I can’t see the wood for the trees!

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the plethora of wonderful Christian books out there? You know you long to learn more about the Lord, but your brain gets frazzled as you check out this book, that book and the next one. Not only that, but you perhaps feel guilty, because some of these long and learned volumes of great godly men just seem out of reach as you try to get the odd nugget here and there for your soul at the end of a weary day.

I do! I would define my problem in two ways:

1. I am a creature of my generation

More and more, I long for simplicity of thought and expression. Though I love to admire beauty in nature, when it comes to reading, I long to grasp the point, without having to meander my way through flowery word gardens.

I know there are gems in the old books, rich gems, but by the time I get around the flowery long sentences, I am weary.

You see, my generation and those younger even more so live in the age of sound bites, bullet points and the simplest of English.

2. I cannot see the wood for the trees.

In a world full of stuff and clutter, I long for less clutter and that goes for writing style. Sometimes I have picked up a commentary on a Bible section, only to be discouraged, because ten minutes later, I have not yet reached the point or explanation of the passage. The result? I have spent more time in the commentary than in the Bible.

Or, I have read a book on a great subject of spiritual importance, but by the end of the chapter, there have been so many “heads” and “subheads” that I wonder if I still have my own head. I can’t remember what I read several pages back. Again, I spotted some great gems, but now they are gone, as if fallen into a bag with a hole at the bottom.

Am I alone in this?

What’s my excuse?

Uneducated? “No.”

Spiritually dead? Well, although at times I have feared that, I know that again the answer is “No.”

Several babies, the wear and tear of motherhood, multi-tasking, time limitations? “Partly.”

Light in the woods

That is why when I came across two commentaries of late, borrowed of course from my husband (one of the little perks of being married to a minister) I was overwhelmed with the beautiful simplicity, directness, and Christ-centeredness  that I found. Page after page of contemporary writing and illustrations, explaining Scripture; I didn’t want to put them down.

What were they?  

1. Luke Volume 1: Chapters1-12 by Philip Graham Ryken (Reformation Heritage Books).

This book is beautifully written and clearly laid out. But you don’t just get clarity of language, you also get a spiritual feast, where Christ is presented in all the beauty of His two natures. Every verse of Luke’s account is explained, and you find yourself absorbed in both the narrative, and above all, the wonder of the Gospel. The language and illustrations are contemporary.



2. Isaiah: God saves Sinners by Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. (Amazon)

This book primarily written for pastors, is very accessible to lay people like you and I. Again it is logical in its format with the added bonus of each chapter being summarized at the beginning with Ortlund’s key outline of Isaiah’s sermons. Ortlund uses many contemporary illustrations, but like Ryken also gleans from some of the great godly writers of the past like Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Newton, and many others. The glory of Christ shines through in his exposition, which is ultimately what we want to get to.

Let me add another little gem:

Glory Veiled and Unveiled, A Heart-Searching Look at Christ’s Parables, by Gerald M Bilkes (Reformation Heritage Books).

Each parable is expounded, explained, and applied in a contemporary way. This is a wonderful paperback that is very suitable even for teenagers. The Gospel is clearly laid out and the reader is challenged spiritually by several short questions at the end of each chapter.




A plea

In a day of much spiritual shallowness, there is a crying need for Christian books which have the spiritual weight of the past and reverence the Word of God, but in contemporary language. I believe these books above achieve that.

Here is a plea to the many talented Reformed Christian authors out there.

Do you want to reach this generation? Do you want them to not just buy books, but read them? Do you want to give them a longing for the things of Christ, so that they are not merely intellectually challenged but actually spiritually revived?

You see the number of theological intellectuals is relatively few. The number of people wandering in a fog on the way to a lost eternity is vast; and the number of post-modern Christians , especially young, who are largely ignorant of the great rivers of water that flow through the Word of God are fewer still.

Please reach these needy ones and we needy ones. Give us the great spiritual gems of the past, but in contemporary English that our generation can understand. Many lives will be changed.

Christ Himself was the greatest example of how to communicate these truths simply.

“And the common people heard Him gladly” (Mark12:37).

Posted by Shona

18 thoughts on “I can’t see the wood for the trees!

  1. What a fantastic post! You hit the nail on the head …. and yes, I look for ‘excuses’ or reasons, but lack of time seems the only excusable excuse I can come up with (shame on me :( ).

    “but by the end of the chapter, there have been so many “heads” and “subheads” that I wonder if I still have my own head.” … Hilarious! But true for more than just for yourself, Shona!

    The only thing I *would* say in defence of some of the older ‘wordier’ books is that sometimes – just on these occasions when the words are taking your soul as well as your mind into some of the almost unreachable beauties of Christ’s work, or of God’s attributes, it is kind of nice to ‘meander’ through the pages, staying for a little while in the one area where you have found such nourishment and such delight.

    But you have *sold* these books you recommend to me, because almost all of the time, I am in the position of which you speak – give me what I want to find out…. and give it to me quickly!

  2. I am reading the Reformed Expositional Commentary of Zechariah. I find the commentary is helping make sense of a difficult book of the Bible. I am very grateful for this series.

