Rise early and be alone with God: wise counsel from an old divine
What is the best time of day to pray and meditate on the Word of God? For me, the best time is the early morning. With four young children in the house, all of whom are usually still sleeping this is the only quiet time in my home. This time also has the advantage of beginning your day by lashing your heart to the mast that is Christ. This was the practice of many of the old divines from Calvin to Edwards and Spurgeon.
I see at least three advantages to practicing these fundamental spiritual disciplines early in the morning:
- Your first thoughts of the day are fixed on the Lord.
- You are admitting a deep dependence upon God. By praying first thing, you are submitting to God’s sovereign plan for your day, expressing allegiance to his kingdom, resting in his provision, celebrating his grace, and committing to his work.
- You begin the day practicing the command of Romans 12:2, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” God uses Scripture to renew your mind and it is important to begin each day by filling your mind with God’s Word.
In an age of iPhones and Facebook, this question has perhaps never taken on more importance and we do well to listen to an old divine who wrote about this fundamental bit of practical divinity, an old divine who apparently thought sleep was overrated.
William Law (1686-1761) was an English Puritan theologian best known for writing works in the category of practical divinity, a category to which we refer today as “Christian living” or “devotional literature.” His most famous work was a classic titled A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. In it, he argues at length that the best way for a Christian to begin his day is to rise very early and spend the first hours in prayer and Scripture meditation. Law modeled that of which he wrote: “His own day, which began at 5 a.m., was carefully planned to allow time for reading, writing, and works of charity, as well as prayer.”
Law felt that early rising prepared a Christian to face the spiritual battle that would be his lot each day. Allow Law’s words to encourage you toward this practice, and don’t miss what he says about sleep at the end of the first paragraph:
“If our blessed Lord used to pray early before day; if He spent whole nights in prayer; if the devout Anna was day and night in the temple; if St. Paul and Silas at midnight sang praises unto God; if the primitive Christians, for several hundred years, besides their hours of prayers in the daytime, met publicly in the churches at midnight to join in psalms and prayers; is it not certain that these practices showed the state of their heart? Are they not so many plain proofs of the whole turn of their minds? Sleep is . . . a dull, stupid state of existence.
“If you were to rise early every morning as an instance of self-denial, as a method of renouncing indulgence, as a means of redeeming your time and fitting your spirit for prayer, you would find mighty advantages from it. This method, though it seems such a small circumstance of life, would in all probability be a means of great piety. If would keep it constantly in your head that softness and idleness were to be avoided, that self-denial was a part of Christianity. It would teach you to exercise power over yourself, and make you able by degrees to renounce other pleasures and tempers that war against the soul . . . .
“But, above all, one certain benefit from this method you will be sure of having; it will best fit and prepare you for the reception of the Holy Spirit. When you thus begin the day in the spirit of religion, renouncing sleep, because you are to renounce softness and redeem your time; this disposition, as it puts your heart into a good state so it will procure the assistance of the Holy Spirit; what is so planted and watered will certainly have an increase from God. You will then speak from your heart, your soul will be awake, your prayers will refresh you like meat and drink, you will feel what you say, and begin to know what saints and holy men have meant by fervors of devotion.”
Jeff Robinson (M.Div. and Ph.D., SBTS) is editor of the Southern Seminary blog. He serves as senior editor for The Gospel Coalition and is also adjunct professor of church history and senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center at SBTS. Jeff served as a pastor for several years in Birmingham, Alabama. He is co-author with Michael A. G. Haykin of To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014). Jeff and his wife Lisa have four children and belong to Clifton Baptist Church.