“Can you recommend a book on how to submit to my husband?”
“What’s a good book on biblical womanhood?”
“I’m going through [difficult life circumstance]. Can you suggest a good book on how I can cope with that?”
I’ll bet if someone did a study to find out which demographic of people reads the most books, it would be Christians. Christians are readers – there’s no denying that – and that’s a good thing.
It always makes my heart smile when a reader asks if I can recommend a good (read: biblical, and by a doctrinally sound author) book on a particular area of sanctification or a life issue she’s struggling with. That tells me she wants to learn what the Bible says and obey it. And that is no small thing in evangelicalism today.
Hear me: Reading good, doctrinally sound books is a good thing.
But – just as with any other good thing – too much of a good thing isn’t the best thing. And letting a good thing veer out of its lane isn’t the best thing.
If you dedicate twelve hours every day to prayer, you’ll never get to the laundry, the bills, the cooking, and the cleaning. If the baby is running a fever and you exegete a chapter of the Bible instead of giving her some medicine or taking her to the doctor, you’re misapplying your Bible study time.
And, while it may not be quite as obvious, we can sometimes face the same challenge with good books.
In my experience there are two general dilemmas that motivate today’s Christian to seek out a good book.
The first is: “I don’t know what the Bible says about _____ topic. I need a book that will teach me so I can correctly understand what Scripture says about it.” For example, a few weeks ago in a Mailbag article, I answered a lady who wanted to know about the eternal destiny of unborn babies who die. Among other resources, I recommended John MacArthur’s book which explains the Scriptures and theology related to that topic.
The second dilemma is: “I know Scripture teaches that Christians are supposed to _____. How do I carry that out in my day to day life?” Or, “I have this difficult situation in my life. What specific things do I do to navigate or handle it in a godly way?” For example, “How do I submit to my husband?” or, the lady from the aforementioned Mailbag article might have asked, “What should walking through the grief of losing a child look like in my daily life?”
The first dilemma is easy and appropriate to plug a book into. The second? Not so much.
Why? Because in the second dilemma we’re asking good books to get out of their lane and perform a task they’re not suited to perform: sanctification. When you’re trying to drive a nail into a board, a hammer is the proper tool for the job, not a screwdriver. You can bang on the nail with the screwdriver, and you might even drive the nail into the wood a millimeter or two, but the bottom line is, you need a hammer. That doesn’t make hammers good and screwdrivers bad, it just means you use the appropriate tool for the job at hand.
And in cases of, “Where does the rubber of Scripture meet the road of my unique, individual life?” the right tool for the job at hand – the method God has prescribed in His Word – is not reaching for a book written by man, it’s God’s sanctifying work in your heart and life. And that’s a big pot of gumbo with a lot of different ingredients in it:
- Studying your Bible
- Prayer- for help, for wisdom, for guidance, for strength
- Obedience to the Word
- Faith, trust, and utter dependence on God
- Getting good counsel from godly friends and loved ones, your pastor, or spiritually mature women in your church
And the final ingredient that goes into the pot? Action. Step out on faith in God and His Word to help you and guide you, and just do it. Try. Figure it out as you go.
If you want to learn how to ride a bicycle, you’re eventually going to have to stop reading books about bicycles and get on one and ride. Feel that balance and coordination of muscle movements in your own body. Learn by doing.
And, guess what? You’re going to fall down a few times. You’re going to try things that don’t work. You’re going to sin (and repent and be forgiven). And you’ll learn and grow from that. Falling is part of the learning and growing process of sanctification.
for the righteous falls seven times and rises again,
The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand.
I think we believe that success is in not falling. It’s not. It’s in getting back up and learning mastery of the skill.
The Bible never says we won’t fall. It says that when we do, God is holding our hand, and He’ll help us get back up.Tweet
But learning and growing and falling can be a messy, frustrating process that takes a long time. And what we want is a fast, streamlined formula that bypasses the mess and gives us guaranteed results. And, without even realizing it, we can fall into the mindset of thinking that the right book will be the magic bullet to solve our problem. We want a book to tell us what to do to keep from falling – and we think that’s mastery or success. But it isn’t. Mastery and success come from doing, from going through the process. We want a book to tell us how to get the right answer to our problem, but while the right answer is important, the growth, maturing, and mastery of going through the process is more important to our spiritual growth.
…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.Philippians 2:12b-13
And it’s not just that walking through the process of working out your own salvation with the Lord and His Word rather than reaching for a book is the way God has prescribed, it’s that God’s way is far superior to reaching for a book, because God’s way is divinely powered by the Holy Spirit.
When you pick up a book written by a human being, it can give you practical tips and good advice and maybe even point you to some passages of Scripture you should study. But the Bible doesn’t just tell us what to do and give us some good ideas, it is actually, literally transformative as we are reading it.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.Hebrews 4:12
The Holy Spirit moves in and around and through His Word as you’re reading it to supernaturally work to conform your heart and mind to the image of Christ. That’s something you can’t get from any other book, no matter who wrote it or how doctrinally sound it is.
And one of the most amazing things about the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work through His Word is that it’s personal. Books, by definition, have to be “one size fits all” – generally applicable to a wide audience. They can’t tell you what submitting to your husband in your marriage in your life circumstances is going to look like at 10:17 a.m. next Tuesday. But Scripture can, as God uses it to sanctify you.
But there’s one other aspect of the knee jerk, “I need a book” mindset that we need to be really careful about.
If, every time there’s an issue in our lives, our reflex reaction is to get on social media and ask for book recommendations instead of turning to the Word, prayer, and godly counsel, is that not a subtle, functional denial of the sufficiency of Scripture?
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us…
2 Peter 1:3a
When the Bible says it will make us complete, equipped for every good work and all things that pertain to life and godliness, that’s exactly what it means: Every. All. We do not need other books in order to handle life’s situations in a godly way. And every Believer who came along before Christian books were a thing is proof of that. Good books aren’t a bad thing, and they can be helpful, but the Bible says it is sufficient – all we need – for anything that comes our way.
But when we reach for a book before we reach for the Bible, aren’t we saying with our actions, “The Bible’s not enough. I need more. I need something better.”?Tweet
I can’t answer that for you and you can’t answer that for me, but it’s a good thing to ask ourselves and answer honestly before God.
Good, solid, doctrinally sound books aren’t the bad guy. They can be wonderfully helpful and encouraging. But let’s make sure we’re submitting to God’s prescribed methods of sanctification, esteeming and depending on God’s supernatural work in our hearts through His Word, and not accidentally eroding the sufficiency of Scripture.
Let’s be people of the Book, before we’re people of the books.