In Thirsting for God, Gary Thomas, who recently spoke at Pleasant Valley, wrote a chapter on spiritual reading (his phrase is “pious readings”). In that chapter, he encouraged us to read (or listen to) Christian books with our hearts as well as our minds not to learn more facts but to nourish our souls. If that idea is a new one, we may need some coaching on reading for our souls, especially in deciding what we should read.
Let’s begin with what spiritual reading is or is not. Spiritual reading is one of the ways God feeds believers. It is not a replacement for reading scripture or for Bible study. Instead, well-chosen, well-read spiritual writings supplement God’s Word. They carry God’s truth into our everyday lives. They give us ideas and thoughts which the Holy Spirit can use in forming our hearts. These readings open us to the wisdom of contemporary and past Christians.
But spiritual reading is more than picking up something by a Christian author and reading it (and more than reading a daily devotional). In fact, it is more than a matter of reading or listening. Spiritual reading may inform us, but the purpose is to form us. So we read and re-read letting the Spirit speak, letting Him help us apply the truth we discover.
Again, how do we begin this soul work? Here are some thoughts on getting started in spiritual reading.
Pray. Since you are providing “ammunition” for the Holy Spirit to use in your mind, begin with prayer. Pray that He will give you hunger for what He wants to provide and that He will lead as you face the bewildering number of books and authors available to you.
Think. What sort of encouragement or inspiration you need? What sort of knowledge would help you grow in Christ? Don’t be stampeded into reading books simply because they are popular today or are written by someone you’ve heard of. Ask other believers what they are reading that benefits them. (At the end of this devotional is a list of some 20th-and 21st-century authors who have been recommended to me as good places to begin spiritual reading.)
Explore. Books are expensive, so borrow them from libraries, Christian friends. Then if the writings are helpful, you can purchase you own copy. Also, many classic Christian writings are on line and can be read without charge.
Pause. Not every book is for every time. You may find that a highly recommended book is not for you. As you read, it is simply words on a page. Stop reading it. Different books speak to us in different seasons of our life with the Lord. Don’t be afraid to set a book aside for the present. Later the book may be meaningful.
Stop. Spiritual reading may find a place in your daily time with the Lord. Many readers have found that a good way to direct the mind when we seek a time of quiet with Him is to begin to read. When a line, a phrase, a page touches us, we can put down the book and turn to our Savior.
Thomas noted, “every Christian needs other Christians to point out new possibilities of faith and growth.” You may find some of those “other Christians” among the authors listed below.
Here are some authors you may find helpful.
J. I. Packer
A. W. Tozer
C. S. Lewis
Nancy Leigh DeMoss
For a few days recently the Spirit sort of tickled my mind with the subject of this devotional. So I sat down to begin writing, but soon I was distracted. My mind turned to a trip to the store that seemed necessary. Shopping filled my mind. When I returned home and tried to concentrate, a computer problem surfaced. It wasn’t serious and wouldn’t have stopped me from writing; but it filled my mind for some time. In both instances I had allowed myself to be distracted. These relatively insignificant matters had caught my attention and diverted me from what I needed and wanted to do.
What had happened? Was this the devil tempting me? Was this “the world” in which we live keeping me from doing what God wanted me to do? Interruptions and distractions come to all of us. Are they a problem? Are they simply signs of our lack of discipline? Is there an alternative to being drawn by our own brand of “attention deficit” into a hectic life?
All of us deal with interruptions, matters that seem to turn us away from what we want or need to do. Jesus dealt with interruptions and typically turned them into opportunities. Perhaps the most famous interruption was Jesus was on a life and death mission of mercy when a woman with a need interrupted Him. Jesus paused, listened to her story, affirmed her, then went on with His task. (The story is in Luke 8:40-56.) Jesus was interrupted, but He was not distracted. He did what was necessary and then continued on His mission of mercy.
So how do interruptions become distractions? And how do we deal with a world around us that seems determined to distract us from living in the presence of the Holy Spirit?
Distractions develop quickly when sights and sounds, people and events, thoughts and reminders of things we’ve left undone parade across our consciousness. They attract us. We want to escape a boring task. We want to catch up on the latest news. We are afraid we’re going to be left out of something. And if we can check something off our “to do” list, we will feel so much better. So what’s the harm? We need some variety.
