Five Life-Shaping Books

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Last week one of my fellow PS23 contributors sent me one of those annoying Facebook challenges, in this case it was to post a picture of a book that influenced my life, with no explanation, for 5 days.  And while, as a rule, I find things like this annoying, and ignore them, in this case I was intrigued to think through the five books that impacted my life.  I’m a book guy, I always have been (even as a hard partying unbeliever and even as a child) so it was an interesting exercise to think through the 5 books that really affected my life.

And yes, I would say first and foremost the Bible influenced and shaped my life. I was saved just through reading through the Bible on my own. And nothing has shaped my thinking and the contours of my life in more ways than Bible has, and I have worn out more than one over the years (in fact I just got a new primary Bible that I think is better for preaching the “The Preacher’s Bible” that I’ll likely write a full review of shortly) but I don’t think the intention of the exercise was to signal my piety by posting 5 picture of the Bible, so I excluded the Bible from the list.  And although the challenge was to post pictures of the covers of the book without explanation, now I want to round out the exercise by posting my explanations. Here it goes.

The Nick Adams Stories by Earnest Hemingway

I thought I would tackle the one non-spiritual book on the list first.  As I said I was always a book guy, and sometime during my middle school years I came into possession of a copy of the Nick Adams stories, although that copy was entitled Big Two Hearted River and the other Nick Adams Stories.  At that time I was a city kid through and through, in fact I wasn’t even a city kid, I was a neighborhood kid.  I was from the Northside of Pittsburgh and the South Hills or Blawknox were as foreign to me as Samarkand. And so was nature. In the Nick Adams stories I read of bull fights, the wide world, and the joys of the outdoors.  Prior to reading those stories it never occurred to me that anyone would long to not have concrete under foot, much less find pleasure and joy outdoors. And while I was still convinced that Pittsburgh was the true cradle of civilization (after all as we were taught in elementary school, Pittburgh’s own Billy Strayhorn wrote all of Duke Ellington’s greatest songs and by the way he went to the same high school that produced Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal; and that’s just jazz pianists from one high school), my curiosity about the wider world, particularly about the outdoors was kindled.

If I had not read this book, who knows if I would have moved to the American west, where the Lord saved me, I was baptized, I was discipled and where I met and fell in love with my wife.  And I doubt I would have ever picked up a fly rod or stomped off to live for a while in Montana, or have grown to love the grass under my feet and the sun in my face.

Cash by Johnny Cash

I identified The Nick Adams Stories as the one non-spiritual book on the list, and I see how following that statement by pointing to the autobiography of Johnny Cash could be confusing. But to me this book profoundly impacted my Christian walk and faith.

When the Lord saved me, I was a mess; I was a ball of gross sin. Frankly with my limited theological knowledge as a new believer (having never even heard of, much less understood the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints), I didn’t think there was very much hope I would make it as a Christian; I thought and was genuinely terrified by the thought, that it was just a matter of time till I fell away. And then I read Cash.

There were two things that Johnny Cash was very transparent about in this, his second, autobiography, his faith in Christ and his sinful life marked by sexual immorality, drug abuse, marital infidelity and many other gross sins. He was very transparent about both.

If I was always a book guy I was also a music guy for most of my life, and there was something very different about how Johnny Cash talked about his past experiences from how they were talked about in other musician autobiographies I had read. While most others I had read detailed many of the same sins, they spoke about them much differently, especially about drug abuse.  There was lots of chest thumping and lots of “look what I have overcome, it didn’t kill me it made me stronger.” But when Cash talked about his past there was something different, there was sorrow.

I was particularly struck by one incident he related where he crawled into a cave, high, intending to get lost and then just lay down to die. But after finding his spot, he suddenly felt compelled to crawl out and he did, he didn’t know how but he found his way out.

I was left with the impression that if Cash could make it to the end, so could I. And even when I was too weak, like Johnny in that cave, God could and would intervene to preserve me.  I am not saying that anyone should get their theology from Johnny Cash, and truth be told if I read that book today, it probably wouldn’t have any impact on me at all, but at that time God used that book to encourage me to walk in obedience minute by minute, and to trust Him for the outcome and the end.

When I Don’t Desire God; How To Fight For Joy by John Piper

I remember picking this book up from the book table in the back of my church a few years after my conversion and I am so glad I did. I am prone to melancholy. Like Spurgeon there I times I find myself on the verge of tears and I have no idea why (Spurgeon called his mood the black dog and while I’ve never given it a name, my wife has a pet name for when I am struggling with my mood).

