When it comes to devotional reading, a Christian is often unwittingly bound by the books of his or her current day and his or her current denominational sect within the church. This occurs for two reasons: 1) All one hears about for the most part are books that are current. It is these whose authors are heard on the radio, on TV, at conferences, etc. as they tour the world promoting their book. It is also the new books which you see populating the front aisles of your local Christian bookstore. 2) Each denominational sect within the church has its own set of authors and books which it promotes. Quite often only those written by men and women who pledge their particular oath will do and those are the ones that are pumped into the stream of curriculums and programs of that particular part of the Body of Christ.
So what makes a great devotional book? What extra-biblical writings should we be reading? I will share my thoughts, experiences and recommendations. Perhaps it will inspire you to think about it too. A number of years ago I was exposed to an evangelist, Ray Comfort, who made a habit of quoting men and women from church history who I had never heard of. But even though I had never heard of them, I was struck by the power and anointing of the words they spoke. It was as if they were speaking of a Christianity and a life with Christ which I knew very little if anything about. You could feel their passion for God and you could sense an authenticity that is rare indeed. They spoke as those who knew God and who had authority, as opposed to scribes who merely write about that which they may not yet know on an experiential level.
I could not help myself. It was as if I was driven to learn more about this marvelous cloud of witnesses who had gone before us. So I began to look up their writings, and when one of them quoted an author, I looked up that author too. This continued until I had put together a line clear back to Christ of men and women whose lives and ministries had stood the test of time. Names emerged like Leonard Ravenhill, A.W. Tozer, Martin Lloyd Jones, Amy Carmichael, Watchman Nee, T. Austin-Sparks, C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, Billy Sunday, Oswald J. Smith, D.L. Moody, C.T. Studd, Smith Wigglesworth, F.B. Meyer, Andrew Murray, William Booth, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, Susannah Wesley, George Whitfield, Charles Finney, Robert Murray McCheyne, William Law, Edward M. Bounds, John Darby, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, George Fox, William Gurnall…right on back to Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant reformation—and these are just to name a few!
Of course, I said all the way back to Christ and yet as a Protestant that meant I had to enter into what has been referred to as the Dark Ages of the church. To my surprise I found some of the best books my soul has ever laid eyes on which were written during that time period, or shortly thereafter. A lot of credit goes to A.W. Tozer who I discovered read these books, written by those who are sometimes referred to as “Christian Mystics,” almost exclusively as his private devotions. (The term simply refers to those whose emphasis was on the reality and experience of being in relationship with Christ—the inner life.) If I could see to it that the current-day church would read only one set of books, outside of the bible, many of these would be on that list. Names emerged like Meister Eckhart, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jan van Ruysbroeck, Michael Molinos, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thomas Traherne, Richard Rolle, Brother Lawrence, John Tauler, Walter Hilton, Francis de Sales, Jakob Boehme, Gerhart Tersteegen, John Chrysostom, Francois Fenelon, Madame Guyon, Thomas A. Kempis, etc.
As I wound up this journey I came across the writings of the early church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Origin…right on back to Christ. Through it all it was as if God was telling me that the number one criteria was that the books I read had to be written by authors who had already passed away and whose lives and ministries had stood the test of time. That was pretty much the only requirement really. No thought at all was given to whether or not the author happened to line up 100% with my particular spin on doctrine. They all agreed on the essentials of the Christian faith of course, but I didn’t screen them using some sort of man-made criteria. I simply let the Holy Spirit lead me as I traced that marvelous path of torchbearers all the way back to Christ. And you know what I discovered? My own Christian life paled by comparison; in fact, at times it hardly looked like the historic Christian life at all. But it was not a condemning feeling. Rather, it was a remarkably fresh and invigorating experience as it opened up parts of the Christian experience that I had never before imagined. An awareness that God was much bigger than I had allowed Him to be began to set in. And I realized how rich a heritage we’ve been given and how little I knew of it. I had been living in the right forest, owned by my Master, but I had only been able to see one tree. Let me explain….
When we knowingly or unknowingly isolate our devotional intake to only that which is both current and from our own particular denominational bent, we are seeing only one tree in the forest of God—we’ll call it a poplar tree. Now a poplar tree is a fine tree but if we cast our gaze only upon it, if we climb only it and if we study only it, we will miss all the other trees. You see, God’s forest also has maple, walnut, hickory and oak trees. There are fruit trees of every kind too—cherry, apple and peach to name a few. And then there are the evergreens like pine and cedar. Oh and don’t forget the flowering trees like dogwoods and redbuds. Every kind of tree imaginable is in God’s forest from little ornamental trees to giant redwoods. How sad it would be to only see one tree. You would miss the forest on account of the tree, and you might just get a skewed view of the Master as well.
I’m still in the midst of the journey to take in all the richness of our Christian heritage. Some books are meant to be chewed but not swallowed, others are meant to be swallowed and ingested. Test all things; hold on to that which is good. If the world of Christian books and writings were a forest, it would be a magnificent forest indeed. And if the individual authors and books were trees, I’ve merely glanced at some while others I’ve climbed and sat in for days at a time. You will also find that the forest is full of ancient paths that look much different than the super highways which are now so prevalent. Walk in them and see that they are good. If you’re interested, ask God to guide you on your own journey to read the Christian classics as part of your devotional reading. May you draw ever nearer to Him as you read and hear from those blessed saints who have gone before you.