800,000. That’s how many books were for sale at the recent used book sale I went to. I make a point every year to attend the sale of the Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma City. All paperbacks were 50 cents and hardbacks were only a dollar! You can’t find better bargains than these. People roll in suitcases, storage tubs, boxes, wagons, and I even saw one guy with a giant trash can. With all these books for sale, there are bound to be some treasures, right?
I headed over to the religion section and began fighting crowds to scan through. I pulled out Lloyd-Jones, Piper, and Carson. Some classics like Murray, Edwards, Calvin, and others can be found. What’s most amazing to me at a book sale is not what you want to buy, it’s what you don’t want to buy.
As I scanned the tables, it was like looking over the recent history of popular Christianity. I can ride the emergent wave or get a Bible commentary written by Jimmy Swaggart. There are piles of books that promise me they will be the next big thing. Learn how to capture the Zim Zum or Chazown, or how to have your best life now. There are enough books about bettering your life to build a house with, not to mention all the books about prayer, leadership, and integrity from those men who were found to be acting in their own power, abusing women, or stealing money.
You have to plow through for the good books, you see. It’s understandable that the classics go fast. But there are piles of other books you can’t even give away; they end up going to the recycling bin. What can be learned from these books that are called “life changing,” “must reads,” and “instant classics” that are then quickly forgotten and good for nothing but scrap?
Beware of writing a man’s legacy before his ministry is over.
What struck me the most in the piles of books were the ones by people who left ministry in disgrace. These men were often megachurch pastors, held up as paragons of excellence whose ministries we should emulate. They even sold us books with their methods, promising that if we did what they did we would get what they got. The problem is if we did what they were doing we would have ended up in affairs, abusing our power, prideful, and eventually out of ministry. I don’t have to name the names; you can fill in the blanks yourself. Their books about leadership, prayer, ministry, and more are reminders that while man is fascinated by the outward appearance, God looks at the heart. When our hearts are far from God, we will be found out.
Beware of books that promise a quick fix.
There are so many titles that tell you how to better your prayer life, fix your finances, or get that kind of husband or wife. If there is a part of your life you are unsatisfied with, there is book about how to fix it. Almost all of them promise a quick fix. Nobody will pick up a book that promises “40 years to a better you.” We want a 30-day fast, a 21-day challenge, or, better yet, a 3-day journey. But that’s not what the Bible promises. The authentic christian life is a long obedience in the same direction, like Eugene Peterson says. That’s not to say there isn’t value in the short term, but the life that Jesus models for us is one of daily taking up our cross, dying to our self, and getting up and doing it again the next day. All those prosperity books that promise riches can now be bought for pennies on the dollar.
Beware the crashing waves of trends.
Every few years, another trend comes into evangelicalism promising to be the next thing to take over. Just in my twenty years in ministry, the next big thing has been promised again and again. There was postmodernism, the Emergent movement, the emerging church, online church, house churches, prosperity teaching, modern worship, more modern worship, and many more. Each of these trends crashed on the shores of the church and demanded to recognized, but not long behind each came another one and all the waves before it were quickly forgotten. There were so many books, journals, and endless blog posts analyzing all these trends. But like all waves, they made a loud crash and were soon forgotten. To the contrary, there are things that were discussed decades ago that are still relevant today, things like prayer, evangelism, fasting, meditation, and the other spiritual disciplines. The waves of trends beat against the rocks of God’s Word. They make quite a noise, but they can never change it.
I’m always in favor of buying books, but we have to be careful what we read. This is not a diatribe against new books; rather, it’s a warning against bad books. The words we take in end up shaping our thoughts and habits. Let’s make sure that we are not being shaped by books that we will soon be forgotten. Let’s make sure we live our lives in such a way that someone will not shake their head when they see our name someday. Let’s dedicate our lives to following after God for the long term, no matter the cost. Read old books and read new books, too. But above all, be shaped by God’s word.