The spiritual life of the flock—either congregation or family—tends not to rise higher than that of its leader. One of the most important things you can do to strengthen your ministry is to maintain a strong devotional life. The Bible must be the foundation of your devotions, but for variety, and for personal application, the perspectives of others are helpful.
The four books I describe below are among those that I have found particularly inspirational. They vary in style and approach, but are all characterized by a scriptural base; solid, careful thinking; and personal application. I believe you would find them enriching.
The Waiting Father
During the 1950s Helmut Thielicke, dean of the school of religion at the local university, regularly filled the largest church (capacity 4,000) in nonchurchgoing Hamburg twice weekly with an audience of men and women, sophisticated students and ordinary shopkeepers.
Thielicke was a well-known German theologian, widely respected for his scholarship. But his great concern was to convey the biblical messages to modern man in everyday life.
His book The Waiting Father (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1959) is made up of 16 sermons based on parables Jesus told. Let me whet your appetite by giving you a taste or two of the spiritual feast he has spread.
In his sermon on the parable of the prodigal son, Thielicke gives a beautiful portrayal of repentance: "The repentance of the lost son is therefore not something merely negative. In the last analysis it is not merely disgust; it is above all homesickness; not just turning away from something, but turning back home. Whenever the New Testament speaks of repentance, always the great joy is in the background. It does not say, 'Repent or hell will swallow you up,' but 'Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'
"[The prodigal's] disgust with himself could never help him. ... It was the father's influence from afar, a byproduct of sudden realization of where he really belonged [that brought him home]" (pp. 26, 27).
Notice how he speaks directly to our spiritual needs in his sermon on the parable of the sower. Of the seed that fell on the path, he says: "A person who is only a path through which the daily traffic passes, who is no more than a busy street where people go rushing by hour after hour and where there is never a moment of rest, will hardly provide the soil in which the eternal seed can grow. People who are always on the go are the most in danger.
"A person who can no longer be receptive 'soil' for at least 15 minutes each day, who never allows himself to be 'plowed' and opened up, and never waits for what God drops into his furrow, that person has already lost the game at the crucial point" (p. 54).
In this same sermon he suggests that the birds in the parable represent "thought forces" within us that seek to dominate us: ambition, sexual fantasies, desire for recognition and prestige, worries and cares, and so forth. The Word of God demands a time in each day when it is our only companion.
This book also contains Thielicke's sermon on the parable of the laborers. While every Christian is called to work for the Lord, and this parable is directed to all, it seems especially to speak to those of us who earn our living working for the Lord.
As you will recall, in this parable those who worked only the last hour of the day received the same wages as did those who had labored through the whole day. Thielicke makes two thought-provoking points: First, when we are jealous of God's grace to others, we cannot enjoy His grace toward ourselves. And second, the difference in reward is not in the wages received at the end of the day (eternal life) but in the privilege of laboring with the Master. Those who labored with Him for only the "evening hours" will receive eternal life, but in the mean time they have lived lives of meaninglessness and frustration. Those who have labored with the Lord through the whole day may have experienced difficult times and exhausting toil. But if they have learned to recognize and enjoy His presence, they have had a richer experience—and a better life—in spite of it all.
This book will enrich your own preaching on the parables. But more than that, it will feed your soul.
The Screwtape Letters
For a change of pace in your devotional reading, try C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961). A careful thinker, as an adult Lewis turned from a de facto atheism to Christianity. His book Mere Christianity is a classic of modern Christian apologetics—I've found it very helpful personally.
The Screwtape Letters is made up of short pieces focusing on the spiritual life of the individual. Here, as in Thielicke's book, you will find good spiritual content applied in a practical way to life in the twentieth-century world.
But what adds special interest to this book is its perspective. The book purports to be a series of letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew, Worm wood, a junior executive in the devil's enterprise.
Wormwood has been assigned a particular man to cultivate, and Screwtape writes letters of advice as to what temptations are effective and how to conduct the case so as to get the results they are seeking. The skewed point of view gives fresh insights on the war in which we are the battleground, the troops, and the spoils.
Don't miss Lewis's preface. In it he explains his concept of Satan's realm: the devils he writes of are fallen angels consumed by selfishness. I love the explanation he gives as to why he doesn't portray them as batlike creatures. He says it's because "I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of 'Admin.' The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern" (p. x).
In one of his letters, Screwtape tells Wormwood that because humans are beings of flesh as well as spirit, their nearest approach to constancy in the spiritual life is undulation, a series of troughs and peaks. "The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. ...
"It may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He [the Enemy—God] relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else" (p. 37).
This letter contains what, because of the encouragement it has afforded me at times, is one of my all-time favorite quotations: "Do not be deceived, Worm wood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys" (p. 39).
Wormwood's advice regarding small sins serves us as a warning to be taken seriously: "You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness.
But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. . . . Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to hell is the gradual one the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts" (P- 56).
Usually we don't benefit much from a negative approach; Lewis himself confesses that he found looking at the spiritual life from this diabolical perspective stifling after a while. But as a supplement to our usual menu, a change of pace for our thinking, this book is worthwhile.
