2018 Reading Favorites

Friends, behold, my favorite books from 2018! The art of reading felt different this year––slower––as we welcomed our daughter and enjoyed our first year with her (a blessing!). But I preferred the slowness, I think, as it helped me appreciate the quiet moments more and process what I was reading with greater clarity.

The titles I’m sharing with you below follow the criteria I first used in 2015’s Reading Favorites article:

If one of the main purposes of books is to make the reader think, then these are the ones I’d say made me think most deeply, curiously, and enthusiastically this year. (I’ve chosen a first prize and a runner-up for each genre.) I hope these thoughts might sway you to read a few of these titles, yourself!

Theology

First Prize: The Cross of Christ (John Stott)

I’m only halfway through Stott’s excellent book, but can already give it my highest commendation. He’s a master of accessible theology, drawing out the atonement with confident clarity, biblical richness, and a humble sensitivity to its mysteries. Many people put this book on their must-read-in-this-lifetime list, and I fully agree. Read it as soon as you can!

Runner-Up: The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance―Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Sinclair B. Ferguson)

Ferguson, in his wonderful treatment on the law and the gospel, helped me see that legalism goes beyond our common definition: It’s not simply trying to work our way to God, it’s divorcing God’s good character from his law, and viewing it apart from his heart to save sinners. Ferguson exhorted me to hold fast to “the marrow” of the gospel, the cure for both legalism and antinomianism, in writing and teaching in any context. If you’ve ever been confused about the place of the law in the gospel, read this book.

Biography, Memoir, & Historical Fiction

First Prize: The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead)

The storyline of Whitehead’s novel depressed me, making me wonder if I could genuinely call the book a favorite––but I think that’s his point. He brings to light the horrors of slavery in America, and how quickly hoped-for dreams of freedom could be dashed for those who took the risk and ran. Read this for the rawness of his writing and for perspective.

Runner-Up: Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been (Jackie Hill Perry)

I had the honor of reviewing Perry’s memoir for The Gospel Coalition, so I’ll point you to it here!

Christian Living

First Prize: Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family (Paul David Tripp)

If I had to choose one book that stood out among the rest, a favorite of favorites, Parenting is it. No other book caused me to think as much as this one (probably because we’re new parents). Tripp builds a theological foundation for why we parent; the most striking part for me was the truth that God is parenting me as I parent my daughter. Many other moms have told me this is their favorite parenting book, and for good reasons!

Runner-Up: The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together (Jared C. Wilson)

Wilson is a skilled (and prolific) writer of many practical theology books, and this one is no exception. As a perfectionist who struggles with sin and failure, I was helped to read Wilson’s words: “Jesus is for losers.” I always appreciate his push-back on false gospels; in this book, he confronts the church’s typical definition of discipleship (doing good things) with what it really is (coming to Jesus over and over and over again). I often recommend this one to people who find grace hard to believe.

Vocation & Learning

First Prize: 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (Tony Reinke)

Confession: I listened to Reinke’s book on audio while sleep-deprived and in the fog of early motherhood. But that season was actually the perfect time to listen: I knew I didn’t want to waste away my nursing sessions on my phone. Reinke’s hard work and research is astounding and has clearly blessed many readers, based upon the feedback I’ve read and heard in the last year. Our phones are incredible tools, but they often rule over us; Reinke helped me think about my motives and habits, and especially what these communicate to the people in the room with me.

Runner-Up: Dig Deeper: Tools for Understanding God’s Word (Nigel Beynon & Andrew Sach)

I’m not finished with this yet, but it’s wonderful! Short chapters teach the reader how to study their Bible using memorable tools like structure, context, and linking words. If you want an accessible book on Bible study, this is it.

Fiction

First Prize: Home (Marilynne Robinson)

After Gilead was recommended to me by everyone and their brother, I finally picked it up. I didn’t enjoy Gilead as much as I did Robinson’s second novel, Home, a harrowing tale of family dynamics, personal sin, and hope deferred. Robinson is a gifted writer, one whose novels I hope to read to completion.

Runner-Up: Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)

The story of small-town barber, Jayber Crow showcases the beauty of the ordinary. Berry writes like a song, so while the novel’s plot line feels slow, it’s a welcome slowness full of enjoyable rhythms, eclectic personalities, and depth. Like Robinson’s three Gilead books, Berry’s other books stand alone but are based in the same place. Read them if you want to slow down.

