Category Archives: Reading

The Pilgrim’s Progress

Pilgrims progress

I read Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan recently, and it was perhaps the best piece of literature I have ever read.  I love reading these types of books because they are engaging and the narration genre makes it like reading a great story, yet they are allegorical, which means they are meant to tell a story in which it causes reflection and affects change in you as you read it.  Pilgrim’s Progress is certainly all of that.  There are several encouraging things in Pilgrim’s Progress I wish to share with you, but this list is certainly not exhaustive.  I hope to encourage you to get a copy and read it in full for yourself.

Quick Summary

To summarize extremely quickly, Christian is the main character in part 1.  He is set on a journey by Evangelist, who tells him to go to the wicket gate (a wicket gate is a smaller, more narrow gate within a larger gate).  The wicket gate represents Christian’s conversion.  Once he goes through the gate, he is converted.  Think of Matthew 7:13 when Jesus says “enter by the narrow gate”.  Once through the gate, Christian comes in contact with several helpful people, including his friend Faithful, the Interpreter’s house (which represents the Holy Spirit), The Castle Beautiful (which represents the Church), and Hopeful, who goes with him until the end.

Along the way, Christian meets several challenges, such as the Slough of Despond, the demon ApollyonDoubting Castle and the giant Despair, the wicked town Vanity Fair, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death Christian and his friends meet with these different challenges and persecutions, but he and Hopeful eventually make it to the Celestial City, where they are met by the King of the Land, which is God Himself.

In part 2 of Pilgrim’s Progress, Christiana (Christian’s wife) and her sons, along with Mercy follow in the footsteps of Christian.  They are helped tremendously along the way with Mr. Great Heart, and their journey is much easier and they walk much more confidently towards Celestial City.  With ease they are able to defeat the different enemies of the Pilgrim’s along the way that gave Christian such a hard way.

This summary in no way does it justice.  Just go get the book and read it.  Seriously.  Stop what you are doing (after you read the rest of this review, of course 😉 ), and go get this book and read it.  Next I will give 4 reasons why I love Pilgrim’s Progress.

1. I love Pilgrim’s Progress because I love how it creates a picture of the life of a Christian

We (especially Western, American Christians) often have very “on the surface” Christianity.  Pilgrim’s Progress is written as an allegory, yet it comes from Bunyan’s own personal experience and life.  In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinner’s, Bunyan’s autobiography, he writes of similar struggles and doubts that Christian experiences in Pilgrim’s Progress.  Here’s the thing: the Puritan’s were so concerned with holiness and things of Jesus and God’s Word that it infected every single aspect of what they did on a day to day basis.  There was nothing that they did that was outside the realm of Christianity or outside the realm of mattering to God.  This is evidenced in Pilgrim’s Progress in that Christian struggles immensely on his way to the Celestial City.  My point?  The deeper we go into God, the less “on the surface” we become.

The Christian life is never meant to be easy.  In fact, we as believer’s are all but guaranteed suffering and persecution.  Christian certainly wasn’t concerned with the ease of his journey as much as he was concerned with being faithful on his journey in the midst of his trials and sufferings.  When He experienced extreme doubt and sadness in Doubting Castle, Christian remembered he had the key which opened all the doors there.  The name of the key was Promise.  Bunyan’s point here is that it is God’s promises which drive us into deeper and deeper trust in God, even and especially in the midst of suffering and trials.  This doesn’t mean that we necessarily pursue suffering, but it does mean that we have created an idol out of ease of life and comfortableness and pleasure.  Oh that we would be people who were so concerned with pleasing God that our minds and lives would be tormented in even the seemingly small things until we were walking in holiness and glorifying God through obedience and faithfulness!

2. I love Pilgrim’s Progress because of the way Christian keeps his heart fixed on the goal – the Celestial City

This reminds me so much of Hebrews 12:2, which says “fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith”.  Christian never let his circumstance grasp his heart.  Though he struggled and often needed reminders, he persevered until the end because of the greatness of the Celestial City and who was there – the King (Jesus, God).  What is it that sustains us in life?  God.  What keeps us going and ensures we will persevere until the end?  God the Holy Spirit.  There is a scene in the book where Christian comes in contact with the Interpreter’s House.  The Interpreter represents the Holy Spirit.  He takes Christian into several different rooms where different situations in life are displayed.  The Interpreter explains to Christian the meaning, and Christian is able to refer back to this time when he is encountering a difficult time.