Another book I'd recommend for your devotional reading is Kenneth C. Kinghorn's Dynamic Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973). Written for novice Christians, this book leads one step by step through the Christian life. The author writes both of and from his personal experience and includes a lot of illustrations. If you're looking for sophisticated theology, this book will disappoint you. But I think a good, solid, carefully and clearly done review of the basics is helpful for us every once in a while—especially as part of our devotional life. Reading this kind of work helps us to check up on ourselves.
Kinghom was converted after he had completed college. At the time he wrote this book, he was professor of church history at Asbury Theological Seminary. I particularly appreciate his thoroughly Arminian orientation, so in harmony with historic Adventist thinking on salvation and the spiritual life. (His book Christ Can Make You Fully Human lays out in simple, readable terms this orientation. I've found the perspective it gives both interesting and helpful for understanding our church's discussion of righteousness by faith during the last decade.)
In his first chapter, Kinghorn covers what Christian discipleship is, and in the second, the centrality of faith to maintaining a vibrant spiritual life.
The third chapter, "Excess Baggage," is particularly thought-provoking. Here Kinghorn describes how personality maladjustments—scars and twists left in our unconscious minds by old hurts and resentments—may cripple our spiritual experience. "Conversion to Jesus Christ does not automatically heal the personality wounds of the deep mind, any more than conversion cures a broken leg, or the mumps, or a common cold. The reason? Emotional scars are not in themselves sinful. They may be the result of sin, and they may become the occasion for sinning, but in themselves they are in the category of infirmities" (p. 42).
Kinghorn continues, "The answer to damaged emotions and maladjusted complexes is not suppression. Rather, the solution is God's gracious work of healing" (p. 44). He believes that in those Christians who cooperate with Him, the Holy Spirit works to uncover and remove these personality problems and bring emotional and spiritual wholeness. And, characteristic of his approach throughout the book, he makes four specific suggestions as to how the Christian may have this kind of healing.
In discussing the problem of self-will in the Christian's life, Kinghorn notes that the Bible speaks of salvation as present and future processes as well as past. "A number of my Christian friends talked about having been saved. But I heard very little about the continuing process of being saved" (pp. 71, 72).
He points out that spiritual transformation is a lifetime process and that it involves a continual saying yes to God. And he develops the process in terms of confessing and forsaking sin and walking in renewed obedience to Christ.
Later chapters contrast, in practical terms, walking in the flesh with walking in the Spirit; point out that mature Christian experience involves growing beyond what Hebrews calls "the elementary teaching about Christ" (Heb. 6:1, Phillips); call us to Christian service, encouraging us that taking on the yoke of Christ frees us from "guilt, the burden of the past, boredom, the burden of the present, [and] fear, the burden of the future" (p. 138); and lay out our high destiny—a destiny we may begin fulfilling now—that of being cocreators with God.
Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing
Of all that Ellen G. White wrote, my favorite books are Education, Steps to Christ, The Desire of Ages, and Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing. The latter is not mentioned as frequently as the others, so while I'm writing about devotional books, I want to recommend it to you.
Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing is ideally suited for devotional reading. Taking selected verses from Christ's sermon on the mount, Ellen G. White adds two- to four-page-long comments and applications. These meditations are collected into five chapters that cover the basic divisions of Christ's sermon. The chapter titles reveal the contents: "The Beatitudes," "The Spirituality of the Law," "The True Motive in Service," "The Lord's Prayer," and "Not Judging, but Doing."
To those who recognize their spiritual poverty, Jesus offers the kingdom of heaven. "Whatever may have been your past experience, however discouraging your present circumstances, if you will come to Jesus just as you are, weak, helpless, and despairing, our compassionate Saviour will meet you a great way off, and will throw about you His arms of love and His robe of righteousness. He presents us to the Father clothed in the white raiment of His own character. He pleads before God in our behalf, saying: I have taken the sinner's place. Look not upon this wayward child, but look on Me" (p. 9).
"When tribulation comes upon us, how many of us are like Jacob! We think it the hand of an enemy; and in the darkness we wrestle blindly until our strength is spent, and we find no comfort or deliverance" (p. 11).
"If you have a sense of need in your soul, if you hunger and thirst after righteousness, this is an evidence that Christ has wrought upon your heart, in order that He may be sought unto to do for you, through the endowment of the Holy Spirit, those things which it is impossible for you to do for yourself (p. 19).
"While the law is holy, the Jews could not attain righteousness by their own efforts to keep the law. . . . God offered [Christ's disciples], in His Son, the perfect righteousness of the law. If they would open their hearts fully to receive Christ, then the very life of God, His love, would dwell in them, transforming them into His own likeness; and thus through God's free gift they would possess the righteousness which the law re quires" (pp. 54, 55).
Fathers and mothers, "lead [your] children to see in every pleasant and beautiful thing an expression of God's love for them. Recommend your religion to them by its pleasantness" (pp. 97, 98).
"Every promise in the word of God furnishes us with subject matter for prayer, presenting the pledged word of Jehovah as our assurance" (p. 133).
These fellow travelers on the Christian pathway encourage us to keep moving along and help us find the right road and avoid some of the detours and pot holes that might cause us difficulty. I hope that you will find one of these books an encouragement.