A Downside of Good Christian Books: A Bunch of Stressed-Out Christians

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

I really like to read. No. I love to read. I like books, but I love to read. It's been a passion since eighteen years old to build a solid library for my personal use in study, as well as the body of Christ with whom I'm serving wherever that might be. A huge amount of money has been expended to build it to where it is right now. I have a 5,000 volume personal library, and it grows monthly. A modest $50 a month book allowance helps that, especially when used with the anointed Amazon.Com used book section. Over the years I've culled my library, trading in books I don't like so much for books I need...handing over the unuseful books to Goodwill or Salvation Army...and involuntarily culling by folks who inadvertently lose the books they borrow from me.

A massive upside to this side of my life has been tremendous growth intellectually, mentally, emotionally, and most of all, spiritually. My family as benefited from this, my wife and four children. The churches I've led have benefited from this. My soul especially benefits from all of it. God, His character, love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, grace, etc. are all displayed by a thousand pens of many glorious colors. Truth is unfolded. Sound doctrine is revealed. Maturity is promoted. The church is stimulated. It's awesome. Though the making of many books has no end, as Solomon says, I'm not sure it can be any other way. That's because everybody's different and books represent our struggle to say what we believe in a way that connects with people. It is precisely because truth is significant, then, that we must continue to write, refining what we say, how we say it, when we say it, to whom we say it, how often we say it, etc.

There is a downside to good Christian books, however. And there are several, but this post simply addresses the one that jumped out at me earlier today around lunch time. In short, good Christian books create a bunch of Christians who are stressed-out. Here's what I mean. Don't know if you're like me or not. Hopefully you're not! But if you are, then you can relate to what I'm going to reveal about myself.

First, I used to read the people I agree with. The reformers, Great Awakening preachers, Piper, MacArthur, Sproul, Bridges, LOTS of Puritans...calvinistic anything really were my staple diet. Never did it occur to me that reading what I disagree with could actually be helpful to me. I always thought it was stupid, and only opening up yourself to heresy. I suppose that's obviously true...if you're an immature Christian who knows little Bible and sound doctrine.

Second, I unwittingly embraced or swallowed everything I read. Because I was reading what my mind was telling was already true, I embraced it all. I ate it up, read it over and over again, meditated on what was said, and recycled the information as often as I could. Again, how undiscerning? The men I love to read are still just that. They're men. They are fallible. They could be wrong. They could be saying it wrong. They could be saying it in the wrong way. They could be saying it at the wrong time in my life.

Third, the things I read began to be woven into the fabric of my thinking. Because I read only those with whom I agreed, and because I embraced it all, it is inevitable that what I read began to grow a root system, unbeknownst to me, beneath my heart and life, slowly morphing and changing my thinking patterns.

Fourth, that fabric formed the standard or measure by which I lived. Likewise, it is inevitable that the slow morph in my thinking patterns eventually produced standards or measures that my heart and soul would use to begin to judge me by. If I'm assenting to it as truth, and if I'm incorporating that truth into my thinking, then that truth becomes of necessity a standard by which everything else I read is judged, especially including my life.

Fifth, with each book read, that fabric began to grow heavier and weightier to the point where I was suffocating spiritually. It began to feel like a two thousand pound tent that I couldn't seem to find my way out of. You see, it was because I like everything I read from only the people I agreed with, that this distortion in my thinking, or mutation...whatever you want to call it...began working in reverse for me spiritually. Rather than growing up, I was mutating. The intake of truth was so massive, that my young, immature, not-discerning-enough mind was enraptured by it all, and eventually captured so that I was actually dying inside.

Sixth, this mutating effect revealed itself in constant stress, anxiety, worry, discouragement, depression, constant drama, etc. The more I read, the guiltier I felt. This produced stress. And stress comes from a lack of security, from not knowing something. And for me it was not knowing whether or not I would ever be as godly as that dude I was reading about. (And whether I wanted to admit it or not, there was some serious man-worship going on in my heart, as I measure my walk with God by the guy whose writing, and not by God Himself).

I've now met many a Christian, usually of the reformed stripe (no offense, it's just true in my own ministry), who seem to struggle with this. What they read, as good as it is, gets turned into legalism. And they lived stressed-out lives, like I did. The ones I've counseled with find it hard to explain why they feel the way they do, and suffer with severe bouts of discouragement and depression. But when I inspect the intake valve on their heart, I discover what they are reading and listening to. And the sheer amount of truth being read and embraced by an undiscerning heart, not thinking with the gospel, becomes suffocating, leaving them feeling like they never measure up. They live in a tension between knowing what these godly men say and how they lived, and also knowing that they'll never live up to that or be like that...ever.

The result in my life personally, as well as those whom I've counseled is STRESS!!!! Massive amounts of stress...and anxiety...and fretting...and worrying. And do you know why? Because I felt like I was never living up to everything I was learning about in all my reading. All of the great examples of godly men's lives in prayer, preaching, pastoring, husbanding, fathering, working, etc. were so woven into the fabric of my mind, and forming such a weight of standards and measures that I felt I could never live up to it all. And so I lived in secret stress pretty much all the time. My wife was able to see it, and some other friends too. But most friends just thought I was so "godly" because I read so much good stuff.

I'm here to tell you, things have changed radically. And so have I in the mean time. I do two things differently now. First, I read mostly my Bible now. I kind of figured that if what I read weaves itself into the fabric of my thinking, forming standards and measures by which my conscience and heart judge my life, I should read more of the Bible. And that leads me to my second difference. I read mostly the gospels...at least right now. I also kind of figured that if what I read forms a standard and measure my heart uses to judge my life, I should read more on how Jesus feels about me, what HE thinks about me, how HE judges and measures me. And it's by His life and ministry on the cross and the empty tomb, of course.

Do you see what was happening to me then? Whether by my innate wiring and personality, or just plain being born a sinner, I was living as a legalist. The stuff...the good stuff...I was reading in good books fast became the information my heart used to weave together a man-made standard of righteousness, rather than the one I already had in Jesus Christ. Good stuff upon good stuff was being added to my mind so that I lived as if I had to measure up to what I was reading, with little if any thought on the truth that I already measure up because of what God did for me in Christ.

Reduce the stress in your life then, if you're like me. Always be on the look out for legalism. And one of the ways to stop its inroads in my life was the reduce my reading to a minimum, reading mostly my Bible, and mostly the gospels, and only reading other books outside of that which aim my mind and heart to apply the gospel to myself as well as books that aim my life to tell others about it.

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