Similarly, the Holy Spirit illuminates the Word of God to us, so that when we face different challenges of life, we are equipped and ready to faithfully walk through these life-stages.  This aspect of the journey is crucial for Christian.  It’s what he reminds himself of over and over – the Celestial City and what has been revealed to him about it.  What keeps us going as believer’s in Jesus?  Jesus Himself as revealed by the Holy Spirit in the Holy Scriptures.

3.  I love Pilgrim’s Progress because of Mr. Great Heart as a guide for Christiana

Mr. Great Heart represents a Pastor who is ushering Christiana, her sons, and Mercy along the way.  He is the one who reveals different truths to them, encourages them with different things, and fights off and wards off different enemies.  As a pastor, it reminds me of the severity of the calling and the necessity of the calling.

Another aspect of this point is the submission and the trust that Christiana and her companions have for Mr. Great Heart.  I have encountered such skepticism from church goers in the past (and sometimes present) towards pastors.  Some of this may be warranted, but overall, I have witness a general lack of trust and respect towards the office of the pastor.  Christiana knew that Mr. Great Heart was responsible for her journey and her soul, and she gladly followed and thought well of him.  After all, the office of the pastor in Pilgrim’s Progress is Mr. Great Heart.  This names encompasses the courage, the boldness, the tenderness, the care, and the devotion (and so much more!) that is required of being a pastor, and it encourages me to be that type of pastor in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.

4. I love Pilgrim’s Progress because of the way it makes you think deeply while captivating your attention in the great narrative of the story

This is an aspect that is found in literature of old.  I am not against reading modern fiction, but too much of it is simply “pleasure reading” and is not true literature.  True literature is written for the purpose of making the reader think deeply while remaining engaging on the level of the story.  Pilgrim’s Progress is a theological book with out being a Systematic, Biblical, or Historical Theology book.  I love reading “theology books”, and have several and I want more.  But there’s something about reading Pilgrim’s Progress which draws me in and engages me on an even deeper level in theology than “just” a theology book.

When you encounter a great piece of literature like Pilgrim’s Progress which does what I have attempted to explain in the above paragraph, it is a jewel and a gem.  Perhaps that style is so great because it is most like the piece of work that God has communicated to us in the Bible, which is the best book of all to read.

Conclusion

My list could go on and on of why I love Pilgrim’s Progress.  I look forward to reading it to my children and having them experience the joys of this truly great book.  Maybe you don’t read much, or maybe you don’t have time to.  Maybe you love to read.  Maybe you wish you could read better.  Pilgrim’s Progress will satisfy you, no matter what your current reading habits are.  I couldn’t put it down, and if you approach it seriously, I promise that you will not be able to put it down either.

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The Clarity of Scripture: Is the Bible Meant to be Understood?

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The Bible is more accessible in our day and to our culture than at any other time and to any other people of all time.  Most families in Western Civilization have at least one copy of the Bible in their households.  I am amongst the ranks that has several.  I have all types of Bibles:  I have different translations of the Bible, I have different study Bible’s (a study Bible is a Bible which has helpful notes at the bottom of the page which help to explain what that part of the Bible means.  Mind you, the study notes are not inspired Scripture), I have reference Bible’s, “preacher’s” Bibles (Skinny Bibles which make it easy for the preacher to use while preaching), and so on.  I could fill a small bookshelf with just the Bibles I own.

I have conversations with people that end with some type of reason as to why they don’t read the Bible often on their own.  The number one reason I hear is I just don’t understand it.  The number two reason I hear is I just don’t like to read.  Most often, these are people who struggle with finding joy and satisfaction in God. They likely are struggling in their faith and they want to be able to become spiritually mature, but lack the hope that they ever could be spiritually mature.  Many times, they have been a Christian for several years, even decades.

The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture simply means that the Bible is able to be understand in a simple form by all believer’s.  In fact, part of this doctrine even holds the belief that even unbelievers can understand it (on an external level).  For a long-form explanation of this doctrine, go to this site.

