Monday, May 7, 2012

the danger and delights of books about personal change (what I'm reading: Tony Reinke's Lit!)

In his wonderful book Lit!, Tony Reinke gives us six categories for reading. So far, we've looked at three of them: theologyreading for pleasure, and reading to kindle spiritual reflection.

His fourth category - the one we'll look at today - is reading to initiate personal change. He says,
In this category I slide down into the muddy trenches of life. These are the books for battle, the sharp weapons for putting off sin and putting on righteousness. These books help me confront and defeat personal sin and unbelief. They help me to honor God in my role as a husband and as a parent...This reading category forces me to think proactively about personal growth and to determine where in my life I need to focus my attention. Carefully selected books will set the pace for focused and long-term change. 
If you go to a Christian bookshop, you'll find heaps of books in this category. Christian living, marriage, parenthood, overcoming worry, learning to pray: who doesn't want to know about these things? It's easy to be motivated to read books like this, because they promise to answer our felt needs. Yet such books can be dangerous:
How each writer approaches these topics can be wise and biblically informed – or not. And due to the spiritual dangers associated with these practical books, readers should choose them very carefully. 
What are the dangers of such books? They easily slide into legalism. "Ten rules for personal change!" "A proven method for praying!" "What you need to do to be a godly wife and mother!" The assumption is that if you follow the author's particular program, you'll be able to change. The result, more often than not, is discouragement if you fail to live up to the "rules", or pride if you manage to keep them:
I have seen wisely chosen books transform marriages, free sinners, and gladden grumblers. I have seen poorly chosen books feed a person’s doubt, entrench a soul in legalism, and ignite a heart with self-righteousness.  
If, like me, you're a perfectionist and a rule-keeper, you'll need to be even more careful: books which are helpful for others may not be helpful for you, unless you read them with great care. So how do you choose books to initiate personal change? One place to start is to ask someone you trust, who knows you well, and who can be your reading guide:
Specific recommendations are often best discovered under the guidance of a wise and well-read pastor who knows you.
If you're searching for a book on a particular topic, look for books that are gospel-centred. Books that start with God's grace, rather than a set of rules for change. Books from writers you know will take this approach.

Here are a few authors who write about practical issues whose books are radically gospel-centred: Tim Chester, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Ed Welch, Philip Jensen, Jerry Bridges, John Piper, David Powlison, Tim Keller, Josh Harris, CJ Mahaney and Paul Tripp. They've written books on everything from personal change to depression to sexual purity to marriage and parenting.

If you want to find a gospel-centred book on a particular topic, please ask me in the comments (click here). This is a hobby-horse of mine, so chances are I've read or know of something. And if I don't, I'll ask someone who does!

Quotes are from Tony Reinke's Lit! pages 99-100.

image is by Brett Jordan from flickr


Seeker said...

Do you have any recommendations for one that has gone off track? To realign oneself to values after some missteps?

Jean said...

Thanks for your question. It's not an easy one to answer without knowing more. Except to say that what someone in this situation needs is a big dose of Jesus and the gospel: to know that grace and forgiveness and help to change are available to them in Christ.

What springs to mind, then, are:

"King's Cross" by Tim Keller, simply because it's a wonderful book about Jesus and the gospel.

"You can change" by Tim Chester, because it joins the dots between the gospel and our beliefs and actions in a profoundly grace-centred way.

Those are the ones that come to mind. Tell me if that's helpful, and if it's not, perhaps give me some more pointers and I'll see what I can come up with. You can always contact me at

The other thing that occurs to me is that meeting with a mature, gracious, godly Christian who knows Jesus and believes the gospel would be helpful for someone like this too, to help them to take those steps back to godly values.

In Christ and in prayer,