Yesterday’s post dealt with books I read as a teenager, during high school and the summer that followed graduation. In this post I pick up with books I read as a college student.
The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin
During my year at Bible school, my favorite place to go on days off (which were Mondays, since we spend weekends at assigned weekend ministries – I was assigned to Saratoga Springs Baptist Church) was a store that sold all sorts of used stuff, including a basement full of books. I loved to browse there, and I loved to read the books that I purchased. In the spring, with the snow gone and evening study hours waived because of my high grades, I walked through the woods, read The Keys of the Kingdom, and pondered its significance.
It had appealed to me because it was about a missionary. But he was so different from the kind of missionary I was preparing to become. I planned to be a Bible translator, so like Father Chisholm I expected to live my life among people of a vastly different culture, and adapt to their way of life. But he was Catholic, which meant that – according to what I had been taught – he probably wasn’t a true Christian at all. They prayed to saints and relied on works to get them to heaven. If a Catholic priest made converts, they were hardly better off than before they heard of Christ.
Yet the character of this priest impressed me. He was humble, he was compassionate, he was a man of integrity and courage. He thought it was more important to act out his faith than to preach it. He cared about the people he lived among – even if they did not convert to his religion. He wanted to offer them the blessing he had found in the Church, but it was more important to show them love.
I knew this was just a novel, and I had no way of knowing how well it matched up to reality, but the portrait of this Catholic priest seemed very true-to-life. I suspected there were in fact Catholics who were true Christians, and who displayed the fruit of the Spirit, often better than some other Christians who seemed to make it all about having the right doctrines (I was assuming of course that the Catholic doctrines were wrong). And I started to think that perhaps taking care of people’s physical needs really was important, even if it left less time and money for preaching.
Knowing God by J. I. Packer
I was introduced to this book by my Spanish professor in college (where I had transferred to after Bible school), who also became my academic advisor after I decided to switch to a Spanish major (though she insisted I finish out my Bible major with a missions emphasis also). I don’t remember what specific ways this book changed my thinking about God – if there were ways I thought differently before reading the book, they were overwritten so effectively that I don’t remember them.
What I do remember is one page – left-hand side, bottom third of the page – where Packer talked about moral laws that govern life. Just as there are physical laws which we can’t get around (if you jump off a cliff you will fall), there are moral laws whose consequences are just as inescapable. You can act as though the laws don’t exist, but you don’t get away with it. If you put sand in an engine, it was freeze up. If you put bitterness and self-indulgence in your life, it will corrode your soul.
It may not be the fault of the church I had attended, but I had thought – and acted – as though I could act in ways that I knew were not right, then confess my sins, and then be able to live the way God wanted just as if I hadn’t sinned before. Oh, I knew that many sins brought their own consequences that had to be dealt with, but I only thought of those as outward things (e.g. restitution, apologies, physical effects of unhealthy habits), not consequences to the inward me. This book – along with an Intro to Philosophy class that I took that year – made me realize how our decisions actually shape the people we are making ourselves into.
If I choose today to be selfish, I make myself into a more selfish person. If I choose to be patient, I make myself into a more patient person. Each choice may have only a very minor effect, but it has a real effect, that will make me more or less likely to make the right choice the next time.
One other concept I remember clearly from Packer’s book is when he talked about comfort. When God comforts us, Packer says, that’s not about feeling comfortable. It’s about being strengthened – in order to face difficulties and temptations, and respond in faith. Sometimes God’s comfort does feel very pleasant, but that’s not His primary purpose. When I want to feel comfortable, I remind myself that that is a blessing when it comes, but to seek it out as a goal will get me focused on the wrong things.
The Wise Woman and Other Stories by George MacDonald
I borrowed this one from my Spanish professor also, and read it during a flight across the Atlantic while she slept. (She was a chaperone for the study abroad program I participated in that summer.) I couldn’t help thinking she must have bought it because she knew I needed to read it.
I knew that I was often guilty of pride and selfishness, but on the whole I had a pretty good opinion of myself. My Speech professor had told me how unusually mature I was, for my age. I had known all my life how smart I was, and the fact that I had just completed learning two years’ worth of Spanish in one year (and did better than anyone else in the second-year class) certainly confirmed it. But by the time I finished reading “The Wise Woman,” I saw myself as foolish, immature, and at least as obnoxious as the girl in the story. I wondered whether I would be able, like her, to learn the lessons that could change me.
I had always found it difficult to feel really grateful for God’s forgiveness. I knew I was a sinner, and I had accepted God’s gift of eternal life through Christ, but I just couldn’t seem to get excited about it. I wanted to be a missionary because I wanted to do God’s will, but I wondered how I could share the good news of salvation without feeling more deeply about it.
After reading that book, and having a conversation a night or two later with my Spanish prof/academic advisor/friend/soon-to-be-roommate, I want to bed with a sense of being sinful and needing forgiveness that I had never had before. For the first time, I really felt unworthy of God’s love, and grateful that He would love me anyway and want me for His child. Sometimes I’ve wondered if that is really the date of my salvation, rather than six years earlier. But I don’t think it really matters – God was at work in my life both days, all the years before, and all the years since.
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
I don’t know when I first read The Screwtape Letters. I remember reading it while I was in Spain (there was a copy in English left behind in my bedroom by some previous American student, along with a number of other books), and that it was a book I was already familiar with, so I suppose I probably first read it while I was in high school. Each time I read it, different points particularly strike me, so I can’t point to one particular way that it has changed me.
I can say that each time it has helped me to see more clearly what it means to live as a Christian. Lewis nails so perfectly a variety of the ways in which we delude ourselves (with or without the assistance of deceiving spirits) about our motives and our goals.
It is so easy to justify self-indulgence when it looks virtuous, when it is looking for the “right” kind of friends, or church, or music, or whatever. So long as we avoid the more publicly obvious sins, it is easy to be tempted by more insidious sins such as pride or complacency. But as Lewis reminds us, sometimes it is something as simple as a moment of simple laughter, or seeing nature’s beauty, that recalls us from the shams we had satisfied ourselves with to the true joys God offers.