One reason I believe that Christians, especially Western Christians, have trouble with the Bible is that they are willing to put very little effort into it.  They approach the Bible as something that must be “fed” to them rather than something that they are to “feast” on themselves.  The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not mean that the Bible is not deep and complicated.  The Bible isn’t easy.  But it is clear.  God has ordained several means by which Christians ought to get to know the Bible in terms of knowledge.  As we learn more about the Bible, the Holy Spirit then enlightens our minds and our souls to having an understanding of what the Bible really is and what it really means.  Some of those means God has ordained are preaching (corporate worship), teaching (small group worship), self-study, meditation, memorization, and repetition of reading.  I like the term pouring over the Scriptures in relation to all of these other means combined.

I think the reason, or the cause of the symptom of not liking to read and not understanding the Bible is that Christians aren’t willing to work hard at understanding it.  Yes, the Bible is clear and able to be understood by all Christians, but again, it is not easy.  Maturity and depth of knowledge in the Bible come over time and with hard, careful, diligent work.  How did David come to the point to trust that his way would be kept pure by hiding God’s Word in his heart?  By pouring over the Scriptures over time and with great devotion and effort.  The Bible is life giving.  But it is only life giving if we are willing to give up ourselves to get into it.  If I consistently find myself having better things to do, I am not giving up anything in order to have the life that the Word gives to the life of the believer.

Often, the motivation for Christians to come to church is to be “fed” and to be “filled”.  What is sad is that they don’t have to come to church looking for food and satisfaction.  Christians can come to church already satisfied with God, ready to worship Him with anticipation of meeting with God and having God meet with His people.  Church isn’t as much about getting some more of God’s Word as much as it is an expression of believer’s knowing God’s Word.  I get frustrated often with Christians who are more passionate about reading things and submitting to things written by “experts” instead of reading and submitting to God’s Word – the means by which God has given us to know Him by!  We wonder why we aren’t truly satisfied by our modern notion of worship.  The reason is because we are not prepared to truly worship!  Worship occurs when we know God, and when know who God is, we want to know Him more, and when we know Him more, we are driven into deeper worship.  There is a Spirit and Truth tension here, much of what Jesus says will happen when He confronts the woman at the well in John 4.  The Holy Spirit causes my soul to worship God when I know God, and the more I know God, the more I want to worship Him.  Sadly, many Christians miss out on the blessing of personal worship driving the corporate worship because their personal worship simply is non-existent.

So, take some time and work and devote yourself to reading God’s Word.  A good study Bible can help make it easier, but don’t have a study Bible simply to make it easier.  As the study Bible helps you read the Word, and the more you are accustom to reading the Word and understanding it without the study notes, release yourself from reading the study notes and read the only the Word.  Do you have a desire to be fed and filled with more of God?  Then work at reading the Bible.  Your level of devotion to God’s Word reveals just how hungry and desperate you are for Him.

Resources:

  • ESV Study Bible, Crossway Press
  • Read the Bible for Life, George Guthrie
  • Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem (A good systematic theology will help you read the Bible in terms of themes and systems, though the Bible is not primarily a systematic theology.)

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Filed under Doctrine, Reading, Scripture, Spiritual Growth

What’s Worse – Transgressing God’s Law or Transgressing Our Preferences

George Herbert

In one of my classes at Boyce College, Great Books II, we read through western literature and discuss it with a theological bent in class.  I have found this class (mainly Great Books I, since Great Books II just started) is profoundly helpful in thinking through issues.  I have also discovered a passion of mine of reading classic literature, whether it is allegorical fiction, poetry, or treatises.  I encourage you: read, read, read some old books.  Read some Puritan books, read some reformation books, read some Christian poetry (like the one pictured above).  A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems, by Dr. Jim Scott Orrick (my Great Books professor), is so far a wonderful read.  Herbert was a 17th century Puritan writer, and his poems capture into few sentences great theological ideas that men having written voluminously on.

