6 Great Christian Books To Read for Spiritual Growth
The Bible is the foundation for Christian spiritual growth. In its pages, we learn to pray and fast (see Matthew 6:5-18). We see examples of genuine spirituality (note Jesus, Daniel, Abraham, and scores of others). We learn about real meditation (read through the Psalms for a quick course). And, ultimately, God’s words shape our lives.
If we aren’t reading (and meeting Christ through) the Scriptures, we’ll have a difficult time making genuine progress in our walks.
Our Rich Christian Heritage
Spiritual growth begins in the Bible. But it doesn’t have to end there. From Christianity’s earliest years, believers have recognized the value in learning from the spiritual journeys of others. From St. Augustine’s Confessions to Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses, early Christians made a habit of sharing spiritual wisdom with other believers by writing books. Two-thousand years of Christian history have produced a lot of quality works on growing as a disciple of Jesus (as well as a lot of garbage – though we won’t get into that here).
But with all of these choices, where do we start?
Where to Begin?
Honestly, there’s no right place to begin when it comes to reading for spiritual growth. The wide range of books (and pamphlets) that have been published means that we can jump in just about anywhere. So this is by no means a definitive list.
Instead of a definitive list for all Christians, everywhere, I want to share a list of six books that have influenced my life and thinking. They’ve all been widely read and used by Christians of various denominational preferences. And they come from a variety of time periods.
These are books that have stood the test of time and been found helpful by millions of believers. My prayer and hope is that they will help you as well.
And so, in no particular order, here are 6 of the top books to read for spiritual growth.
1. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis – c. 1418-1427
What is it?
This is one of the most translated books every written. And though it’s a manual written for Catholic monks, it’s been read and used by believers of every stripe. The reason for this is simple: this book calls us – again and again – to follow the way of Christ. It’s a book that encourages humility, thankfulness, and submission to God. It forces the reader to examine his own heart and get his eyes off of everyone else. And in my opinion, this is what any good devotional book will do: it will bring us to a place of self-examination.
That’s what Jesus did in the Gospels. He encouraged everyone he met to look in the mirror.
We don’t grow spiritually by criticizing others. Neither do we grow by focusing on how bad the world is.
True spiritual growth begins when we realize how short we fall from perfection. It starts when God shines light on our motivations and intentions. We can fool a lot of people into thinking that we’re ‘spiritual’. But we can’t fool God. And if we’ll open up our eyes, we won’t be able to fool ourselves either.
We shouldn’t be satisfied with merely doing the right things. We should strive to do the right things for the right reasons. The Imitation of Christ will encourage you in your striving.
How is it put together?
This book is split into four parts. The first two include short chapters that focus on a variety of subjects related to the spiritual life. These chapters are largely expository and each one examines a particular idea or issue from several scriptural perspectives. They’re the perfect length for daily reading.
The second half of the book changes things up slightly. These chapters are written as a dialogue between Jesus and an unnamed disciple. Much of what Jesus says here comes straight from Scripture but there are a lot of other words put in his mouth. Some people may be uncomfortable with this format but I believe if you can get past the method to the content, you’ll find a lot of helpful thoughts here. Obviously these aren’t all the actual words of Jesus. Read it like you read the previous sections and you’ll be fine.
Finally, the last quarter of the book is where its Catholic background really comes out. As a Roman Catholic monk, Thomas a Kempis placed a very high value on Communion. This is apparent from these last chapters. And though you may not agree with every word, it’s still worth reading and considering.
This has been considered a Christian classic for nearly 600 years for good reason. It’s excellent. And it’s a great place to start growing in your spiritual walk.
“Often take counsel when tempted; and do not be harsh with others who are tempted, but console them as you yourself would wish to be consoled.”
“He who does not overcome small faults, shall fall little by little into greater ones.”
“Hence, you must not think that you have made any progress until you look upon yourself as inferior to all others.”
“I am the Way you are to follow, I am the Truth you are to believe, I am the Life you are to hope for.”
