I love books.
Even as I write this I am surrounded by books. Books on people, God, culture, history, finances, productivity, on and on the list goes. However, I not only love books, I love to read books. I love to learn and discover new things. I love to have my mind stretched and typical thinking challenged over the ideas I consume while reading books. In some ways, reading is intellectual candy to me. The more I read, the more I want to read. Because of this, last year (for the first time ever) I decided to set a "reading goal" — a number of books I would read in one year’s time. I found this incredibly helpful. I became more disciplined in how I used my leisure time and even found creative ways I could read while doing other activities (like listening to audiobooks while driving or working out — and yes, I consider that reading). Overall, it was one of the best decisions I've ever made for my personal development.
Yet perhaps the greatest thing I gained from that endeavor was not something I learned, but something I discovered. While attempting to be a disciplined reader and rigorous academic, I discovered that my affections were changing. Jonathan Edwards defined the affections as "the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul" (see p.96 of The Religious Affections). In other words, the affections are a part of your soul that move you towards or away from something. An example of this would-be music. There are some songs that you hear that leave you indifferent and stagnant while there are other songs that you hear that leave you passionate and moved. The affections are the sails of the soul. They direct and stir your heart to or away from things.
It was while I was striving to reach my reading goal that I discovered my affections, the sails of my soul, had changed. This discovery came late in the year when I had sat down like I had most mornings that year to open my Bible and read. I read my Bible (like any other day), shut my Bible, got up from my chair, and began to get ready for my day. It was shortly after this that it hit me: I just read God's Word like a syllabus.
Over time, without me realizing it, I had developed a greater desire for books than the Bible. I was more excited to sit down and read a book than I was to read the Word of the Living God.
If you have ever read a syllabus before, you know what I mean. When you read a syllabus, you don't read it with high expectations. You aren't expecting to encounter anything that will inevitably transform your life. In fact, most people (I'm guilty) just skim the syllabus for "necessary information" and then put it back in a folder. This was how I was reading the Bible. I wasn't reading the Bible with heart-filled expectancy and longing to see the glory of Christ and be changed, I was reading the Bible to check a box and move on to what I considered practically helpful reading — books. Over time, without me realizing it, I had developed a greater desire for books than the Bible. I was more excited to sit down and read a book than I was to read the Word of the Living God.
It is easy to become well-versed in knowing about the Bible while never actually reading the Bible.
I have a feeling I'm not alone.
This change in affections is a dangerous, subtle slide for all Christians who love the Bible and love reading. It is dangerous because it is easy to become well-versed in knowing about the Bible while never actually reading the Bible. It is subtle because you can deceive yourself into thinking that because you know so much about the Bible it's okay that you never read the Bible. And as we learn from Psalm 1, when you begin to neglect the Bible your soul shrivels. So, what do you we do? How can we change the affections of our hearts so that we love the Bible while we read books? Three things:
1. Remember the gospel.
Have you ever considered that if it weren't for God saving your soul the Bible would be rubbish to you? In fact, without God you can't even read the Bible correctly because "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4). If it weren't for Jesus dying and rising for our soul, you would never be able to say with the Psalmist, "Oh, how I love Your law!" (Psalm 119:97). Remember that God saved your soul, and gave you the Holy Spirit, so that when you read the Bible you "with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18).
2. Understand books to be a tool and the Bible to be a treasure.
The Bible is a treasure. Not because it is an instruction manual that helps us live a better life, but because it shows us the glory of Christ — who He is, what He has done, and what He will do (John 5:39). Books are a gift of God. Even the thought that God created us in such a way that we can formulate thoughts and articulate them so that other people understand them should lead us to worship because we are made in His image (Ge. 1:27). But like any gift of God, they can be turned into an idol when we expect them to give to us what only God can give. When we look to books to change us, comfort us, and give us meaning we will always be left wanting. But if we look to the Bible to change us, comfort us, and give us meaning (ultimately in Christ) we are then freed to enjoy God's gift of books with a right heart framework. Books can be a tool that God uses to instill joy into our hearts, but they will always pale in comparison to the joy-filled, Christ-exalting Holy Scriptures. Never forget that.
When we look to books to change us, comfort us, and give us meaning we will always be left wanting.
3. Remind yourself daily that one day all books but one will cease to exist.
C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.
John Piper's Desiring God.
Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections.
A.W. Tozer's Knowledge of the Holy.
What do these books have in common? All are classics and all will one day cease to exist. The only book that will stand the test of time and will last forever and ever (amen!) is the Bible. "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever" (Isaiah 40:8). When you sit down and open your Bible, silently remind yourself that the Book you are holding will still be around when you, your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren pass. Why? Because the Bible is more than a book. The Bible is the very Word of God. And that, friends, is worth reading and rejoicing in forevermore.
