1 Percent of a Book Can Change Your Life
Welcome back to the podcast on this Wednesday. As many of you know, I don’t only produce this podcast; I also write books. And back in 2011, I was honored to write my very first book called Lit!. It was on the topic of book reading (one of my passions), answering the questions, ‘Why do we read books?’ and ‘How can we read them better?’ And in my research stage for the book, I set aside one full day for one purpose: to ransack the vast John Piper archive of online content to collect everything he’s ever said on the topic of reading. And I found quite a lot, actually, including one amazing quote from Pastor John back in 1981 that I want to share with you today:
What I have learned from about twenty years of serious reading is this: sentences change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two. I do not remember 99 percent of what I read, but if the 1 percent of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the 99 percent.
I love that quote. It was an amazing find, obviously. And that went in my 2011 book. The quote itself was buried in a now forty-year-old manuscript. Really buried. The moment I found it, I ran an online search and could not find any references to this quote on any websites or blogs, in any published books, or in any social-media post. And there was no audio recording of the message either. It was buried. All we had was the written manuscript at Desiring God. It was either not recorded or the message recording got lost to time. Or so we thought. Well, it was recorded. And we just found the audio recording from 1981. It’s now online for the first time ever at desiringGod.org. And I get the honor of unveiling that recording to you today on APJ.
Here’s the setting. In 1981, a young Pastor John wanted to instill hope in the Sunday school teachers of his church. Those teachers get one hour with the kids, and then the rest of the week, those kids watch hour after hour of TV. So isn’t it hopeless to think an hour of Sunday school can accomplish anything lasting in these young lives, so saturated with other media all week long? No. Here’s why.
I’ve often heard the contrast made between spending an hour in Sunday school, once a week, and watching television about twenty hours a week. And the implication or the point that’s usually made is that there’s scarcely any hope that in this one hour on Sunday morning, we can counteract the fairly secularist, humanist viewpoint that is, whether overtly or covertly, ministered through the television set. That sort of observation creates what I call “quantitative hopelessness.” It gives the impression that life-changing impact and influence is directly proportionate to the quantity of time spent under a particular influence. And I think that this way of assessing the value of influences on our young people, as well as on ourselves as adults, is wrong for two reasons.
I think it’s wrong, first, because it obscures the problem with evil. And then secondly, I think it’s wrong because it obscures the power of a holy moment. And I’ll try to explain what I mean by each of those two mistakes.
Does It Edify?
First of all, this quantitative way of thinking obscures the problem with evil in the world. It gives the misleading impression that the approach to take toward harmful influences — say, on television — is to balance them with good influences. That seems to be the approach. It assumes that the best or the only way to counteract the hours that we spend being entertained by the world and being taught to love the world is to spend a corresponding quantity of time being entertained or taught by God or God’s people so as to balance out the evil influences. And the underlying assumption to that assumption seems to be that either it’s okay or inevitable that our kids (or ourselves) will in fact entertain ourselves with secularist TV programs or unedifying TV programs.
I don’t think either of those is the case. I don’t think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s okay. First of all, I don’t think it’s okay to entertain ourselves with what we would judge to be unedifying TV programs. Paul taught that we ought to do only those things that build up rather than tear down (1 Corinthians 14:12, 26; 2 Corinthians 13:10). I have the feeling that many people in the church don’t assess right and wrong on that continuum. They say, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong here; they’re not doing anything wrong,” when really, what they ought to be saying is, “Is it edifying, building me up, making me a better Christian, a better person?” Because Paul seemed to think that that’s what the goal or the aim of all of life should be — not just finding those things that we can judge to be not very harmful.
I would say that it’s true that most TV programs are not edifying. The few that I see, when I see them, don’t seem to me to be the kind that would leave me at the end of the program rejoicing more in God, being more inclined to obey him, feeling stronger affection for Christ, or more zealous to do good. They just don’t.
Now, there’s a second reason why I think it’s wrong just to assess Sunday school quantitatively and say, “Well, one hour — what’s one hour of Sunday school against twenty hours of TV or school or whatever?” The second reason that’s a problem, and we ought not to use it, is because it either overlooks or obscures the value of a holy moment. What I have in mind here is tremendously encouraging for teachers, but also all those involved in any kind of counsel or advice or ministry of any sort. I think it includes all of us. This holy moment is what I would call “the immeasurable moment.”
What the quantitative approach overlooks or obscures is the lasting transforming power of an insight, an insight that can come in a moment and change a life forever. That’s what I mean by “the immeasurable moment.” The impact of a given moment because of a word spoken can be all out of proportion to the amount of time it takes to do it. What I’ve learned from about twenty years of serious reading — I say twenty, it hasn’t been quite twenty. That takes me back to 15 years old. I didn’t start to read until I was about 17. I hated to read until I was a junior in high school. I started reading seriously though. I got really serious about reading, and I’ve been serious about reading ever since. There’s been about twenty years I’ve been reading. And what I have learned is this: it is sentences that change your life, not books.
I don’t know if that’s been your experience, but I think for the most part, that’s the case. What changes a life is a new glimpse into reality or truth, or some powerful challenge that comes to us, or some resolution of a long-standing dilemma that we’ve had. And most of those — the insight, the challenge, or the resolution — are usually embodied in a very short, little space. A paragraph or a sentence and whammo — it hits home, and we remember it, and it affects us for our whole life long.
