I have a problem – a reading problem. When I read certain Christian books (especially those written by Puritans and the modern-day writers who love them), I can walk away from their paragraphs and pages discouraged, rather than built up and spurred on in the faith. I’ve felt everything from prideful offense at these books, wanting them back on the bookshelf, to embarrassment, as I fight a sense of defeat.
These are rock-solid books. Faithful books. God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, gospel-centered books, many of which have stood the test of time, and for good reason. So what is my problem? What is it within me that causes me to read this way?
The problem is with my heart, which is easily deceived. I forget important realities that should filter all the reading we, as Christians, do:
1. I forget the gospel.
Believers belong, body and soul, to our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 14:8), who ransomed us from sin and all its effects: a depraved mind, blind eyes, a hard heart, and a dead soul. This awesome reality, that we’re undeservedly blood-bought by the Son of God and born again by his Spirit (1 Peter 1:3), permeates and changes everything – even the way we read books:
The removal of a blindfold from the sinner’s spiritual eyes…transforms how we read books. It is possible to have a photographic memory and the capacity to remember everything you read with flawless recollection. But if the Spirit of God has not reached down and unwrapped the black veil from your heart, eternal truth will be pitch darkness to you. You may see words on a cold page of paper, but you will not feel the warm brightness of Christ’s glory.¹
I grow discouraged when reading certain Christian books because I forget that I’m saved by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8), not by how well I read or implement a book’s exhortations to holiness. I forget that feeling “the warm brightness of Christ’s glory” is a privilege God wants to give me for my joy, not something I earn by my thorough reading skills or “flawless recollection” (Romans 15:13). I forget that I’m free in Christ to enjoy good gifts like books, since my identity is in him, not in my accomplishments or abilities (Galatians 5:1).
2. I forget the purpose of books.
I also forget what books are for. Since even our reading is touched by the gospel, its purpose is transformed: We now read with the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:12-16), drawing near to God through books in meditation, confession, repentance, and thanksgiving (the book of primary importance being the Scriptures). The goal of reading is communion with our Father, made especially clear through books that exalt God’s gospel and apply his Word.
Yet I often read books for the wrong reasons without even realizing it. Rather than books pointing me to Christ, they remain mere sources of information, an accomplishment and end in themselves. But because of the gospel, the purpose of books is Godward: “The true difference in our knowledge is not found in what we know but why we know it. Christians learn to commune [with God]….Reading can be ultimately a means to eternally benefit our soul.”²
When you read Christian books, is your primary desire to know God better through what you read? Or is it to store up knowledge, add another book to Goodreads, impress other people, and serve secondary agendas (like sermon preparation, Bible teaching, or leading a small group)?
If information or accomplishment are our primary motives, then reading will not “eternally benefit our soul[s].” But if our purpose in reading is to enjoy communing with God through the help of his Spirit, he will use even it to transform us into Christlikeness.
3. I forget that human authors aren’t perfect.
Human authors are not God, and their books are not Scripture. But I forget this sometimes, taking words at face-value without thinking about what’s being argued, taught, or claimed. Yes, we should learn from godly teachers, those with solid reputations for teaching what is true; but we should always read even the best of Bible teachers with discernment:
Discernment is the skill of comparing what we hear or read with God’s Word to determine its authenticity according to God’s revealed truth….The grace of God in our lives is the foundation of all our discernment.³
When I forget that human authors aren’t perfect, I neglect the discipline of discernment (see Philippians 1:9-10). This good gift of God’s enlightening grace protects my soul from anything opposed to the gospel.
Please don’t hear me say that most Christian books are full of heresies and blasphemies – far from it! But these writers, while well-intentioned, godly, and gifted to build up the church, are still human, prone to error; therefore their writing and teaching should always be examined by the Christian reader with discernment and thought.
4. I forget the beauty and goodness of the Spirit’s conviction.
Conviction is different than condemnation. Conviction by God’s Spirit is a gift, a beautiful tool of transformation into Christlikeness (Ephesians 4:30), while condemnation is anti-gospel and lies to us that we aren’t covered in Christ’s righteousness after all (Romans 8:1).
I often confuse the two when I’m reading great books. The authors intend to exhort me to holiness by grace – but I feel crushed by the weight of law. Rather than fixing my eyes on Jesus, the One who fulfilled such exhortations and all God’s commands on my behalf (Romans 5:19), I look at myself and only see my sin and failures. Rather than thanking God for the beautiful gift of his Spirit’s conviction, I give way to discouragement and shame.
And this takes me back to the first point—I’ve forgotten the gospel! So I preach it to myself again:
Through [Jesus’s] atoning sacrifice, his righteousness is accredited to me. I have been justified, pardoned, and fully accepted by a holy God. By that blood I have been saved from the slavery to sin, from the curse of the law, from the power of Satan, from the judgment of God, and from the dead end of my empty self-righteousness….He now intercedes for me, ensuring that nothing ever separates me from God’s love. 4
If any of these resonate with you, Christian reader, my prayer for us both is that the gospel would saturate our minds and transform the way we read, ultimately leading us to Christ, our glorious aim in the turning of every page.