Who Are Your Companions?
“Stop reading the Bible,” she said to me. These were the words of a professor of mine during college. I was, during the time, attending a small Christian college in the Midwest, so naturally my first thought was, is she allowed to say that?
Her point of tension with our school, not least the Christian faith at large, was that it placed such an emphasis on tasks like reading the Bible that students got so wrapped up in the action of seeking God they lost sight of actually connecting with him. Sometimes, she told me, some of us go through seasons in which we can’t, for whatever reason, connect with God through the Bible. Sometimes we need a different way, and that’s OK.
That semester I had been walking through my own Valley of the Shadow when this professor befriended me and offered me that advice. She then introduced me to the works of someone she thought might help, Henri Nouwen. A Catholic priest who spent the latter years of his life working with people with mental disabilities, the writings of Nouwen gave me a vocabulary for my heart and brought healing.
I’d thought the previous season of despair was over, but the thing about seasons, as you know, is they hardly end and begin so sharply. Most of the time they just fade in and out of one another, one rolling right into the next. You generally aren’t aware when one is ending and another beginning. And so I found myself in another, wrestling with doubts about my faith. To help overcome these intellectual barriers, a close friend of mine recommended I read N. T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar and former Anglican bishop. I read his thin, yet profound and accessible book, Following Jesus, and my mind woke up. I gained a fresh understanding of who God is, the story that’s been written, and how I might fit into it.
A few years later while in grad school, I had the opportunity to do an independent study with a professor on the works of C. S. Lewis. I was curious about Lewis because of his popularity and wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. This is what I found: Nouwen gave me a vocabulary for my heart, N. T. Wright a vocabulary for my mind, and Lewis bridged the two. Lewis helped me see the reasonableness of the Christian faith from both an intellectual and imaginative angle.
I mention all of this because life’s journey is long and tiring. Sometimes we feel alone, lost, and like no one else are going through what we are. They don’t understand. But it’s important to remember that others have made the same journey. They know from experience all about joy and sorrow. There are others who can relate. One of the big themes of the Christian faith is that we’re not alone and don’t have to journey as if we are. In his kindness, God gives us others who can guide and sustain us. They help us do things we’re not good at and see things we might have otherwise missed.
When it comes down to it, life’s all about relationship—to other people, to ourselves, to our jobs, and so on. The Christian life is no different. As we live out our stories we need one another to help us along the way. We need people who can walk beside us and empathize. We need those who have gone before us, even if just a step, who have gained wisdom and experience and can show us the way.
Some of these guides may be personal friends. But some of these guides can be authors whom we may never meet. And with a population that reads one book a year at worst and seven books a year at best, I believe God still speaks to us through the written word. We already know this from Scripture. But we’d be foolish to limit God to that.
We can learn and be encouraged by writers present and past. There is insight, on the one hand, to be found in their stories and what they learned, and, on the other hand, encouragement to know they felt that this story was worth entering and seeing through.
There are times when we’ll simply wrestle with connecting with God through the scriptures. And that’s OK. There’s no need to beat ourselves up about it. But I believe God can, and will, speak to us through other sources—never to replace him, but to keep drawing us to him.
So whether you’re likely to only read one book this year, or if you’ll read seven, whom will you look to as a companion?