I’m guessing that if you are reading this blog then you are a reader. What kind of reader? Now that’s a whole ’nother issue, but a reader nonetheless. This post is meant for the reader in all of you, from one reader to another. It is my belief that because everything we do is spiritual, and because reading falls under the category of “everything,” reading, then, is a spiritual activity. Therefore, what we read and how we read impacts our spiritual growth. I want to offer some suggestions that I have learned over the years that might help maximize the impact reading can have in your life, not only for enjoyment but also for growth as a follower of God. The following list contains eight suggestions and is not comprehensive, but I believe it will prove useful should you choose to use even a couple suggestions it offers.
- Be intentional about the books you choose.
I’m not a bumper sticker sort of gal, but I did read one that I almost caved to buy. It said this: So many books, so little time. How true it is! In this life, we only have so much time, and we cannot read everything. Therefore, as people seeking to be wise stewards of all God has entrusted us with, we also need to be wise with what we read, making the most of literary consumption. If what we allow to enter us has the potential to shape us, then it behooves us to evaluate what we are putting in. Two times in 1 Corinthians, Paul tells the people in Corinth that even if everything is permissible, lawful, and acceptable as a Christian, not everything is beneficial or edifying, or has the ability to build a person up (6:12 and 10:23). We need to be discerning about what we read, for not all books are created equal, and time is too short to read junk. Whatever we choose to read, as Christians, we must always be mindful to never replace Scripture as our primary source of literature.
This suggestion might be easy or difficult depending on your temperament, your interests, and where you are in your life. You might be a person who craves different information, different formats, and different experiences when it comes to reading. On the other hand, you might be a person who has her favorite authors, her favorite topics, and her favorite genres with no desire to change things up. Nevertheless, no matter where you fall on the spectrum, it is never a bad thing to be well-read. In fact, to be referred to as a ‘well-read person’ is a compliment and often means you are recognized as a well-rounded, knowledgeable individual. However, one does not become ‘well-read’ by only reading murder mysteries or even sticking to the “Christian Living” section of your neighborhood Barnes & Noble. Read poetry, even if it doesn’t make sense. Explore creation by reading about whales or water or hummingbirds. Engage the masters by reading Tolstoy, Austen, Plato, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky, to name a few. And don’t be afraid of exploring philosophy and religions of different sorts. In doing so, you increase your general knowledge of the world God created, the people who inhabit it, and the perspectives of different times, places, and peoples. Consequently, your relatability also increases, which is good thing.
- Set reading goals.
I cannot think of any area in life where personal and spiritual growth occurs without some sort of plan. It is possible that such growth can happen organically, I guess, but I cannot think how. Nevertheless, reading goals can be anything from reading a certain number of books a year, such as 12 = an average of one a month, to tackling a particular subject by reading, for example, a variety of viewpoints on the topic of, say, environmental stewardship (pollution, global warming, recycling, theology of stewardship, water rights, etc.) supernatural encounters (the paranormal, cults, spiritual warfare, angels, icon worship, etc.) or friendship (the science of friendship, sociology of relationships, forgiveness, loneliness, communication, different kinds of friendships, biographies of close friendships, etc.). A reading goal might be to read a chapter each night before bed, to read the same books your teenager is reading, or even to read five non-fiction books for every one fiction. Whatever goal you set for yourself, consider the reasons behind the goal and both the challenge(s) and opportunities it presents.
- Make reading a habit.
In order to get the maximum impact from reading, it needs to be a habit. In the same way that regular exercise benefits the body, regular reading benefits the mind and the soul. If you happen to be a person who is not in the habit of reading but would like to be, then my first suggestion would be to ask some friends for book suggestions and get 3-5 of them, either on loan from said friends or the library, or purchase them straight away. The reason being that once you have a stack of books ready, you cannot use the excuse, “I have nothing to read,” to put it off. Then, place those books in a visible place where you are likely to sit down to read—by your favorite recliner, in your study, by your bed, wherever. And, as much as it is possible, make that place as inviting as possible so that you will want to return to it again and again. Also, find a time that works best for you and your schedule—every night before you crawl into bed, Saturday mornings, Sunday afternoons, on your lunch break, or make a family decision that every Thursday evening will be Family Reading Night. Whatever you do, consider that time valuable for reading and do what you can to adhere to it.
- Talk about what you read.