I wish to share with you the first poem, entitled “The Altar”, and then I want to seek to answer the “Ponder” section, which is Dr. Orrick’s encouragement to the reader to think more deeply on the poem which was just read.  Here is “The Altar”, by George Herbert, in it’s entirety (// = beginning of the next line.  To really see the picture, buy a copy of the book for yourself.):

1A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,//  Made of a heart, and cemented with tears://  Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;// No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same// A HEART alone// Is such a stone,// as nothing but// Thy pow’r doth cut.//  Wherefore each part// Of my hard heart// Meets in this frame,// To praise thy name.// That if I chance to hold my peace,// These stones to praise thee may not cease.// O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,// And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

A few notes, which are given also by Dr. Orrick, must be allowed for.  First, God’s law required that altars for Him be made of stones which were natural and not cut by human hands.  Second, Herbert, in his poems, writes of the devastating effects of sin.  He references in this poem that natural stones may be cut other ways, but that the stone which is the human heart may only be cut by the power of God.  Third, Herbert says that even if he himself quits writing in praise and worship of God, that even the stones of the altars will continue to cry out and worship God.  He no doubt references Luke 19:40, which says “(Jesus) answered, ‘I tell you, if these (disciples of mine) were silent, the very stones would cry out’ (ESV).”2

The Ponder section, which is written for the reflection and deep thinking of the reader of the poem, is Dr. Orrick’s.  For this poem, Dr. Orrick asks the following questions:

3Does true repentance include sorrow for sin?  Herbert writes this poem not as someone coming to God for the first time, but as someone who has long loved and worshiped God.  Ongoing sorrow for sin is an integral element of the spiritual lives of many historic Christians we admire, but it is an element that is conspicuously absent in much modern worship, both private and public.  Why?

As the title of this post reflects, I want to hone in on a specific aspect of the last part of the Ponder section, namely, why sorrow for sin is absent in both private and public worship settings.  As the title also reflects, I think the answer is not so much that we are not sorrowful period.  I think the answer is that we are sorrowful for the wrong thing.  Growing up in church, and even still in my current ministry position, I hear complaint after complaint, whether explicit or implicit, of how this upcoming generation of children and students has no respect.  One specific thing I have heard a lot of is the lack of respect for the church building.  Now, I absolutely believe one area of improvement that has happened over the course of my life, being a mischievous, adventurous, curious boy, is that I have grown to respect property.  I think I am currently still going through this transformation, and I think being a husband, dad, and pastor to young people has helped reveal that weakness in which I am in need of much growth.  So, I am not saying that this specific complaint is inherently wrong.  I believe I have a responsibility to train our young people and my own children to have respect for persons and property.  I believe this is a universal truth which God has written on the hearts of men and women.

But, my rebuttal complaint is one of a different nature.  I am not in disagreement with the idea of tradition and preference.  I have my own preferences and traditions which I hold dear.  My disagreement lies in the same balance of what is true and factual as opposed to what is opinion and preferential based on tradition.  What I mean is this: we often give off the idea that it is far worse to have our own preferences transgressed than it is to transgress the holiness and righteousness of God.  We get more bent out of shape over something that has no eternal bearing or consequence, but has only hurt me because I was raised to do something in a different way.  I have very thin patience for this sort of attitude.  To add to the reason for being disagreeable, I see such a lack of sorrow for sin in our own lives and in our church.  We have become professionals at training and teaching our members to be traditional (I use this word in place of religious, because I think the main beef people have with the church, especially when they say Christianity isn’t a religion, is that they mean to say Christianity isn’t based upon personal preferences which are based on generational traditions).

We have become modern Pharisees when we would much rather deal with conforming the non-conforming to our traditions.  Instead, Jesus wants us to be passionate about sin in the body of Christ.  Matthew 7:1-5 is perhaps the most misquoted passage of this age.  Most of the time, I hear this verse in reference to the secularist cultural idea of tolerance – meaning – “don’t judge me bro”.  However, Jesus is dealing with a much different attitude.  He is making sure that we are dealing with sin, including our own!  Jesus wants us to deal with our own sin, and in our dealing with our own sin, we ought not to ignore the sins of others.  Instead, He wants us to restore with gentleness those who are in sinful lifestyles to the life that is free from sin!

So, as a response to Dr. Orrick’s question of the reason for the disappearance of the sorrow of sin in modern worship, I believe it is because we have misplaced our sorrow.  We are more broken hearted when personal preference and tradition is broken than we are broken hearted over rampant sin in our own lives and in the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  I absolutely agree that we have a responsibility to help teach the upcoming generation values such as respect, honor, service, stewardship, and so-on.  But let’s do it in the spiritual sense – let’s deal with sin, come to repentance and call others to repent and turn to the life-giver, Jesus Christ.  Then, we can teach and train better on values.  Why should I respect and honor people?  Because it is a sin not to, not because you have done something differently and broken the pattern of a certain tradition.

