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Building Our Altar Life

If we build our worship altar, God will meet us there and guide us day by day for the rest of our life.

The summer after my second year in high school, my parents decided I needed a change of scenery. They knew they had to get me—a wide-eyed 17-year-old with anger-management issues—to a better place; else, I seemed headed for trouble.

I always had a “thing” for words and language.

I excelled in any subject that involved English or writing, and this started at an early age. So, when I encountered Hip Hop music, which had burst onto the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was hooked. I overdosed on the wordplay of Run-D.M.C., The Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Eric B. and Rakim, and others. Added to the music was a new craze called breakdancing, and I was doubly hooked. It was fresh. It was urban. It was me.

“By beholding, we become changed,” Ellen G. White often wrote, building on the Apostle Paul’s counsel in 2 Corinthians 3:18.1 This was definitely true of me. I had been changed by what I was pumping into my ears and setting before my face. I was “rappin’” in a small group, breakdancing with my friends, and dreaming of pop stardom. I still went to church with my parents, participated actively in Pathfinders and Adventist Youth Society (AYS), but I was losing my way. My parents could see it, and anyone else who cared to look close enough could see it, too.

My parents found the perfect antidote to my problems: Pine Forge Academy—an Adventist boarding school in the hills of Pine Forge, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., I agreed to go—I really did not have a choice— somewhat happy to put the “drama” of my public high school behind me. I comforted myself with the thought that though I would be far away, I would not be far away from the music I loved. Little did I know at the time that something else would have a much greater impact on my life than my new school.


As my father readied our car for the trip to Pine Forge, he gave me a two-volume set of Ellen G. White books. My dad loved her writings, and he would liberally sprinkle her quotes into the conversation wherever he found a listening ear. Regrettably, I also knew of less-careful Ellen White zealots who would breathlessly invoke her writings to beat into submission anyone whom they felt was out of line. It did not take long for the beauty and sweetness of Ellen White’s counsels to be lost on me during my early teenage years. Nevertheless, I accepted my father’s gift, and off I went.

When I finally opened the two volumes of Mind, Character, and Personality, something happened to me. I cannot fully explain it, but somehow, I had arrived at the intersection of desiring a personal change in my life and the resources to begin that change. I knew I had gotten into some bad things in my previous school, and Pine Forge was my opportunity to make a clean break with my former life, to start over, despite my young age. Nothing did more to transform my life at that time than the Bible and the books my father gave me. As a young man coming of age, immersed in city culture, I felt God began to put His finger on the difficult things that held me fast, such as music. I was growing up in a home in which God was cherished, worship was constant, and church life prized, but I still began to lose my way. I needed help. I needed a deeper walk with God.

I wanted desperately to be a good student, and here God worked through Ellen White to supply the tools I needed to not only change my spiritual life but also become a high academic achiever. It was during this period of my life that I read this: “As an educating power, the Bible is without a rival. Nothing will so impart vigor to all the faculties as requiring students to grasp the stupendous truths of revelation. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. . . . If never required to grapple with difficult problems or put to the stretch to comprehend important truths, it will, after a time, almost lose the power of growth.”2 This statement alone transformed my Bible study habits. I gave priority to Bible study, and the results I experienced were staggering. My mind grew calmer, and my ability to grasp difficult concepts in my studies greatly increased.

No chapter in this amazing two-volume Ellen White compilation impacted me more than chapter 11 of volume 1, “Bible Study and the Mind.” After reading it, I began to study the Bible with intention and precision. That experience was the beginning of my “altar life” with God.


One need not possess a physical altar to worship God. In fact, if a follower of Jesus lives in consistent, earnest, Bible-bathed communion with God, he or she has erected an altar as real as the one that Elijah built on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18).

The altar life encompasses one’s connection with and commitment to God, and this will be seen in his or her consistency in personal worship of God. Jesus told the woman at the well that God was looking for worshipers: “‘But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him’” (John 4:23, NKJV).3

Nothing will transform one’s life like a vibrant devotional life. My altar life began late in high school, and the benefits soon followed. I graduated fairly high in my senior class. As I prepared to leave for university, I knew the next four years would shape the rest of my life. I knew that very important decisions were ahead, and I wanted to get them right. I also knew that if I did not intentionally work to develop my devotional life, I would not be successful in life. I might have a good career, maybe even achieve some fame, but would I fulfill God’s destiny for me? I was terrified by the possibility of not doing so, so I prioritized my worship experience with God right from the start at the university.

Step 1: SET A TIME

If we think we’re too busy to set aside time to worship God, we’re too busy. Personal devotional time is the compass that God uses to set the direction of our lives. If we miss it, we will be off course—fast. When the Israelites were delivered from Egyptian captivity, God commanded Moses to tell the people, “‘One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight’” (Exodus 29:39). Worship was to be the spiritual bookends of Israeli life—a way of ordering their steps morning and evening, day to day. According to Ellen White, this connection to God is critical: “There is not an impulse of our nature, not a faculty of the mind or an inclination of the heart, but needs to be, moment by moment, under the control of the Spirit of God.”4

Let’s plan our time with God and never, ever break it. If life gets in the way, as it often does, start again with God. If we set a time to be with God, He will meet us every time!


