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We all know that besides regular time spent in the Bible itself (quote Charles Spurgeon's "Visit many good books, but live in the Bible") it's important to read other helpful Christian books to grow spiritually. Whether this means the classics like Augustine's Confessions, theology like John Calvin's Institutes, respected giants like J.C. Ryle, Matthew Henry, Spurgeon, or more contemporary best-sellers like John Piper, Timothy Keller etc--there are plenty of choices.
Too many, in fact. It can get overwhelming just trying to pick one--let alone the real challenge of actually reading it. All too often we end up collating a pile of to-reads, only for them to stay on our shelf or bedside table like decorations.
How do we help ourselves persevere in this good desire to grow our minds, in cultivating the habit of reading?
As someone who's always been reading--story books as a kid, literature as a uni student, and now as a writer seeking inspiration and improvement--here are a few tips that have helped me in my own attempts at reading spiritual books; a similar, but significantly different type of reading.
1. Find a book you're excited about. I can't stress this enough. In uni, professors would title-drop nonchalantly every lecture, and anxious students would write down all the titles and try vainly to binge-read everything. This was not only actually impossible, but it really spoilt your whole experience of the book. Instead of enjoying/savouring/thinking through it, you're rushing madly through it, trying to speed-read at the speed of light while all the other titles on your Must Read List hover threateningly in the back of your mind. In the end, you've finished it, congratulations, but what was the point? We open the book, only with the goal of being able to close it. As Mark Twain cheekily remarked, "A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read."
True, that was just my experience in uni studying literature; but strangely enough, there's much the same attitude when it comes to spiritual books. This time, instead of the motivation of seeming educated/knowledgeable, there's the additional pressure of a moral aspect, since it's the Right Thing to Do. On par with Eat Your Vegetables and other unpleasant but unarguable truths.
Too often, you have a truckload of Good Christian Book titles thrown at you--you MUST read this, you HAVE to read this. The problem is not that they aren't good. The problem is that there are simply too many. And if you take the same, dutiful approach--try to swallow as many as you can, as quickly as possible--you miss out on so much that they have to offer.
Having done this myself as a young Christian, I can personally attest that no matter how many Good Christian Book titles you cross off your list in this mindset--and no matter how fast/efficiently--it hardly benefits you. To this day I barely remember anything I read during that anaconda binge period, other than that it was exhausting and unenjoyable. Because, despite the brief flush of fulfilment after finishing each book, the list never ends. If you read only to have read, you quickly get discouraged when you realize how many more books there are out there. Always having more good books than you can read becomes--instead of an exciting blessing, as it should be--a curse.
Don't just settle for a book which everyone tells you you have to read. Pick one on a topic that you're genuinely interested and want to grow in.
Pick one that is accessible for you to read--if the language is too old-fashioned, there are too many new words, the writing style is hard to understand--don't force yourself. Those things come with time. As you grow as a reader, expand your vocabulary and comfort zone, you'll find yourself able to increasingly appreciate and understand a more diverse range of books and writing styles.
But for now, as someone trying to start the habit of reading spiritual books, there's no need to kill yourself.
2. Find regular times in your schedule to read. Whether this means once a week on Sunday, everyday before bed, or simply keeping the book in your bag for those random pockets of time throughout the day, consciously find times in your normal schedule where you can read.
Don't leave the book on your shelf "for when I have time." Trust me, time will not come to you. Or when it does, picking up that book is not going to be what's foremost in your mind. Let's be honest--it can hardly compete with the next episode of your favourite show, that cute cat video, or swiping through your friends' Instagram stories.
See what works for you. Personally, reading on public transport has been great for me; I find I focus better, since I'm a "captive audience." My mind doesn't get sidetracked by things which need to be done, because hey, I'm (passively) doing something necessary right now, after all. It's a good way to "redeem the time" as well; since I would probably be on my phone or falling asleep otherwise.
3. Set realistic goals, especially in the beginning. Quality over quantity, sustainability over efficiency. This is not a Guinness World Record competition. Remember that your ultimate goal is to develop a habit of reading.
Don't have unrealistic expectations, whether on how soon you're going to finish this book, or how much you read each time. For some, maybe this means reading one chapter each time. Some may start with just several paragraphs. It may not be the best idea to push yourself as far as you can go each time, either (unless you're genuinely excited about reading more, in which case, praise the Lord!)
4. Mark quotes which spoke to you, or which were crucial in helping you understand the main thrust of the book. It's too time-consuming to make notes on every book you read, but simply marking key lines or ideas can make a huge difference--both right now as you're in the process of processing information, and in the future when you look back trying to remember.
My mom has a habit of writing in the margins, underlining sentences, and summarizing certain paragraphs. I like to stick post-its under important lines, with my scribbled comments on them. For especially significant quotes that I really liked, I might copy them into a "Quote Book" I keep.
Often--usually years later--you realize that certain key concepts or thoughts, contained in those quotes, were your main takeaways from that particular book.
5. Share what you learnt--humbly, with the intent to encourage. When we've fulfilled our goal of "having read", it's all too easy to let pride take over. We (naturally) feel a sense of accomplishment at having succeeded--having "finished" the book. And usually, if we understood it at all, we can't wait to tell others about it! This is a good thing, yes. But it slips very easily into another opportunity to modestly flaunt (what a paradox) our discipline, our knowledge, and most of all our superior spirituality.
We need to ask ourselves, what is the real motivation behind my sharing? Am I wanting everyone to know I accomplished this, seeking for admiration and approval? Am I desiring to appear superior for my discipline, piousness, or learnedness?