Have thoughts or comments?  I’d love to have some discussion.

Resources I Have Read in Great Books:

The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (Perhaps the most influential book I’ve read in terms of philosophy)

The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther (Reformer)

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Dante’s Inferno, Dante

Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan

Paradise Lost, John Milton

Bibliography:

1 A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems. Dr. Jim Scott Orrick, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011.  Page 2

2 A Year with George Herbert.  Dr. Orrick, Page 2

3 A Year with George Herbert.  Dr. Orrick, Page 3

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Filed under Church Growth, Reading, Sin

Reflections on 2013 and Looking at 2014

Happy New Year!  Starting off a new year, people often make resolutions that quickly fade.  Even in my (Aaron) own life, I have made some resolutions of which I quickly failed at.  I rarely make resolutions for the New Year any more, but the reason may not be what you think.  I think the best time for self-examination and self-reflection is all the time, not just at the beginning of a new year.

2013 brought several points of self-examination for me, of which the Lord is graciously keeping me and growing me in.  As I stated above, I believe the best time for self-examination and self-reflection is ongoing.  It seems to be that in today’s evangelical world, self-examination and self-reflection aren’t what they used to be.  When I say “self-examination” and “self-reflection”, I don’t merely mean looking inward at oneself.  I also mean what David means in Psalm 139:24:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!  Try me, and know my thoughts!  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (ESV)

I recently preached a sermon birthed out of my blog about what True Christianity is (read here).  I preached from Jude, and while preparing for Jude, I noticed in Jude a contrast within the letter.  Jude says in v. 1, “to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ (ESV, emphasis mine)”.  Again, in v. 24, Jude says, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy…(ESV, emphasis mine)”.  Jude says, as a point of countering false teachers and false ideologies, in v. 21, “keep yourselves in the love of God (ESV, emphasis mine)”.

Do you see the contrast?  Jude, for as small as it is, is weighty doctrinally.  Jude is assuming the basic doctrine of perseverance of the saints!  We are kept, by God’s grace, so that we will keep ourselves in Him!  Paul says this about himself in 1 Corinthians 15:10:

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.  On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (ESV, emphasis mine)”.

Jude’s point?  Paul’s point?  God preserves us, so that we will persevere!  That is the emphasis of the Psalm 139 reflection – that God would search us, that He would find the sin that is deep in the dark corners and crevices of our lives, that He would lead us in the Way everlasting!  Our growth, our perseverance, our ability to keep ourselves in God, is absolutely by God’s grace.  But it is God’s grace that gives us the ability to grow, to work hard in our spiritual lives, to mature, to become like Christ.  Those are things we do.  We work hard, we mature, we become like Christ, through the power of God’s grace which fuels our gospel-driven effort.

What’s this to do with reflection on 2013?  What’s this to do with looking at 2014?  God’s grace.  Samuel, in 1 Samuel 7:12, set up a remembrance stone, and he called it an Ebenezer, because “Till now the Lord has helped us (ESV)”.   It was God’s grace which brought the Israelites to where they were, and Samuel wanted the Israelites to be able to look back and see God’s faithfulness and His grace.  In 2013, I have some “Ebenezer’s” I would like to share.

1. God’s Grace was Sufficient to Help Me Lead My Family

Early 2013, my wife and I began to prepare for adoption.  This wasn’t because of any problems of our own, but because God had been (and still is!) wrenching on our hearts for children who are parentless.  Shortly after we began praying through this process and looking into it, we found out we were expecting our second child, now with us, Elijah James (and what a blessing he is!).

Elijah was born 5 weeks early, with no major developmental complications save for some weak lungs.  He was in the NICU (ICU for babies) for 2 weeks.  These two weeks were a blur.  My wife and I were wrecked.  We cried together when she was released and we had to leave the hospital where our son still was.  We are thankful that he is fine now and you wouldn’t even know he was there!  God certainly gave me strength and was my portion (Psalm 73:25-26) during that time, and His grace empowered me to lead my family and be strong during that time.