When you read, find ways of sharing what you are learning, how God used that author to reveal himself to you, or what stood out from the pages that caused you to view something differently. Reading for spiritual growth is meant to shape your heart and mind in such a way that opens you up to the world and to others with a greater awareness than you had before. And, as followers of Christ, we are tasked with the holy responsibility to pass on the gift of that awareness to those around us. Then, if you find, in the course of sharing, a person who is genuinely interested in what you are saying, you’ve not only made a great connection, but you can share the source and help another person grow in their pursuit of greater awareness.
- Print on paper may actually be better.
Recent studies are showing that the brain is/has been conditioned to process and retain information better in actual print than on screen. The reasons are varied, and brevity here does not allow for a thorough treatment of neural pathways, brain science, and social and mental conditioning, so I’ll let you discover, on your own, what the science is saying. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that screen reading is better than not reading at all; however, one should recognize the mental benefits that print on paper offer, and, if it seems good to you, place the book on your beside table before downloading it onto your shelf. Plus, you can always decorate with physical books, and that’s a win-win in my book (dumb pun, I know, but I couldn’t help myself).
- Don’t take reading and books for granted.
Throughout history, a tactic that has been used to suppress people and dominate cultures has been to burn books, ban the publication of certain types of information, and control the communication of ideas. Information and imagination are liberating and powerful. If this were not so, why do countries still exist where the Bible is banned, education limited, and information suppressed? The ability to read and obtain information without restriction is a privilege, indeed, and many have died without and in pursuit of such a privilege. Even still, today, there are many who would give anything to go to school so that they might learn to read and they dream of a day when they might own their own books to read again and again. Empower yourself by taking advantage of the opportunity you have to learn and explore through literature. Do not allow ignorance, i.e. lack of knowledge, to be the weight that holds you down. Instead, let learning propel you toward the destiny God has prepared for you.
- Make it your own by marking it up.
Mental and spiritual growth is often accompanied and spurred on by interaction. In the case of reading, the interaction may seem one-sided, because there isn’t a continual give and take and renegotiating of assertions. However, interaction is possible because the author has already asserted his or her values and ideas and is inviting the audience to respond by reading. Therefore, it is the reader who brings the engagement to what is being presented. This is why, in reading for growth, one does well to always read with a pencil and highlighter at the ready. Without such tools, you might be tempted to simply read past interesting ideas or just furrow a brow at a distasteful assertion. But with the intention of interacting with the material, you can make notes in the margins similar to how you would respond in a real-time conversation. You can highlight statements that are especially moving or powerful and circle page numbers with ideas that you’d like to revisit or, in due course, might want to ask someone their opinions about. Referring to brain science again, there is something that happens in the brain when a person writes notes that is different and more lasting than if he or she just takes mental note. So get out your marking tools, open that book, and get to work.
***On a side note: If you are or someday hope to be a professional communicator, make a list of quotes, stories, analogies, and illustrations offered in the pages of what you read for using the words and stories of others can, and often does, provide depth to your own work. But don’t forget to note where the literary gifts came from so that you might share them with others AND properly give credit to the originator. Plagiarism is NEVER okay, even if there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastics 1:9). Giving credit to the originator keeps a person honest and humble by giving honor to the person from which it came while also showing that you’ve done your work in preparing and compiling your presentation, whatever your format might be.
As was mentioned at the start, this list of suggestions is not, by any means, comprehensive, and I assume many of you will have suggestions to add to the list. Additionally, while I referenced reading mainly in terms of books, the suggestions serve all manner of reading materials—magazines, blogs, journals, newspapers, essays, plays, tweets, Facebook posts, etc. My hope and prayer is that we all might avail ourselves more and more to the wealth of knowledge that exists for our benefit and appropriate it in such ways so as to expand our experiences of God and his world and to expand his Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.
Father God, I pray for every person reading this today. I ask that you would give each of us an insatiable thirst for knowledge and wisdom and that there would be no fear in learning. Holy Spirit, help our hearts and minds to be open to what is presented in books and magazines and on screen but also that we are ever-discerning, always seeking and honoring you in the content that is before us. Let us never be puffed up in our hearts and minds, thinking that somehow our knowledge makes us better than others. Instead, may we remain humble and faithful, recognizing how much information and creativity remains to be explored. More still, help us to draw closer to You through our reading, and help us to use what we learn and experience to make this world better—in our homes, on behalf of our communities, at our jobs, in nature, for our physical health—wherever, Lord, and for your glory. I pray a special prayer for those who find reading a struggle. Help them to continue to persevere and yet be confident even if their pace is slow and the words or concepts don’t come easy. May they find ways and people to help them on their reading and learning and growing journey, and may those who find reading easy and enjoyable be ever mindful of those who experience reading differently. I pray this your Name, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, and in the power and presence of your Holy Spirit, Amen.