By Peter H. Holtvlüwer
I’m not a reader. Maybe that surprises you. He’s a minister and not a reader? C’mon! But it’s true. Of course, I do read things, and once I’m into it I often enjoy it, but it’s not my first love. I don’t naturally curl up with a novel or eagerly sit down with a devotional. Commentaries and study books stand open on my desk because I need to pour over them to make sermons, not because it’s a fun hobby. Even spending time in the Bible requires commitment. For me, reading is work – can you relate to that?
I think many of us can, and the younger we are the more this seems to be the case. I and many ministers and elders in various churches have noticed that as a community we are reading less and less, especially those of us under forty-five. Elders ask around: Do you make time for personal devotions? Not as much as I should, is the common answer. That’s code for: hardly at all. How about reading faith-building articles or books? Blank looks. Visiting in homes often shows a sizeable collection of DVDs and a big flat-screen TV but non-fiction books and magazines are hard to find.
We surf the net and watch plenty of YouTube videos; we may even flash through the odd blog someone posts, but fewer and fewer of us are spending significant time reading books and articles. The only hold-outs I see are the fair number of ladies who love to read novels. And that’s fine – much can be gained from well-written stories – but how many sisters read non-fiction? Whatever that number is, only a fraction of it applies to our younger men, most of whom rarely read anything that resembles a book or magazine which challenges the mind and heart. When asked why, many say: I’m just not a reader.
So what if I don’t read? What difference does it make? Is this a big deal? Yes, for at least three reasons. First, it’s by reading God’s Word that we come to know God and our salvation! How can we hope to grow in our love for Jesus Christ if we don’t encounter him and his promises in Scripture? How can we know how to conduct ourselves in daily life if we don’t learn from the Lord’s commandments and example? By choosing not to read we shut off the tap of God’s life-giving Word (1 Pet 1:23; 2 Tim 3:15).
Now, maybe you’re thinking: well, I still do read the Bible, at least a little. Meal-time devotions usually. But do you take the time to ponder it carefully? Compare for a moment: how much time you do you spend searching through your Bible versus scrolling through your phone? The Bible is not a quick-read. Wisdom is not gained in five-minute snippets. While it is valuable to read whole Bible books at time (at a quicker pace) to get the big picture, we need to also slow down and take a magnifying glass (so to speak) to each smaller passage. The Holy Spirit presents us with sixty-six books of varying genres, from narrative (story) to prophecy, poetry, proverbs, letters, and even apocalypse. It takes work to make sense of them.
The Lord knows this and instructs us to make time and meditate on God’s Word: “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. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Josh 1:8). There is nothing quick about meditation. It means taking the Word in slowly and thinking on it carefully. God wants us to chew it over in our minds. What was true for Joshua is true for all of us; Psalm 1:2 describes the righteous person as one whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Day and night – it’s got to percolate in the back of our minds as we do our daily work and even as we lay on our beds at night. Read any stanza of Psalm 119 to have this confirmed.
Preparing to lead
If we don’t read, will we be able to lead the next generation? That’s the second reason we need to take this seriously. No matter how you slice it, those of us in our 20s and 30s will be tomorrow’s leaders – yes, that’s especially you, young men. Many of you will serve as deacons and elders, so ask yourself: will I be ready to shepherd God’s flock? Deacons must “keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:9, NIV): do I know what these deep truths are? Elders must watch for doctrinal errors and ward off wolves: do I know what God teaches? Can I defend the truths of the Bible? You can’t start learning these things the moment you get put up for election. Figuring these things out takes years of soaking yourself in the Word and becoming acquainted with the errors and falsehoods of our time.
You will be charged with the care of souls – have you any idea how to advise or help a struggling believer? Do you know what to say to a young person drifting away from the faith? Or a twenty-something sister suffering from depression and anxiety? What does the Bible say to the grieving and hurting? To the childless and the widow? What Scripture would you bring to a same-sex attracted church member and how would you pray with him/her? What is a Church Order and how does a classis or synod work? What authority do they hold in comparison with the consistory?
As an elder or deacon, you’ll be expected to know such things and more, and you can’t just YouTube it a half hour before your visit or meeting! There, no doubt, are some helpful teaching videos out there, but you only get to a certain maturity of knowledge and conviction through a long, steady pattern of reading, starting with the Bible itself. There are also many fine Christian books that help us with these questions and dig out the treasures of Scripture even more, but we must get reading!