I hope these suggestions prompt you to read great books in 2019. Any suggestions for the books you enjoyed this year? Leave titles in the comments––I’m always looking for great ones.

The Longing to Be Free from Fear

I contributed this brief article to Gentle Leading’s Mama Advent Devotional, an email series for moms about how the coming of Christ fulfills a longing we experience in motherhood. It’s not too late to sign up


Mary, the mother of Jesus, was minding her own business when a fearful thing happened: She was visited by an angel of the Lord with extraordinary news.

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30–33)

Mary was overwhelmed by such a divine visitation (v. 29), let alone by the astonishing news that she would carry God’s Son in her womb. This would be a miracle of undeserved grace, and an exercise of her trust in God. I wonder about the questions that might have crossed her mind: What would her family think when she was suddenly pregnant? What would Joseph think? What would it look like to raise God’s Son?

In our longing to be free from fear, we can take Mary’s story to heart. God hasn’t spoken to us by an angel, but he has spoken to us through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:2). The baby he conceived in Mary’s womb is the Savior and Lord who frees us from fear and calls us to trust.  

What fears are weighing on your mind right now? Maybe it’s your kids’ safety and wellbeing. Maybe it’s your own fear of getting sick this winter and having to mother through it. Maybe you’re wondering what your kids will think when the gifts under the tree are few this year. Maybe you struggle with the fear of inadequacy and failure, or the fear of being judged by others.

Me too, Momma. I long to be free from these fears, to live day-by-day, moment-by-moment with a deepening trust in God’s character and heart. The good news is that God says to us what he said to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” We see in her story three truths that will increasingly free us from fear.

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You Don’t Want What You Actually Deserve

When was the last time someone said to you, “You deserve better”? Or when did you last think, I don’t deserve this…?

These are common statements in American culture. We’re told by the media, and by society at large, that we’re entitled to certain outcomes––and we’re easily convinced, for this belief runs in our blood. At the root of everything, from our private discontentment and grumbling to our public complaints, is a sense that we’re good and deserving and can judge our circumstances rightly.

But we aren’t, and we can’t, because sin has corrupted everything. We’re naturally blind to a right estimation of ourselves, and our sense of justice is skewed––which means we don’t actually want what we deserve. We will see that we have far more than we deserve only when we grasp the undeservedness of the gospel; and we will only look at ourselves and our world rightly, through God’s lens, when we respond to his kindness to us in Christ.   

God’s Overwhelming Holiness

To think rightly about what we deserve, we must start with God. Our flesh wants to make everything about us, as if the world revolves around humans, but creation tells a different tale: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). If we pause to consider the grandeur of a starry sky, the delicate beauty of a sunrise, or the diversity of plant and animal life, we must confess that our lives are but a tiny blip in the radar.  

Creation shouts of our eternal God. Everything begins and ends with him (Romans 11:36).

God not only communicates his greatness through creation, he speaks through his Word. When he spoke to Isaiah, the prophet couldn’t stand before his holiness; he trembled before him, calling down curses upon himself (Isaiah 6:5). John, the beloved disciple, dropped as though dead when he saw Jesus in all his glory (Revelation 1:17). When we encounter God’s holiness through Scripture––when he speaks his perfect, true, pure words to us (Psalm 19:7-9)––we have no choice but to respond in a similar way.

The holiness of God will always be overwhelming to unholy sinners.

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Five Lessons I’ve Learned in Five Years as an Editor

“Do you have any tips to share about being an editor? Any books to read or things you wish you knew when you started?”

A friend and fellow writer recently sent me these questions. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked about how someone can develop an editorial eye and make strides in this elusive, but important skill-set. I figure some of you might have similar questions, so here’s my attempt at an answer!

Let me preface by saying two things:

I didn’t study writing or English in college. What you’ll find in this article, then, isn’t lessons from a classroom, but those learned through work-related experience and diving in headfirst. I don’t pretend to have a refined knowledge of all-things-grammar and technical aspects of writing, nor do I have all the answers! These are simply reflections.