2. God’s Grace was Sufficient to Help Me Lead in My Church

When 2013 began, I looked back at a difficult 2012.  Shortly before 2012 began, I began a new ministry role as Family Pastor, which essentially meant I was overseeing both Children’s work and Youth work in our church.  This had been a tough transition, and with the help of some really faithful and godly volunteers, we tried some things (which failed miserably), and tried some new things, and tried even some more new things.  Also in 2012, my personal life took a hit early on when my father passed away on December 27, 2011.  When 2012 began, I was in Florida with my wife, our three month old daughter Ava Grace, and the rest on my family grieving his death after a battle with lung cancer.

Even now, typing this blog, I am teary eyed thinking of God’s grace and seeing that it truly was the Lord that has brought us as a church to where we are now beginning 2014.  Our Children’s ministry is experiencing solid growth and our youth ministry is able to focus on discipleship for the new students we have gained in the past few years.  I have never been more hopeful and secure that God has placed me in the right place, not because I’m special, but because He is working through me.

3. God’s Grace was Sufficient to Help Lead Me in School

I have been in college since 2005.  Coming up on 10 years.  TEN!  I know, most of you may be thinking of the Tommy Boy reference “lots of people graduate college in 10 years, they are called DOCTORS!”  Yeah, I tell myself that everyday.  But, some unforeseen things have happened in the past 8 1/2 years – I had a really prideful attitude early on, one that made me goof off much of my first 2 years; I had a full time job, which was managing a bookstore, and it was difficult to balance with school; I got married 4 1/2 years ago, and we had our first child 2 years ago; I took 2 years off; I only took 1 or 2 classes for 4 semesters; etc.  Enough of the excuses.  But 2013 was the first time I attempted to go back full-time.

I see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel”.  It was difficult, but the grace of God, coupled with a gracious wife (and patient!), saw me through a very busy schedule for 2013.  I pray the same for 2014!

So, what about 2014?

I am confident even more than I was last year.  Why?  I see how God has orchestrated and directed every single step of the way, and brought us here by His grace.  But it was not without effort!  2014 may be challenging, we may experience failures and disappointments, but God is still working!  I have never been so confident (not that I was a doubter) that Philippians 1:6 holds true:

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (ESV)”.

For 2014, I have some goals (I prefer to say goals, sounds less cheesy than resolutions):

1. By God’s grace and my faithful effort, I want to become a better husband and father, shepherding my family into mature hood in Christ.

2. By God’s grace and my faithful effort, I want to become a more diligent reader, reading things which broaden my knowledge of the world and of God.

3. By God’s grace and my faithful effort, I want to shepherd and lead the flock of God with ever-increasing passion, zeal, and commitment to Christ and His church.

To close, I encourage you, self-reflect, self-reflect, self-reflect!  Let’s be on our knees, praying over and over Psalm 139, asking God to search us and grow us.  Look back many times as a reminder to see how faithful our God is to His people and to His promises.  And look forward to this new year with great anticipation, knowing that God wants our ever-increasing joy in Him, and trusting that He will never leave us or forsake us!

Have a comment?  Have your own Ebenezer’s?  Have your own goals?  We would love to hear from you!

Post Written By: Aaron Hale

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Filed under New Year, Reading, Spiriual Disciplines

Developing a Healthy Reading Diet

When I was growing up I was not into reading at all. I would much rather play sports or sit in front of the television with a controller in my hand. I thought reading was a boring waste of time that was reserved exclusively for “nerds” who had no social life. I would even make fun of my dad who was somewhat of an avid reader. But something happened–I had an encounter with God! The Lord began to draw me through certain people who were sharing the gospel with me. As this was happening I felt a strong desire to read the Bible so I went to the local Christian bookstore and picked up a KJV Scolfield Study Bible. I began to read the book of Acts, and by studying Paul’s life it had a profound impact on me. I thought I was a Christian in spite of the wicked life that I lived, but by reading about the life of Paul I realized that there was something missing in my life. Paul had an encounter with Christ and he was different. It was through reading God’s word that I finally realized that I must repent and trust in Christ alone for my salvation. After this happened I continued to read God’s word more and more. It wasn’t long before I discovered the value in reading books by godly Christian scholars who have provided the church with resources to guide them in their studies. By God’s grace I was introduced to books by John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and J.I. Packer. One of the ways that I knew that I had been converted was that I had an appetite to read.

