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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.
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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.
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How many close friends of yours are from church?
Church friends can be just another opportunity for (more) small talk and superficial banter, kept alive by private jokes and the occasional fun outing and of course, being friends on social media. ("#youthgroup #smallgroup #fellowship")
Or they can breed stifling expectations and external pressure to conform to a certain image. Do I feel uncomfortable if my church friends see my social media feed? do I dread bumping into someone from church during the week, because of the friends I'm with, or the shade of lipstick I'm wearing?
However, they can also be an incredible platform for building friendships which have the potential to be more honest, reliable, personal (and sustainable!) than what we can expect elsewhere.
Because here--regardless of how badly we have warped this into the exact opposite of what it should be--we have the most conducive foundation for strong friendships: honesty, vulnerability, a common love and purpose which binds us, and forgiveness.
G.K. Chesterton said that the church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. As such, we should be free to relate to each other without constantly labouring to keep up our Nice Person facade, having to hide every crack as it appears. Free to share struggles and needs. Free to forgive, and ask forgiveness, because we already admit that we need to (though ironically, we've somehow managed to give the church a reputation for hypocrisy, superficiality, and judgment despite all this.)
I'm always amazed how Kpop fans from vastly different cultures, languages, and personalities can instantly and effortlessly click once they discover they love the same bands. As Christians, with a common overarching passion that shapes our life and identity, we should experience the same magic.
We see our church friends regularly, every Sunday. Whether we spend this time with them chatting over coffee break about their upcoming exam or trip, the best places for authentic bak kut teh in Singapore, and the latest meme trending on Instagram; or whether we hardly see each other, busy making drinks, talking to the visitors, tidying up the worship room or preparing for Sunday School/Bible Study. Maybe we even see them at prayer meeting or small group during the week. But I want to argue--from my own years of experience and after reading several books on Christian friendship by a variety of pretty different authors--that this may not be enough.
We all want solid, strong, and sustainable friendships; and as Christians especially we want friends who pray for us, encourage us, help us to grow spiritually. Friends who can lovingly hold you accountable. Friends who support you as you try to grow in godliness. Friends who give us Biblical guidance and insight when we need it. Friends who share our heart for Christ and His work, and His people. Friends who will listen, when you confess, with love and gentleness and respect.
And the list goes on.
For the longest time in my teen years I used to pray that God would give me the "good Christian friend" every Christian parent and teen hopes fervently will appear miraculously in their church. Someone fun and lovable and godly all at the same time! Wouldn't that be nice? Then I would definitely be growing spiritually, instead of stagnating or drifting like I am now.
The problem is that ideal friendships like this very rarely--if ever--appear miraculously in your local church as a nice finished product all ready for you to enjoy, as obvious and fuss-free as if Gabriel himself decided to come and be your "good Christian friend." Gets on really well with you from the start, no bad habits, similar family culture, likes soccer/Marvel movies/fill-in-the-blank too; nice personality, good manners, fun to be around, helps out in church, can't wait to start a youth Bible study, is halfway through memorizing the Shorter Catechism...
Or to be more accurate, perhaps the real problem is that we expect them to come about this way.
We don't passively drift into strong Christian friendships in the same way we don't passively, accidentally drift into glorifying God. You can organize camps together, lead worship, pray together, and see each other every Sunday for year after year; but it doesn't mean that you automatically fall into the powerful, life-changing, God-centered friendship David and Jonathan had.
We need to see the relationship we have with our church friends as potential for this kind of friendship. We may not be near that level now, but without active and intentional investment, we will never be *newsflash of the century.* And this doesn't just mean aimlessly but happily hanging out every night/weekend (the approach we ordinarily would use to build closer friendships.)
We need to see that Christian friendships are about growing together--closer to Christ, and in the process closer to each other.
Jerry Bridges' book True Community address this in the first chapter, by discussing the concept of union and communion. Every relationship can be seen in two aspects: union, or the objective aspect, the basis of your relationship; and communion, or the experiential aspect, the quality of your relationship. Just like how an estranged parent and child would still have the objective aspect of their relationship (they are still inevitably related to each other) though they may lack the experiential aspect (the emotional and personal quality of the relationship.)
These two aspects apply to both our relationship with God, and our relationship with other Christians.
And these two aspects, Bridges argues, are intrinsically related to each other.