A problem develops when these distractions divert us from developing the life God wants for us. God seeks to affirm us as His children. Our insecurities and fears make it difficult to accept His unconditional love. God wants to provide what we need and want. Instead, our appetites often want what the world around us offers. God invites us to rest in Him. The fast-paced life around us encourages us to go faster, do more, be more, no need to rest. Soon the “flea-sized” distractions grow into time- and energy-consuming predators who rob God of what we have to offer. So how do we stave off those distractions that are so much a part of our circumstances? How do we begin to set aside what the world offers us and to live a deliberate, focused life with the Lord? Though not a complete remedy for the problem of distractions, being present to God is a key element.
One of my goals as a believer is to develop the habit of turning to the Lord repeatedly during the day, as often as possible. I am convinced God is present in and around me regardless what I am doing. He is present, but am I present to Him? Or am I so full of what I am doing that I don’t listen for His voice? Am I able to deal with interruptions, tasks, enjoyments, and schedules that might distract me while consciously, intentionally living in His presence? Do I give God the space and time necessary for me to recognize and to welcome His presence?
Recently I read the headline of a story explaining how important business leaders focused in their work and became successful. (I was too busy to read the whole account.) Their “secret” was they knew how to say “no.” Is that a secret I need to practice, that you need to practice? Being present to God is not easy, but saying no to distractions might be a step in the right direction.
How many choices have you made today? Maybe I should ask how many things have you done today without making a choice. We do have habits that can help us do routine things without a lot of thought, sometimes without making a conscious choice. Still you and I make hundreds of choices each day.
Think over some of the intentional choices you made today (ignoring habits). Do you know why you made the choices you did? Were they mostly a matter of personal preference? I don’t think all our “free choices” are simply what we prefer. Some may be the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Sometime we choose because other people influence us. Also, we make some choices because we care about our health or we care about other people. Often, though, we make choices on what we prefer. We choose what we like or what we want (or want to avoid).
The Bible takes seriously our ability and responsibility to make choices. God is all-powerful and wise, but He still gives us the right to make choices. The most important choice, of course, is how we will respond to God’s call to give our lives to Him. This mysterious combination of divine working and human response is a choice. God intends that this choice to follow Christ will be the basis of our choices after that.
So let’s go back to the top. Without nitpicking or becoming legalistic about our walk with Christ, how are you and I choosing this or that? How do we choose our activities, what we allow to enter our minds, what the attitudes we tolerate, what habits do we hold on to? More important, what is the basis for our choice? That question is important because, as one writer put it, choice is where we face the potential for sin. In so many instances what we choose and the reasons on which we make our choices tells us much about our walk with Christ.
We do make simple, inconsequential choices. I once met a man who prayed about what color socks he should wear. I didn’t laugh at him, but I doubt if that was most important choice he would make that day. More consequential choices you and I make include how we will use whatever spare time we have. On what basis will we choose what we to believe or to disbelieve in this gossipy “information” age? How will we choose whom we will trust? Even more important, we choose how we will look at and apply the clear teachings of scripture.
Can’t we simply live the way we prefer to live? Perhaps, but daily we have a host of people, movements, institutions that a bent on influencing our choices, on affecting our preferences. In person, via social media, through advertising and entertainment choices they push a position or agenda. They use polls to scream “this is what everybody thinks.” They use television sitcoms to insist gender issues are simply everyday realities which we need to tolerate. Cruelty, immorality, deceit are made attractive and interesting by “entertainment.” One result is such activities seem normal and every day. News outlets curate (sift, organize, present) what they think is important or what folks prefer to hear. All this is in order to get into our minds and souls.
This world is a socially, economically, psychologically manipulative world which “malforms” people into believing that right and wrong are a matter of perspective, upbringing, or education. Our world recognizes no absolutes but—for a time—will tolerate lifestyles lived in a particular way simply because folks just want to live that way. That’s you and me in the eyes of our world. The world’s view of us, though, isn’t the most important issue. When our choices are made primarily on the basis of personal preference rather than God’s truth, we have no basis for identifying sin in the world around us or for sharing the gospel
Douglas Steere wrote that when we intend to come under the gaze of God, to open our heart to God’s scrutiny, to go over our lives and our plans and our relationships in God’s presence, and when we feel the wave of gratitude at God’s being what God is, then we are praying.