I believe that reading is a neglected discipline in our society. This should come as no surprise, but it is a little troubling to find the same negligence in the church. There are a number of excuses for this. We simply do not have the time to read. I find this argument ironic because we spend countless hours watching television or satisfying the lusts of the flesh. When we say that we do not have time to fit reading into our busy schedules what we are really saying is that we do not value reading and we do not find it important. When this becomes the case it is indicative of where we are spiritually. I want to argue that reading is infinitely important. Reading is the primary way the God as chosen to reveal Himself to us. Many Christians spend a great deal of time trying to receive a word from God without spending significant amounts of time reading their Bible. This was not the attitude of the biblical authors. When the children of Israel were preparing to enter the promise land God told Joshua “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:9). The apostle Paul believed that studying God’s word was important right up to the time that he took his last breath. The last letter that Paul wrote was 2 Timothy. It is a letter that Paul wrote from a Roman prison near the end of his life as he was awaiting execution. What was his last request? “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments (1 Timothy 4:9). Paul was essentially on his deathbed and he wanted the books and parchments. Obviously he valued reading.

I want to make myself clear at this point. I am not suggesting that reading is the only spiritual discipline that is important and undervalued. We could say the same thing about prayer. Prayer is also essential to a fruitful Christian life. It is also very neglected. I know that this is true even in my life. But I think that prayer and reading go hand and hand. We should never pick up God’s word without praying. We should never really pick up any book without praying for discernment. I am also not suggesting that we should just lock ourselves away from the world and study like we are a part of a monastic community. We should be involved in the work of ministry. There are many areas in life which require our faithfulness such as, family, ministry, prayer, church, work, and study. The reason that I am singling out reading is because I believe that in the midst of our busy schedules reading (and prayer) is the easiest thing to neglect. I want to offer some suggestions that I have found helpful that I hope will make your reading more fruitful.

1. Set aside blocks of time everyday for reading.

This is the first step in developing a healthy reading diet. Time is a lot like money. You have to budget your time. If you do not budget your time you will end up wasting a lot of it. It is essential to set aside specific amounts of time everyday for specific types of reading. Like a money budget this does not mean that there will not be unexpected things that come up from time to time that alter your budget. There will be days when you have to depart from your schedule. But it also does not mean that you are limited to just the time that you have set aside. When you have additional free time use it to read. Instead of turning on the TV open the book that you are trying to finish. When this happens it is extra, do not let it replace the time you have carved out for reading. When setting aside time in your schedule for daily reading it is best to set aside 20 minute blocks. Even if you are a slow reader (like I am) you can get to where you can read 10 pages in 20 minutes. Also remember to set aside time for specific types of reading. Set aside 20 minutes for Bible reading, and 20 minutes some other time in the day, like when you are on your lunch break, for reading other books.

2. Read your Bible every day.

I mentioned this under point one, but I want to emphasize it again. There are Christians who enjoy reading, but do not read their Bibles on a daily basis. They would stay up all night reading a mystery or romance novel, but would never stay up all night wrestling with Paul’s letter to the Romans. This happens when reading becomes purely entertainment. I think reading is fun, but as Christians we read for more than just entertainment. We read for God’s glory. If we are not reading our Bibles then we should not read anything else. The Word of God is our first and foremost priority.

3. Supplement your Bible reading with study helps.

I maintain that picking up the Bible and reading it is the most important thing that we should do, but it can be dangerous to pick it up and misread it. I want to be clear, I believe that a person can pick up a copy of God’s word, read it, understand the gospel, and by God’s grace apply it. But it is also true that we can pick up God’s word and misinterpret portions of it because we simply do not have an accurate understanding of the culture and context in which the text was written. The Bible was written thousands of years ago in languages that we do not speak. God has given the church gifted scholars who are able to help us in these areas. If you are desiring to do in depth study then reading commentaries and Bible dictionaries can help. There are some excellent one-volume commentaries and dictionaries that are easy to use. Examples include The MacArthur Bible Commentary and The Holman Bible Dictionary. There are also good study Bibles that are available. But always remember that commentaries and study notes are secondary and are fallible.