Many of you (sisters included!) will be parenting children and instructing young men and women in their walk with the Lord, so ask yourself: am I prepared for that? Teenagers come with a lot of questions – good ones, deep ones, tricky ones, hard ones! Giving them simplistic answers will not help and may lead them to seek answers from worldly sources. Our children need guiding. We have to shepherd their hearts by teaching them to love the LORD and his commandments as he said through Moses, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut 6:5).
You can’t teach God’s commands and promises diligently if you don’t know them yourself intimately, and that takes thoughtful contemplation. Thinking and reflecting. Reading and pondering. Reading books on the Bible, doctrine, and the application of it to our lives are also very helpful for this as their insights help us deepen our understanding and obedience. Discussing it with family, friends, and Bible study groups goes even further. But the start of it is to read and engage. God takes our teaching task as parents very seriously – are you prepared to explain to God that you didn’t teach and prepare your kids very well because you “just aren’t a reader”?
Videos, smartphones, and smart TVs all have their useful functions. We’ve got them at our home too. They bring many pictures, shows, and programs in to entertain us and occasionally to educate us, but what they aren’t very good at is getting us to think carefully and analyze ideas. Videos (at least the common ones we watch for amusement) don’t build up or break down arguments. Their purpose is not to reason but to entertain.
Dramas, sitcoms, comedies, romance stories, or action films don’t explain themselves or tell us what worldview they are operating out of. We are presented with the end-result, a whole package of perspective which is designed to amuse us, not engage us in critical thinking. And yet, we are influenced by those worldviews and can easily adopt their ideas without realizing it, much less having carefully thought about them.
Selling vs. telling
It’s for this reason that people with agendas love to use video to sell their beliefs – think of how shows insert happy gay characters to make everyone think of that lifestyle as normal and good. Beer ads always depict a “happening,” cool atmosphere that makes us want to be part of it by buying their product. Or think of how politicians use thirty-second commercials, sound-bites, and photo-ops to sell us themselves, to get us to like the person and vote for him (e.g. Justin Trudeau and his “Sunny Ways”) rather than detailed discussions or in-depth debates about the soundness of their policies.
Authors of non-fiction books and articles (like this oneJ), however, can’t get away with that so easily. They are forced to tell the reader their perspective and their reasoning and to do so in some detail. That’s how such writings work. They seek to convince our minds with reasoned arguments. Unlike videos (or novels), there’s no way for them to show what they intend us to see unless they explain it first – and that is a great help to us. It means we are presented with propositions backed up with reasons and proofs. We have no choice but to give thought to their ideas and that leads much more naturally and easily to evaluating them.
Critical thinking is something we need badly as Christians, for we are called to discern between good and evil, right and wrong, wise and unwise. If we don’t read, this skill will not get honed. If we have a steady diet of movies, shows, and videos, we will be well-entertained but only poorly trained at understanding the world we live in and how God wants us to think about it and conduct ourselves within it. How can we guide our children well if we are not well aware both of God’s will and of the world’s ideas and practices? How can we shepherd God’s people and teach them to be discerning if we ourselves are dull in this talent?
So, reading is necessary and beneficial in many ways, but what if “I’m just not a reader”? We have to ask ourselves: is such a reason acceptable in God’s eyes? Are we born either readers or non-readers? Can we help it if we don’t feel like reading? Let’s be honest: yes we can. Unless we have a disability of some kind which prevents us from comprehending words on a page, the vast majority of us are able to read but many choose not to. This is a will thing, not a skill thing. It’s like other things that are good for us but require conscious effort: daily exercise, two-way conversation, thinking about and serving other people ahead of ourselves.
These also don’t come easily to many of us, but for most people isn’t it simply a cop-out to say: I’m not into exercise or I’m not much of a conversationalist or I just am not good at helping other people? Those are just excuses, aren’t they? It takes prayer for the Lord’s help and effort to make changes, but changes can be made. By God’s grace we can become better at all these things and in the same way we can become people who choose to read, study, and reflect on the deeper matters of life.
Practically speaking, how can we develop a reading habit? I hope to write with a few suggestions in the near future; but for now, go ahead and make a start. There are lots of good books – but the best place to start is with the Good Book.