Many of you know I love to read books — so much so that I wrote a whole book about reading books. And I’m always encouraged to hear from readers who have put new emphasis on their own book reading because of the book I wrote. It’s a powerful discipline in the Christian life, as you know, Pastor John. I’m reminded of an episode we did this spring, about how “1 Percent of a Book Can Change Your Life.” That was the title of APJ 1910. Books have played a huge role in your development, and I know this, Pastor John, because every once in a while I get to study a book from your library.
Most recently, I looked through your copy of Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, for another project in the works — a book about this podcast, actually. And being able to thumb through your own book was really instructive to see what sentences you underlined and what sections you marked and how you jotted down notes in the front and back of the book. Perhaps we can talk about how you mark up your books in the future. But this week — for these next two episodes — I want you to explain to us why you read books and whom you read: the why today, the whom on Thursday. So first, speaking from a macro perspective, what has been the impact of books on your life?
Well, what a wonderful question. It would be hard to overstate the life-shaping impact of books on my life. But I’m going to go back a little bit and lay a foundation.
The Bible Is a Book
Foundation number one is that the Bible is a book. The implications of that fact are simply staggering. When God contemplated all the possible ways that existed for him — as an infinite, omnipotent, all-wise God — to transmit and preserve his revelation to the world, he chose a book. And that’s simply astonishing. We have no other authoritative access to the knowledge of God, the way of salvation, and how to live a life pleasing to the Lord than through this book —either directly by reading it or indirectly from others who have read it.
“The Bible is a book. The implications of that fact are simply staggering.”
The book is absolutely unique. It’s inspired in all of its words, and that inspiration secures the sufficiency of the book in equipping us for every good deed. I mean, that very phrase in 2 Timothy 3:17 — “every good work” — is amazing to me. It’s an awesome claim that we are equipped, fitted out, by this book for every good deed that God expects of us. He won’t expect of us anything he doesn’t equip us to do through this book. So, it’s astonishing how unique and powerful this book is.
Meaning Through Reading
Then you add to that Ephesians 3:4, where Paul said, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.” That’s breathtaking to me. The inspiration of the book and the reading of the book are the junctures between God and man, where saving truth is moved from the divine mind into the human mind and spirit. These are staggering implications of saying that reading is the way “you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ,” as Paul says.
Of course, this is not possible without the almighty agency of the Holy Spirit. It’s not merely an intellectual affair. But it’s not less than an intellectual affair, because God has ordained that his truth come through a book. Reading is a work of the mind.
And of course, it also doesn’t mean — and nothing I’ve said is intended to imply — that we can just go about this in our own little private cubicle without taking anybody else into account. The Bible is crystal clear that God has appointed pastors and teachers — people with spiritual gifts that include wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, teaching, and other ways that humans clarify, apply, and inspire us with the Scriptures.
So, even though God is giving us a book, he means for us to understand the book, apply the book, and be inspired by the book with the help of other people — some who are dead and left their insights in books, and some who are alive and teach us, preach, counsel, and converse with us.
Once the reality of God’s privileging the written word — with his choice of a book as the decisive means by which he would reveal and preserve the revelation of himself — has sunk in, you can never be indifferent to the reality of books. God has privileged the book, honored the book, elevated the book, and esteemed the book above all other means for his centuries-long preservation and explanation of his revelation.
Seven Reasons to Read
So, when I say it would be hard to overstate the life-shaping impact of books on my life, I think I’m saying something very much in line with God’s purposes for the world. All that to justify my first sentence. So, let me be specific and answer your question.
1. Books have shown me the glory, the greatness, the character, the attributes, and the beauties of God.
“Books have shown me the glory, the greatness, the character, the attributes, and the beauties of God.”
2. Books have convicted me of sin. In fact, most books convict me of sin one way or the other. There was an extended period of time in Germany when every Sunday evening I would read an extended portion of Edwards’s Religious Affections, and I found myself devastated — week in and week out — as he peeled away the layers of the self-exaltation of my heart.
3. Books have shown me the path of righteousness.
4. Books have given me inspiration and encouragement in some of my most difficult days — and I’m thinking here mainly of biography.
5. Books have shaped the way I think and the way I express myself. I’m thinking, of course, of C.S. Lewis here — razor-sharp logic and a deep belief in the reality of reason and logic, while never elevating it above the essential importance of the imagination and the affections. It’s not only his deep belief in exemplification — setting an example of logic — but the touchable, smellable, tasteable concreteness of his language. Oh, the power of the concrete over the abstract in helping people grasp the greatest things!
6. Books have cultivated deep convictions in me about things like the aims of reading. I think here of E.D. Hirsch in his book Validity in Interpretation, which profoundly persuaded me that the only objective grounds for any claim to validity in one’s interpretation is that we have found an author’s intention in writing. I think that’s right, and what a vast implication it has for how you read everything.
7. Finally, I would say books have clarified for me biblical concepts that I may never have gotten good clarity on by myself because of how extensive the scope of one’s grasp of Scripture needs to be in order to synthesize in the way books do. And I’m thinking here of George Ladd, for example — one of my professors — in A Theology of the New Testament or his book The Presence of the Future.
So, that’s the tip of the iceberg. To the person who struggles with reading, I would simply say, “Join me.” Join limited, slow-reading John Piper. Admit your limitations. Lay down all resentments, anger, self-pity, and self-justification, and humbly accept your limitations. Admit them, and then do the best you can. Be thankful for every measure of reading you’re able to do.