Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you. Philippians 2:12
Over the past fifteen years the devotional and literary aspects of my spiritual life have taken different forms. Some seasons have been filled with much study, the kind in which I’ve found myself in the floor with my dad’s copy of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (which is about as big as I am) or journaling pages of prayers and reflections on Scripture and other readings.
Other seasons I’ve barely been able to get of bed and put on my socks, and the pages of my journal may have remained either blank or filled with groanings and doubts that sound nothing like a believer, and even my prayers mostly took the form of tears with the hope that the Holy Spirit will translate.
And sometimes it’s seemed as if there were nothing at all. Maybe I was “doing my devotional,” but it was a battle just to focus on what I was reading and not create a grocery list or solve that curriculum issue or rethink that conversation. Or perhaps I “didn’t have it in me” to read one more thing, and as jaded or arrogant as it sounded, I felt I’d already read it, guilty as I felt for slacking.
It’s hard to come to the realization that the best thing we can do with our freewill is to submit it to God. I am constantly finding myself in the position of that little boy who says, “Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present” (Lewis 143). As my pastor would say, the contradictory nature of man needs a [seemingly] contradictory doctrine. It’s quite true that “Only those who believe obey” and “only those who obey believe” (Bonhoeffer 68). Scripture talks about both.
Sometimes my soul needs to hear, “A disciple is one who knows God personally, and who learns from Jesus Christ, who most perfectly revealed God. One word stands out from all others as the key to knowing God, to having his peace and assurance in your heart; it is obedience” (Liddell 27). I often need a kick in the pants, but often I take that kick in the pants and do what I want with it–I make myself the orchestrator of my own salvation and sanctification, even though I may have just prayed something like, “Holy and merciful Father, I confess that I am by nature sinful and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts and actions. . . ” (Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal). Instead of truly relying on Christ’s substitutionary death and the fact that God is working in me and I can do nothing on my own, I begin grasping for a plan of action, and often that has taken the form of Christian self-help articles or books–or a even a favorite theologian. It’s in these moments that I need straight Scripture, with my supplementary reading to say, “My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us. I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from. There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise, but I cannot do it” (O’Connor).
I often have to become a baby again, to humble myself and return to what I have been taking for granted–who God is, the Gospel, prayer and the Word–realizing that just because I’ve heard x,y,z since childhood doesn’t mean I don’t need to hear it again. Wisdom doesn’t mean accumulating more information or formulating the best plan of executing the perfect life.
I’ve loosely organized the titles below, trying to focus on simplicity, and I recommend them because they have on some level helped me to grow as a believer. I’m not saying or sharing anything new, really. I may not agree with everything each author has to say, and you may not either. A few I’m still in the middle of reading. The point is that, for the most part, each has clearly pointed me back to God and His Word instead of themselves at some point over the past fifteen years. Perhaps these works will be fruitful for someone else.
Reading (and Teaching) Scripture
Read the Bible for Life by George H. Gutherie
On Christian Teaching by Augustine
The Disciplines for the Christian Life by Eric Liddell*
*I include this one here because while he provides some thoughts on the devotional life, much of the book is actually a Bible reading plan with a different focus each month. For example, January focuses on the nature of God, February and March features the life of Christ, April emphasizes God’s moral law, and etc.
“A Simple Way to Pray” by Martin Luther
Prayer and Spiritual Warfare (Six Books in One) by Charles Spurgeon
Basic Doctrine and Discipleship
The Christian Faith as Professed in the Apostle’s Creed by Russell D. Hendrix
Mere Christianity, The Four Loves, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory and Other Essays by C.S. Lewis
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God’s Guidance: A Slow and Certain Light by Elizabeth Elliot
The Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster
Letters and Prayer Journals
I realize there are far more “scholarly” letters and prayer journals, but Elliot’s works were some of the most practical and reassuring for me as a teenager and college student. I’ve become increasingly cautious in regards to self-help books, mostly due to my own nature, and I believe that her journals and letters were far more helpful for me long-term because they illustrated the Christian life. It is the same with Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal–we see a very intelligent and gifted woman’s daily struggle to love God as she should. I suppose we could add Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and Edwards’s A Divine and Supernatural Light for similar reasons.
Passion and Purity, Let Me Be a Woman, and The Mark of a Man by Elisabeth Elliot
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor
I am so influenced by stories that I decided to keep the fiction section strictly limited. These I have ordered by level of spiritual maturity with Bunyan being my first recommendation for the young or new believer.
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Image of the Holy Trinity Icon by Andrei Rublev taken from Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Northwestern Publishing House, 2008.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper Collins Publishers, 2001.
Liddell, Eric. The Disciplines of the Christian Life. eChristianBooks, 2011.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Prayer Journal. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.