I’m writing this also for writers. Good writers are skilled self-editors, and good writers keep their editors in mind as they write. It’s a beautiful gift when a writer submits an article to Unlocking the Bible, and it’s mostly done. Growth in the skill of self-editing will greatly bless the editor who receives your submission!

Without further ado:

Lesson #1: Editing isn’t taught, it’s caught.

I can’t take credit for this brilliant statement. My co-worker and editor extraordinaire, Tim Augustyn, first said it. I was training my first co-editor and asked Tim for advice. He said, “Editing isn’t taught––it’s caught.”

By this, I don’t think Tim meant there’s no possibility of learning the editorial skill-set through books or courses; rather, we learn best by watching, analyzing, and doing. Just as an apprentice would learn by studying his master as he worked, so we learn editing in a similar way:

  • When we’re reading great books, we observe and analyze voicing, word choice, argument-flow, and the rhythm of sentences.  
  • When we’re being edited, we study what our editor is doing and learn from their suggestions and decisions, and even by the way they communicate.
  • When a writer reasonably pushes back on our work, we’re learning how to become better editors.

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How Churches Can Help Women Study God’s Word

I’ll never forget my trips to the teacher supply store in elementary school. I loved teaching my students (aka my sister) and decorating my “classroom” in our basement with calendars, lessons, and inspirational posters. One such poster stands out in my memory: it had a photograph of three smiling kids, and it read, Laughter is contagious.

Today, I continue to lesson-plan and teach, but now I do it in the context of the church, where one of the most important truths to “catch” is a settled conviction that Scripture is God’s inerrant Word. When we highly esteem the Bible in our churches and preach it from our pulpits, the effect is Scripture-saturated ministries––women’s ministry included––and the equipping of our people to study it for themselves.

A Contagious Conviction

What does it mean to highly esteem God’s Word as a church? The answer to this question could be an article in itself. But for the sake of being concise, this means we:

  • Hold a settled conviction that Scripture is God speaking to us, and that all his words are true, trustworthy, and useful (2 Timothy 3:16).
  • Firmly believe the power of the “sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
  • Invest our ministries, and our lives, in the proclamation of God’s Word because we’re utterly convinced that it never returns void (Isaiah 55:11).

When this is what we believe about the Bible, and when our pulpits overflow with these convictions, the effect upon a congregation––and a women’s ministry––will be contagious. Women will grow in their desire for God’s Word as their churches consistently proclaim it. 

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Parents, Your Tiredness Is an Opportunity

No parent likes to be tired. God created us to need rest to function and raise up our kids another day. A good night’s rest is a gift, and we see this more clearly when it’s lacking—and let’s be honest: For most parents, quality sleep is often lacking

When the nights are interrupted and the morning starts early, all I want is not to be tired. To feel like I can conquer what’s ahead. To greet the day with joy. Or, to use nap time to accomplish something, rather than give into my need and nap myself.

I’m often so busy fighting tiredness that I forget to look for what God may be doing in and through it. If he promises to work all things for our good, this extends even to our fatigue—so rather than seeing tiredness purely as an unwanted hindrance, we can seek the opportunity within it to look for God’s good purposes.

Five Opportunities Tiredness Gives Us

What might these be? Parents, your tiredness is an opportunity:

To seek God’s plan above your own

I’m never more aware of my desire to control things than when they spin out of control. This includes sleep. When I’m rested, I get the crazy idea that I’m in charge of my day. I carefully craft plans and am sure I’ll execute them. But not on tired days. On tired days, I’m barely getting by. I’m aware of my weaknesses, my needs. I see how my life is in God’s hands.

Tiredness awakens me to the reality that I’m not in control.

And this is a good thing, parents. Scripture says pride comes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18)—how often do we pridefully think “we’ve got this”? On tired days, we have an opportunity to taste reality: We’re desperately in need of God, our Sustainer, every moment and all the time. What an unexpected gift, to see clearly through the fog of fatigue!

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10 Truths to Set Leaders Free

Friends! I’ve collaborated with some sisters in Christ from Revive Our Hearts to offer you a free ebook: 10 Truths to Set Leaders FreeWhether you lead a large women’s ministry at your church or simply gather with a few friends to study God’s Word, we all need to know God’s truth in order to point others toward it. That’s why we’re excited to deliver this ebook.