2017 is an important year in the life of the church as we celebrate and remember the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that was sparked by Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle in Wittenberg, Germany. To remember the Reformation and the events that took place, I am planning on reading several books that highlight the life of Martin Luther, Reformation theology, and the "Five Solas." Here are five I'm planning to dive into in 2017:
1. Luther on the Christian Life
2. Why the Reformation Still Matters
3. The Unfinished Reformation
4. The Legacy of Luther
5. Rescuing the Gospel
I recently started reading an excerpt from a letter Dr. J.W. Alexander wrote to young ministers in the early 1800's. The letter was based solely on the topic, 'Ministerial Study.' In the letter Dr. Alexander pleas with ministers of the Gospel to "observe that the ministerial learning which I am recommending is solely the discipline and accomplishment whereby you shall be better fitted for your work." He exhorts them to "regard your mental powers as given you to be kept in continual working order, and continual improvement, and this with reference to the work of preaching and teaching." His honest and firm encouragement and exhortation is founded upon a central thought that was swirling in his head that life is short. Or as he puts it, "The day is near when you whole ministerial life will seem to you very short in retrospect." As the letter continues, he offers five tips for teachers of the Bible to consider when thinking about studying and learning.
1. Love the Bible.
He reminds his readers that all learning should be for one purpose: a deeper love and understanding of the Bible. "All your discipline and your acquisition are only so many means for learning God's Word, and for teaching it." Great teachers and preachers of the Bible keep their eyes in books and their hearts in the Bible. In other words, study and learn from many books, but set your heart on the Bible. Read the your Bible and read other books for the sake of knowing the Bible better. How do you do this practically? Alexander say, "devote the first and last part of every day to the persual of the Bible." Begin and end everyday with the Bible.
2. Don't Waste Time On Other Things.
"Be determined to be ignorant of many things in which men take pride." Ask yourself the question, what is robbing me of time throughout my day? For Alexander, it was bad literature. For us, it might be social media, technology, or other things. Find what is robbing you of time and "disregard the perishing nothings of the hour."
3. Don't Take Shortcuts.
"Observe the evils which attend the lack of thorough preparation." Don't rely on your giftedness to preach or teach. Prepare. Do the hard work of study. Set a time everyday to read a book, even if for five minutes. Alexander exhorts, "If he (the teacher or preacher) has begun this slovenly way while still young, and before he has laid up stores of knowledge, he will, in nine cases out of ten, be a shallow, rambling sermonizer as long as he lives." Study the Bible, read books. Learn.
4. Have a Place to Study.
Alexander argues that having a place to study and "labor" as he puts it, is a great benefit to the teacher or preacher. "A prevalent sense of this will do more than anything to procure and redeem time for research, and will cause you to learn more in an hour, than otherwise in a day." For some, that means having an office space. For others, it means having a chair or favorite coffee shop to sit at. Either way, have a place to study and learn.
5. Plan to Study.
Alexander suggests, "Propose questions to yourself: what part of the week do I devote to study? What head of theology has lately been under investigation? What is my plan of study for the coming day?" In asking these questions, you are intentionally setting in your mind the intent and sim to study. Do you set aside time to read and learn every week? Is there a time that you can use or redeem to labor in study?
Alexander ends his letter by saying, "Tell me how you spend your time in your early ministry, and I shall be better able to predict how you preach (or teach)." In other words, if you are not investing your life in pursuing more knowledge of the Bible and the world around you, don't expect to grow in your ability to preach and teach. Study hard and aim to learn everyday.
Reading. What a wonderful gift God has given us in books and most of all, in THE Book. I love to read. I love to read books on theology, productivity, history, biographies, and on and on. This love for books has lead to me reading and collecting a great amount of books to this point in my life. Because of this, I often have people in my church or outside of my church contact me and ask me some pointers on how to read more, what books to read, etc. So I thought I would collect some thoughts on reading as a whole here in this post for those who want some wisdom on reading.
Buying a Book is Easy, Reading It Isn't.
Chances are that if you are reading this you know exactly what I mean. It is a lot easier to buy a book from Amazon or your favorite book distributor than to actually read it. So here is my encouragement: only buy books you are going to read within a month of the purchase. The reason I keep this principle is because it is easy to grow discouraged in having a big stack of books 'to read' that never get read and only keep increasing in number. Don't discourage yourself. Instead, buy a book that you are committed to finishing within a month. I find this practice invigorating. I finish books faster because I want to move on to other books on my 'wish list!'
It is easy to grow discouraged in having a big stack of books 'to read' that never get read and only keep increasing in number.
Reading is a Discipline.
Just like exercise, working out, or writing, reading takes discipline. You must make time to do it. I fear that many set out to read with a great desire, but never really read much because they lack discipline. Facebook, Twitter, and television distract the well-meaning 'wanttobe' reader and they never end up reading much. I find that I am far too easily distracted, so I shut off my screens when I read. I turn off my phone, computer, and whatever else could grab my attention. This helps me to stay focused and think better as I read.
Reading Must Be Planned.
Reading doesn't just happen. It must be planned. Take your schedule and find a block of time (even if it's only 15 minutes!) to read. I usually read around lunch time, middle of the afternoon, and for an extended period of time before bedtime. Find what works for you and plan it!
I fear much reading doesn't happen because it is never planned to happen.
Buy Authors, Not Titles.
I always recommend people to buy books by an author they like, not according to titles. Some of the best books I have read were about subjects I wasn't very interested in at the time, but I read the book because it was by an author I had previously enjoyed.
These are my spontaneous thoughts on reading. I hope they have been helpful and have at least served to spur you on to more and better reading!
I am a Husband to Clarissa, Lead Pastor Resident at College Park Church in Indianapolis, 'Tweeter' at @brad_merchant, and avid reader of books.