Go into any Christian bookstore and you will find a host of Christian living books. Basically, these are books that provide assistance in the Christian walk through 1) personal testimonies; 2) scriptural insight; and 3) recommended applications.
The concept of Christian living books is not a bad one. Someone decides to capture their experience in print in order to encourage other believers concerning their walk. A significant number of these books are written by pastors or other experienced Christian leaders who want to address a particular issue and appropriate remedies, or at least how they see it. Of course that does not preclude, anyone from writing and getting published. It is no different than if I sat down with my pastor or another brother and sister, and listened to their insights. We need encouragement and insights from others.
However, it is quite easy to formulate a methodology for how we progress in our Christian walk or address specific issues. This methodology can dictate an approach that others must follow in order to achieve success in whatever area the struggle exists. Unfortunately, the lion’s share of Christian living books provide these kinds of formulas that insists on a particular methodology that is directly or indirectly labeled as the appropriate Christian response.
Here is where I become very wary of Christian living books. What concerns me about them is the supposition that a particular methodology can be followed to achieve a particular outcome. The one thing I see in scripture, that I have also experienced in my Christian walk, is that God deals with people and situations differently. Yes, there are commonalities but they all hinge on people trusting God and God doing for people. Period. There are rarely two incidences that are alike. It is wonderful to look at the examples of how God comes through for his people or how He changes the hearts and behavior, but that cannot rely on a specific methodology that if we do X, Y, and Z we can be guaranteed the same outcome.
Specific to sanctification, which is merely the progress of being made more like Christ as we follow and trust Him, there are principles found in scripture that shapes Christian growth and maturity. But how that is designed, I believe, is unique to each Christian because we are shaped and influenced by a variety of factors, including culture, upbringing, family history, church tradition, and our own dispositions. We are transformed by the renewing of our mind but how that is accomplished involves a tailor-made process to accommodate each individual. Christian living books that focus on principles extracted from scripture and account for the uniqueness of our sanctification plan, I think can aid in our walk but still must be evaluated critically.
Yes, I do believe critical evaluation is essential in reading a Christian living book. I fear that with the wealth of materials available, that weak or faulty discernment may result in formulating a prescription for sanctification that is at best, not compatible with a realistic program of what is needed to address particular issues or at worst, forces a rigid compliance to a program that manipulates external behavior without addressing the root cause of apathetic, sinful or deviant behavior. It can also enforce an imposition on others that may not be honest to scripture or compatible with where others are in their Christian walk.
Critical evaluation is based on an understanding of scripture that is the fruit of extensive study made applicable in the Christian’s life. I fear that Christian living books can be relied on to the extent that the author’s perspective shapes an understanding of scripture that may or may not be consistent with what the complete witness of scripture is communicating. This may be particularly true of popular authors with cult followings that are trusted simply because of their mass following and prolific publications. I have seen people eat up everything a particular author says without any critical evaluation. If this is the case, the eisegeting of perspectives into the reading of scripture is inevitable. Now I am not saying that all popular authors have unsound theology and some have wonderful insights into scripture. But I am saying is that unquestioned trust is not such a good thing, particularly if the theology is troubled.
And here is where I would temper the use of Christian living books and advocate instead for a hearty and comprehensive study of scripture and theology. The more we seek to understand God on his terms, his plan and program, the more we seek his face through study and prayer, the better reconciled our Christian walk will be with his purpose. And while experiences and insights can be shared through the publications of materials, the encouragement of others is better done in the context of community, which is after all, the heartbeat of the Church.
To be honest, I don’t read many Christian living books. But if I do it is 1) by a very trusted source; 2) is compatible with a particular issue that is at the forefront of my life and 3) evaluated critically. I’d much rather engage with scripture and people. I firmly believe that as I trust in Christ, God is working out his purpose in me, which may not look like what authors of books say but most certainly can be used within the community of faith to help others. As I work out my salvation with fear and trembling, it is God who is at work in me both to work and will for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). This applies to all Christians but will most likely look quite different. Let’s be cautious of what we read, folks.