Over the course of the past two years, I have had occasion to reflect on the various ways the Lord has discipled me and disciplined me since I came to saving faith during high school. The catalyst for those reflections was my 40th birthday and the recognition that, although God has graciously worked in my heart in many ways to conform me to his will, there is yet a lot of work to be done.
God has worked in my heart in many ways, using my parents, churches, friends, critics, students, bosses, and colleagues. He has taught me and challenged me through Scripture reading and memory. He has convicted me and comforted me in prayer.
But he has also fostered spiritual growth is through certain books I have read. Among the many authors whose books have shaped my walk with God, I have distilled the list down to eight. Now, this list of eight is not especially sophisticated. It is not a “balanced” list of “all the right authors” a person should read to help them in the course of their spiritual formation. It is not a list of people with whom I agree theologically on all of the particulars. It is not a list for snobs who find it beneath them to read the writings of authors not as highbrow as they might prefer. Instead, it is simply this list of some of the books the Lord has used most powerfully in my life over the course of the past several decades.
In case these books might be helpful in somebody else’s spiritual formation, I have listed them here in chronological order of when I discovered them in my own journey and provided a brief explanation of why you might want to read them also.
- Jim Elliott: As a teenager, shortly after my conversion, I discovered Jim Elliott’s biography, In the Shadow of the Almighty. It tells the story of Jim’s life, his marriage to Elisabeth, and their subsequent life together as missionaries, culminating in his martyrdom. The Lord used this book to challenge my complacency and to pose the question to me of whether I would be willing to go anywhere he’d ask me to go and to do anything he’d ask me to do. I commend it to anybody who needs the same sort of challenge.
- Donald Whitney: When I went off to college, my grandfather, Col. John T. Ashford, gave me his copy of Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life for the journey. It was already highlighted (my grandfather’s method was to use a yellow highlighter on 75% of the sentences in the book. The effect of which, ironically, was to reverse-highlight the other 25%.). Whitney’s book motivated me to value some spiritual disciplines (especially, Scripture memory, prayer, and silence/solitude) that I probably otherwise would minimized or neglected. If I were to write a companion to Whitney’s volume, I would include a number of public activities (such as work and leisure) that hold forth promise as spiritual disciplines. I commend this book because our affection for Christ can be nurtured in the greenhouse of habit and discipline.
- John Piper: When I arrived at Southeastern Seminary to study for my M.Div., my missions professor assigned Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad. Although Piper’s aggressive pen irritated me at first, and although I did not expect the book to affect me at all, it ended up changing the course of my life. It is a powerful treatise on the greatness of God and his gospel, and the need for Christians to be willing to declare this God and this gospel to the nations, even if we have to suffer or die along the way. Does that sound irritating to you? Or a bit overblown? If so, I heartily recommend it (or, similarly, Don’t Waste Your Life) as your epistolary companion for this month.
- C. S. Lewis: At the end of my second year of seminary, I moved to a Central Asian corner of Russia. I brought four suitcases of books (what a dork!). In one of those suitcases was The Weight of Glory. The first chapter, “The Weight of Glory,” is one of the most beautiful and powerful pieces of prose I would ever read. It explored the way in which our longings in this life are really longings for life with God in the future. So we can enjoy the many gifts God gives us in this lifetime, but we should never love the gifts more than the Giver, and we should allow those gifts to make us eager for the even greater gifts on offer in his future Kingdom. The chapter is beautiful, and it emphasizes that the beautiful things in this life are echoes of the Beauty that is to come. I commend it as a very brief essay that might have a long and enduring impact on one’s view of God and life.
- Abraham Kuyper: While I lived and worked in Russia, I also encountered Abraham Kuyper for the first time via James D. Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader. Now, in no way is this book a traditional “devotional” volume. But it was profoundly devotional for me personally because for the first time in my life, a Christian thinker and writer was showing me how Christianity relates to a broad range of social and cultural realities, such as art, science, politics, and education. Since that time, an extraordinary devotional book of Kuyper’s has been published, entitled Pro Rege (“For the King”). To be more precise, the first volume of Pro Rege was released in Summer 2016, and the other two volumes of it will be released in Fall 2016. I commend it to readers who enjoy reading very short chapters written by an author who shows us every square inch of our lives—including social and cultural realities—is directly related to Jesus’ kingship.
- Blaise Pascal: When I returned from Russia to the United States I began work on my PhD. During that time, I first read Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, which includes the text of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees, along with Kreeft’s interactions with Pascal. The book is a powerful theological and devotional text that functions as a piercing and revealing psychological examination. As I read the book, I felt like Pascal had “read my mail” and knew me better than I knew myself. I commend this book to readers who wish for a brilliant theologian and spiritualist to lay bare the emptiness, vanity, and deception of our human strivings, in order to offer Christ as the answer to those failed strivings.
- Tim Keller: Shortly after finishing my PhD, I began reading books by Tim Keller. What I appreciate most about him is that he not only has a firm grasp of Scripture but also a deep and perceptive understanding of the “spirits of our age.” For me that was, and still is, a powerful and compelling combination. I could listen to Keller preach for months on end, and read his books one after another, and never stop appreciating the way he helps my heart have a missionary encounter with the gospel. For starters, I’d recommend Counterfeit Gods (a gift-sized book exposing the way sex, money, power, and other idols have a grip on our hearts) or The Prodigal God (a gift-sized book showing God’s grace toward us even in the midst of our irreligion, on the one hand, or our moralistic irreligion, on the other hand). I commend these books any person who has a pulse.
- Eugene Peterson: During the past several years, I discovered Eugene Peterson’s books, such as A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (a basic but profound text on what it means to walk with the Lord), Eat This Book (an evangelical recovery of “lectio divinia,” or, the spiritual reading of Scripture), and Working the Angles (a call for pastors to find a way past administrative demands and desires for “success” in order to be faithful in a pastor’s most basic tasks: prayer, Scripture reading, and offering spiritual counsel). Peterson’s books appeal to me for many reasons, but the most important reason is that he is profoundly different than many of us conservative evangelicals. For those of us who tend to be like Martha rather than Mary, Peterson is a compelling sage who finds myriad ways to call us back to a more contemplative life in the Lord’s presence. A deep walk with Jesus is not something that can be rushed or crammed in between social media sessions. I commend A Long Obedience to any person with a pulse, and the other books to pastors, professors, and seminary students who need to reform their lives and calendars in order to deepen and strengthen their walk with the Lord.