I lived in the men’s dormitory on the campus of Oakwood University (Huntsville, Alabama, U.S.A.) during my first year of college. My room became the place where I built my altar life. My worships were not long, but they were meaningful. I was blessed to have a roommate who also had an altar life. We gave each other room to worship. When we awoke early in the morning, we did not talk much. He needed to worship, so I gave him space. He, in turn, would do the same for me. Little did I know that I was building devotional habits that would last a lifetime. I still meet with God at the beginning and end of each day.

Maybe the place of our altar will be a room, a bench, a meadow, or a field. Or perhaps the place of our altar will be mobile, changing from day to day. Do whatever works best, but find a place and spend time with God there!


When we attempt to erect our altar life, we will soon discover that our life is quite “loud,” filled with many distractions. According to several recent studies, our cellphones/smartphones are perhaps the biggest distraction we will face in our spiritual life—single biggest threat to our altar life and to our overall well-being. The average social media user, it is said, spent two hours and 27 minutes a day on social media in 2022,5 and a 2020 study reported that people used mobile devices for more than 50 percent of the time that they spent on the Internet.6 One Internet research organization found that based on self-reported data, the average person taps, clicks, surfs, and swipes his or her phone an average of 2,617 times per day. The heaviest users average 5,427 touches per day.7

Our smartphones not only offer multiple methods of communication (voice, text, Zoom, social media, and e-mail) but also serve as a radio, disco, newspaper, dance club, library, newspaper, camera, GPS, cinema, banking tool, and much, much more. As a tool of distraction, they are unequaled by anything else in history. Our altar life will never get going until we quiet our space, and that especially means our smartphones and tablets. Sure, we can use them as a part of our worship experience, but it would be so much better to forgo them altogether during worship time. Read the Bible and see if there is an attitude to change or adopt, a person to serve, or Jesus to see. Play an instrument and sing out loud to God. Read a devotional book the old-fashioned way, and spend a quiet season in prayer, meditating on what you read.

After his great triumph on Mt. Carmel, Elijah faced threats on his life by Queen Jezebel. The forlorn servant heard God’s gentle whisper after the wind, earthquake, and fire (1 Kings 19:11–13). It is in the quiet spaces of life that God speaks the loudest.


No person in Scripture had a more powerful altar life than Jesus. Amid a busy life of daily ministry, constant threats, and withering assaults from the devil, Jesus made time for long seasons of prayer and worship. He who was equal with the Father (Philippians 2:6) still thought it important to be still and know that God is God. Jesus understood from an early age that His calling required constant connection with His Father. This was the only way to carry the sins of the world to the Cross. Ellen White described the altar life of Jesus: “The Majesty of heaven, while engaged in His earthly ministry, prayed much to His Father. He was frequently bowed all night in prayer. His spirit was often sorrowful as He felt the powers of the darkness of this world, and He left the busy city and the noisy throng to seek a retired place to make His intercessions. . . . All night, while His followers were sleeping, was their divine Teacher praying. The dew and frost of night fell upon His head bowed in prayer. His example is left for His followers.”8

Jesus craved communion with His Father. This was a habit that He developed early in His life on earth and continued until He ascended to heaven. It was the source of His power and the secret to His peace while on earth. Just as Jesus depended on His Father for everything, so must we depend on Him: “‘I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing’” (John 15:5).

The time we spend building our altar life will be time well spent. If we build and lean on the altar of prayer, there, God will meet us and will lead us, guide us, and bless us. If our prayer altar is sure and certain, from then on, we can be sure and certain that God will meet us there and carry us through the rest of our lives.

Dwain N. Esmond (MA, Pittsburg State University, Kansas, U.S.A.) is an Associate Director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Recommended Citation

Dwain N. Esmond, "Building Our Altar Life," Dialogue 34:3 (2022): 13-16

Notes and references

1 For example: in her books Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1900), 355; Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1915), 422; and The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1911), 555; as well as in many of her manuscripts.

2 Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publ. Assn., 1977), 1:91.

3 All Scripture passages in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

4 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1890), 421.

5 “Daily Time Spent on Social Networking by Internet Users Worldwide From 2012 to 2022”:

6 Digtal 2020: Global Digital Overview. DigitalReportal. https://

7 “Putting a Finger on Our Phone Obsession,” Dscout: tapped%2C%20swiped%20and%20clicked,the%20less%20 restrained%20among%20us. “The researchers recruited a demographically diverse sample of 94 Android users from their pool of more than 100,000 participants and built a smartphone tool to track every user’s interaction across 5 days, 24 hours a day [the survey did not include Apple phone or tablet users]. About 2/3 of people surveyed participated 5 days; the remainder participated 2 to 4 days.”

8 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1915), 106. Pronouns referring to Deity have been capped at the author’s request.

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