“Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 30:21).
The words leapt off the page. “That’s me!” I said. “That’s what I want to be! Devoted to being close to God!” I couldn’t imagine a better aim in life-that each day, my heart would give itself over to knowing God a little bit more. Such pursuits are more easily begun than completed, of course, so I began looking for books in Christian bookstores that might aid me in my search to be devoted to God. While many had good things to say-particularly about family life, financial management, social action, and the rest-I found few books that addressed the root issues of being in an intimate relationship with God. These writers seemed to be asking and answering different questions.
Then I stumbled across a little volume written 300 years ago-Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. Here was a humble man who often embarrassed himself in front of others-and I could relate to that-but who learned to find a deep and abiding joy in his relationship with God. It touched me so deeply that I must have read it three or four times. This is what I was looking for, I thought. Finally, here was a man who understood my quest!
Next a seminary professor pointed me toward The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila, and a new world of prayer opened up for me. Before, I had sought to “wrestle” in prayer, and I usually entered my daily devotions with a long list of intercessions. I thought to grow in prayer, I had to increase the amount of time I prayed-my 30-minute prayer times needed to stretch to 45 minutes, then 60 minutes, and then I’d have to throw in a few all-night vigils. Obviously, this could go on for only so long. Thankfully, Teresa of Avila showed me a new way-a deepening intimacy in prayer, something not measured by the clock. Putting this together with Brother Lawrence’s words about living in the awareness of God’s presence, I soon found the key to a prayer life that could adapt to my calling as a married man with a full-time job.
Soon I couldn’t get enough. Over the next 10 years, I met Thomas à Kempis, whose classic, The Imitation of Christ, has challenged and motivated Christians for almost 500 years. I met a spiritually passionate medieval writer, John of the Cross, and the Frenchmen François Fenelon and Francis De Sales. I was greatly challenged by Blaise Pascal and the Calvinist writer John Owen. Anglican William Law, with his A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, called me to pursue my passion for God with disciplined living.
In short, I found in the Christian classics a storehouse of wisdom and insight that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Almost unwittingly, I discovered that I had stumbled across an area of the Christian life commonly referred to as “spirituality.” That’s a fancy term for describing the Christian’s relationship to God, but there is much confusion regarding modern spirituality.
Vampires, Angels, and Life After Death
Our society is experiencing an explosive interest in spirituality. From the unexpected success of Gregorian chants, to box office blockbusters featuring vampires, secular bookstores stocking dozens of books on angels, heretical writings on life after death hitting the top of the bestseller lists-you name it, our culture is rushing into it. But there’s a vast difference between the spirituality being explored by society and the spirituality written about by the great Christian classics. “Popular” spirituality seeks spiritual experience for its own sake. Christian spirituality seeks a renewed relationship with our Creator. “New Age” spirituality puts man at the center of existence, whereas Christian spirituality teaches us how to make God the center of our existence. True Christian spirituality is concerned with how we relate to the true God, who is Spirit (John 4:24). It is not a search for more power, for more fulfillment, or for new types of experience. It’s always relational.
The Classics’ Invitation
If your heart is burning to move forward in this relationship, there are few better guides than the Christian classics. The Bible, of course, is the first place to turn, but I’ve found that the classics are helpful guides to how we apply Scripture.
William Law, an 18th-cnetury Puritan whose love for Scripture was renowned, nevertheless wrote:
“Why then must the Bible lie alone in your study? Is not the spirit of the saints, the piety of the holy followers of Jesus Christ, as good and necessary a means of entering into the spirit and taste of the gospel as the reading of the ancients is of entering into the spirit of antiquity?
“Is not the spirit of devotion to be got … by frequent reading the holy thoughts and pious strains of devout men? … Is it not … reasonable for him who desires to improve in the divine life, that is, in the heavenly things, to search after every strain of devotion that may move, kindle, and inflame the holy ardor of his soul?”
This is what John of the Cross did for me. He helped fan the flame of my lagging passion for God. I came across The Dark Night of the Soul at a time when my zeal for God had dimmed. Reading the inspirational words of a man who was passionately devoted to pursuing God for all his needs chastened me-not directly, like a finger-pointing sermon, but indirectly, as a positive example. I was reminded of what I was missing, and I rededicated myself to growing more intimate with my heavenly Father.
