As pastor of a small, midwestern church plant I often use the public library as a place for study and work. Even as I type these words, I’m sitting by myself in a “quiet room”; the walls are lined with towering bookcases. In this one room, there’s 2,740 books. I counted them. The spines stare at me, each waiting to be slid from the shelf. I can’t possibly get to all of them. Solomon was right when he said, “there is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, CSB). Finite creatures who love books like you and me face a hard reality. There are more books within reach than there are minutes in a year—or perhaps even in a decade. We are able to read only a fraction of the books available to us. Thus, you and I should make wise choices about not only what we will read, but also how we will read.
First, we must be wise about what we read. Time is short and our souls need edification. If we are careless about which books fill our reading time, we may develop a malnourished literary diet. Think about the books you’ve read so far this year. How many of them offer you rich, gospel-saturated, life-changing truth? Now, I’m certainly not suggesting every book we read needs to contain heavy theology or take us on a journey into the depths of difficult doctrines. But if we are not careful, our reading habits can drift toward the cotton candy fluff, which is good only for distraction and escape, not for personal growth in Christ.
Second, the how of our reading also deserves careful attention. The apostle James warns against hearing God’s Word while not practicing its truth (see James 1:22). While I believe James’ instruction applies primarily to the hearing and doing of God’s Word, I also believe there is an application to the way we read Christian books, which faithfully expound the truths of Scripture. Choosing to read the best of the Christian books available is good. But reading those books with an eye on personal growth—being readers and doers—is even better. Charles Spurgeon instructed his students to:
Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them…digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride comes from hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be ‘much not many.’¹
To help us be not merely hearers, but also doers of the good Christian books we read, I offer five suggestions:
Read with an eye on your soul, not on your social media.
Our modern, internet-saturated culture has trained us to post first and think second. When we venture upon a pithy quote or striking conclusion, our first impulse is to tweet it into cyberspace. I want others to see the gem of truth I unearthed, and that’s a good thing. But I often find myself searching for gems, not to feed my soul but to fill my twitter feed. In many cases, I tap it into a post and I don’t give that wonderfully tweet-worthy truth even one more thought. What a mistake! Let us personally apply what we read and then share it with the world.
Give ample attention when Scripture is quoted in the books we read.
I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes skip right over block quotes of Scripture. I cringe to think of what it says about my attitude toward God’s Word. It’s as if my heart says, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I already know all that Bible stuff. Now tell me something really good. Do you see how backward that is? We read books, which are not inspired by God, and skip right over the key parts, which are inspired by God. Or perhaps we don’t entirely skip over them, but we might skim them because the Bible seems so familiar to us. But can we ever be familiar enough with eternal truth? Of course not. You and I can correct this bad habit simply by making an intentional effort to closely read Scripture wherever we find it in a book.
Read with a pen and a plan.
Another key to quality reading—as a doer of truth and not merely a hearer—is to read with a pen (or highlighter) and a plan. By marking the book as you read, your focus will sharpen and the rewards will grow. Years ago, a friend (Wesley Price) and I developed a bookmark with instructions for how to mark a book or Bible as you read. This simple tool has helped me become a better reader. You can click the bookmark below to download and print your own copy.
Don’t ignore the appendices.
The richest treasures are often buried in unexpected places. In many good books, life-changing resources await discovery in the back of the book. Sadly, the appendices go unread and their riches unmined. To help Christians like me fight wisely against destructive daily habits, I wrote a book called Diehard Sins. While each chapter is bursting with hope and help, three appendices contain a detailed plan for fighting sin, a specific method for resisting temptation, and an insightful approach for applying Scripture to life. If my readers finish the last chapter and close the book, they will overlook a significant treasure. As you feed your soul with Christian books, mine every truth you can…even from the unexpected places.
Carefully answer the reflection questions.
While valuable resources are tucked away in the back of good books, other useful tools often hide right under our noses. In particular, I am thinking of reflection questions some authors provide at the end of each chapter or major section of a book. Here is another resource often neglected in our reading habits. Again, Spurgeon’s advice to master the books you have rings true. Pausing at the close of each chapter, to reflect on these questions, can be a surprisingly helpful practice. I encourage my readers to keep a small journal handy, where they can record their reflections before moving on to the next chapter. Perhaps you will benefit from this simple practice (and the other four) the next time you pick up a good Christian book.
¹Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students