My ministry has taken me to many places in the world, but no matter how exotic or beautiful the location, it always felt empty and hollow without my wife and children to enjoy it with me. In contrast, my family and I recently traveled to the United Kingdom to surprise my parents on their golden wedding anniversary. It was one of the most memorable trips of my life, not only for the joy we gave to my parents, but also for the joy of doing such a trip together, sharing in one another’s lives. The joy of a journey depends so much on who’s riding with us.
As God said, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). If a perfect man in a perfect world in a perfect relationship with God needed to hear that, how much more do sinful men in a sinful world in far-from-sinless relationships with God? It is not good for man to be alone. Man. That’s me. That’s you. Yet so many of us still try to live largely independent, solitary, disconnected, and self-sufficient lives. The result, as predicted, is “not good.”
Central to God’s answer to this “not goodness” was his provision of a wife to move the state of men from “not good” to “very good.” But there are other key relationships in our lives we must consciously cultivate, especially in a fallen world, if we are to avoid “not good” and move toward “very good”: our relationships with God, with our wives, with our children, with our pastors/elders, and with our friends. Even if we just get that order of priorities right, it will make a massive difference.
Relationship with God
Like all healthy and satisfying relationships, our relationship with God needs time and energy. But giving time and energy to our relationship with God actually increases free time and energy because it helps us get a better perspective on life and order our priorities better, it reduces the time we spend on image management, and it removes fear and anxiety.
Here are some things that have helped me to keep my personal relationship with God personal and avoid falling into the trap of relating to him only through my ministry to others:
Guarded time. I try to guard personal Bible reading and prayer time as jealously as I guard my own children. I keep my six twenty appointment with God each morning as zealously as if it were an appointment for kidney dialysis.
Undistracted mind. In a survey of eight thousand of its readers, desiringGod.org found that 54 percent checked their smartphones within minutes of waking up. More than 70 percent admitted that they checked email and social media before their spiritual disciplines.1 I agree with Tony Reinke, who commented, “Whatever we focus our hearts on first in the morning will shape our entire day.” So I have resolved not to check email, social media, or the news before my devotional time, as I want to bring a mind that is as clear and focused as possible to God’s Word.
Vocal prayers. As I always pray better when I pray out loud, I like to find a place where I can do so without embarrassment. Hearing my own prayers helps me improve the clarity and intensity of my prayer. Also, I cannot cover up a wandering heart or mind so easily when I pray out loud.
Varied devotions. Sometimes I read a psalm, a chapter from the Old Testament, and a chapter from the New. Other times I read just one chapter or part of a chapter and spend longer meditating on it. Or I may read through a Bible book with a good commentary. Though the speed varies, I do try to make sure that I’m reading systematically through both testaments and not just jumping around here and there.
Good sleep. If I get a good seven to eight hours of sleep each night, I come to God’s Word with more energy and concentration.
Christ-centered sermons. Using sites such as sermonaudio.com, I listen to many preachers outside my own tradition because I often find their approach to texts refreshing and stimulating.
Christ-centered books. Books that draw me into communion with Christ include John Owen’s The Glory of Christ and Spiritual Mindedness; John Flavel’s Christ the Fountain of Life; and, more recently, Mark Jones’s Knowing Christ.
Selfish reading. Sometimes I read a book exclusively for my own soul. I resolve that I won’t use it for any sermon, article, or lecture, and that I won’t share any of it on social media. This makes a significant difference to the way I read and the profit I get from it.
Daily reminders. In order to maintain or recover communion with God through the day, I link regular daily habits with prayer or meditation. For example, I may use a coffee break to remind myself to pray, or I may use a time of standing in line to memorize a verse written on a card.
This personal relationship with God is so important because character is so important. Dave Kraft, author of Leaders Who Last, quotes statistics that show only 30 percent of leaders finish well, and in his experience, failures to do so usually happened because popularity and professionalism took the place of character in Christian leaders’ lives. He writes that “in many quarters there seems to be a tendency to overlook a lack of character in one’s personal and private life in exchange for a high degree of success in one’s professional life. . . . Most leaders focus too much on competence and too little on character.”2 General Norman Schwarzkopf agrees: “Ninety-nine percent of leadership failures are failures of character.”3 Character is formed primarily in communion with God. We put this relationship first because it is the most influential in all other relationships, not least in our marriages.
 Tony Reinke, “Six Wrong Reasons to Check Your Phone in the Morning: And a Better Way Forward,” Desiring God, June 6, 2015, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles /six-wrong-reasons-to-check-your-phone-in-the-morning.
 Dave Kraft, Leaders Who Last (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 95–96.
 Cited in James C. Hunter, The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle (New York: Crown Business, 2004), 141.
David Murray (DMin, Reformation International Theological Seminary) is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church. He is also a counselor, a regular speaker at conferences, and the author of Jesus on Every Page.