I learned three important lessons from this book. First, truly redeemed people can in fact feel down, often for extended periods of time. Second, our joy shouldn’t, in fact must not, be tethered to our circumstances. And that joy isn’t something that just happens (all the time), but that joy in the Lord must be actively pursued.

Prior to salvation and as an immature Christian when my mood was down on me, I self-medicated.  And I did it by putting my self in situations that resulted in the release of endorphins and adrenaline into my brain.  I didn’t turn to drugs and alcohol, I turned to back country skiing, rock crawling, peak bagging and whitewater rafting, the more dangerous the better.

This book taught me that the way to fight my dark moods wasn’t to just snap out of it (like most self-medicaters I didn’t realize what I was doing) but rather to meditate on the person and work of Jesus Christ, particularly in my own life.  It is a lesson I carry with me to this day.

The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul

This is a book (by Pittsburgh’s own Dr. R.C. Sproul) that every Christian should read. The pervasive portrait of God in evangelicalism downplays his holiness. We are told that He wants the best for us, that He loves us, that He roots for us, that He is deeply concerned about us, and that is all very true.  But the problem comes when we think that is all He is.  The picture of God that is often painted in broad evangelicalism is one of a kindly old sky grand father who roots us on from the sidelines of our lives.  But that is not the picture of God that Scripture paints at all.

God’s primary trait in Scripture is His holiness. We tend to define down God’s holiness until instead of blinding uncompromising otherness completely devoid and exclusive of sin, we think God’s holiness means that he is a little better than us, or maybe that really sanctified senior saint that we look up to.

But that is not the case, in fact God is so blindingly holy that we can’t even really grasp the depth and totality of His holiness.  We fail to grasp it for two reasons, it is truly incomprehensible to our minds that have been tainted by the fall and we just don’t think about it very much, at least not systematically. And all of that results in the kind of thinking that gives rise to “God Is My Copilot” bumper stickers.

Dr, Sproul’s book is a powerful corrective.  It is page after gut punching page of hard medicine. The flood, God’s holiness. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God’s holiness. The Death of Uzzah and Ananias and Saphira, God’s holiness. And the cross and the empty tomb, God’s holiness too.

Prior to reading this book, although I was growing in my faith and took it seriously, my thinking was tinged with that typical affluent western casualness towards God. This book straightened that out, it showed me that God was completely holy, completely other, and needed to be approached with reverence, awe and fear. If I was going to pick one book that set me on the path that ended with me in the pulpit, this would probably be it.

Trusting God by Jerry Bridges

If you have never read the Holiness of God, you should; if you haven’t read Trusting God in the past year you need to. This short little book, excepting the Bible, is the only book I have worn out multiple times.  The premise of the book is simple enough, God is sovereign, and you can trust Him no matter what. But this is a manual for truly advanced Christian living.

Typically, when an author talks about trusting God, he or she is talking about trusting in God to work everything out. In other words, trust that God will in the end, give you something that you will see as beneficial in the here and now. But Bridges’ work is different, he uses scripture powerfully to teach that God is sovereign over all, nature, men’s actions and hearts, illnesses, and all other circumstances and that in all circumstances God will sovereignly act according to His character  and ultimately He always acts for His own glory, and  that is always what is best for us. And that acting for the good of his people is always glorifying to him, and consistent with His character. And even if the circumstances He declares for you aren’t pleasant in the here and now, they are ultimately for your good and His glory, and in that you can have full faith and trust.

When I was pursuing a master’s degree in biblical counseling one of my mentors would respond on bad days to the question “how are you doing today” with “I’m trying to make my theology work for me.” This book is all about equipping you with theology and teaching you how to make it work for you when circumstances sow discouragement and pain in your life.

You will have trials and pain in life. For me my wife is chronically ill, a change in health insurance has made life much harder for her, the church I serve was viscously attacked and deeply wounded by a man who sought to influence the church away from freedom in Christ and we are not fully recovered yet, my brother, who absolutely detests me since my conversion, had twoheart attacks in the past year, my dogs who I had to give up (to my mother) when I went to seminary both died recently and I haven’t had a pain free day since I was on a deck that collapsed in 2001. I don’t say any of that to set myself apart, I am sure that if you took full inventory of your life, you would have similar weighty trials too. Even on good days you need to make your theology work for you.  This book taught me a lot about how to do that and it will teach you too.

It’s been well said that you should visit many good books but live in the Bible. And I would whole heartedly affirm that. But I am awfully glad that at the right time, I visited these five books.

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.