“Have you ever read The Shack?” a pastor once asked me. At the time my wife, Emily, and I had experienced the loss of what would have been our second child and Emily’s near-death due to complications with the miscarriage, and this pastor—a very sweet, loving man—had come to offer us counsel and support.
“I have,” I replied, trying (and largely failing) not to cringe. “There’s nothing there that’s going to be of much encouragement.” As we talked, I explained my feelings on the book, my understanding of God’s purposes in suffering and how He had spent the previous year preparing me theologically to understand it experientially. One of the ways He did that was through my mentors—specifically the dead ones.
But let me back up for a moment. I became a Christian in 2005, back when everyone was still trying to do “church for people who aren’t into church.” I’d been a voracious reader my entire life to that point, so naturally I continued that trend by starting to read Christian books, picking up titles by authors such as Erwin McManus, Donald Miller and a few others who were popular at the time. These books were enjoyable, but just something felt… missing. It wasn’t that the quality of their writing was bad (Donald Miller, for example, is a frighteningly gifted writer) or that there wasn’t anything at all thought-provoking. But as I look back, I realize that there simply wasn’t enough “meat” there to satisfy this intellectual hunger I had. As time went on this feeling intensified.
Then, for reasons I still cannot explain, one day, I picked up a copy of 18 Words by J.I. Packer. And I was blown away as I read page after page of rich, helpful, practical theology. “This is what I’ve been looking for,” I thought. I didn’t realize there was better yet to come.
Reading Packer led me into reading some of his contemporaries, like John Stott and the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and present day pastors and authors including Mark Driscoll, John Piper and D.A. Carson. But I wanted to go deeper still, and so I began to investigate some of the men who influenced them—men like John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle. And reading their works, I experienced a rich blend of theology and doxology that I’ve not seen in even the best of today’s authors.
While I’ve learned much about the sovereignty and majesty of God from Calvin and the centrality of holiness from Ryle, it’s from Spurgeon I’ve learned the most. I’m gaining a greater understanding of the absolute necessity of having a mind set on “the things above” (Col. 3:2). Spurgeon’s heavenly-mindedness allowed him to persevere in the ministry in spite of unbearable criticism, deep depression and serious illness. Were his focus on anything but his heavenly citizenship and were he waiting for anything other than Christ his Savior, I don’t know that he would have been able to continue. In all likelihood, the burden of his responsibilities combined with the cruelty of his detractors would have crushed him.
And his example allowed me to come through the trial of losing a child and nearly losing my wife not with a battered spirit, but with a hope resting firmly in assurance that Christ’s kingdom will come and He will make all things right as He ushers in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
This is something that no modern day popular level book has been able to provide, even the best ones. There are many very good and God-honoring books being published today, but the newest works are not always the ones we need. And my fear is that if we, pastors and laity alike, neglect the works of the past—if we take for granted Calvin, Spurgeon, Luther, Ryle, Augustine and so many others—we will become spiritually anemic. We might have emotional experiences, but even the best experiences will leave us feeling empty. We might gain some knowledge, but it may not go beyond our heads.
That’s why we need the insights and experiences of the saints who have come before us. Their experiences and insights offer us opportunities for deep, heart-felt, mind-renewing, life-transforming worship. From their lives, we can see how the gospel at work in and through them to the glory and praise of God. That their writings continue to stand the test of time is itself a gift from God. Let’s gratefully accept the gift.
To help you get started, here are a few books I’d recommend:
All of Grace by CH Spurgeon
Holiness by J.C. Ryle
Abide in Christ by Andrew Murray
Spurgeon: A New Biography by Arnold Dallimore
This post was originally published as a guest post at TrevinWax.com