Steere was not trying to define prayer. He was not saying prayer always takes the form he described. Prayer rises out of many experiences. For some of us, prayer is brief, unscripted, spontaneous, conversational. For others prayer is long outpourings to God, written, planned beforehand, filled with the traditional language of prayer. Prayer is conversation, confession, worship. Prayer is prayed aloud or prayed in the mind. But sometimes prayer isn’t what we need or want it to be.
Countless books have been written on the subject of prayer and new ones are pouring out all the time. Thousand-year old classics and the latest word on prayer via the internet are available. One result of that is that we pray. Still, I think most of us feel our prayer life is anemic. We want to pray “better,” whatever “better” means.
Several times I have been encouraged to write or at least to think through a biography of my prayer life. When I have done that, I find that the first prayer I remember is asking God to accept Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins. I didn’t want to go to Hell! It was as close to the sinner’s prayer as a seven-year old could come.
Since that prayer God has often turned my face toward Him through prayer. He has used my desire for prayer and my need for it. My feelings that my prayer is inadequate have spurred me to pray, not to give it up. I have looked for strategies, methods, “tricks” to improve my prayer. Some help for a while, but none last. I forget to pray. I schedule away time set aside for prayer. Sometimes, I just don’t want to pray even though the Spirit seems to be calling me to prayer. And there are times when God is indeed God in my prayer.
Most of you reading these words are praying people. You likely have a time set aside to be with God, perhaps to read or listen, to worship, to pray. You pray often during the day quickly and quietly. Some of you, although you are afraid or ashamed to admit it, are tired of praying. You are tired of praying and not sensing God’s presence in any way. You may be tired of praying because you can’t seem to get it right. You don’t pray the way you want to pray. You may be tired because despite all your prayers, God isn’t responding in any way you recognize. Still, despite your fatigue or frustration, you have not stopped praying—and God has not stopped listening.
Pause for a moment and think about how you pray. I don’t mean the words you say or what you ask for or how you praise God in your prayer. Think about the time of day, the model or habit you follow in prayer. Have you told God just how much trouble you have praying?
How you and I pray depends on many things, foremost is the work of the Holy Spirt. He is the power of God at work in the world. Without some awareness of and sensitivity to the Spirit, our prayer becomes earth-bound, dry, consumed by the here and now. Circumstances and personality are important, too, in the way we pray. Stresses, responsibilities, and opportunities are not the same for all of us. Moreover, life changes over the years and may call for a different expression of prayer. In Sacred Pathways Gary Thomas wrote about our “inner wiring.” Different folks need and profit from different sorts of prayer. Spending time under the gaze of God, for instance, is frightening for some of us and refreshing for others. In short, thinking about what makes you “tick,” learn to pray as you can and not as you cannot.
Close to six months of restricted activities have caused several of us to miss or to postpone some appointments. Meetings, get-togethers, doctors’ appointments, and more have had to be adjusted. You may have had to postpone an appointment with an eye doctor. If so let’s use this devotional to do an eye examination of a different sort.
Think about who you are. Each of us is a wonderful combination of mind and spirit and soul that feels and thinks and speaks. And when that wonderful combination expresses itself, we often use the word “I.” We speak up for the self within us and say “I feel” or “I think” or “I don’t want to.” This is the “I’ that the doctor wants to examine. The doctor who wants to see us is of course Jesus Christ.
You understand that Jesus, the Great Physician, knows us through and through. But He also expects us to know ourselves. When Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23), He laid down the requirement that we know ourselves. This “self” He calls us to deny in order to follow Him, is simply the “I” that speaks up saying “I can” or “I will” or “I don’t understand.” What does Jesus mean? Does He want us to hate who we are or resist whatever gives us our identity?
Actually Jesus wants to give us a new identity in Him. God created each us to be unique. Hearing the call of Christ means God is inviting us in our uniqueness to become all we were created to be. Hearing and answering that call reveals there is a self within that resists. We discover that this self is often more in tune with the world than with the Lord’s call. To keep our selves healthy, we need an “I” exam.”
