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How to Read a Christian Book

May 31, 2011

Years ago, I read the biography of David Brainerd. Brainerd was the son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards, the great preacher of the Awakening and President of Princeton University. Brainerd was also a missionary to the native peoples of the Northeast and was a prodigious prayer-warrior. He mentions in his journals that he would rise at 4:30 most days and pray until noon . As I read this, I was struck with my own prayer-less life. So I devoted myself to begin rising at 5 a.m. to pray.

I distinctly remember the first time I did this. I answered the call of the alarm eagerly, bringing my list of prayer items to the place where I would pray. My wife rolled over and went back to sleep and I felt a certain sense of accomplishment having arisen to pray as she slept. Okay, there was a degree of pride there as well. I went into the room I had set aside as a prayer space (it was our storage closet. Since we had only been married for seven months, we didn’t have a lot of stuff to store). At 5:05 I started to pray. At 5:10, I fell asleep. I woke up with a start and panic at 6:30. I then felt guilty and ashamed that I couldn’t pray like David Brainerd. I tried it another half dozen days and the result was always the same. Even with my best intentions, I never stayed awake. Finally, I abandoned my prayer efforts and just concluded I was a spiritual wimp.

Years later, I learned that Brainerd went to bed at 7:30! When he got up at 4:30, he did it after 9 hours of sleep. I was going to bed at 11:30. That’s a significant difference, and nowhere in the biography did they mention this minor detail.

I have understood through this mistake, and many others,  that I don’t often read Christian books properly. I look through them for things that I shouldn’t be searching for and I miss what I should be seeing. So, assuming I am fairly average, I disclose here what I think a person should and should not do when reading Christian non-fiction.

Things Not to Do

1. Don’t Look for Formulas: Since almost half of all Christian books being published today are basically “how-to” books, it is so easy to find a formula and figure what worked for one person will work for you. One guy talks about how he lives on 50% of his income and gives away the other 50% and everyone who admires the writer tries to do the same thing. Or another writer waxes eloquent on how he found God while hiking tall mountains and every Christian spends a fortune at REI. This is a dangerous way to live. A man came to Jesus one time and asked for a formula in how to live successfully. Jesus’ answer was distinctive: “You must be born from above”. This isn’t a formula, it’s a relationship he is offering.

2. Prophets see Everything in Black and White: In a world where too many books sugar-coat everything, when a person comes out with a harsh, black-and-white answer to the world’s problems, the book sells like crazy. I even enjoy reading those books, if only for a sense of variety. We do need books that tell us the truth, even if the truth hurts. But, this does not mean that we should then begin seeing everything in simple terms. This world is infinitely complex and only God understands how it all works. One person’s battle with alcohol or drugs is not the same as another person’s. I often hear that a person finds in one book the cure to their problem and then assumes everyone will be cured by that same solution. Too many prophetic books suffer from over-simplification. Beware this tendency.

3. Opinion couched as Doctrine: So few Christians are skilled any longer at critical thought and theological reflection. I just attended a meeting where the participants wanted nothing to do with doctrinal discussions. I find that a difficult thing to swallow, since doctrine is simply a list of things we believe. Everyone believes something, and only the fool refuses to think deeply about what they believe. I have read a host of books lately where the authors claim to have the Bible on their sides, when all they are really doing is giving their own opinion. Recently, a well-known Christian author spent several chapters giving his opinion on the nuclear family and using many, many verses out of context. It was disturbing to read. What was worse, so many of my friends on Facebook said they loved it. When I asked them what they loved about the book, all they could muster was “I agree so much with what he said.” They just couldn’t say why. Oh dear! Double oh dear!!

How To Read a Christian Book

1. Listen for What God is Saying to You: First and foremost, believers and followers of God are to listen to what God is saying, not what people are saying. When Jesus went into the wilderness to spend time with the Spirit – fasting for 40 days – he emerged with hunger and a sense of calling. The first thing Satan did was to tempt him to meet his physical needs by turning the stones into bread. Jesus’ answer: “Man does not live on only bread, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In other words: “If God tells me to do this, I will do it. Otherwise, I will not”. How could doing a miracle be wrong? How could feeding yourself be wrong? If the Spirit of God does not allow it, it is wrong. I could read a book on fasting and then assume I should be fasting. What if God doesn’t want me to fast right now? I could read a book on giving and assume God wants me to take all my money and give it away. Is that God’s will at that moment? If there are no absolute formulas, there still is the Spirit of God within us. Recently, I read a book about ministering to the homeless. My first thought was to copy what this guy is doing with his church. I missed it completely. God wanted to open my eyes to what can be done and to work with those already doing it. Big difference.

2. Discern Principles: What I should have learned from David Brainerd was this: No new work of God can be successful without substantial prayer and wisdom from God. That is the Universal Truth in his biography. Instead, I latched onto the particulars and missed the principle. When I read Jackie Pullinger’s book “Chasing the Dragon” I began to notice how a church could minister to drug addicts. What I missed was the principle she based her life on: “Do the next thing God shows you.” People read the “Purpose Driven Life” and assume their purposes should mirror those in the book. In actuality, the book just shows us that we all have a purpose and it is not easy to find it. I actually love books that tell me not to copy the pattern of the author’s life, but rather to see the underlying truths of that life. Even if they don’t tell you to do that, resist the urge to copy people and find the principles undergirding their successful living.

3. Critically Examine ALL Truth Claims: The most dangerous authors to read are those we already love. This is because we often stop examining the things they claim to be true since their track record seems to give them a free pass. Many times the writers themselves get sloppy later in life for the same reason. Most Christians are not aware that Watchman Nee went completely heretical in his later years – not all of a sudden, but quite gradually. Few books have impacted my life like “The Normal Christian Life”, but I had to be so careful about his later writings. When you critically examine something, it is with an eye to prove what is right and then let that truth seep into every part of your being. Most books have truth and error and it is our job to tell the difference. When Rob Bell published his book on hell a few months ago, most people ripped it apart as pure heresy. It certainly wasn’t “pure” anything. There was truth in it. There  is error in it. I enjoyed reading it several times so I could wrestle with both.

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One comment

  1. I can totally agree, because…:) I have noticed in my Christian life, God leading me to principles, after years of feeling the failure and striving to make myself good by copying others. He was not in this. I was not taught principles in school, though the Christians I was around lived them. Looking to them enables breathing room for us and being flexible in the Masters hands.

    I can so relate to waking early to pray, and the inevitable failing that follows trying to copy another person’s relationship with God. It was Hudson Taylor for me, waking about 4 am, lighting his candle and praying while the others slept. I tried right away, at a discipleship school, ran out of things to pray and then fell asleep nights/mornings after that. O the self-loathing! I got to do it though finally, years later when night terrors would awaken me and Theophostic was the tool God has supplied to get me through those traumatic experiences buried in my past. It did not last though! Now I am allowed (by my relationship with God) to pray during the day while my kids study, or play. What an amazingly gracious God we serve.



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