image by All Bong from Unsplash
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 whenever you're on public transport, 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.
a small voice
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