Read Less. Reflect More.

“Readers are leaders and leaders are readers.”

Yes, but that dictum can be misleading. One does not become a leader simply by reading. And one does not become a better leader simply by reading more.

But what about those successful people who post their reading lists on social media near the end of the year? “Here are the 623 books I read this year,” they proclaim to their wide-eyed admirers. I’ll grant that there some people intelligent enough to read that many books and profit from it. But I think those people are few and far between.

And I am not one of them.

Reading serves many purposes, but the purpose of the best kind of reading—the kind that improves you as a person—is to help you think. And if you are reading so much that you are not thinking, you need to read less, not more.

In saying this, I’m in good company. In his essay “Of Studies,” Francis Bacon counsels us to read “to weigh and consider” — an exercise that takes time and mental effort. “Some books,” he continues, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Again, the purpose of reading is not to swell your brain with facts, much less to give you a cause to boast, but to discourse with great ideas, and in so doing, to raise you above the level you were. Not all books have that element of greatness, and even those that do possess them only in some parts. (This is, by the way, one reason why I think we should feel no obligation to finish a book that is proving itself to be a waste of time. Get what you need out of a book, then get out of the book!)

Another author hammers this point with even more force: “The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from the other passions that monopolize the soul. . . . The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading” (A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life).

Of course, the title of this post must be qualified. You must read—a lot, perhaps— to stay current in your discipline. But don’t panic that you aren’t keeping up with all the tweets, all the blogs, all the new books.  If you are reading so much that you have little time for deep reflection, then read less and reflect more. After all, the ideas we think are new are usually just old ones recently remembered.

Center on the most important books.

Most of all, learn to think well.

The Secret to a Productive Morning

The early morning hours are the most precious hours of my day.

After a shower and some coffee, morning is when I most alert, most creative, and most energized. Out of every hour of the day, I will protect mornings most fiercely.

But my mornings also have a couple big enemies. First, too much sleep. Second, the dozens of menial tasks that need to be done to get ready for the day.

Here’s the sad reality: the most precious time of my day can be ruined by oversleeping, or by the need to get things ready for the day.

But I discovered this simple principle. The best way to have a productive morning is to have a disciplined evening.

That’s it. Be disciplined enough to get everything you can possibly do the night before: clothes laid out, coffee ready. I even lay my Bible open to the passage I’m going to read. And—this is important—go to sleep when you should. Discipline yourself to use your horizontal time for actually sleeping, not for using your phone. Let the wise be warned.

If it helps, think about it this way. You become a servant the night before so you can be a king in the morning.

If this isn’t already your habit, try it. Your morning self will thank your evening self for freeing up those most precious hours of the day.

A Pastor’s Ministry Focus

Before I began pastoring my current church, a friend recommended The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry. And how thankful I am for his recommendation!

Here’s an excerpt I especially appreciate:

“As pastors, we must resolve to study, live, and teach the Scriptures. Our people need us to know, breathe, and abide in the Word of God. They need us to have a daily encounter with the living Christ through his Word, because it is from this Word that we have something to give them. We teach, reprove, correct, train, and equip on this foundation. Apart from knowledge of the Word, we have no competence in the ministry” (from The New Pastor’s Handbook by Jason Helopoulos)

Enough said.

Making a Difficult Decision? Try this Tip.

Ever had to make a difficult decision? I sure have.

Of course, what counts as “difficult” depends on who you are, your level of experience, and the magnitude of responsibility. Harry Truman had to decide to drop an atomic bomb on Japan, to deploy U. S. forces to the Korean peninsula, and to relieve General MacArthur of his command.

You’ll probably never have to make decisions on that scale.

But you do have to make decisions that—for you—are difficult, even agonizing. Besides the complexity of information to process, the feelings of the people involved, and the conflicting stories you are hearing, you face another big obstacle to good decision-making: yourself.

I don’t mean your own weaknesses, lack of experience, etc. I mean this: the very pressure to decide can compromise a leader’s ability to make a good decision. This is why a friend of mine once told me that the right decision is abundantly clear until you’re the one who has to make it.

If only you could split yourself into two people—the one who bears the responsibility to make the decision, and the one who, free from that responsibility, can see what the right decision should be.