Ralph Venning, a seventeenth century Puritan, talked about how he benefited from reading a book by the noted Arminian John Goodwin, even though Venning was a devout Calvinist:
“Though I confess myself not to be of the same mind and opinion with the learned author in some other controverted points, yet I cannot but give my testimony concerning this piece, that I find an excellent spirit moving on the face, and acting in the heart of it, to promote the glory of God, the power of godliness, and consequently the good of men, especially Christian men.”
Venning points to an issue that arises as soon as we pick up books outside our normal denominational boundaries. When we approach the classics, we do have to be careful. There are many helps to be found, but the classics aren’t Scripture. In fact, there are some things we need to watch out for.
Reading the Classics
The first thing I needed to learn when I began reading the classics is that devotional reading is not solely an intellectual exercise; its aim is the active transformation of the heart.
James Houston, professor of spirituality at Regent College, has said that most damnation comes not through ignorance, but in keeping things in our heads instead of our hearts.
We’ve seen this before. Somebody says she believes, but you know it hasn’t become real to her because nothing about her life has changed. In the same way, after salvation, we may know some areas in our lives need improvement, but are our hearts set on realizing that improvement? Has it moved from a concern to a passion? How do we read with our hearts? We read with our hearts by allowing God to challenge our attitudes, our reactions, and our emotions.
Devotional reading is meant to challenge the inner soul. So often I have found that God wants to root out the critical attitudes that lie buried deep within me. I may be concerned about why I am undisciplined in the outward practice of prayer or Bible study, but God may want me to focus on what has captured my heart’s attention. I look at the symptoms, while God searches out the source.
We also read with the heart by reading slowly, prayerfully considering each phrase, and always with a listening ear to God’s Spirit. Perhaps a point will be emphasized, or a Bible verse will come to mind that underscores the point’s importance. This may be the Holy Spirit applying the truth we’re reading to our souls.
Second, I find it helpful to underline passages that impress me. This burns them deeper into my understanding. I’ll then stop reading and pause to consider similar passages in Scripture or other classics that I’ve read. This may mean I won’t have time to complete an entire chapter before stopping for the day, but that’s okay. The third thing I needed to learn is that it’s usually more profitable to read a good book two or three times than to read five mediocre books once. All of us have different learning styles, but few people can “own” a book-in the sense that its truth becomes a part of us-after one quick reading. Devotional books need to be read and reread slowly, perhaps taking as long as a year to finish one book, so that we can consider and ponder ideas and thoughts before moving on.
The fourth thing I had to learn is that, unlike scriptural reading, when reading the classics I need to be wary of the writer’s own limited perspective. These people are wise, but they’re not “inspired” in the way Moses and Paul were inspired as they wrote Scripture. William Law’s later book, The Spirit of Love, has a considerably different emphasis than his Serious Call. The pattern seems to be that a writer will sound somewhat legalistic in the early years and then mature into a more grace-filled approach emphasizing intimacy with God in the later years. It helps to know where a writer was on his journey so you can provide a biblical balance. I don’t “critique” Scripture, but I do critique the classics.
The fifth thing to remember is that some of the classics may espouse doctrine with which you and/or your faith tradition disagrees. How have I resolved this? Should I read a book if I don’t completely agree with all of the author’s theology?
The truth is, many popular contemporary authors have different views on baptism, the end times, and other points of doctrine. There are so many possible points of contention that it is virtually impossible to find an author who agrees with me on every secondary point-and even if I found one, it goes without saying that this author wouldn’t stretch me very much!
But what about more essential points of doctrine? That’s where we need to be careful. The good news is, most of the classics discuss the relational aspect of the Christian’s walk with God more than the doctrinal aspects. And here, they have much in common. They address issues such as spiritual dryness, the difficulty of the Christian life, the silence of God, and how to face temptation. It’s amazing how much they agree with each other on these issues.
Augustine, a fourth-century bishop and one of the most influential Christian writers of all time, said that all truth is God’s truth. By this, he didn’t mean that every system is true, but that every truth comes from God’s system. When I’m reading the classics, I’m looking for those truths that I believe can be fit into God’s system. The rest I will discard without apology.
For instance, I have been greatly challenged by John Climacus, a seventh-century writer whose book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, became an Eastern classic. In it, he describes a monastic “prison” in which painful acts of penance are performed in a virtual torture chamber. I am horrified by the self-abuse that was carried on in the name of Christianity, especially knowing that we are cleansed by the shedding of Christ’s blood, not our own. I can dismiss the entire book because of this one passage, or I can look beyond this disagreement and be challenged by seeing to what lengths other Christians have gone to be rid of sin.