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CLICK HERE TO GET YOUR FREE E-BOOK

We’re exploring the most common lies leaders believe and the truth that sets us free. Here’s an inside peek:

LIE #1: A leader must meet everyone’s needs and expectations. (Melissa Kruger)

LIE #2: I must be strong and always have it together. (Kristen Wetherell)

LIE #3: If I work hard serving the Lord, ministry will go smoothly. (Susan Hunt)

LIE #4: My leadership role makes me more valuable and important. (Shannon Popkin)

LIE #5: My ministry is more important to God than my marriage and family. (Erin Davis)

LIE #6: It won’t matter if I skip my personal time with God. (Kelly Needham)

LIE #7: I’m the only one who can do it. Ministry depends on me. (Leslie Bennett)

LIE #8: I’m responsible for changing people’s lives. (Linda Green)

LIE #9: My ministry is insignificant compared to leaders with larger platforms. (Paula Marsteller)

LIE #10: Ministry is so busy there’s no time to rest. (Judy Dunagan)

Together, let’s speed ahead leaving the dust of lies in the rearview mirror.

Good News for Stressed People

If you’re stressed out, raise your hand.

My hand is raised, and I know I’m not alone. Millions of Americans—Christians included—would say the same. I often don’t know stress is affecting me; I’m usually fine one moment, and crying the next. And as much as I want to blame stress, making myself a victim of its pressures, I know I need to take a deeper look at my heart.

What’s at the root of our stress, beneath the circumstances that seem to cause it? And how does God’s Word speak to our struggle with it?

Moses’ Heavy Burden

Moses found himself in a difficult position after the Exodus. God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, bringing them miraculously through the Red Sea and into freedom. Moses and the people had beheld God’s great glory and power in the destruction of their enemies and the provision of divine rescue. They saw him do what they could never do for themselves.

After crossing the waters, the people continued to see God provide, as he sent manna to nourish their hungry bodies and water from a rock to quench their thirst. God also provided wisdom and justice for the Israelites through Moses, who would “judge the people…from morning till evening” (Exodus 18:13). But there was a problem—

When Moses’ father-in-law [Jethro] saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” (v. 14)

Jethro was concerned for Moses, and rightfully so. The Bible doesn’t tell us that Moses was “stressed out,” per say, but there were either indications of this, or Jethro had the foresight to see the coming effects of what Moses was doing.

Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” (vv. 17-18)

Wearing Ourselves Out

Do you resonate with this account? Perhaps your intentions are good, but you’re wearing yourself out because you’ve taken on too much and not asked for help. Or perhaps you’re obeying God by simply doing what he’s asked of you, but circumstances have become heavy with tension, complications, or hardship.

Like Moses, we’ve seen God’s great works throughout biblical history; more than Moses, we’ve beheld God’s greatest work in delivering us from sin and death through Christ. Yet, like Moses, we may be carrying heavy burdens, unable “to do it alone.”

Jethro’s response to Moses reveals three important truths about stress that we should take to heart:

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Moms, It Is Our Privilege

On hard days of mothering, it’s easy to see it purely as a type of suffering, rather than a blessed privilege. And it is a type of suffering. Motherhood is tough. It requires us to give up our plans in favor of what our kids need most. It demands our preferences for theirs. It’s strenuous on our bodies as we carry babies and hoist toddlers, and it tests our hearts as we soak up tears, discipline in love, and spend ourselves for little immediate return.

Yes, motherhood is a form of suffering. But in the middle of its trials, when we’re exhausted and weary, we can quickly forget what a privilege it is––often at the same time as when it’s hardest.

Pictures of Jesus

As I rocked our infant daughter in the quiet of her room, the day’s trials melted in light of the moment. Wise words from a mentor came to mind: “Remember what a privilege it is to be the picture of Christ to her.”

What a privilege indeed.

Don’t we need to know this truth, mommas, when it seems we can’t catch a break? When our kids are demanding so much from us, and we aren’t sure we can give any more? When our patience runs low because our little one has pushed our buttons and tested our love?

Consider Him

We need to know who Jesus is—what he’s already done and what he’s doing right now. Then and only then, as his Spirit works in us, will we grasp what a privilege it is to reflect him as we mother.

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