From the Books to the People
Like so many pastors I know, I have long had a love affair with books. Books are the best of friends, smiling down from where they sit on the shelf––urging you to come and spend time with them. "A good book," as one has put it, "is like a good friend. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. When you first get to know it, it will give you excitement and adventure, and years later it will provide you with comfort and familiarity. And best of all, you can share it with your children or your grandchildren or anyone you love enough to let into its secrets.” There is incalculable benefit to living in the world of books. Charles Spurgeon once famously explained, “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own.”1 However, the pastor (or congregant) who is an avid reader faces peculiar dangers. It is altogether possible to isolate oneself in the world of books. Although literary negligence is a tragic characteristics of modernity, those who love to read are susceptible to the negative impact of lingering too long in solitude with their books.
In his Thoughts on Preaching, J.W. Alexander sounded an important warning for those (especially ministers) who spent the better part of their time in their studies. He wrote,
"Much may be learned without books. To read always is not the way to be wise. The knowledge of those who are not bookworms has a certain air of health and robustness. I never deal with books all day without being the worse for it...There is magic in the voice of living wisdom. Iron sharpens iron. Part of every day should be spent in society. Learning is discipline; but the heart must be disciplined as well as the head; and only by intercourse with our fellows can the affections be disciplined. Bookishness implies solitude; and solitude is apt to produce ill weeds: melancholy, selfishness, moroseness, suspicion, and fear. To go abroad is, therefore, a Christian duty. I never went from my books to spend an hour with a friend, however humble, without receiving benefit. I never left the solitary contemplation of a subject in order to compare notes on it with a friend, without finding my ideas clarified...Solitary study breeds inhospitality; we do not like to be interrupted."1
Taking note of s similar danger, William Still explained that the world of books is meant to intersect with the world of people. He wrote, "We must not live in the world of books but in the world of real people. Yet all that is worth saying to them of lasting value comes from books."2
Pastors must be book lovers who live among the people. The end of all our study ought to be more profitable spiritual interaction with those God brings across our path. If we live in the world of books as an end in itself, we potentially turn learning into mere selfish pleasure--something akin to hoarding possessions for ourselves. If we neglect reading in favor of spending most of our time with people, we run the risk of turning social interaction into a coping mechanism for our co-dependency. We must learn to move seamlessly from one world to the other. We must learn to borrow from the world of books for the benefit of the world of people, while gleaning from the world of people what can only be gained from the living for the benefit of others to whom we minister.
1. An excerpt from Spurgeon's 1863 sermon, "Paul–His Cloak and His Books."
2. James W. Alexander Thoughts on Preaching (Edinburgh, Ogle and Murray, 1864) 52.
3. William Still The Work of the Pastor (UK: Christian Focus, 2010)