4. Read books on Church History.

Studying church history can be very encouraging. I once heard about a Seminary professor who began his Church History course by telling the class that “something happened between Jesus and your grandmother, and it matters.” There is a lot of truth in this statement, but most of us do not know what happened between Jesus and our grandmothers. Studying church history can help us to see the way that God has preserved his church up to the present time. One of the best introductions to Church History that I have read is A Summary of Christian History. You may want to start with something like this, and then read some books that focus on the history of your own tradition. It would also be wise to read books that were written by those who have gone before us. Read Calvin, Wesley, Luther, the Puritans, etc.

5. Read Christian Biographies.

It has been my experience that reading biography is some of the most fruitful reading that I have ever done. When I moved to Louisville to go to school it was difficult. Especially after about a year of being here. I picked up a short biography of Francis Schaeffer and it was very helpful. I read about Schaeffer and the similar struggles that he had. I also love to hear about how God has worked in people’s lives to change the world, and biography is the literature to go to for this.

6. Read books on Christian doctrine.

There are a number of good theology books available for study. Again, the Bible is our primary source for doctrine, but I have tried to demonstrate much can be learned from other books as well. There are several books on systematic theology. These books cover all major Christian doctrines. The best systematic theology book to start with is Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. This is a big book and can seem intimidating. But it is well written, easy to reference, and is even devotional. The book also comes in a number of abridged versions as well. The same is true for other recent Systematic books such as Michael Horton’s and Millard Erickson’s. Systematic Theology books are good for surveying all major Christian doctrines, but there are also many good books available that deal with just one specific doctrine.

7. Read books that are devotional .

There is a danger for people who, like me, read a lot of books that are somewhat academic. Many of these books tend to be dry and are not concerned with application. Thankfully there are a number of good devotional type of books available. There are books with devotions designed for morning, some for evening, some for teenagers, some for married people, and so on. There are also Bible commentaries that are geared to devotion and application. The point is to not burn yourself out with books that are a lot of heavy reading. Take time to read something devotional.

8. Read books on the beliefs of others.

This is crucial for the thoughtful Christian who is seeking to reach others with the gospel. Currently I am reading James White’s new book What ever Christian Needs to Know About the Qu’ran. White’s book is a great introduction to Islam. It should be required reading for anyone who is interested in Muslim evangelism. Learning what others believe is very important. How can we expect others to study our beliefs if we are not willing to read what they believe? It is also a good idea to read about what other Christians believe.For example, if you are a Calvinist you should spend time reading the best books available on Arminianism. If you are Arminian then you should read what Calvinists have to say. Any healthy reading diet should allow time for reading books that you may not agree with. This is a great way to strengthen your beliefs.

9. Realize that you do not have to read every word in a book to benefit from it.

I like to read carefully. I am one of those people who will actually read the footnotes in books. There is certainly a time and place for this kind of reading, but do not feel like you have to read every word and footnote. I use to become discouraged because I couldn’t read every book that I wanted to. But I realized I didn’t necessarily have to. When I get a book the first thing that I will do is look at the table of contents. After looking at the table of contents I will read the introduction or maybe the first chapter. Here what I am looking for is the author’s thesis or stated purpose in writing the book. Finally, I will skim each chapter to see the headlines and to see how the author develops his thesis. By doing this I can understand what the book is about even if I do not have time to read it. It also allows me to be able to reference the book later even if I haven’t read it through. One final benefit of this practice is that when i do have time to read the book then I will already be familiar with it. Even books that you are taking the time to read through do not feel like you have to get bogged down in sections that are overly wordy. Let’s face it some authors are overly wordy. Sometimes when the author has developed his point but is belaboring it too much I will begin skimming, or I will just skip ahead. Over time I have gotten better at skimming, and now I can absorb quite a bit by doing it. This does not mean that you should always read this way. There are times where you will want to slow down and really digest a book. Obviously, this is the most effective kind of reading. It is also important to realize that different books are going to require a different kind of reading. You will learn when to speed up and when to slow down.

In this article I have attempted to provide the reader with insights and pointers that I have learned in my home reading time. It is my prayer that this will encourage Christians to become more diligent readers.

Post written by: Matthew Gay

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