Instead, do I want to encourage others to start their own attempts at reading spiritual books? Do I want to encourage them with what I have learnt from this book, or from my own experience of persevering and benefitting from the habit of reading spiritual books?
Granted, this is a fine line. One which only we ourselves will be able to discern, and not all the time at that. It will be hard, and probably unwise, for others to try to discern this for us; which is why we need to watch our own hearts.
Developing the habit of reading is a long-term process (as the term habit should imply.) For people of our (very visual and multi-media) generation, it's retraining our appetites and mental stamina. It's going to take time. It's going to take consistent, patient, intentional engagement.
Like slow-release whole grains vs quick-release processed sugars--we're used to having things summarized, processed, distilled for us so that we can understand it as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Reading, however, requires an active process on the reader's part. We're developing a taste for something which requires us to purposefully involve our thoughts and imagination before we can understand, engage, and benefit. A perfect application, in this case, of Romans 12:2--Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
image by Nani Williams from Unsplash
continued from part 1
In his book True Community, Jerry Bridges points out the special privilege that our friendships with other Christians (especially those in the same church) should be. We should treasure what we have in common, what our union with them is based on: our common status as redeemed sinners, seeking to serve and be more like Christ. We should be eager to talk with them about Christ, the joys and struggles of following Him, our daily experiences of being in a relationship with Him; what we cannot talk about with our other friends.
The irony, as Bridges adds, is that all too often we talk about everything except that. During refreshments, we chatter determinedly on about exams, trips, the best coffee, work life balance, sports news, and what a spectacular disappointment the new MacDonalds’ salted egg yolk fries were. We reduce ourselves—unknowingly, from sheer habit, or because we’re not comfortable to go further—to another club, another social interaction in the broadest sense of the word. Trying to find something in common that we can relate to, from hobbies to celebrity crushes to music genres and whether or not we’re fellow Starbucks/Star Wars fans, so we can “bond.”
When we never really needed to. Since all along we already have something—Someone—in common.
Bridges challenges us to rethink the purpose and content of our conversations in church every Sunday. The whole perspective, in fact, with which we see our church friends and family.
Even as older Christians, we tend to have the wrong mindset towards our relationships in church. We need to “touch base” with so-and-so. Catch up. Hear about your week. Make friends with the new visitor. Not wrong, granted, but very much secular social interaction behaviour. All about maintaining that very superficial, uncertain first level of friendliness.
Granted, this probably isn’t a new concept to you. If you’re like me, you’re uncomfortably aware that yeah, we’re supposed to have more spiritual conversations—but it’s terribly awkward and feels so contrived…but it’s really hard if you’re not close enough, and don’t you need to develop the friendship more first--
Yes, there is a point to that. Most of us would squirm if someone you didn’t know very well did the *awkward cough, even more awkward attempt at eye contact:* “So, how’s your spiritual life?”
I remember when a sermon was once preached on the need for "more spiritual conversations" in church. For about two weeks, we all tried manfully, if horribly awkwardly--after which everyone unanimously gave it up with a sigh of relief.
I think the key here is the perspective. Instead of seeing “spiritual conversation” as a dreaded duty, we need to start learning to see it as a privilege. As something we probably don’t get to talk about much during the rest of the week. As something we’re interested in, and which we know they are too. As something we can mutually relate over.
A bit like the fun of meeting up with any specific friend group—old classmates, cousins, colleagues etc. You can relive stupid private jokes and rehash ancient memories without coming across as that hopelessly nostalgic person trying to convince others how fun and happening they used to be. Or how you can look over old family photos with your mom without becoming that annoying person who forces guests to look through albums of ancient baby photos, expecting them to be interested when they can’t see any difference between all the yellowed and expressionless babies.
Perhaps the best example is how, in any field of specialization, you can "talk shop"--whether with old classmates, colleagues, or someone you've just met who's in the same line (regardless of whether that means bone density and the twelve functions of the liver, or Freud and psychoanalysis in Edgar Allan Poe.)
Whereas in contrast, if you tried this with someone who didn’t share the same experiences/knowledge, you would probably end up alienating them and creating an awkward awareness of how they can’t relate (and probably also look like an unbearable snob showing off a lack of EQ.)
In this case, you don't come across as contrived, awkward, or dutiful in dwelling on your shared common experiences/interests. In fact, it becomes a natural opportunity to seize, a natural means to bond over, to affirm old relationships and build up new ones.
This makes all the difference between that short-lived and woefully unnatural attempt, and what Jerry Bridges pictures here. Rather than dutifully asking each other “How has your spiritual life been this week” (ugh) it becomes a natural sharing/outpouring of our common experience (“did you see the match last night?”/ “you know how Bible memory seems like such an impossible challenge?” In the same way we gravitate to the standard topics we relate over.
“Oh I watched that movie last week and thought it was really good, did you like it?”/“I didn’t get the last point from the sermon just now, did you?”/
“I’ve been trying to exercise more haha, any tips?”/“recently I’ve been struggling to focus when I pray, my mind just keeps running off to the things which need to be done, and I dunno…do you have that too? or any ideas how to help with that?”
(okay, yeah that’s rather corny, but I don’t want to be uselessly abstract, so I made myself include some examples, just to get the ideas rolling)
We need to be more intentional with--not just our conversations, but ultimately our relationships in church. We need to start by seeing them as the support group--fanbase--whatever flawed analogy from millenial culture which helps to start changing your perspective of the otherwise inane coffee breaks and superficial weekly hi-byes.
We don't appreciate them, cultivate them, or utilize them as we ought.
And until we do, we miss out on a significant means for spiritual growth and support, one that God uses to bless us with the comfort, guidance, encouragement, love, and joy which godly relationships--even between sinners--have the capacity to offer.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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