  3. Magnificent post Mrs Murray! :)

    “without having to meander my way through flowery word gardens” – amen to this; this drives me crazy.

    Though perhaps not overly accessible, this is precisely why I love John Murray – never seems to waste a word.

    I would also highly recommend Ryken on Exodus – all the qualities you listed above.

    • PS If I open a book and see that the beginning of every chapter is about Bill and Betty’s holidays in the undulating hills of Virginia with their four year old daughter and three year old cat in their second car after they were married (blah blah blah)…. call me a cynical Scot, but I put it down! Authors, what’s your point?

      • Perhaps, holidaying in our rugged Scottish hills, being tossed around in 100 miles per hour gales and soaked to the skin for the fourth summer in a row would grab our attention better:)

        We like reality.

    • Thank you, Ian for your recommendation of Ryken on Exodus. This series is a treasure. I am new to it and look forward to learning from the other commentaries too.

  4. I’m a little torn with this post. On the one hand I understand the need to reach this generation, and see how short, crisp language is more likely to accomplish this. Yet I also think it’s sad that this generation, and perhaps the ones to follow, will continue to feel the need to have the CliffsNotes on what can not be written shortly. There is such a rich source of wisdom in these wonderful books of old. Won’t people challenge themselves and bring up their reading level?
    I became Reformed when I was an adult and there was so much for me to learn. I started reading the Puritan paperbacks. I laughed at my husband (also a minister) when I came to the end of the paragraph and couldn’t comprehend one thing I had read. He said go back and read it again, slowly, and dont move to the next page until you find the points to understand. So I did and over the years my reading level improved drastically. Now I can read a Puritan Paperback quite easily, but that didn’t come overnight.
    I’m not educated, I have no post secondary eduction. I have nine children, and through many years I homeschooled while reading these precious gems. It can be done! I know you have challenged Reformed Christian authors to write, which is needed too. But I challenge everyone to bring up their reading level! With the Lord’s help it can be done. If I can read these, anyone can. :)
    Right now I’m reading John Owen’s,” Communion with God. ” I am only on page 13 and I can’t get past this page. It speaks of the Father’s love toward His own. It’s full of scripture to look up and meditate upon. I think I’ll be here for a while. ;) I encourage all to read these books slowly, very slowly. Sometimes it has taken me 6 months or more to get through a book. But it’s oh-so worth it!

    • Thank you, Catherine. You make a valid point with regard to improving reading level.

      My concern, though, is that this is just not going to happen in our modern world. Many people are not reading beyond blog posts and paperbacks.

      Reading as you say can be cultivated, but in a sense, it is an art. Some have the patience to pursue and master an art, in this case, the skilled reading of deep volumes. That is a separate issue from pursuing the things of the Lord through reading.

      Life is short. For myself, I would rather go the direct route to understanding, just like I would choose the highway rather than the scenic route most of the time. It is probably also a matter of temperament.

      But, we have a growing Spiritual crisis all around us. We either face up to it and bring the truths of God’s Word to people at a level they understand, or suffer many casualties along they way in pursuit of an ideal.

      I can demand of my young children that they they aspire to great linguistics learning while trying to teach them the things of Christ, or I can meet them where they are at and speak to them and read to them at a level they undertand.

      • I can see Shona’s point and the point by Catherine. I love reading hard things, and wrestling my way through them. But one of my closest friends does not have the patience for that, and that’s okay. My three children are all very different as well. My daughter bemoans the lack of literacy regularly (English prof in training), but my 20 year old son would rather read easy and make music. I think we can encourage literacy, and we should, but we should also recognize that some folks will prefer the direct route as Shona has described, and some will prefer a winding, backroads kinds of journey. I think we have to make room for both.

          • Sadly what appear to be flowery word gardens today are often a light cover for very shallow soil underneath. Yes, reading is an art that we ought to develop, but so is writing, and many don’t seem to realize that it is a craft to be practiced and refined–hence the flowery word gardens that look pretty on the surface but whose roots don’t go very deep. The writers you mentioned above recognize this, and that is why their books are so helpful to you and other readers. Thanks for your challenge. I hope Reformed writers and publishers will take note!

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  6. I appreciated this post because I remember when I was thirteen I was given a book from our church at Chirstmas. I believe it was written by a puritan (can’t recall the title but it was something like “Letters to a Daughter” or something of that nature) and I’m sure it did include many gems! I was somewhat excited when I received it and I remember WANTING to read the book. But when I started, the language was so old-fashioned and flowery that I could not (even though I wanted to) read it. Now I am older and though I occasionally pick up a puritan because I know they are full of wisdom (and so much wiser than me), I don’t usually get past the first chapter or so. And I have a pet peeve with sentences that go on and on and on that you can’t figure out what the point was let alone figuring out the paragraph! I do think we would benefit with a lot of the puritan books being updated and put into modern language. We are a product of our times….

    • Thank you, Nicolette. Many would benefit from the Puritan writings put into modern English, as they are full of Spiritual riches.

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