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Read Great Books, Part 1

From the series Good to Great in God's Eyes

It’s true - you are what you eat. Both in your body and your mind. What you feed your mind and soul will determine your spiritual health. If you want to experience a fresh spiritual vitality and begin to see lasting life change, join Chip for the first of six advantages of reading great books.

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Message Transcript

The year is 1978. I’m a young guy who has ended up on an Australian basketball team. I'm in graduate school. I took a little time off, winter break. Had about a three-week stint where I was going to join an Australian team, go throughout the Orient, play basketball, and share Christ. I find myself in a high rise, about twenty-two floors up or so, in a missionary's room. And in this room he has a small library, but they're all paperback books. And I had asked a few questions and we were the team and sharing some time. And something happened in that room, in 1978, that changed the course of my life.

He put something in my hand. That something that he put in my hand, God put in my heart. And the very thing that he put in my hand, and God put in my heart, I put in my briefcase for about thirty years. And what that was, was a book: one thin, very inexpensive, little book, by a man who's been dead for a while.

The book is The Knowledge of the Holy. This is my updated copy. And I can say this, because it's with warm affection: My wife gave me the updated copy. The original copy I got from Hong Kong was a little bit smaller, and was in my briefcase for about twenty-seven years. And I don't know what briefcases do, but it started to peel apart, and the pages were falling apart. And so, Theresa gave me one a couple years ago.

A.W. Tozer's Knowledge of the Holy is about God Himself. It's a book on the attributes of God. He writes, in the beginning, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Think of that. “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man's spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.”

Now, listen carefully to his application: “For this reason, the gravest, the most important question before the Church is always God Himself. And the most portentous fact about any man is not what he is at a given time, or what he may say or do, but what, in his heart, in the depth of his heart, he conceives God to be like. For there is a secret law of the soul that we move toward our mental image of God.”

I did not grow up as a Christian. I did not open the Bible until I was 18. And what I had in my mind is what all of you have in your mind. You have this collage, jigsaw puzzle, of what you've heard, what you've seen, a snippet at church, maybe you read a little of the Bible – I didn't read the Bible growing up. And you have all these different pieces that have built a collage in your mind, and, when you bow your head, or get on your knees, and you say, “Dear God,” or, “Lord Jesus,” you have a picture, or a mental concept, of who He is.
And if it is right, and if it is accurate, dynamic things will happen in your life. And if it is wrong, it will impact and influence every decision, every relationship, your identity, in every way. Your life will be determined by how clear you are about who God is.

And you say, “That’s a little overstatement.” No. You know why this is? This book, along with this book has, in the last thirty years, as I've gotten up every morning and said, Lord, You know what? I’m just a regular guy, and this is a big world You created. And I believe that You love me, but I've got lots of images about what I thought You were like that are pretty erroneous. And so, what I'd like to do is – and I know it's going to be a long journey, but I want to let You know that, every day, I'm going to chip away. And I'm asking You, will You create, will You help me, as I look into Your Word, and will You help me, as I take what You've shown a man of God, what You're really like – would You begin to form that in my mind, and my heart, so that I really pray to who You really are? So that, when I read a promise, I believe: This is the God who gave the promise. So that, when You give me a challenge, and You say, “Do this,” and everything in my flesh says, “I don't want to do that,” that I can remember that You are a good God, that You wouldn't withhold any good or perfect gift, so that I could remember that You've died for me, that You love me, that I'm the object of Your affection. Would You help me get a right view of You that would lead to a right view of me that would lead to a life that, little, by little, by little, by little, over time, as the apostle Paul would pray, Christ would be formed in me?

Perfect? Nah. But significantly different, transformed, changing, as a light in the world, as salt. That's my prayer.

What I want you to know is that, when we think about going from good to great, I think there is a practice, something very tangible you can do. Every great Christian that I have ever met, every great Christian that I have ever read about, are people who read great books. That's practice number one.

