Christian Life

Five Books Every Christian Should Read (Besides the Bible)

After almost 20 years in our current residence, my wife and I are preparing to move. We have already filled a lot of boxes (I have lost count) with some of our belongings. Quite a few of those boxes are filled with books (again, I have lost count). We are only a fraction of the way through our books. We realized we have books in almost every room of our apartment.

A few books from my collection.

We love books. When we first met, we hit it off over the fact that we are both fans of C. S. Lewis. I think my wife and I both love reading almost as much as I enjoy writing (maybe more so). Books have played a major role in my life and great Christian authors have shaped my faith significantly.

With that in mind, I would like to offer the following list of five books, besides the Bible, that have influenced my relationship with Christ. I would encourage all Christians to read them at some point:

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis—Lewis is one of my favorite authors. Early in my relationship with Christ, several people encouraged me to read this book. Lewis provides a simple, concise, intelligent defense and explanation of the essentials of the Christian faith. For someone who prides himself on being an intellectual and independent thinker, it was refreshing to read a book that shows that you do not have to lock your brain in a corner when you become a Christian. You can be a thinking Christian and a sincere believer.
    • Honorable mention: Another of my favorite books is The Screwtape Letters, which imagines a series of letters where a senior demon tries to mentor his protege. A few other great Lewis books include The Problem of Pain, The Great Divorce, and the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia children’s books. Lewis wrote in numerous genres, so you are likely to find something by him that suits your style.
  • The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence—I found this little book among my father’s belongings after he passed away. I still have his copy. Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth-century monk who concluded that a committed Christian life primarily involved a continual acknowledgment of God’s presence at all times. Whatever you do, wherever you are: Keep your mind on the Lord, remember He is always with you, and rejoice in His love for you. It is a very brief book; each of its chapters (my copy contains 26: four conversations, 16 letters, and six brief “spiritual maxims”) can be read in less than five minutes. A book like this is best read by reading one chapter at a time and then allowing yourself time to reflect on its message throughout the day.
  • Of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a’ Kempis—Another monastic spiritual classic. Kempis was a fifteen century monk with a view of the Christian life that complements Brother Lawrence’s. As the title suggests, Kempis urges his readers to imitate Christ. Is book is somewhat longer than Lawrence’s, but the chapters are likewise very brief, allowing the reader to devote time to reflection and meditation on their truths throughout the day. It is actually four books, with a total of 114 chapters: “Admonitions Useful for Spiritual Life,” “Admonitions Pertaining to Inward Things,” “Internal Consolation,” and “A Devout Exhortation to the Holy Communion.” While both Brother Lawrence and Thomas a’Kempis write from the perspective of men cloistered in ancient monasteries, their writings will provide insight and encouragement for those of us living twenty-first century lives.
  • The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer—“When Christ calls a man, He bids him ‘come and die.’” Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, and seminary professor whose ministry coincided with the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The Cost of Discipleship is probably his most easy-to-read book, most of it being a devotional commentary about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Living at a time when it was impossible to be a committed Christian and a loyal supporter of one’s government, Bonhoeffer could relay some of the conflict between Jesus’ teachings and the mindset of the world. He would eventually be executed for his involvement with “Valkyrie,” an attempt to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime.
    • Honorable mention: Bonhoeffer wrote prolifically during his brief life. I have not read his Letters and Papers from Prison but understand that this book is quite popular. Life Together examines Christian fellowship and the church from the perspective of his seminary, which was forced to live and study “underground” after it was outlawed by the Nazis.
    • I strongly recommend the biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. It examines Bonhoeffer’s writings and thoughts in the context of German history at that time. One would be wise to read it to see the conflict a Christian may face as his nation gravitates toward tyranny. I believe there are lessons there that modern American Christians need to learn quickly.
  • Anything by Andrew Murray—I have read many of Andrew Murray’s books; all of them have blessed, inspired, and challenged me; and I really cannot pick a favorite. I have quoted him several times on this blog, most recently when The True Vine inspired parts of my recent series on “Abiding in the Vine.” Some of this nineteenth-century South African pastor’s other works include Abide in Christ, The Deeper Christian Life, The Master’s Indwelling, The Ministry of Intercession, The Spirit of Christ, and The Power of the Blood. All of Murray’s writings are full of wisdom and zeal for the power of the Holy Spirit to be seen in the lives of Christians. Most of his writings address the subjects of prayer and the Spirit-filled Christian life. His books are generally brief, written to an audience of ordinary churchgoers. They are not overly complicated or hard to read, but they are spiritually deep. Read thoughtfully and be challenged to go deeper with Christ.

These are just a few of the books that hold a permanent place on my bookshelf. I would love to hear some of your favorite picks. What would you count as “books every Christian should read”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Abiding in the Vine: II. Staying Connected to Christ and His People

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned”
(John 15:3–6; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless indicated otherwise).