Thinking of who we are, the “I” that acts, cares, speaks, and feels isn’t a matter of “navel-gazing” or morbid self-absorption,. Neither is it a call for self-condemnation. Instead it is time with the Lord as He lovingly speaks, probes, and listens to us. Over the hour or day or however long it takes, the Lord helps us to be open and honest, setting aside our excuses for the times we have postponed our “appointments” with Him.
As any good physician does, the Lord often begins by listening to us. We have hurts, maybe even hates. We tell Him of our weaknesses and strengths, our hopes. We begin to recognize our difficulties in following Him, but perhaps we miss the real problems that keep us away. If so, He begins to ask questions. He is God and knows our answers, but He wants us to hear our own answers, too. Some of His “I” questions are difficult, even unpleasant, to answer. Our answers begin to tell us what sort of “I” we are. He may ask us to fill in the blanks below as we think about our wants. It’s a good chance for the “I” to speak up. (You will probably have more than one answer for each question. We are complex people.)
I want to be __________.
I want to get or to have ________.
I want to do __________.
I want to stop __________.
That little test was easy, wasn’t it? Probably not if we allow the real “I” within to answer. The questions are simple but they ask us to look into our wants and wishes. They are simple, but answered in the presence of the Lord who knows our hearts, they give us a picture of who we are. As we understand better who we are we can return to Jesus words. We can discover more of the “I” within that must be denied that we might follow our Lord.
The election season has started. Perhaps it never stopped after our last presidential election. But now it’s in full voice, bragging, accusing, spending, spending, spending. And with national elections come the truth squads, the fact-checkers who try to point out half-truths, claims with no basis in truth, and promises that in truth cannot be fulfilled. Because of the inflamed rhetoric, this season may not be much of a season of truth, but, as in all times, it is a season for truth.
Truth is often shadowed and shaped by folks who want to change our minds or our behavior. We can explore how those folks are becoming more effective and what that does to our spiritual lives is for another time. This column, then, is not a call for “fact-checking” this speech or that advertisement. I want to deal with something more basic, the move from absolute truth to relative truth that has been going on for a long time but is more evident now. I want to remember and remind you that Christian living and thinking must be based on truth—God’s truth.
Of course, we base our lives on God’s truth. What other kind of truth is there besides God’s truth? In terms of absolutes, there is no other truth that deals with human origin and destiny. Only God’s truth reveals humanity’s place in the creation. Only God has given humankind moral standards that allow us to flourish. But, for some time people with influence or those who want to gain influence have replaced God’s truth with a new “truth.” Specifically, truths of right and wrong have been set aside as no longer applicable.
Today, as a result of a half-century of teaching “new truth,” in schools of all sorts, public and private, grade school to graduate studies, the idea of right and wrong absolutes is out of favor. Tolerance, understanding, and acceptance are presented as alternatives to teaching what is right and wrong. After all, so says this “new truth,” a person’s or a group’s view of the world, their standards of right and wrong are based on their culture, their heritage, their place in society, their beliefs. As long as it works for them, it’s acceptable. Moral absolutes revealed truth, God and His one way only—none of these are really true so the “new truth” teaching goes. We’re going to become free when we grasp this new way of relating and accepting others. And remember, Jesus said, “and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32, NASB). New truth surely leads to new freedom.
Folks wanting to use Jesus to support what they say is the truth love this verse. They present the latest intellectual fad or theory as the true way of seeing things, understanding matters. And, when you see that, you will be free, so their “pitch” goes. Of course they never call attention to the preceding verse, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine and….” Jesus’ truth brings freedom as it is absorbed and practiced. Folks forget, also, Jesus challenging words, “I am the way, and the truth. and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6 NASB). (My emphasis) Jesus is the truth, not simply a teacher or practitioner of truth.
The idea that a person or group, a culture or nation can set aside God’s truth is dangerous. Loosed from the Creator and His Son who died that we might be free in Him, human beings revert to the proud, self-determining disobedience of Adam and Eve. Still, we must not use intolerance, impatience, and rejection to oppose people who embrace the idea that right and wrong are totally culturally conditioned. You and I, also, are shaped by such things as our heritage, status, education, and family. We are not yet examples of God’s truth, but God is changing us.