It is often humbling to learn, by experience, that John 15:5 applies to everything in life. When Jesus said that apart from Him I can do nothing, He really did mean nothing, as I have learned–sometimes painfully–throughout the years.
In my case, reading was one area that I didn’t think immediately appeared to require dependence upon the Lord. Now, I would probably never come out and say that, (i.e., that I don’t need to depend on Christ when I read), but I think my general practice has demonstrated, sadly, that I may actually believe that more than I would like to admit.
Looking back, I can say that there have been plenty of times when I have worked through a book on theology, or Christian living, or the Church, or Christian engagement in culture, and approached the endeavor entirely relying on my own intellectual prowess (or lack thereof!) to guide me in my reading; only to find myself with little to no spritual or intellectual fruit.
Well I have had enough dry and unprofitable times over books-not to mention times where I have cultivated pride more than learning-to know that something is amiss. So, as I have considered the discipline of reading and the necessity of prayer in the humble observance of John 15:5, I have gleaned somethings that I hope will be beneficial to you as well.
(1) Pray for understanding. I am convinced, by Scripture and experience, that “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (I Corinthians 2:14), and to the degree that I am leaning on my own mental might, to that degree am I forfeiting true knowledge that only the Holy Spirit endows. The result might lead (or should I say ‘has led’) to confusion more often than real learning. Therefore, it is essential to pray for understanding as we read. Our minds our sinful and in need of great help; help which the Holy Spirit is most willing to provide. Proverbs 2:1-6 is insightful at this point:
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you…if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding…if you…search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
God gives wisdom and understanding into His Word to those who ‘cry out’ for it and ‘search for it as for hidden treasures.’ Practical application: pray for understanding as you read. Pray for help in understanding the arguement, in following the train of thought, etc.
(2) Pray for clear judgment. How easy it is to rush through a book, or misread something out of haste or prejudice, and then subsequently misstate that person’s position in conversations (or blogs). Again, I believe the work of the Holy Spirit in overcoming the blinding effects of pride in our hearts is crucial here. We need help to see things accurately and fairly. We need help to keep our zeal from misconstruing what is actually said. We need help to apply Proverbs 18:13, “The one who answers before he hears (i.e. truly understands what he reads is probably a reasonable application), it is his folly and shame.” We need clear judgement.
(3) Pray for discernment. Here we need the Spirit’s help to accept truth and set aside error. To agree whole-heartedly with the good and disagree (just as whole-heartedly) with that which is evil, wrong, and untrue. I think it is wise to pray as we read, “Help me, Lord, that I might see and believe what is true and according to your Word and reject that which is not.”
(4) Pray for a heart that is soft to truth. We not only want minds that can tell the difference between truth and error, but we also want hearts that readily receive and rejoice in the truth. A.W. Tozer rightly observes, “One reason why people are unable to understand the Christian classics is that they are trying to understand without any intention of obeying them” (quoted by J. Oswald Sanders in Spiritual Leadership, 103).
(5) Pray for right motives. We need to pray for a heart that desires to read and learn for the sake of our souls and the sake of our obedience. I think our reading will malfunction at a fundamental level if we learn in order to impress others with our knowledge. Edwards’ wisely instructs,
Seek not to grow in knowledge chiefly for the sake of applause, and to enable you to dispute with others; but seek it for the benefit of your souls, and in order to practice. If applause be your end, you will not be so likely to be led to the knowledge of the truth.
These suggestions primarily deal with texts that are, for the most part, theological in nature. However, I don’t think that the Holy Spirit is loath to help us in reading other kinds of literature as well; because in all of our reading we should, at some level, be seeking real understanding, exercising clear judgment, practicing discernment, desiring hearts that are soft to truth and always reading for the right reasons.
May we read well.