Image courtesy of Max Pixel.

Part I of this series introduced four key lessons of Jesus’ teaching about the vine and branches. In the words of Andrew Murray, they are the lessons of entire consecration, perfect conformity, absolute dependence, and undoubting confidence.

All of these lessons flow from the fact that the branch abides as part of the vine. The branch draws its life from the vine. If you remove a branch from a vine or tree, it will die. If you remove an organ or limb from the human body, it will die.

Jesus tells us that we are His branches. He is the vine. If you are separated from Jesus, you do not have spiritual life within you. “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Vines and trees have numerous branches, all of which play a role in the life of the plant. One branch does not make up the entire vine. It needs the vine, and it needs the other branches. Christians need to be connected with the vine, which will create a living connection with other branches:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

To partake of the life of Christ, we must remain connected to Him, and that requires a connection to His people, the Church. An important starting point for a Christian to abide in the vine is to abide with other believers. One of Satan’s most effective ways to remove Christians from a living connection with Jesus is to persuade them to disconnect from the Body of Christ. The life of Christ flows through the Church. We need one another.

We will not grow if we choose to remove ourselves from the rest of the vine. Humans are social beings who need relationship. One of God’s first observations about the first man, Adam, was that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Marriage grew out of the very social nature that God crafted within us. Our need for relationship was mentioned immediately after God addressed man’s need for food.

We are not the only beings on Earth with a social need. Many animal species rely on a social network to survive. In fact, the need to connect may spread beyond the animal kingdom. A recent, controversial theory proposes that even trees might socialize with each other. Not only does a tree rely on its branches, and the branches rely on the rest of the tree. Trees may, in a way similar to human families and animal groups, rely on each other.

How much more do we need one another to survive spiritually. Our gifts, joys, trials, victories, defeats, and other life experiences, shared among people who are seeking to follow Christ, knit us together like the branches of a vine or the trees of an orchard. We grow together.

Our connection with other Christians is one of the most important ways to strengthen our connection with Jesus Christ Himself. He is the Source of Life, and we need to remain connected to our brethren and to Him if we seek to have life abundantly (John 10:10).

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Abiding in the Vine: I. An Introduction

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:1–11; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

Grape vines in a vineyard, Napa Valley, CA. Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons 2.0 license).

The Bible is filled with agricultural imagery. This makes sense: God spoke His Word to and through people living in an agricultural society. The people who knew Jesus were often either farmers or fishermen. They grew or captured their own food. He spoke parables about sowers who scattered seed, not about stock boys at Walmart and the people who got lost in the cookie aisle.

This agricultural mindset needs to be kept in mind as we read the Bible. While the cultural background may be foreign to many readers, its message is timeless and universal. When Jesus says “I am the true vine…you are the branches,” He is speaking to residents of urban and suburban communities as well as rural Americans and ancient Israelites. We sometimes need to dig deep to understand Jesus’ message, but once we understand it, we find immeasurable spiritual riches to claim.

Many have written volumes about this passage. Perhaps my favorite treatment of John 15:1–11 is The True Vine by Andrew Murray (my copy is the 1982 edition published by Whitaker House). Readers who are inspired or encouraged by this series of posts may want to read that book or a similar devotional by others.

Some of Murray’s key thoughts, in chapter 3, “The Branch,” are as follows:

  1. “There is the lesson of entire consecration. The branch has only one reason for which it exists, one purpose to which it is entirely given up. That is, to bear the fruit the vine wishes to bring forth.”
  2. “There is the lesson of perfect conformity.” A branch is exactly like the vine, since it partakes of its nature. Likewise, the believer must recognize that he is a partaker of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4).
  3. “There is the lesson of absolute dependence.” A branch survives on the life, sap, and strength of the vine.
  4. “And then there is the lesson of undoubting confidence.” A branch receives all it needs from the vine. It does not look elsewhere.

With this in mind, we can consider a few additional lessons in the next few articles. It might be helpful to remember that much of what we say about a vine here can also apply to other plants with branches, including trees and shrubs. As Jesus spoke these words to the disciples, they had just finished eating the Last Supper, a Passover feast including wine. They were walking to the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove on or near the Mount of Olives. One can imagine that they were walking past a vine or vineyard as Jesus gave this teaching. The disciples would have more time to ponder its meaning while Christ prayed in the Garden and they were surrounded by olive trees. The lesson of the vine could easily be extracted from an olive tree. So, we can safely switch between the imagery of a vine and a tree throughout this series of reflections.

As Andrew Murray observes in his book, the relationship between a vine and its branches is an intimate image of the relationship between Jesus Christ and His followers. As we reflect on this parable in this series, I pray that we may all grow in our intimate interconnection with our Savior.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Milking Spiritual Authority: II. Growing Outward

“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:1–3; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

Image by Dimitri Wittmann from Pixabay

In Mark 7, we read an episode where the religious leaders challenged Jesus because His disciples did not wash their hands according to rabbinic rules before eating.

