10 Devotional Treasures from Surprising Sources

Untraditional Sources of Inspiration

From where do great devotionals spring? Most authors sit down to compose a devotional intended for publication in a book of daily devotionals. But among the classics of devotional readings, we find that great devotionals often sprang from unexpected and even unintended origins, as the following list of ten surprising sources shows.

1. A Personal Memoir

The genre of memoir is by definition the expression of one person’s experience. We, therefore, do not expect to find an abundance of universal experience in a memoir. Yet right at the start of Augustine’s Confessions, the author penned a sentence that not only applies to every person who ever lived but that is also the most famous aphorism in the history of devotional writing. The statement is addressed in a prayer-like stance to God and reads, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

The Heart in Pilgrimage

Leland Ryken

Literary expert Leland Ryken introduces 50 of the best devotionals from church history, each with an analysis and a corresponding scripture passage to help readers understand and appreciate the literary beauty and spiritual truths they contain. 

2. An Annual New Year’s Address to a Professional Group

In nineteenth century England, Florence Nightingale revolutionized the profession of nursing, claiming that “Christ is the author of our profession.” Every New Year, Nightingale composed an address for her students at the nursing school she had founded. These addresses are a devotional treasury, as shown by the following exhortation to Christ-like living: “What is it to live with Christ in God? It is to live in Christ’s Spirit, thirsting after righteousness, doing completely one’s duty towards all with whom we have to do, like Christ meek and lowly in heart, placing our spirits in the Father’s charge. This is to live a life with Christ in God.”

3. Creeds, Catechisms, and Liturgies

The creeds and liturgies of the church are a great untapped storehouse of devotional riches, as the answer to the first question of the Westminster Short Catechism proves: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The words of the morning prayer from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer are hallowed: “Grant, O most merciful Father, that we may live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name.” When we recite the Apostles’ Creed in church, we are kept moving in march-like fashion, but the creed can also be pondered slowly, line by line, as a private devotional.

4. An Answer to a Question from a Colleague or Friend

When Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval French monk, was asked by a cardinal in Rome why we should love God, and in what measure, his short answer was that our motive for loving God is God himself, and the quantity of love due to God is without measure. Bernard then expanded that answer into a famous devotional book titled On Loving God.

5. Hearing Church Bells during a Time of Plague

John Donne, an Anglican minister serving at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, contracted a serious illness in 1623 during a time of plague. As Donne lay on his sickbed and heard church bells calling parishioners to a funeral service, he penned two lines that became part of the storehouse of famous sayings—not just in devotional writing but in English-speaking culture: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

6. The Opening Sentence of a Theological Treatise

The opening sentences of scholarly books are eminently forgettable, beginning with such utilitarian statements as “this book is intended as . . . ,” or “the nature of this book is . . . .“ Protestant Reformer John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the most famous theological treatises ever written. Its opening sentence is so rich that a scholar has said that it alone is worth a lifetime’s contemplation: “True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves.”

Our motive for loving God is God himself, and the quantity of love due to God is without measure.

7. A Title

We might think that a title by itself cannot be a devotional. Wrong. In the annals of classic devotional writings, some titles of books, sermons, or other documents are so evocative and packed with latent meaning that they can tease us into our own devotional contemplation as we ponder them. Here are a few examples: Holy Living and Holy Dying; The Almost Christian; Waiting on God; A Believer’s Last Day Is His Best Day; The Saints’ Everlasting Rest; The Care of the Soul Urged as the One Thing Needful.

8. An Event

Even a real-life event can take on the nature of a devotional. During the winter following the Pilgrims’ arrival in the new world, nearly half of the group died. The next spring, their leader, Governor Bradford, addressed the survivors in words that, when combined with the events, became a devotional classic on the subject of trusting in God in extremity. Here is an excerpt: “What can sustain us but the Spirit of God and his grace? Let us therefore praise the Lord, because he is good.”

9. An Author’s Perplexity over a Religious Statement

Can a great devotional begin with an author’s inability to understand a religious statement? It can. When an anchoress named Julian of Norwich (1343–1416) fell so ill that she was expected to die, she received a series of spiritual visions. One of these was that “all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Julian was as perplexed about how this can be true as we are, and in her devotional classic Revelations of Divine Love we accompany her on her journey to discover what the statement means.

10. Discovering Our Own Devotional Classics

We come at last to the most surprising source of a great devotional. A great devotional is where we find it. We can discover our own treasury of devotional riches. The best starting point is the storehouse of devotional classics of the Christian tradition. For most of us, they are only a tempting menu of titles and excerpts. The way to make them a personal possession is to read them. Who has not heard of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471), a book so famous that it is the most widely translated book in the world next to the Bible? How much better it is to savor the contents of the book and not just its title: “Whoever finds Jesus finds a good above all good. . . . Poorest of all is the one who lives without Jesus, and richest of all is the one who is close to Jesus.”

Leland Ryken is the author of The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Treasury of Classic Devotionals on the Christian Life.

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