A Passion for Reading and Learning (Part 1)
“I have yet to meet a leader who is growing in personal passion for God and godliness, and effectiveness in pastoral ministry and preaching, who doesn’t have a voracious appetite for reading” (CJ Mahaney). With this realization in view, Mahaney goes on to gather practical wisdom from three of his good friends about their particular reading strategies; how they practice this “most important spiritual discipline.” The original conversation can be found at the Together for the Gospel blog (http://blog.togetherforthegospel.org), a lively, sometimes humorous, often edifying online exchange between Mark Dever, Al Mohler, CJ Mahaney, and Ligon Duncan. We will also publish the interaction in a series of 9News articles in the coming months. This behind-the-scenes peek at the reading lives of four pastors/church leaders could prove a useful tool in reexamining your own reading practices. To set the context, let’s take a look at the questions CJ posed to get the conversation going:
- When and how did your love for reading begin?
- Describe your present practice of the spiritual disciplines and provide us with the specifics, if you would (reading of Scripture, supplemental books, how much time you devote to this each day, etc).
- Apart from the daily study of Scripture for the edification of your soul, approximately how much time do you devote to reading each day or week?
- What books are you presently reading? Al, just for fun, how many books did you read last week?
- What have been the five to ten most influential books you have read? Mark, please describe your monthly reading plan so everyone can be inspired by your example and provoked by your strategic approach to reading that is different each month of the year.
- Finally, who do you like in the Super Bowl? (Al and Mark, you are allowed to ask for help with this question.)
- Thanks for taking the time to serve us with the answers to these questions my friends!
In his typical humility, CJ was slow to answer his own questions. But with a little prodding from Lig, he provided an extended response. All it took was a simple sport’s analogy. After turning CJ’s questions back on himself, Lig commented, “sometimes no. 3 has to kick it back out to no. 1 for the trey from a suburban zipcode.” And with that athletic reference, CJ was off to the races. So we’ll start there this month; here are CJ’s responses to his own questions:
(1) When and how did your love for reading begin?
Actually I can remember the very moment when my love for reading began. It was immediately following my experience of sovereign grace through the proclamation of the gospel. When I was 18 a friend who had relocated to Florida returned to Maryland in order to share the gospel with me. He had been converted for just a few weeks. That evening was the first time anyone had shared the gospel with me and God in his mercy regenerated my heart and forgave my many sins. On that most special evening I realized that the Son of God “. . . loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). And though that evening was 34 years ago it seems to me like it all just happened last night, so vivid is my memory of that momentous evening.
So what does this have to do with reading? Well, until that evening a passion for reading and the practice of reading simply didn’t exist in my life. The only reading I did was the Washington Post sports page and Sports Illustrated magazine. But on that evening I couldn’t stop reading the KJV Bible my friend left for me. And though I didn’t understand much of what I was reading I knew that I was reading “the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
This new love for reading about the Savior was dramatic and a convincing proof to me of the genuineness of my conversion. And by the grace of God, since that miraculous moment of regeneration, I have not stopped reading and cannot imagine a 24-hour period without reading. For me reading has been a means of increasing in my knowledge of God, cultivating fresh affection for God, and experiencing the nearness of God. It has been my practice to begin and end each day reading. One simply cannot serve effectively as a pastor apart from a passion for reading. And I believe that all pastors should have an unlimited book allowance!
(2) Describe your present practice of the spiritual disciplines.
This wonderful means of grace normally takes place at the beginning of the day for approximately 1 hour. I agree with George Mueller’s approach to this important practice, “. . . that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord.” And there is no more effective way to cultivate happiness of soul than to preach the gospel to myself. So my morning spiritual diet normally involves surveying the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died. John Stott wrote, “The Cross is a blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough for its sparks to fall on us.” So each morning I want to get near enough to the Cross so these transforming sparks will fall on my soul leaving me freshly amazed by grace and full of affection for the God of all grace.
At present I am making my way slowly through The Gospel of Mark. I read and reflect on just a few verses each day. And I am studying Mark’s gospel with the help of James Edwards’ commentary The Gospel According to Mark and The Cross from a Distance; Atonement in Mark’s Gospel by Peter Bolt. By God’s grace sparks are falling on my soul.
(3) Apart from the daily study of Scripture approximately how much time do you devote to reading each day or week?
(4) What books are you presently reading?
When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy by John Piper; The Cross He Bore by Frederick Leahy; Speaking Truth in Love by David Powlison; The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody by David Bebbington; Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? Edited by Daniel Wallace and James Sawyer (When I first saw the title of this book I thought this might be a book about you guys but it’s not). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
(5) How many books did you read last week?
I am glad you asked! In the last week I have read an excellent book co-authored by my good friend Ligon Duncan (along with Susan Hunt) titled Women’s Ministry in the Local Church. I am not aware of another book quite like it. I had the privilege of reading the manuscript and the honor of providing an endorsement for the book: “Pastors desperately need books that ground methodology upon theology – this is indeed such a book. Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt faithfully uphold the truth of the Scripture and winsomely affirm the critical importance of women in the church’s life and ministry. What sets this book apart is not only the authors’ careful thought but their compelling personal examples. The result is a deeply biblical yet intensely practical guide that will greatly benefit not only women, but pastors as well.” (must reading for pastors) I read the book again because sadly I had forgotten everything I previously read in the manuscript I was sent months ago. For me this is the only discouraging aspect of reading. I read a lot but seem to retain very little. Here I confront the harsh reality of the Fall as well as my average intelligence. I am just not one of the smart guys.
I am however an exceptional athlete and I do find great comfort in this. I have also recently read Uprooting Anger by Robert Jones and God, Family and Marriage by Andreas Kostenberger and would recommend them both to all.
(6) What have been the five to ten most influential books you have read?
1. Knowing God by J.I. Packer
2. The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul
3. The Cross of Christ by John Stott
4. The Cross and Christian Ministry by D. A. Carson (must reading for every pastor)
5. John Owen on the Christian Life by Sinclair B. Ferguson and Temptation and Sin (Volume 6) by John Owen
6. The Forgotten Spurgeon by Iain Murray (must reading for every pastor)
7. The Journal of Biblical Counseling edited by David Powlison (must reading for every pastor)
8. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul Tripp (must reading for every pastor)
9. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (must reading for every pastor)
10. The Days Are Just Packed: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection by Bill Watterson (must reading for every pastor)
And the list could just go on and on although I would agree with the wise counsel of Richard Baxter: “It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make one wise, but the well-reading of a few, could they be sure to be the best.”
(7) Who do you like in the Super Bowl?
Let’s get one thing straight about the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is THE most overrated event in all of sports. The Super Bowl rarely delivers as advertised. And the silly, superficial coverage for the two weeks leading up to the game is simply unbearable. Having made those important points, I must also state that I have no emotional attachment to either team. So I really don’t care who wins this year. I’d like to see Pittsburgh win because I have friends who are Steelers fans and Seattle did beat my Redskins in the playoffs (but not the regular season) so it’s not difficult for me to root against them. I think Pittsburgh has the better defense so I think they will win. Always pay attention to defense, my friends, no matter what the sport.
But here is the good news. March Madness is coming! The NCAA basketball tournament that always delivers as advertised is fast approaching! (And I am predicting right here and right now that Duke will lose!) And how about if throughout March I provide a daily commentary on the tournament? Hey, I’ve got an idea. As a unique service to all who read this blog let’s the four of us liveblog from the final four! Al, can you get us tickets? (For more information on the Together for the Gospel conference, or to visit the Together for the Gospel blog, please visit www.togetherforthegospel.org)