If you want to be a great Christian – and you say, “Well, is this pie in the sky?” No. If you want to be a great Christian, in God's eyes, practice number one is: read great books. The Scripture, Romans, one key text. For every one of these principles, I'm going to give you one key text. Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed.”

Literally, it's, “Stop being conformed.” The grammar is in such a way that – the Roman Church was being conformed by this world. It was being molded. Even though they knew Christ, even though they had a brand-new life, their thinking, their speech, their lifestyle, what they did with their money, their marriages – it was being corroded, and formed, and molded by the world system that they lived in. And, so, the apostle Paul, after verse 1 is saying, “Offer your body as a living sacrifice.”

Then, he would say, “Now, stop being conformed to this world, but be” – literally – “metamorphosized.” Meta – change – morphosized – with change. Let your mind be transformed. How? “By the renewing of your mind.” With what result? That your life, literally, your lifestyle could “prove” – or demonstrate – “what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable, and perfect.”

That word approved, or test, was used for – they would put acid on a metal, and find out the quality of the metal. It's the idea of living the kind of life so that, as people would scratch beneath the surface of singing the song, or reading the Bible, or going to church, that your life would prove, it would test out, that God's will is good. It's acceptable. It's well pleasing.

And how do you get there? You've got to renew your mind. And I believe the number one way to renew our mind is to read great books. And, so, if you'll open your notes, what I want to do in our time together is, I want to give you a few categories, and a few suggestions. I'll share some great books that have changed my life. Now, these were ones that were great for me. I think these are great books, but other books in these categories will be just as helpful, or more helpful, for you.

But, first, I'd like to suggest, you need to read great books that broaden your world. Write in the word broaden. See, your world, and my world – we think just like this. And you read a book, and you find out what happened in China. And you read a book, and you find out what happened three thousand years ago. See, great books broaden your world.

And as a believer, I think biographies are so important. I not only did not open the Bible growing up, but I didn't have any Christian heroes. And early in my Christian life, within the first, probably, five years, three books came across my hands.

The first one was a book called Daws. And you might think, Well, what’s Daws? It's the story of Dawson Trotman. He was the founder of The Navigators. And it's a great book. I’m not saying it's great literature. I'm just saying, something happened when I read that book.

Because what I realized was, Wow, this guy is a regular guy! Daws was a guy who went to high school, and never went to college. Daws was a guy who was an unbeliever. I could identify with him. He found a really cute, little girl, and he was interested in her. And she went to some kind of church meeting, and so, to get to know the girl, he went to the church meeting. He went to the youth group, and they challenged the youth group, “If you memorize these ten verses and come back to recite them, word perfect, next week, here’s the prize.”

He's sort of the competitive, ego guy, and he's going to show this girl how smart he is, so he memorizes all ten verses. And he goes back to the little youth group, and, like many youth groups, here he is, an unbeliever, and he’s the only one who did it. But all ten verses were in his mind. And whoever was the head of that youth group was pretty sharp, because the verses were like, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:23.

And the next verse was, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord,” Romans 6:23. And, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” Romans 5:8. And then, “Call upon the Lord. Those who call upon the Lord will be saved.” And then, Ephesians 2:8 and 9. Ten basic verses on the gospel.

And Daws tells a story of just going through life. He was sort of a little bit of a rebel – had a motorcycle, black leather jacket, and had a little rebellious streak in him. And he says he was walking by a hardware store, and these verses were popping into his mind, and the gospel clicked. And he realized, it wasn't about being religious. It wasn't about activities. It wasn't about going to church. It was about a personal relationship with Christ that comes when you understand Christ died for you, personally, and that you need to personally turn away, and repent of your sin, and that the Spirit of God would come into your life, and you could be a new creature, and have a brand-new life, and all your sin could be forgiven, forever and ever and ever.

