Yesterday I read Francis Schaeffer. He was talking about living as people of faith in modernity, in a world allegedly disabused of believing in supernatural things in the aftermath of rationalism. I think Francis Schaeffer was a smart guy, and reading his words gave me pause, made me consider the spirituality of reading – that circular and self-fulfilling prophecy wherein we read to grow spiritual and the act itself is also the reward. Is faith written in the page? Is there something divine within ink and pixels?
It is possible, I think, to read Francis Chan’s Forgotten God and, upon finishing the last word, finding you have no greater love of the Holy Spirit. It is possible to read The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung and not grow a speck toward holier living. You can read John Piper’s Desiring God blog every day until you die, and realize after years of it that, hey, your desire for God has stayed flat as a frozen lake.
It is not because you misread them. It is not even because you had poor intentions. In fact, you had very good intentions; you were going memorize the best lines and learn the arguments and write down their explanations so that you could defend the faith and describe God well to others.
But neither to memorize, argue, explain, defend, nor describe are the chief means of watering to spiritual maturity. When we treat God as a fact to be stored away, when we treat the Church as a stronghold of apologetics, when we treat the Christian life as something that travels mainly between neurons, we have only been affected intellectually, not spiritually.
The fruit of the intellect is not the end goal of the Christian. What good is it to sharpen the mind if the soul is dull? Your literary brilliance will not outweigh the deadweight of a blunted spirit.
The goal is not only to learn, but also to transform. For the believer, these are not the same thing. The first is a collecting of knowledge; the second is an inward collection of love, joy, peace, faith, and hope, and their outward expression toward our neighbors and toward God. The first is about proficiency; the second is about practice.
One is worldly, the other is heavenly. When we are worldly, fleshly, purely brainy, we read things, especially Scripture, only literally, not spiritually.
The difference between reading spiritual things and reading spiritually is, perhaps, the difference between knowing a cause and feeling an effect.
There are likely very many seminarians who, though all they read are spiritual books, have an illiterate soul. And so it is for us, when we read to comprehend, but not to change.
So when you read the Desert Fathers, do not memorize only their cleverest parables, but meditate also on their meaning. When you read Augustine’s Confessions or Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, see truth in them, not just story. And when you read the Westminster Confession or The Book of Common Prayer, do not merely read them, but pray them. And then, when you have prayed, keep them alive by living them.
For the Spirit does not live in ink and paper, or even in minds; his work and life are out in the world, and in whole persons and communities of persons, where the kingdom is coming. And it is no good to learn God if you do not know him. And though you read the name of Jesus ten thousand times, it is always nothing, until you also call his name and listen for the wind or something like it.