Reading Biblical Devotional Books – An Antidote to Burnout
a guest post from Ajith Fernando,
"Over the past forty-four years or so I have been reading expository books by Bible scholars that give evidence of good background and technical knowledge while also being devotionally edifying. I find that these books do three important things to us. First, they increase our knowledge of God’s life-giving Word. Second, they give us information that would not have normally been accessible to us and thus help us to be more at home in the world of the Bible. And third, they feed the soul with eternal truth which is a great source of inspiration, joy, edification, security, and one of the surest antidotes to burnout.
Here is a list of some of the authors who have ministered to me from my late teens: Graham Scroggie, F. B. Meyer, G. Campbell Morgan, A. T. Robertson, H. L. Ellison, F. F. Bruce, Donald Guthrie, Alec Motyer, John Stott, and Leon Morris. More recently I am finding the writings of Thomas Schreiner (NT Theology), Bruce Waltke (OT Theology), Chris Wright and Don Carson doing this for me.
Then there is another kind of author who writes books that are primarily devotional but which are also biblically and theologically grounded. Here are some of my favourite authors of this kind of book: Robert Murray M‘Cheyne (A Basket of Fragments); Jonathan Edwards, E. Stanley Jones (the devotional The Word Became Flesh is amazing), Paul Rees, Wesley Duewel, Dennis Kinlaw (How to Have the Mind of Christ may be the most inspiring book I have read), J. I. Packer (Knowing God is still unsurpassed), Robert Coleman (see his latest, The Heart of the Gospel), C. J. Mahaney (Humility), Tim Keller (so many recent books), and John Piper (A Godward Life; Future Grace). The top place in this category goes to John Wesley, whose complete works I am slowly reading through. I learned his style of arguing for biblical truth when studying for my lay preacher’s exams about forty-four years ago. This has had a huge impact on my style of preaching.
These are books to read slowly. I have not finished reading most of them. And I do not feel bad about that. But by reading large chunks from these books slowly over a period of several months, the Lord has ministered the wealth of his truth to my soul.
A Pastor left the ministry burned out and totally discouraged. He left his whole library behind in his last church. When the new pastor looked through his library, he found that the older books in the library were biblical and theological books. The newer books were mostly how-to books, dealing with the practical challenges of ministry. It seems that he had been working on improving his skills without feeding his soul. This lesson applies to those who are not in vocational Christian ministry also.
There are a lot of topical books nowadays that give teaching on special topics which the authors have experience in. These refer to scripture here and there, but they do not have the saturation in scripture that enables them to do what Jesus says in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” There is a natural way in which concentrated exposure to the Word makes us more like Jesus.
Now, I believe the best and most important way to feed our souls is to linger in the presence of God with his Word and in prayer. That is our staple diet. But once in a way we can have some special booster meals too. These can come from the soul feeding on biblically grounded devotional material. People who have studied the Word more than us may have some discoveries to share with us that serve as a bonus to our usual diet.
Receiving strength and inspiration from devotional reading can as an antidote to burn out. Firstly, these books help affirm that our life and work are founded on the eternal unchanging Word of God. “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet. 1:24-25). Insecurity is a major cause for burnout. When we measure success using earthly measures, we are depending on a very insecure source of security. We can end up becoming driven people pursuing an elusive and bubble. We push ourselves to the point of burnout.
On the other hand, David affirms, “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble” (Psa. 119:165). When our measure of success is whether we have conformed to the teaching of the Word, we have a secure motivation that looks to a heavenly reward that is totally dependable. Whether we receive earthly acclaim or not, we work with the anticipation of hearing our Master’s words: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). We are freed from the pressures of our competitive and appearance-oriented society that has the potential to make us insecure people.
Secondly, a major trigger for burnout is unhappiness over our lot. Those who are happy with life are generally not candidates for burn out. One of the greatest sources of lasting joy in life is truth. This joy can be experienced independent of the challenges we face. In fact it helps us live through the most difficult challenges: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Psa. 119:92). When truth is important to you, its joy sustains you and keeps you as a happy person even while you go through huge problems. Besides, truth becomes the objective foundation upon which you put your trust in God. This opens you to the most thrilling of experiences—knowing God. Christians who have not overcome their disappointments through faith in the truths of the Word do not experience this thrill of knowing God. Their disappointments dampen their enjoyment of God.
By the way, this whole train of thought came as a result of reading Don Carson’s book, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus devotionally, while travelling by plane to and from Canada. This book contains rich expositions of five key passages describing the death and resurrection of Jesus."
Ajith Fernando is the national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, a Bible expositor with a worldwide ministry, and the author of the NIV Application Commentary on Acts. He studied at Asbury Theological Seminary and Fuller Seminary, and spends much time mentoring young workers and counseling Christian workers. He is active in Colombo Theological Seminary as chairman of the academic affairs committee.