“Christ’s entire life was a cross and a martyrdom, and you look for rest and pleasure? You are mistaken, O, you are mistaken if you seek anything other than affliction, for our whole mortal life is full of misery and surrounded by crosses.”
2. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law – 1729
“Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God.” Thus begins William Law’s famous work on Christian spirituality.
If you want to feel uplifted or encouraged, this is not the book for you. Law pulls no punches. He won’t pat you on the back or tell you that God wants you to have your best life now. Instead, he’ll make you feel horrible. In fact, there may be moments that you ask yourself, “Am I even saved?”
And that’s what makes this book borderline dangerous. It’s the kind of book (along with Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying) that could be twisted by legalists into something oppressive and damaging. If someone tried, he could use it as a cudgel to beat others into submission. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead of measuring ourselves by Law’s picture of perfect Christianity, we can look into the words of this book as we might look into a mirror. We can use it as a means of examining ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we beat ourselves up or hold ourselves to impossible standards. It does, however, mean that we’re willing to be convicted by God.
We should allow God to drive us back to his word and his will. And it means that we’re never satisfied with where we currently are. We recognize that there’s always room for spiritual growth and maturity. We can always use a fresh examination of our actions, words, and intentions.
This isn’t a book that I’d give a new believer. But for those who are growing in maturity and have a firm handle on Scripture, it’s the perfect place to go to remind you that you aren’t finished growing.
God is calling you ever higher.
“The difference between singing and reading a Psalm, will easily be understood, if you consider the difference between reading and singing a common song that you like. Whilst you only read it, you only like it, and that is all; but as soon as you sing it, then you enjoy it, you feel the delight of it, it has got hold of you, your passions keep pace with it, and you feel the same spirit within you, that seems to be in the words.”
“For any ways of life, any employment of our talents, whether of our parts, our time, or money, that is not strictly according to the will of God, that is not for such ends as are suitable to his glory, are as great absurdities and failings, as prayers that are not according to the will of God.”
“You perhaps will say, that all People fall short of the Perfection of the Gospel, and therefore you are content with your failings. But this is saying nothing to the purpose. For the question is not whether Gospel Perfection can be fully attained, but whether you come as near it, as a sincere intention, and careful intelligence can carry you.”
3. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster – 1978
For many Christians, there are two spiritual disciplines: prayer and Bible reading. “If we regularly pray and read Scripture,” we’re told, “we will grow spiritually.” And there’s certainly some truth to that. Prayer and Scripture are foundational to Christian growth. But they aren’t alone. In the pages of the Bible, we read about fasting and confession and meditation (among others). And throughout Christian history, believers have practiced still others.
In other words, spiritual growth is a result of more than just prayer and Bible reading. Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline, examines the Christian life from three perspectives: inward disciplines, outward disciplines, and corporate disciplines. Each of these categories includes four practices that have precedence in Scripture and in Christian history. And Foster pulls from a variety of sources and traditions to make his case. In fact, he probably quotes or references every other work in this list (or at least every other author).
As a result, I’d recommend this book – if nothing else – as a source for finding other great works on Christian spirituality. Fortunately, the book itself is excellent as well. Foster does a great job of looking at each of these disciplines from a variety of perspectives (and in short space). The only bad thing about this is that he doesn’t spend much time on any one particular practice. So after reading it, you may want to seek out longer works on each discipline. Nevertheless, it’s a great introduction to Christian spiritual practices. And it’s one of the first books that I’d give a new believer.
If you want an overview of Christian spirituality, this is definitely the place to start.
“Our world is hungry for genuinely changed people.”
“Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life.”
“Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude.”
“To worship is to experience Reality, to touch Life.”
“Genuine worship has only one Leader, Jesus Christ.”
4. With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray – 1885
Andrew Murray is very dear to my heart. When I came to faith in Christ, I began searching for books that would help me in my walk. On one particular day, I went into a Christian bookstore and picked up a volume of Andrew Murray’s writings. That book changed my life.