How well we understand our union with Christ affects the quality of our communion with Him.
How well we relate with Christ affects how well we relate to other Christians, since our relationship with Christ is the objective basis for our relationship with them.
~to be continued in part 2
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“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
We may not like to admit it, but this word perfectly summarizes the times in our spiritual life when we've fallen into a comfortable plateau. Sure, I'm not growing, but at least I'm still coming to church every Sunday, right? Isn't that the most important thing? As long as I have that I can't be too far off. I'll work on my prayer life and deal with those petty sins when I'm less busy, at a better time. When was the last time we caught ourselves thinking something along these lines?
Laodicea was a thriving, prosperous city. Much like Singapore today. Many things, many people, many concerns; so many things to do, to earn, to enjoy, to worry about.
They had a booming textile industry, especially in producing a valuable type of black wool. They were famous for their medicine schools and pharmaceuticals. And not surprisingly, for such a wealthy city, they were also a financial center for banking and money changing.
How did the church in Laodicea fall away from their first love into lukewarmness? When did the marriage between Christ and this church first start to crumble, so to speak? When did the church become just another social club where you can get by as long as you pay the basic dues expected of the members--turn up, contribute financially, and occasionally participate in the "extra" activities.
When did Christ fade out of the picture?
When we reduce Him to a religion of habit and convenience.
When believing in Him and serving Him becomes no more than another practice--activity--habit--which adds to out lifestyle.
Like brushing our teeth every morning, or exercising once a week, or watering our plants. Just another "good habit" which gives us a sense of satisfaction, which we're used to. Ask us to do more and we get uncomfortable. Hey, that's a bit much, you know? Of course, one day I'll try harder, but for now, this is good enough, I'm getting by...
When we're willing to fulfil the "basic obligations," (and maybe, afraid to do less) but only as far as it suits our habits or convenience. As long as it doesn't infringe on the rest of our lives--our time, our energy, our resources, our pleasures, our plans, or even our concerns. As long as it doesn't challenge our current lifestyle and desires. Unwilling to commit to more, because we see it as a sacrifice.
I call this the bare pass mentality, speaking from years of experience as a frustrated teacher. That student may not actually hate the subject; they may like you, they may even like your lessons, and have some sort of interest in it. But when it comes to the hard work of finishing assignments--struggling with quizzes or essays--practicing everything, everyday, without leaving out the hardest arpeggios or the sight-reading they hate--they shirk anything more than a token minimum. I just need to pass, right? they say with a shrug. I'm really busy with my other subjects in school now, you know.
And I've lost track of the number of times I've yelped (at wit's end,) "Just cut down on Youtube for ten minutes, play one less handphone game, or put in five minutes every day--you definitely can make the time to do a better job than this. Why settle for the bare minimum? You're going nowhere at this rate. If you're don't put in the effort it deserves, you'll never experience the fulfilment and satisfaction of being good at this skill."
Similarly--what are we settling for? A false god, like Greg Gilbert describes in What is the Gospel?: "...just a good-natured, low-maintenance friend who's really easy to talk to--especially since he almost never talks back, and when he does, it's usually to tell me through some slightly weird 'sign' that what I want to do regardless is alright by him...he's grateful for any time he can get...has wishes but no demands, can be safely ignored if you don't have time for him..."
And Christ becomes a mockery of what He truly is. That's why lukewarmness is such a serious sin. To Christ, lukewarmness is worse than coldness--contrary to the lie we like to tell ourselves. "I will spit you out of My mouth..."
He tells us, urgently, to wake up. We, who feel so comfortable and complacent, are in desperate need: "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."
The nakedness and blindness of the Laodiceans were problems that none of their famous black wool, their famous eye salves, their money, could solve.
We think we know what the answer is, that it lies in the things we busy ourselves with. Instead of recognizing that what we need is Christ, we draw further off from Him, thinking that He will distract us, take up more of our time. We are afraid to commit to Him, grudging the sacrifices we associate following Him with.
It's as if we have a cancerous growth on our face, but we refuse to get it removed, because we insist it's too much trouble to stay in hospital. Instead, we busy ourselves with the latest makeup skills to cover up the growth.
And even then, Christ loves us. In all our foolishness and misguided ways, He loves us and longs for our repentance:
"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me..."
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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