And the Spirit of God would take up residence, and the God of the universe would be your friend. And He would lead you, and He would guide you, and He would care for you. And because he didn't have a lot of religious upbringing, he didn't know any better, so he just believed it.

And he began to grow very rapidly. And as I read through the book, I’m a brand-new Christian, maybe a year or two by this time. And I’m just, I’ve never read it. The first year, I read through the New Testament, and then read through it again, then read through it again. And I didn't understand a lot of it, but the thirst, and the change.

And then Dawson took his motorcycle, and he drove up into the California hills, and he would pray for everything that he could see. And then he'd build a little fire up there. And he kept going up there every morning, at five a.m. And then, he began to get out a map of California. He prayed for every county. Then, he kind of expanded, and he prayed for every major city in the United States. Then, he prayed, eventually, for every single country in the world. And he said, God, I am asking You to please give me a spiritual descendent, a spiritual descendent – someone who’s come to Christ who has come to Christ who has come to Christ through my lineage – in every single country in the world. And that was more than a few decades ago.

And everywhere I go in the world, you know who I meet? Navigators. And the two things you know about Navigators, Dawson had two guns that he shot. Dick Hillis became a good friend – and he was a disciple, in the early days, with Daws. I said, “Dick, what was it like?” Dick said, “Daws had two guns. One was Scripture memory. The other was personal discipleship, one-on-one.

“And When you met Dawson Trotman, he didn’t even say, 'Hi.' He would walk up and say, 'Hi. What's your verse, fore and aft?’” Fore and aft meant you had to say the title first, recite the verse, and then give the Scripture. And then, “Who's your man? Who's your woman?” And Dick said, “You know what? He was just one focused guy.” And from that book, I thought, Wow! I’m real ordinary. I've never been to Bible School. I didn't grow up as a Christian. I've only been through the New Testament a couple of times. But it kind of seems like Dawson's a lot like some of these other blue-collar workers here. And it seems like God uses regular people.

And then, someone put Uncle Cam – it’s the story of the founder of Wycliffe. And here's a guy – and they're pretty honest in the biography – he doesn't bring a lot, by outward standards, to the table. He's not necessarily an overly attractive person, physically. He's not necessarily someone with a lot of great social skills. And he ends up as a missionary. And as you open the book, you find he's on a street corner in Mexico. And he says to this guy, trying to share his faith, “Do you know Jesus?” And the guy looks at him, “Jesus? Si. He lives down here. Take two blocks. Lives over there.” And Cameron realized, Oh man. “No, no, no. Jesus, Jesus Christos.” And the guy just looked at him, like, “Buddy, I don't know what you're talking about. I don’t have a clue.”

One man. One man. And it's the story of a man who had a lot of adversity. It's the story of a man that didn't have a lot of the outward stuff that a lot of people think is really important. It's the story of a man who had a dream and a focus to translate the Bible, in every single language, for every people group in the world. And the SIL Institute now – Christian or non-Christian – is probably the best linguistics school in the world. And it has been translated in tens of thousands of languages, because of another “ordinary guy.”

The third book, for me, was one you're probably familiar with: Hudson Taylor, Spiritual Secrets. Anybody remember it? Remember Hudson Taylor, the father of missionary movement? I say that, now. When I was a young Christian, “missionary movement”? I didn't know there was missionary movement. But he's another radical. He's another rebel. He's another outcast. He's a guy who says, “I think God wants to reach people in India.”

And everyone said, “If God wants to reach people in India, God will reach them. He's sovereign. He'll do it all Himself.” And Hudson said, “Well, you know what?”

“I've got a lot of verses that say He wants us to be a part of this thing.” And he couldn't get anybody to support him. A handful of businessmen said, “Hudson, we'll get behind you.” And he went, and did radical things, like dress like the Chinese. He was one of the very first people to contextualize the gospel. And Hudson Taylor, one ordinary man, became a part of transforming the world.

Why read great books? It broadens your world. I got one message in those first three to five years as an early Christian. Here's the message I got: God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. You know how you get that? By reading great books. These aren't made-up stories. They aren't fairy tales.

