I once heard Iain Murray suggest in an interview that Christians should ask the Lord to guide them in what books to read. When I first heard this comment several years ago, I thought it interesting but unrealistic. Recently I’ve become convinced he is entirely right, and for two specific reasons.
First, the process of reading and seeking knowledge is an intimately spiritual exercise. Scripture has taught me and experience confirms that one is only able to attain true knowledge as he is walking in the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7). Fear of the Lord requires that we read reverently (relying upon God’s Word) and humbly (not for the praise of men).
So Many Books…
But there’s a second reason why we should engage in prayer over what to read. The fact is that in our lifetime we can only read so many books. Personally, I am not a fast reader, and I have neither the time nor the ability to read multiple books during the day or week. If I live until I am 75, from this point on I can probably read about 2000-4000 books cover-to-cover (that’s about 1-2 books a week for the rest of my life). In terms of total books in the world, that is a minuscule number.
In 2010, Google software engineer Leonid Taycher calculated that there are approximately 129 million books (unique, written and bound works) in existence. Let’s eliminate 99.2% of these books and say that only 0.8% of those books are worthy of your time. That would still leave about one million books. Even if I read 6000 books over my lifetime, I would only complete 0.6% of this small subsection of total works published.
But let’s assume that some of the content in these books overlap so that by reading one book I am actually covering the same ground that I would in another book and multiply my total count by, say, 4 (for a total of 24,000). I still would have only read 2.4% of the small subsection of books I deemed we worthy of my time. Of the total amount of books published, I will have barely scratched the surface at 0.02%. These truths are discouraging, but they are also liberating.
A Strategy for Knowledge Acquisition
My strategy for acquiring knowledge, therefore, must take into account my limited time, limited ability, and limited resources and seek out the best books for the work the Lord has put before me (e.g., my profession, ministry, home, marriage, child rearing), and the books that will feed my soul and inform legitimate personal interests. Most importantly, because the gap between the number of books available and my ability to read those books is so massive, prayer becomes utterly essential. I need wisdom to know how to plan and implement my reading and study. And I must also be content with the fact that I will only be able to read a limited number of books and know a limited number of things before I die.
As Christians, these limitations should not trouble us. First, we know that God will sovereignly guide us in what to read and that everything he does is for our good (Rom 8:28-29). I might make foolish choices here and there, and I will certainly grow in my ability to discern what makes for good reading, but if I give myself to seeking wisdom and asking the Lord for guidance, I can have the confidence that my book choices are led by his Spirit. I do not have to fret if I am unable to read certain books because after all is said and done, God will have ordained what I read.
Second, because I am finite and God is infinite, I will be learning for all eternity. It should bring little sorrow if I am unable to learn something in this life because I will learn it in the next if it really matters for the glory of God and the good of my soul.
Finally, I must constantly remind myself of this massive truth: because I know God and his Word, I can know something about everything in the universe; namely, that God made it, that it exists by his will, and that he is Lord over it. That’s a lot of knowledge.
I’m not suggesting by any of these statements that we pray and wait for some kind of sign from God as to what books to read, or that we should pray over every book decision, or that we bypass thinking and planning. Rather, I am suggesting that we approach our reading by asking the Lord to purify our motives and give us wisdom in choosing what written works deserve our time and energy. This process will include prayerfully considering questions like, Do I have specific reasons for why I am reading what I am reading? Do these reasons relate to serving Christ, serving others, feeding my soul, honing my craft, or informing genuine personal interests?
If we ask the Lord to guide us in what we should read next and what books we should purchase and what areas of study we should pursue, we may sense our motivations aligning more with the glory of God, the good of our souls, and the good of others. When our motivations are right, we will often notice perceptible growth in our knowledge along with the ability to understand and retain what we are learning. This shouldn’t surprise us. God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), and the fear of the Lord is the prerequisite to knowledge (Prov 1:7).
In the end, what really matters is faith in and obedience to the Lord. I love to study and to read and to learn, but Christ calls me to obey what I hear and to be a doer of the Word (James 1:22-25). In order to grow in faith and know how to obey, I must continue to study the Word of God and read good books. But the goal of this study must be “love from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5), not mere learning. Besides, applying the Word is what enables me to learn even more (Ps 119:100). So, by all means, take up and read. But don’t forget to pray as you do.