“And {Jesus} said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person’” (Mark 7:20–23).

This follows a popular verse. One verse earlier (verse 19), Jesus declared all foods clean. (Yes! You, O child of God, may freely eat BACON!) However, we overlook Jesus’ main point: The evil thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors He listed are the things that really corrupt us, not food. We keep filling our minds and thoughts with garbage, and we spew garbage from our hearts, minds, and mouths through sin. As long as we keep spewing spiritual uncleanness, we cannot think of ourselves as spiritually mature. No bacon double cheeseburger can compensate for that.

Instead of these impurities, our hearts and lives should flow with the true marks of a mature follower of Christ:

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23).

As I shared previously, a maturing faith should have an outward focus. Newborn infants need to be fed. Before long, the parents can place food in front of the baby and let him try to feed himself. Eventually, a school-aged child may go to the kitchen and grab his own food. Teenagers might go to a convenience store and buy their own soda and snacks. Eventually, an adult may have children of his or her own and have to feed them. If an adult still needs to be fed, something is wrong.

As Christians, we follow a similar journey. The newborn believer needs to be taught the basics of the faith. Eventually, a growing Christian will read the Bible during private devotions; we do not stop going to church or Bible study, but we “spiritually feed” ourselves. As we grow in Christ, we should eventually feed others spiritually. This may not necessarily be teaching or preaching, but in some way, we should impart God’s blessings to others. Instead of merely sucking in everything others have, we share the strength and hope God gives us with others.

Let us grow up spiritually. Our faith should mature as we spend time with the Lord. The old inner sinful attitudes should decrease and disappear. The fruit of the Spirit should grow. We should move from selfishness to self-giving.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:11–13).

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Milking Spiritual Maturity: I. All or Nothing

“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:1–3; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

What does spiritual maturity look like? This term appears frequently in some corners of the church, and this blog has occasionally addressed it. A search on this site’s homepage currently lists 11 articles, including this, this, and this.

Spiritual maturity can be easily misunderstood. Some think a spiritually mature person attends church often, reads the Bible every day, prays a lot, and listens to Christian music. However, Peter associates maturity—“growing up into salvation”—with a lack of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. It is related with what flows from your heart and mind, radiating the love of God, not religious activity.

Peter told his readers to long for pure spiritual milk. Picture a baby at its mother’s breast. For the first few months of his or her life, a baby will live on nothing but milk, which provided complete nutrition until the baby is old enough to eat and drink more complex things. Eventually, the baby can eat soft foods, then meat, and so on.

Elsewhere in Scripture, we read that the milk is the word of God:

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12–14; emphasis added).

The pure spiritual milk Peter speaks of is the basic principles of the oracles of God, the essentials of salvation. Peter does not trivialize this, and neither should we: He addresses his instruction to all of his readers, drawing no distinction between church leaders and the people who were baptized one week earlier. All of us should drink the pure spiritual milk every now and then.

However, our faith should look different after 10 or 20 years of walking with Christ. As we abide in Christ and His Word, we grow to maturity. After a while, we should look different. We should train our powers of discernment to distinguish good from evil. We should move beyond spiritual milk to spiritual meat, solid food, the word of righteousness.

However, many of us are eager to master the “deeper truths” without first allowing the Word of God to master our hearts. We want to become experts in Bible trivia, biblical studies, and systematic theology without having purified hearts. We think right doctrine or Scripture memorization are the marks of a mature Christian. Yet, as we see above, this is not the case.

Christian maturity is revealed by the nature of Christ in our lives and a thorough renewal of the mind that rejects sins of the heart. Peter tells us to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” He says all several times. What part of “all” do we not understand?

Put away all malice. This includes people from the opposing political party, Muslims, illegal immigrants, or homosexuals. We may disagree with them. We may think they are wrong, deceived, or misguided. But we should put away all malice—even against “those people.”

Put away all slander. For some reason, many Christians think God does not see or care about the internet or social media. We see a meme or link to an online article that justifies our opinion and accuses our “enemies” or horrible things, so we share it. We do not check to see if it is true. (I am not endorsing Snopes; most of us do not even do a simple web search to see if the post can be verified by independent, trustworthy, at-least-partially-fair-and-balanced sources.) Many people do not care whether an online post is true or false. If we want it to be true, we share it. We are willing to justify our hatred, malice, gossip, slander, deceit, etc., in the name of a religious, political, or social agenda. In this regard, many Christians are as guilty (or even more so) than non-believers.

Since Scripture says that we should put away “all” such sin, the presence or absence of such sins of the heart and mind are the true indications of our degree of spiritual maturity or immaturity. Sinful attitudes are destructive to our souls.

As long as any sinful attitudes remain, let us continue to seek spiritual growth. Let us not become satisfied with a little sin, a little righteousness, and a little bit of God’s presence in our lives.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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