What You Read Builds Who You Are

In God’s common grace, He shares insights even with those who don’t know or trust Him. For example, Oscar Wilde was not a good role model (to say the least). But he spoke these amazingly true words that I have seen confirmed in my life, and Nanci’s, and in the lives of many others: “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” 

Sending Our Roots Deep

Every morning during her cancer battle, Nanci read Scripture, Spurgeon, The Valley of Vision (a book of Puritan prayers), Paul Tripp’s New Morning Mercies, and books by J. I. Packer, A. W. Tozer, and John Piper. She placed herself by the stream of God’s Word and great books, and she sent her roots deep by contemplating His holiness, grace, justice, mercy, and every facet of His being revealed in Scripture. As we discussed what we were learning and prayed together, I saw in her a profound “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” that “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

Isn’t there room in life for movies and TV and kicking back and enjoying a lightweight novel? Sure, I enjoy these things myself, and Nanci and I certainly had fun watching movies together (while exercising wisdom about what to watch, and using VidAngel to filter out what’s objectionable). But I believe in an era dominated by superficial popular culture, there’s real value in expanding our thinking to God’s glory, and not just going broad but going deep. Deep is where the roots are, and they’re what keeps the tree or vine standing during storms that would otherwise erode and topple it. Likewise, deeply rooted beliefs—specifically a worldview grounded in Scripture—will allow us to persevere and hold on to a faith built on the solid rock of God’s truth.

What We Read Matters

Jon Bloom writes, “What you read will shape you. It will shape not only what you think, but how you think. Your life is short. You can only read a relatively small amount in the time you have.”

Bad books are poor companions; good books are great friends. The fact is, we will inevitably adopt the morality of the books we read (as well as the magazines, music, Internet sites, and conversations we consume). GIGO—garbage in, garbage out; or godliness in, godliness out. We become what we choose to feed our minds on:

Sow a thought, reap an action;

Sow an action, reap a habit.

Sow a habit, reap a character.

Sow a character, reap a destiny.

"Above all else, guard your heart [mind, inner being], for it is the wellspring of life" (Proverbs 4:23). If someone wants to pollute water, he pollutes it at its source. If he wants to purify water, he purifies it at its source. Our thoughts are the source of our lives. All our lives flow from our mind, and through the choices we make every day we program our minds, either for godliness or ungodliness. Suffering will come; we owe it to God, ourselves, and those around us to prepare well for it.

As part of my research for my book If God Is Good, I interviewed and exchanged correspondence with many people who shared their stories and perspectives. One of those people was Darrell Scott, whose daughter Rachel Joy Scott was the first person killed at Columbine High School in the 1999 shooting.

When Darrell looked back at his daughter’s murder, he said that years before, God had prepared him. He’d read Norman Grubb’s writings about the eye of faith that allows us to see through our worst circumstances to God’s purpose.

Because Darrell had learned to think this way, he could, despite his incredible pain, see through Rachel’s death to a sovereign, purposeful God. Darrell’s view of God already had a firm place in his heart when Rachel died. He trusted from the first that God had a purpose in her death. While this did not remove his pain, it did provide solid footing from which he could move forward, trusting God instead of resenting Him.

I asked Darrell what we should do to prepare for trials. Without hesitation he said, “Become a student of God’s Word.” He added, “Don’t be content to be hand-fed by others. Do your own reading and study, devour good books, talk about the things of God.”

When suffering comes our way, it’ll exert a force that either pushes us away from God or pulls us toward Him. The perspectives we’ve cultivated between now and then will determine our direction.

Sit at the Feet of the Wise

A great way to endure in the Christian life is to study and pattern your life after followers of Jesus who have lived a long obedience in the same direction. To do this, we can read history and biographies and take our cues from dead people who still live rather than the living who are dead. Compare reading a biography of William Wilberforce or Amy Carmichael to watching a sitcom or spending half an hour on social media. Which will help you grow in Christlikeness?

You needn’t read just about pastors or theologians. Stanley Tam is a businessman who declared God to be the owner of his company, U.S. Plastic. R.G. Letourneau, the inventor of earth-moving machines, gave 90% of his salary to God. God has also placed in your church examples of a long obedience in the same direction. Find them and spend time with them. Sit at the feet of the wise, not fools.

And of course, no book is more important than the Bible, God’s own words. Richard Baxter advised, “Make careful choice of the books which you read: let the Holy Scriptures ever have the preeminence. Let Scripture be first and most in your hearts and hands and other books be used as subservient to it.” Likewise, Charles Spurgeon said, “Visit many good books, but live in the Bible.”

Let’s Choose Wisely

Over the years I’ve bought and read thousands of good books. I cannot divorce God’s works of grace in my life from great books. I love a good movie, but I find that for me television is incapable of having the deep and profound positive effect on my spiritual life that books do.

Joni Eareckson Tada, no stranger to suffering and pain, writes, “If a story does not convey moral virtue or truth that points to God, it will dull my heart before the first commercial. Why yield the precious real estate of my brain to that which flattens my spirit? Instead, I busy my heart with good books and videos, art, memorizing Scripture and poetry, and pursuing uplifting friendships that nourish my soul.”

Television and reading both put us in someone’s company, and remove us from someone else’s company. You decide: will you be different because you put yourself in the company of Spurgeon rather than a sitcom? Over the long haul, will you grow closer to God and your family and your neighbor by watching television or scrolling your phone, or by limiting screentime and doing something that has lasting value, something that’s an investment in eternity?

As we read, and encourage others to do so, including our children, may God help us to renew our minds, set our minds on things above, and love God with all our hearts and minds. May we put our roots down deep, and experience the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of mental and spiritual growth that prepares us for times of suffering. 

Photo: Pexels

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries