Devotion or Commitment?
Updated: Mar 23
“Devotion is a characteristic of eternal life.” I read this sentence this morning in Martin Schleske’s excellent book, The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty. As a master violin maker, Martin is devoted to his craft. As a follower of Jesus, he is devoted to activities that fuel his faith and love for God – including writing.
I got to thinking about the difference between devotion and commitment. A biblical story that illustrates the difference is found in Matthew 21:28-30:
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
The second son made a commitment that he failed to keep. The first son for whatever reason first said no to his father, but later did what his father asked. The passage doesn’t tell us why the first son changed his mind, but I imagine his devotion to his father won out at the end.
The kind of courage being demonstrated by the Ukrainians right now is clearly rising out of their devotion to their country and not just their commitment.
I tend to be a committed kind of guy. An example would be my staying in my last church for 19 years. They were very good years, but like with any church, there were challenges that tested my commitment. There was a painful period near the beginning, around the time of our son Simeon’s death, when a number of people left the church. When a denominational executive met me for coffee he asked, “Do you love your people?” It was the right question, and while I said I did, I’m not sure the pain and humiliation I felt allowed me to be entirely honest.
What’s the difference between devotion and commitment? I think the difference is love. Commitment tends to be straightforward – keep a promise, don’t leave, do what you said you would do. Devotion is captivated by the goodness and beauty of the person or cause, and accommodates people’s foibles and failures. No less dedicated than commitment, devotion is more flexible and joyful. It's capable of being both forward-looking and forgiving. People matter more than agendas. Instead of bulldozing its way, devotion is deft at interpreting the meaning of events and discerning God’s hand. Instead of just putting up with people, devotion understands that everyone is a work in progress and takes pleasure in their idiosyncrasies. It accepts the complexity of life and relationships; remaining vulnerable without trying to control. Like commitment, devotion recognizes the importance of the will, but clothes it with “compassion, kindness, humility and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
Is our level of devotion within our control? Are there ways to increase our devotion? I believe there are. Four come to mind.
First, we may need to re-examine our assumptions – about other people, the cause, or about God. Recently I read about a retired professor who, after the death of his 40-year-old son, realized that he had to distinguish between the compassionate God he learned about in Sunday School and the stern, judgmental God he often heard about from the pulpit. The person who’s merely committed may find it difficult to examine what they believe or to entertain questions and doubts. A devoted person, according to Jesus, never stops asking, seeking and knocking. Devotion allows us to bring our entire selves into our relationship with God and others – our whole heart, soul, mind and strength – not just our will.
Devotion can also wane because of diversions. The Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the New Testament writers all pointed to the love of money as a major culprit. But anything can be a distraction. Reading the Times, by Jeffrey Bilbros, talks about a Christian’s relationship to the daily news. Whenever we reach for our phones or scan a newspaper to get "caught up," we’re not merely being informed but also formed. News consumption can shape our sense of belonging, how we judge the value of our lives, and even how our brains function. Our involvement in local causes and the lives of people close to home can be compromised by giving inordinate attention to events that are entirely beyond our control. Failure to trust in God’s ultimate sovereignty over world events can divert our attention from God and the people we can actually relate to.
More positively, we can increase our devotion through particular devotions. I have no idea how the word “devotions” became Christianese for time alone with God, but I’m reminded of something Jesus said to the church in Ephesus: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first (Revelation 2:4-5a).” When devotion in a marriage needs rekindling, scheduling old and new shared activities into the couple’s calendars can help breathe new life into the marriage. These activities or “devotions” are important for our relationship with God as well. And they can’t be just commitments – activities we carry out dutifully from a sense of obligation. For an activity to be a devotion, it needs to be something we love or learn to love, something that enlivens and refreshes us, including our own unique ways of reading the Bible and praying, or connecting with nature and other people.
Finally, devotion is a gift of the Spirit. The apostle Paul talks about how “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Romans 5:5)." A spiritual practice I’ve been falteringly practicing over the last while has been to ask the Holy Spirit throughout the day to awaken my spiritual senses and my love for God and others. I acknowledge to God my emotional limitations and ask him to help me. It was after the first disciples received the Holy Spirit that they "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42)."
What do you think – is 'devotion a characteristic of eternal life?' Is there an area in your life where your devotion could use some rekindling?