I love books. As a kid, I read everything—westerns, science fiction, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Most kids think Disneyland is “the happiest place on earth,” but for me it was the public library. I was such a bookworm that, when I got in trouble at home, my parents would ground me . . . from reading!
It wasn’t until I enrolled at Ozark Christian College that I discovered reading books could actually be a spiritual discipline. Growing up, books were entertainment—a way to feed my imagination, but I had never considered that the right books could also feed my soul.
Books Can Be God’s Tools
Professors like Mark Scott and Gary Zustiak challenged me to see wise reading as a way to grow in Christ. In my classes, I was stretched by the assigned books:
• Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster opened my imagination to new ways of pursuing God.
• Between Two Worlds by John Stott stirred my heart with the history, the craft, and the glory of preaching.
• Bruchko by Bruce Olson brought tears to my eyes as I read this autobiography of a young man who persevered through great trials to bring Christ to a primitive South American Indian tribe.
• Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis helped me embrace my faith as reasonable—a clearheaded choice, not a blind leap.
Like a sculptor, God wanted to shape me into the image of Christ, and he was using books as his tools. God apparently used books to shape the apostle Paul. In 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul writes from prison, asking Timothy to come quickly and to bring “the books, but especially the parchments” (King James Version). While “the parchments” are probably Paul’s Old Testament Scriptures, “the books” are his other reading materials. The old apostle wants his library.
Charles Spurgeon once exhorted his ministry students to follow Paul’s example as a reader: “He’s been preaching for at least 30 years, and yet he wants books. The apostle says to Timothy and so says to every preacher, ‘Give thyself unto reading.’ He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains proves he has no brains himself!”
While at Ozark, I learned of many saints through the ages who grew through reading. Augustine read Antony the Desert Father. Martin Luther treasured the writings of Johannes Tauler. John Wesley read the devotional writer Fenelon. Spurgeon read Pilgrim’s Progress more than 100 times. C. S. Lewis read George MacDonald, and his life was forever changed.
So if I want to follow in the footsteps of some of God’s greatest servants, then I must give myself to reading. May I suggest a resolution you could make for your spiritual growth?
Read a book.
Four Kinds of Books to Consider
I don’t mean just any book. John Gri-sham might pass the time, but will his books draw you toward spiritual maturity? Even some “Christian” books—romance novels, historical thrillers—are simply bubble gum for your brain. They’re fun, but mostly empty calories. When I say “read a book,” I mean read something that will strengthen your spiritual muscles. Here are four kinds of books to consider.
• First, consider a devotional book. Great devotional writers beckon us to follow them as they follow Christ. They wrestle with God over issues like loving bothersome neighbors, being holy in a sin-stained world, and trusting God when he seems untrustworthy. Each writer allows us to eavesdrop on his or her life with God, and we learn by listening in.
Some of my favorite “dead guy” devotional writers include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, E. M. Bounds, Oswald Chambers, Thomas à Kempis, Andrew Murray, and A. W. Tozer. Some contemporary devotional authors I like include Mark Buchanan, Max Lucado, John Ortberg, John Piper, Chuck Swindoll, Dallas Willard, and Philip Yancey.
• Second, consider a practical book. These how-to books help you think biblically about the ground-level responsibilities of your life: parenting your kids, managing your money, loving your wife, leading your church, running your business.
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman can reshape your family’s communication. When God Builds a Church by Bob Russell will recalibrate your views on church leadership. God can use these practical books to develop your discipleship in the daily details of life.
• Third, consider a theological book. Maybe you need to challenge yourself to think more deeply about your faith. Want a fuller understanding of Christ’s sacrifice? Read John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. Ever wonder what the Bible teaches on the Holy Spirit? Read Jack Cottrell’s Power from On High. Have unanswered questions about Heaven? Read Randy Alcorn’s Heaven.
Theological books like these are not bedtime reading. They are meat, not milk. You must chew them slowly, but they’ll build muscle on your faith.
• Finally, consider a biographical book. I am moved by the lives of great men and women of God down through history—Amy Carmichael, David Brainerd, Susanna Wesley, Jim Elliot, George Müller. They remind me that I am part of a bigger story, and I can see the truth of God fleshed out in their lives. Their faith inspires me.
My friend J. K. Jones tells how such a book helped save his ministry:
There was a season in the whirlwind of seminary and ministry where I believed I could not go on. Criticism, overwork and little rest took its toll. One Sunday night, after evening worship and a difficult meeting, I thought I was coming apart. I wondered if this was what it was like when a person had a “breakdown.” I cried and couldn’t stop. My wife took me and our family over to the home of dear friends. . . . Those precious people reached into their pockets and gave us all the cash they had . . . and offered these wise words, “Get out of the area code and let us know where you are.” We loaded the car and drove all night, spending the next couple of weeks in Arkansas with my wife’s parents.
I didn’t think I wanted to go back to that ministry or to that church. My soul was dry, my mind dull, and my heart broken. My mother-in-law knew better than I did what was happening and what was at stake. For several days I said very little and mostly slept. One morning I heard a knock at the door of the bedroom. I didn’t answer. The door creaked open, and Mom Graham threw me a Snickers candy bar and a book. The only word from her mouth was, “Enjoy.”
I did not open either gift for a while, but slowly I began to eat the candy bar and then turned my appetite to the book. Mom had found an old copy of the biography of David Livingstone. I devoured it, reading and rereading words, sentences and paragraphs. Livingstone’s life of courage, endurance and character spoke deeply to my soul. It was as if God himself spoke loudly and firmly through that book, “If Livingstone can persevere, so can you.” After some more days of rest we returned, and our most productive years of ministry in that church followed.1
What Will Happen When I Start Reading?
When you read these kinds of books, you will hone your thinking, enlarge your experience, improve your Bible reading, sharpen your life skills, rethink your beliefs, connect to your Christian heritage, find new spiritual mentors, deepen your faith, shoot adrenaline through your weary soul, and hear the voice of God calling you upward and onward.
Henry David Thoreau said, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” It’s true. When you pick up a good book, you are not just holding a few ounces of paper and ink and glue. You’re holding the possibility of a whole new life.
So I’ll close with John Wesley’s words: “It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. . . . Reading Christians are growing Christians.”
If you want to grow in Christ, here’s a simple suggestion: Read a book.
1J. K. Jones, Reading with God in Mind (Joplin: Heartspring, 2003), 60, 61.
Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. This encouragement to read originally appeared in the school’s publication, The Compass.