Armed with this knowledge, I can then ask myself, “Am I growing too complacent over sin in my life?” To what lengths am I willing to go to see sin die in my life? I might never enter a torture chamber in an attempt to get rid of sin, but am I, on the other hand, failing to address areas of defeat? I may disagree entirely with the method mentioned in this classic, but I can learn a great deal from the motivation.
As always, we should be active members of a church and perhaps even a small group where we can ask questions and receive counsel as we venture into the classics in search of those precious kernels of truth that will help us understand God in a deeper and better way.
One of my wife’s favorite activities is working on her photo albums. She crops pictures into interesting shapes, pastes little stickers nearby, and turns a pile of photos into a collected work of art. She enjoys doing this even more, however, when her friend Nancy joins her. I lack the enthusiasm, and Lisa and Nancy appreciate being able to work together on something they enjoy.
I find the same camaraderie when I read the classics. It’s deeply gratifying to devote myself to becoming closer to God, but sometimes I feel alone in this pursuit. At other times, I feel alone in my temptations.
It’s during these times that the classics help so much. Francois Fenelon has become a close friend, even though he lived several hundred years ago. Before he died, Fenelon left a collection of letters in which he discussed both his temptations and his victory over them. He also left an incredibly practical book, Christian Perfection, that has guided my spiritual journey. If you pushed me, I’d confess that, theologically, I have a few problems with Fenelon’s tendency toward quietism; but there is so much rich stuff in his book that I don’t mind having to spit out a few bones.
For instance, Fenelon warned me against feeling sorry for myself, reminding me that self-pity is a spiritual cancer. Armed with his time-tested wisdom, I find I’m no longer alone in my pursuit of God, but rather am walking alongside a trusted and proven friend.
In the classics, I’ve found many such friends. They may have lived hundreds of years ago, but I’ve benefited from their insights, learned from their struggles, and been encouraged by their confessions. There is a treasure house of wisdom just waiting to be mined for our spiritual benefit. Like any prospector, we may find a bit of “fool’s gold” that has to be thrown away, but when we find the real thing-an insight or understanding into our relationship with God that ushers us into a deeper intimacy-perhaps you’ll realize, as I have, that all the work was worth it.
The Classics: Where Do I Start?
There are some recognized classics that probably every Christian should aspire to read at some time. The following will give you a good start.
Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence (1692)
When people ask me where to begin reading the classics, I almost always recommend this book. Brother Lawrence was a humble man with an extraordinary sense of living in God’s presence. His little book is a treasure-house of devotion, made up of several letters and conversations as he shared his wonderful awareness of God. You could read the entire book in twenty minutes or less-but you probably won’t want to read it that way. I recommend stopping after each letter and conversation and letting his insights live with you for a while before you move on.
Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, Jeanne Guyon (1685)
Originally titled Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer, this book became especially popular among late 17th century and early 18th century Protestants, including John Wesley and the great missionary Hudson Taylor. Guyon, who lived a difficult and persecuted life, writes on abandonment to the Lord’s will.
A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law (1728)
This is a rigorous treatise written by a devout Puritan. If legalism is already a problem in your life, don’t start with this classic, however! For those who understand grace, Law’s work is challenging and practical as it calls us to a more disciplined life.
The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (c. 1418)
This is one of the most popular spiritual classics, and for good reason. It provides a wealth of insights. Thomas focused on rigorous spiritual training as a necessary part of Christian living. His work is thus a good counter to “soft” Christianity, though I think his monastic experience leads him a little too far toward individualism.
Confessions, Augustine (c. 400)
Though this book is considered the classic of all time, many modern readers may find this book difficult reading with scattered wisdom. The genre itself will seem unfamiliar and slightly wordy to many. While every Christian should eventually read this book-it’s a literary classic as much as a spiritual one-it’s not one with which I’d recommend beginning.
For more exhaustive lists, go to our Christian Classics Book List page. Also consider Take and Read-Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List by Eugene Peterson, which includes brief descriptions of books and authors in a variety of categories. Great Books of the Christian Tradition by Terry Glaspey includes classic as well as contemporary literature, selected non-Christian works, and a guide for young readers.