Ask yourself, how much of the media is going into your heart, and into your mind, over and over and over, whether it's in your car, or talk radio, or whether it's this program, or that program, or the DVDs, or the rented movies, and all the junk that's constantly bombarding you, and you're trying to be a spiritual fish, swimming upstream to be holy and godly? And then, ask yourself, how many great books are going into your mind?

See, we change our lifestyle. And not only biographies, but if you're going to broaden your world, I put a list of just a few things. I like to read about history. I like to read about geography. I came back from China, and I met a guy and got talking on the plane. It wasn't a Christian book, but I got a book about how the Chinese culture works, and it broadened my world. I like to read books about philosophy. And they don't have to all be heavy, or this or that. Or world religions – just get a little thin one, so that you can say to yourself, Now, let's see. Muslims, Hinduism, the Sikhs – just what's going on out there?

So much of our world, so much of our thinking, is so narrow. Read great books. First, books that broaden, that broaden your world. Second, read great books that sharpen your mind. There's another book on the attributes of God that became – The Knowledge of the Holy – and then I went to J.I. Packer. It's a classic book, Knowing God. Those two books just shaped my view of who God was.

And then, I met a fellow. I was on another basketball team. You can tell I kind of like basketball. If you like basketball stories, it's going to be a great morning. If you don't, I have other stories for later. But I was on a basketball team with a pre-med student from Minnesota, and we were traveling throughout South America. And I came to Christ, but I didn’t have any background.

And so, I was going into grad school, and grad school at a secular place is not like a warm, loving, non-hostile environment for believers. And as people were challenging my thinking, I knew what God had done in me, but I did not have good intellectual answers for the very strong intellectual questions.

And so, I'll never forget this pre-med student – he introduced me to Francis Schaeffer. Anybody here familiar with Francis Schaeffer, and his work? Yeah. And so, he said, “Read his trilogy first.” And his work – he has three books. I put them there.

You have: He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Escape from Reason, and The God Who Is There, and they are fairly philosophical. And he has his own lingo, and he makes up a few words.

And the very first book I read, He Is There and He Is Not Silent – the epistemological issues and the metaphysical issues behind the faith. And I'm going, Uhhh. I literally read the book with a dictionary. Epistemology? I looked it up: “How to know that you know that you really know that you know. Metaphysics. Okay, this is – I literally – and I wrote down the definitions, and every time I'd read the word – and I educated myself.

And what I found out: There was a very smart, theological, intellectual thinker that had dealt with the basic issues of reality, and the issues of, “Why am I here?” and, “Is there a God?” and, “What's the intellectual basis for our reasoning, and our thinking?” And I took those three books, and I made that the foundation for writing my thesis at West Virginia University, when I did grad work there.

And I found a Christian professor who let me take that, and some empirical research in sociology and psychology, and smash those things together, and get myself in a situation where I had to defend my thesis with four doctors. And I'm sitting at this table with this little glass of water. And, basically, my thesis was on, “Is truth relative, or absolute? And if it's absolute, is it intellectually feasible that the absolute truth could be Jesus Christ, and what the Bible has to say?” And I got one Christian guy who let me write it – because I had to get permission – and three people who thought I was an absolute idiot. And for three hours, we had fun. Everyone has a different personality – I loved that time. It was so fun, going back and forth with them.

I remember one doctor was a guy that was really pushing me hard. And what Schaeffer would teach you is, you bring people back to their presuppositions. And so, he would make comments about, there's not relative truth. I would just keep pushing him back to what he said versus how he lived, what he said versus how he lived, what he said versus how he lived. And when we got to the end, I remember, the other doctor – she was a female – turned to him, “Andy, would you be quiet? You're digging a bigger and bigger and bigger hole. Let's just give it up. We may not believe in his God, but there's got to be absolute truth.” And I got an “A.”