I know of only one way to do just that, and here it is: Take some time to write out—or at least think out—the decision as if it were a section in a historical biography. Fast-forward twenty-five or fifty years—when the dust has settled and emotions have cooled, when the principles at stake are better understood and the guiding values come into focus, when the decision may be viewed as a laudable step forward in the march of history, even if it’s just your personal history or the history of the organization you lead.

Then, from that serene vantage point, you may just get a better glimpse into what the right decision should be, and—just as importantly—gain fresh courage to execute it.

George Whitefield’s Delight in Scripture and Prayer

When I was a child, I heard a pastor read this section from George Whitefield’s diary. It still stirs me to greater discipline and delight in Scripture and prayer.

My mind being now more open and enlarged, I began to read the Holy Scriptures on my knees, laying aside all other books and praying, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above. I got more true knowledge from reading the Book of God in one month than I could ever have acquired from all the writings of men.

And in prayer . . .

Oh, what sweet communion had I daily vouchsafed with God in prayer, after my coming again to Gloucester! How often have I been carried out beyond myself when sweetly meditating in the fields! How assuredly have I felt that Christ dwelt in my and I in Him! And how did I daily walk in the comforts of the Holy Ghost and was edified and refreshed in the multitude of peace!

-Taken from volume 1 of Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival

I’m a Believer. So Why Do I Struggle with Doubt?

“When they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

“Some doubted.” Yes, even when looking at the resurrected Christ.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that while we are still in this world—even if we were to see Jesus with our own eyes—we sometimes struggle with doubt. If this was difficult for the disciples who stood staring right at Jesus, how much more necessary is it for us today!

I came across a helpful discussion of this mingling of faith and doubt in Calvin’s Institutes. I offer it here to encourage those of us who find our faith mingled with doubt—who cry with the father of the demon-possessed child, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). (Note: I’m using Henry Beveridge’s translation. For clarity’s sake, I have updated the language and taken the liberty to paraphrase in some places).

The believer finds within himself two principles: the one filling him with delight in recognizing the divine goodness, the other filling him with bitterness under a sense of his fallen state; the one leading him to recline of the promise of the Gospel, the other alarming him by the conviction of his iniquity; the one making him exult with the anticipation of life, the other making him tremble with the fear of death. These principles are due to the imperfection of our faith. For, in this present life, we are never fully cured of the disease of distrust. We are never quite completely engulfed in perfect faith. That is why we feel those inner conflicts.

But this does not mean that faith is an obscure and confused understanding of God’s will. Even though we may be harassed by various doubts, it does not follow that we are divested of faith. Though we are agitated and carried to and fro by distrust, we are not immediately plunged into the abyss. Though we are shaken, we are not driven from our place.

The certain outcome of this struggle is this: that faith in the long run triumphs over the difficulties which try to bring it down.

Why? Because of the nature of true saving faith. As soon as the minutest particle of genuine faith is instilled into our minds, we begin to behold the face of God—in peace and favor toward us. We behold him, though far off, yet so distinctly as to assure us that there is no delusion in it.

-Adapted from Calvin’s Institutes Book 3, Chapter 2, Sections 18 and 19.

The “Book of Nature” is Not Enough

“The heavens declare the glory of God.” Every day, to each human being, the universe tells us something: There is a creator, and he is unimaginably powerful.

For centuries, people have called this “the Book of Nature,” or, to use a theological term, “general revelation.”

But it is obvious that something has gone wrong with this “Book of Nature,” this story of God’s glory. At the very least, something has gone wrong with our ability to read it right. The words seem to be smudged. Important pages are missing. In fact, the more closely we look, we will notice that there is another story written between the lines—a tragic tale of selfishness, rebellion, despair, and, finally, death.

This is not the story of the original Author. Rather, it was edited by our own sin and rebellion, as we are told in Genesis 3:17-19:

Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The Apostle Paul expresses it this way in Romans 8:20: “The creation was subjected to futility,” and is in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21).

This “futility” and “bondage” is part of the reason that on one night we might look up at the stars and say, “What a Creator!” And on another day, we look at the decay all around us, and say, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”

It is because of human sin that humans fail to read the book of nature as we should. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:19-21, when he writes,

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

There is enough in the Book of Nature to show us that there is a God and that he is unimaginably powerful and glorious. But the Book of Nature is powerless to teach us why we are in such a predicament, why we feel so wretched and still long for light and salvation. It is powerless to teach us how to have a right relationship with God.

And that’s why we need another book, the Book of Scripture.