Though that first volume didn’t include With Christ in the School of Prayer, it wasn’t long before I discovered and read this classic work on prayer. Out of all of Andrew Murray’s books (and he wrote a lot), this is his most famous. And for good reason. It’s an excellent primer on what prayer is all about. And Murray wrote it in a format that’s easy to use.
Each chapter is short enough to be read in one sitting but deep enough to reflect on all day long. And since there are thirty-one chapters, it serves as a great month-long devotional on prayer. Murray examines all of Jesus’ commands and teachings on prayer. And as he does, he calls us to reflect on our own prayer lives and encourages us to make prayer a greater priority.
He ends the book with a ‘case-study.’ He reflects on the life of George Muller – a man known for his faith and prayer-life. As you read this final part, you’ll be left with a vision of what is possible through prayer. You’ll be reminded that prayer is powerful and that much of the spiritual growth we experience is rooted in a healthy prayer life.
“It is not the law, and not the book, not the knowledge of what is right, that works obedience, but the personal influence of God and His living fellowship. And even so it is not the knowledge of what God has promised, but the presence of God Himself as the Promiser, that awakens faith and trust in prayer.”
“Prayer is the one hand with which we grasp the invisible; fasting, the other, with which we let loose and cast away the visible.”
“Our forgiving love toward men is the evidence of God’s forgiving love in us. It is a necessary condition of the prayer of faith.”
“Prayer not only teaches and strengthens one for work, work teaches and strengthens one for prayer.”
5. The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence – 1693
Like The Imitation of Christ, The Practice of the Presence of God was written by a Catholic monk. And monks originally made up its readership. But it didn’t take long for people to realize that it was too good to leave to the monks. The author of the book records conversations he had (and letters he received) from ‘Brother Lawrence’.
As a cook in a monastery, Brother Lawrence desired to be aware of God’s presence at all times – even while peeling potatoes. This book records how he attained that desire. This is the shortest one on this list but it’s extremely powerful. It’s one of those books that won’t take long to read but can take years to digest. You know the kind of book I’m talking about. It’s the kind you can return to again and again. And every time you read it, you’ll find something new. If you’ll allow it to, it will become a close friend.
Like many of the books already mentioned, this one will encourage you to examine yourself though it isn’t quite as demanding as The Imitation of Christ or A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
If you’re going to start with one of the books on this list, start here. It will serve you well as you seek to live wholeheartedly to God and his service.
“That all things are possible to him who believes, that they are less difficult to him who hopes, they are more easy to him who loves, and still more easy to him who perseveres in the practice of these three virtues.”
“Let us thus think often that our only business in this life is to please God, that perhaps all besides is but folly and vanity.”
“That we ought, once for all, heartily to put our whole trust in God, and make a total surrender of ourselves to Him, secure that He would not deceive us.”
“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”
6. The Book of Common Prayer
For over four centuries, The Book of Common Prayer has served as a spiritual guide for much of the English-speaking world. And though written by Anglicans, it has value for Christians of every tradition and denomination.
Unfortunately, it isn’t the easiest book to use. And because of its seeming complexity, many lay-Christians have come to believe that it’s primarily for clergy and corporate worship. But average believers can use it to great effect. In fact, I’d encourage all Christians to become acquainted with it and consider making it one of the centerpieces of daily worship.
It would take a whole post (or series of posts) to explain how to use the Book of Common Prayer. And I may just do that in the coming weeks.
For now, I’ll describe its basic outline. It contains a liturgy for morning, afternoon, and evening prayer/devotion. This includes prayers and scriptures to read/meditate on. There’s also a reading-plan (lectionary) that will take you through most of the Bible in three years.
If you’ve never had structured devotions, The Book of Common Prayer is a great resource to use. It will help make your devotions regular and consistent. And it will give the priority to prayer and Scripture reading. And though spiritual growth doesn’t end with these two things. It certainly does begin there. If we can build a solid foundation there, the rest will come.
And if you’ve never prayed with pre-written prayers, I’d encourage you to consider trying them before writing them off. If nothing else, read the short post I wrote last year in defense of formal prayers.
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