it would, and to that end, “best practices” advice can be helpful and useful. Sometimes an author or a fellow believer will give you some advice on how to approach a part of your spiritual life and you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
But those things aren’t Scripture. We need to be wary of treating them as though they are.
In my own life, I have violated all sorts of “best practices” advice. Told by authors and spiritual leaders that the “best practice” was to be rigorous and unflinching in the exact time I met with God each day, I have instead wildly altered both the time and place of daily meeting over the years depending on my schedule, my mood, and my interests. Told that the “best practice” was to join a small group for Christian community, I instead ended up cobbling together a little Christian community, near and far, through connections made by grace in various churches. At one church where “best practices” meant that one of the deacons thought anything other than the KJV was a heresy, I taught Sunday School from my NIV and found that lightning did not strike.
And that’s because the most effective spiritual strategy, for me, has been to do what works.
God gives us an enormous amount of flexibility in our spiritual lives and how we manage them. Yes, Jesus taught the disciples a model prayer, but we also hear Him pray many different prayers throughout His time on earth, and we hear many different prayers from those who follow Him. There are no super-specific Biblical commands telling us that we really ought to pray first thing in the morning to get things off on the right foot, or that a prayer journal is the best way to go, or that using worship music during our prayer time is the only way to get in the proper mindset.
That’s because God knows people are wonderfully varied. He made people to be varied. It naturally follows then that their expressions of love and relationship to Him will be unique and varied too. And more than that, God can be deeply practical. See Jesus’ response in Luke 14:5 to the Pharisees who are skeptical of Him healing on the Sabbath:
Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?”
You can hear the undercurrent here: get your priorities in order, people! And the message has not changed much for us. If our priorities are in order – if we truly orient ourselves to abiding by the greatest commandment – then everything else is going to fall into line. God knows that, and that’s why His interest is sketching out, over and over again, the major priorities of His kingdom and His desires for our lives and obedience.
So do what works for you. Set your prayer time at the best time for you. Read the translation you love. Don’t turn on music if the silence is what makes you worshipful. Don’t change what works just because someone else said it probably shouldn’t work or that their way is better. If you need a change or you want a change, or you hear some “best practices” advice that sounds interesting or helpful, then by all means, embrace it. I have quite frequently, and it’s made a wonderful difference in my spiritual life. But don’t feel obligated to do so.
“Best practices” are grand and wonderful and helpful. But they’re not sovereign, and we don’t have to treat them like they are.