What Should I Read? - A Question For The Times
Charles Henry Mackintosh
The question which forms the heading of this paper is one of real weight and practical importance. There is much more involved in it than we might want to admit. It is a common saying, "Show me your company and I will tell you what you are." It may, with equal truth, be said, "Show me your library and I will tell where you are. " Our reading may be taken as the great indicator of our moral, intellectual and spiritual condition. Our books are our mental and spiritual food, the material on which the inner man feeds. Hence the seriousness of the entire question of Christian reading. Indeed we may freely own to our readers that this subject has engrossed us much of late. Therefore, we feel constrained in faithfulness to the Lord and to the souls of our readers, to offer a few words of admonition in reference to what we regard as a matter of real importance to all Christians.
We observe with deep concern a growing distaste for solid reading, specially among young Christians, although it is not confined to them. Newspapers, religious novels, sensational tales, all sorts of poisonous and trashy literature are eagerly devoured, while volumes of most weighty and precious truth lie neglected on the bookshelf.
All this we consider most deplorable. We look upon it as a most alarming indication of a low spiritual condition. Indeed it is difficult to conceive how anyone possessing a single spark of divine life can find pleasure in such defiling rubbish as one sees now-a-days in the hands of many who occupy the high ground of Christian profession. The inspired apostle exhorts all Christians, "As newborn babes, to desire the sincere milk of the Word that ye may grow thereby." How can we grow if we neglect the Word of God and yet devour newspapers and light, worthless books? How is it possible for any Christian to be in a healthy condition of soul who can barely find a few hasty moments to run his eye over a verse or two of Scripture, but can give hours to light and useless reading? We may depend upon it: our reading proves beyond question what we are and where we are. If our reading is light and frivolous, our state is the same. If our Christianity is of a solid and earnest type, it will be distinctly evidenced by our habitual and voluntary reading - the reading to which we turn for our recreation and refreshment.
Some may say, "We cannot be always reading the Bible and good books." We reply plainly that the new nature would never care to read anything else. Now the question is, whether we wish to minister to the old nature or the new? If the latter, we may rest assured that newspapers and light literature are not the means to be used. It is impossible that a truly spiritual, earnest Christian can find enjoyment in such reading. It may be that a Christian engaged in business or in public official life will have occasion, in connection with his business or his official duty, to refer to a newspaper, but this is another thing altogether from finding his actual enjoyment and recreation in such reading. He will not find the hidden manna or the old corn of the land of Canaan in the newspaper. He will not find Christ in the sensational novel.
It is a poor, low thing to hear a Christian say, "How can we be always reading the Bible?" or "What harm is there in reading a story book?" All such questions evidence the fact that the soul has got far away from Christ. This is what makes it so very serious. Spiritual decline must have set in and made alarming progress before a Christian could think of asking such questions. Hence there is little use in arguing about the right or the wrong of things. There is no ability to argue aright, no capacity to weigh evidence. The whole spiritual and moral condition is wrong. "There is death in the pot." What is needed is thorough restoration of soul. You must "bring meal," or in other words, apply a divine remedy to meet the diseased state of the constitution.
We feel pressed in spirit to call the serious attention of the Christian reader to this great practical question. We deem it to be one of deepest seriousness. The extremely low spiritual tone of Christianity among us is owing, in many cases, to the reading of light and worthless literature. The moral effect of all such is most harmful. How can a soul prosper, how can there be growth in the divine life where there is no real love for the Bible or for books which unfold the precious contents of the Bible to our souls? Is it possible that a Christian can be in a healthy condition of soul who really prefers some light work to a volume designed for true spiritual edification? We cannot believe it. We are persuaded that all true-hearted, earnest Christians - all who truly desire to get on in divine things, all who really love Christ and desire heaven and heavenly things - all such will be found diligently reading the Holy Scriptures and thankfully availing themselves of all good, helpful books which come within their reach. They will have neither time nor taste for newspapers or light literature. With them it will not be a question as to the right or the wrong of such reading: they simply have no desire for it, do not want it, would not have it. They have something far better. "With ashes who would grudge to part, when called on angels' bread to feast?"
We trust our readers will bear with us in writing thus plainly and pointedly. We feel constrained in view of the judgment-seat of Christ to do so. Would that we could write as earnestly as we feel on the subject. We consider it one of the weightiest and most practical questions which can engage our attention. We entreat the Christian reader to shun and discontinue all light reading. Let us each ask the question, when about to take up a book or a paper, "Should I like my Lord to come and find this in my hand? or can I take this into the presence of God and ask His blessing upon the reading of it? Can I read it to the glory of the name of Jesus?" If we cannot say "Yes" to these questions, then by the grace of God, let us fling the paper or the book away and devote our spare moments to the blessed Word of God or to some spiritual volume written thereon. Then shall our souls be nourished and strengthened; we shall grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the fruits of righteousness shall abound in our practical life, to the glory of God.
It may be that some of our friends would repudiate altogether the habit of reading human writings. Some there are who take the ground of reading nothing but the Bible. They tell us they find all they want in that peerless volume and that human writings are a hindrance rather than a help.
Well, as to this, each one must judge for himself. No one can be a rule for another. But we certainly cannot take this high ground. We bless the Lord each day more and more for all the gracious helps given us by means of the writings of His beloved servants. We look upon them as a most precious stream of refreshment and spiritual blessing flowing down from our glorified Head in the heavens, for which we can never praise Him enough. We should just as soon think of refusing to hear a brother speak in the assembly as of refusing to read his writings, for what is either but a branch of ministry given of God for our profit and edification? We do need to exercise care lest we make too much of ministry, whether oral or written, but the possible abuse of a thing is no valid argument against the use of it. There is danger on every side, and most surely it is a very dangerous thing to despise ministry. None of us are self-sufficient. It is the divine purpose that we should be helpful one to another. We cannot do without "that which every joint supplieth."
How many will have to praise God throughout eternity for blessing received through books and tracts! How many there are who never get an atom of spiritual ministry except what the Lord sends them through the press. It will be said, "They have the Bible." True, but all have not the same ability to fathom the living depths or seize the moral glories of the Bible. No doubt, if we cannot have either oral or written ministry, the Spirit of God can feed us directly in the green pastures of Holy Scripture. But who will deny that the writings of God's servants are used by the Holy Spirit as a most powerful agency in building up the Lord's people in their most holy faith?
Cannot we praise Him for it? Truly so. We should praise Him with full and glowing hearts. And we should earnestly pray Him to grant still further blessing on the writings of His servants - to deepen their tone, increase their power and widen their sphere. Human writings, if not clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit, are just so much waste paper. In like manner the voice of the public preacher or teacher, if not the living vehicle of the Holy Spirit, is but a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. But the Holy Spirit does make use of both agencies for the blessing of souls and the spread of the truth, and we deem it a serious mistake for anyone to despise an agency which God is pleased to adopt. Indeed we have rarely met anyone who refused the help of human writings who did ad not prove exceedingly narrow, crude and one-sided. This is only what we might expect, inasmuch as it is the divine method to make us mutually helpful one to another. Hence, if anyone claims to be independent or self-sufficient, he must sooner or later find out his mistake.