A few years back, I began tracking how many books I read during the year. After the first year, dissatisfied with how little I read, I figured a good goal would be to read more books the next year. So I set a goal and read more books.
But after that year, I realized a defect in my goal: aiming to read more books in a year incentivized me to read shorter books and avoid longer ones, since that would reduce my total book count. That’s silly, I realized. The point of reading books is reading books worth reading, not reading as many books as possible. So I changed my reading goal from books-read per year to pages-read per year. That meant I could read any book of any length I thought worth reading without affecting my goal.
But after a couple years of this, I’ve realized another goal defect: aiming to read more pages per year has incentivized me to read or listen to books faster and resist lingering and meditating over what I’m reading, since that would reduce my total page-count. That’s silly, too. The point of reading is learning in order to increase understanding, not reading as many pages as possible. Again, I hit respectably close to my goal, but I’m still shooting wide of the mark.
So I’ve made another goal adjustment. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Why Slow Down
Reflecting on this little experiment highlights four reasons why we need to slow down and cultivate the spiritual fruit of patience, especially in the twenty-first century.
1. We are pursuing transformation, not information.
As Eugene Peterson says, “A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman.” God’s purpose in our learning is that we become Christlike (Romans 8:29), not that we become information databases.
People might be impressed by how much information we have stored away. God is concerned with how much we’ve been transformed into the image of his Son. The point of all our reading, praying, worshiping, small-group participation — everything — is not that we merely learn about the craft, but that we actually learn the craft of Christ, so to speak; that we truly learn to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).
There are vital and even priceless things we will only learn about God, ourselves, others, and the Evil One through God’s time-consuming, arduous, incremental, repetitive, trial-error-correction process of learning.
2. Real growth takes a long time.
We live in an age of fast transportation, fast computers, fast Internet access, fast food, fast videos, and fast social-media scrolling — and they’re all only getting faster. This is shaping our assumptions. We expect to be able to do everything at faster speeds and greater volume.
But this is not a biblical assumption. If we look at creation, redemptive history, and our own spiritual growth, we see a God who is not in a hurry. We see a God whose patience almost exasperates us at times. If we look carefully, we see that the most important things take a long time to grow and mature. They can’t be rushed.
This is painfully true of our spiritual progress. There are no life-hacks for holiness.
3. Goals matter and develop over time.
We set goals in an effort to obtain what we value, which means they are very important. Goals reveal how godly or ungodly our desires are. They also determine the strategies we choose to achieve them. And these strategies determine how we spend our time. Goals dictate how we spend our lives.
But we rarely determine the best goals with one shot. It often requires the slow, iterative process of learning to clarify exactly what we want and what that requires. Setting imperfect goals is okay. If we prayerfully and humbly pursue them, God will guide us in figuring out better goals, and he will use the process to cause us to grow in holiness and faith.
4. We cannot love what we do not linger over.
And we cannot know what we do not comprehend. Lingering, by definition, takes time. Comprehension requires time-consuming concentration and meditation. This is true in nearly all areas of life. And the implication is that the real or perceived societal pressure we feel to get more and more things done, and process more and more information, can be an enemy to real love and true learning.
God is not slow — though to us as hurried, harried modern disciples, he might seem that way. He is patient (2 Peter 3:9). Apprentices must patiently learn their craft from the master. Lovers linger over what they love. So God is calling us to grow the spiritual fruit of patience and love (Galatians 5:22). And growth takes a long time. God is not in a hurry, so we don’t have to be either.
That’s why this year I’ve decided to set my reading goal by hours spent, rather than pages read. I want to stop aiming at volume so I’m freer to linger, meditate, memorize, and record what I need to press deeper into my soul.
I may get to the end of this year and realize that once again my reading goal needs to be tweaked. Perhaps I’ll need a hybrid of time and quantity. Or perhaps new life-demands will require a different goal altogether.
That’s okay, because my aim is to be changed. I want my reading to help me better learn the craft of Christ and not just about the craft of Christ. And one thing my defective goals have taught me is how much I have to learn about moving at the patient speed of God.