“Usually for me, life-changing insight comes in a moment, in a paragraph, in a sentence, not in a book.”
I do not remember 99 percent of what I read. That may just be me because I have a lousy memory. I think it’s pretty typical. I don’t remember 99 percent of what I read, but if the 1 percent is life-changing insight into reality, I won’t begrudge the 99 percent. I’ll suffer that and accept it as my own frailty. Usually for me, life-changing insight — and I have been changed by reading — comes in a moment, in a paragraph, in a sentence, not in a book. I don’t remember books whole.
Now, here are some examples of immeasurable moments in my life from reading.
You know who I’m going to start with first. Jonathan Edwards wrote 70 (or is it 73?) resolutions when he was in college — lifetime resolutions. And I have never forgotten number six: “Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.” I have never forgotten that. That sentence has meant more to me than thousands of other sentences that I’ve ever read. Live with all your might while you live. Don’t just drift through life. Live through life. Live.
Second, in his Religious Affections, he said, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” It was about four hundred pages or so, and I don’t remember most of what was in it, but I had never read a book that showed that true religion consists very much in holy affections. Now, that’s just his eighteenth-century word for emotions.
I had been brought up to think, “Fact, faith, feeling. Fact, faith, feeling. Fact, faith, feeling. Keep it in that order. And the feeling drops off the end — it’s just a caboose; you won’t miss anything anyway.” That isn’t true. The New Testament is shot through with demands that are so radical that they do demand joy, peace, hope, gratitude. I hesitate to mention love because you’d all jump up and say, “Love’s not a feeling.” But if you read 1 Corinthians 13 and how it’s defined, you can’t get away from the fact that love is not only a feeling but is at least partly a feeling. For example, love is not jealous (1 Corinthians 13:4). Jealousy is a feeling, and if you love, you don’t have that feeling. That was another staggering sentence, an immeasurable moment to hear Jonathan Edwards say and defend, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”
St. Paul. Of course, the Bible is just full of such sentences, but I’ll just mention one because it might tip you off and help you understand me and a lot of my preaching. I wonder what sentences you think I would pick out of St. Paul as the immeasurable moment that stands out above all others from 1968 to the present. It’s Philippians 2:12–13: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, to will and to do his good pleasure.” That sentence hit me my freshman year in seminary like a load of bricks, because all of Paul’s theology is in it (just about) — that intermingling of the sovereign work of God in our lives with our effort. You work, for he is working to will and to do.
Next person, C.S. Lewis. This sentence comes on the first page of his Weight of Glory:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (26)
And that sentence, along with several others, converted me into being what I’ve called a Christian Hedonist — namely, that what Jesus wants from us is not the cessation of the desire to be happy, but the heightening of the desire to be happy until it’s so intense we won’t be satisfied with anything but God as the fulfillment of our joy.
Then finally, on reading St. Augustine — two sentences from the Confessions. I first read the Confessions of Augustine as a sophomore in college, I think. It was in Western World Literature, and I can’t remember when I took that course, but it was in my first or second year in college. And two sentences have shaped me very greatly.
First, “I have no hope at all, but in thy great mercy. Grant what thou commandest, and command what thou will.” It’s really the same as Philippians 2:12–13 but stated very, very powerfully. The impact it had was to show me that the book I was reading at the time, Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics, was wrong, because Fletcher argued that love cannot involve feelings because it’s commanded. You can’t command emotions; therefore, love must be an action — and therefore, it doesn’t involve any feelings. That’s not right. There’s a theological mistake in Fletcher’s argument — namely, the assumption that God can’t command what we can’t give without his help. But he can command what we can’t give without his help because he can give the help, and Augustine says, “Grant what thou commandest, and command what thou will.”
The context in the Confessions was sexual continency. Augustine was a raunchy man. He was very polluted sexually before he became a Christian, and after he became a Christian his problem with sexual temptation did not end. He was talking about sexual continency, containing himself and not being illicit in his sexual relations, and he said, “I cannot do it. Grant what thou commandest. Then command what thou will.”
“The experience comes of an immeasurable moment, and we are changed decisively.”
And then the other sentence that he said — I can’t remember when it was, but I have always struggled with the problem of how to love a sunset, a wife, a child, chocolate ice cream, popcorn, et cetera, and not have that compete with my allegiance to God. I don’t know if you’ve ever struggled with that. How can you stand before a beautiful painting or a sunset and say, “That is beautiful; I love it,” and not have God look down and say, “Hey, you’re supposed to love me, not that.” Here’s what Augustine said: “He loves thee too little, who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake.” That was an immeasurable moment when I read that sentence. “He loves thee too little, who loves anything together with thee, that he loves not for thy sake.” That bears a lot of pondering, doesn’t it? We can love people, things, sunsets, food, for Jesus’s sake.
Sentences Change Lives
That’s the end of my list. It could go on and on and on. The point is that life-changing moments come in sentences and paragraphs, not in long, long remembrances of whole books. Lights go on, our hearts are strangely warm, the experience comes of an immeasurable moment, and we are changed decisively.