Becoming Like Christ: The Role of Reading in Discipleship

Over the last few months I have been meeting with a man who is part of the Orthodox tradition (though having to attend an Episcopal church due to the lack of Orthodox churches). Our conversations have been wonderfully engaging for the mind, but the greatest impact has been on my heart. The spirituality of the Eastern tradition contributes wonderful gems to the spirituality in my Reformed traditions. This simply reminds me of what the Westminster Confession says about the church, that in all churches there is a mixture of truth with some error due to the fact we Christians as the body of Christ do not have all the answers. Mysteries remain.

This man has recommended a number of books to me, all of which have been fantastic. Currently I’m reading Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (d. 1751). I’ve been floored by various parts of this work, but one paragraph in particular jumped off the page for me. I have often considered myself a reader. Seminary developed a love for reading and asking questions that has not lessened through the years since graduation. Sometimes, however, there are questions better left unasked. There are limits to our knowledge. Pride is at the root of our (certainly “my”) quest for perfect knowledge. But, is knowledge really the ultimate goal?

Read Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s words:

“All reading not intended for us by God is dangerous. It is by doing the will of God and obeying his holy inspirations that we obtain grace, and this grace works in our hearts through our reading or any other employment. Apart from God, reading is empty and vain and, being deprived for us of life-giving power of the actions of God, only succeeds in emptying the heart by the very fullness it gives to the mind.”

Reading is not evil, simply “dangerous.” I cannot help but agree. Words are deadly, and error is far easier to slip into than we imagine. When you read accounts of the early church and the major theological debates you see very quickly people did not intend to become heretics. Likewise, today people don’t start their theological journey hoping to conclude with unorthodox theology. Yet, it happens. Why? Reading is dangerous. As Caussade says, reading has a way of emptying the heart as it gives fullness to the mind. The mind loves questions and complexity. The heart yearns for simplicity. And, simple is the way of following Christ: “Fear God and obey his commands, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecc. 12:13)

Discipleship is not having theological certainty on all topics, but living like Christ in all circumstances. Yes, in following Christ you will have orthodox belief, but certainty is not the goal, but conformity to Christ. While God has given us minds to learn, the greatest object we are called to know is God himself. Knowledge of God comes not so much in thinking the right thoughts, but being a certain type of creature. C.S. Lewis said, “We might think God wanted simply obedience to a set rules when he actually wants a certain sort of person.” God wants people to be like himself, to be his image and likeness on the earth. I think this is what Caussade is after.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes finished his book by saying ,”Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecc. 12:12) What the Teacher said thousands of years ago was emphasized again a few centuries ago by Caussade.

Why is reading dangerous? Caussade again writes:

“…the proud man who studies spiritual books merely out of curiosity receives no more than the dead letter into his mind, and the will of God having no connection with his reading his heart becomes ever harder and more withered.”

May true discipleship consist less in the reading of Christian books and more living in conformity to Christ himself.

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