I used to have a dream. I wanted to own every book that Deseret Book ever produced. More than that, I wanted to have read them all. I knew if I could read them all I would know everything I needed to know about the gospel and the scriptures. All my questions would be answered, my testimony would be strong, and I would perfectly understand the scriptures.
Then, one day, I had a life-changing realization that forever changed my experience with the scriptures and by extension with Jesus Christ. You see, I was in a scripture slump. I hadn’t had a personal study in several weeks, maybe even months. And yet I had never had more opinions about the scriptures, religion and what was right and what was wrong. How is it possible that I could neglect something as simple as reading the scriptures and yet feel so self-righteous? The answer? I was addicted to church books.
Church Book Mania
An addiction to church books would sound silly if it weren’t so totally serious. But while I wasn’t reading my scriptures, I was supplementing that time with every gospel book I could get my hands on. I particularly liked books that were commentaries on the scriptures or General Authorities’ thoughts on doctrine and other religious topics. Soon, I could tell you everything Joseph Fielding Smith said about why Noah’s flood really happened. I would read commentaries about the history of the Great Apostasy and everywhere it happened in the scriptures. Gradually, I found I loved definitions of scriptural phrases (I was an expert on faith and works). And I knew there was a definition for every scriptural phrase and the meaning of every scripture somewhere in the troves of writings at Deseret Book. I just needed to find them. And I needed to consume it as fast as I could.
Here’s the realization I finally had. I finally felt guilty one day for not reading the scriptures for such a long time. But more than that, I realized I wasn’t becoming a better person by reading all those books. In fact, the more I read the more I saw myself as having all the answers and everyone else as wrong. I wasn’t filled with love like a true Christian should be. I was just filled with opinions. Moreover, my character wasn’t changing. I wasn’t becoming sanctified. I didn’t know God or Jesus any better. And I’ve had enough conversations with friends and family with similar experiences that I know this mindset is a major obstacle for many people to have the types of experiences God wants us to have while reading His Word.
Now, before I go any further I want to say I have nothing against Deseret Book. And I don’t have anything against people who read books from Deseret Book or any other church bookstore. Many books that I truly cherish have helped me be a better person and come closer to Jesus. Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith is one of my favorite books on his life, or the biography of Truman Madsen. However, I think that there is a major danger posed by such pursuits which can suffocate our personal studies and our experiences with God.
Gospel Experience Surrogates
One reason I loved non-canonical writing was that it gave me answers to complicated questions quickly. For instance, as I mentioned earlier I became a “master” of the relationship between faith and works. How did I do this at such a young age? I’ll tell you it wasn’t through personal experience. It’s because I read some quotes by Bruce R. McConkie about it and I suddenly “knew” the answers. But there is something big I didn’t realize.
The danger of addiction to these types of books is the false prosperity of easy answers. For example, one thing the Old Testament talks about is fearing God. This can seem like a strange statement. We aren’t supposed to fear God, we are supposed to love Him and never be afraid of Him. Once I was reading a commentary’s thoughts on this phrase and they said that the word “fear” just meant “respect.” Done! I knew the answer. Anytime I read a verse about fearing God it just meant respecting Him. However, gaining this quick answer didn’t increase my respect for God. It was just another definition for me so that my outlook on life wasn’t shaken.
Know For Yourself
This quick definition robbed me of personal growth. Later I reevaluated my understanding of fearing God, but instead of turning to a commentary I turned to the scriptures. I looked in the stories about how people acted when they talked about fearing God. I looked at why He told His people to fear Him and what the consequences would be for not cultivating this attribute. It shook me out of my comfort zone. I had to confront God personally about what He thought about this instead of turning to a commentary. I learned that to “fear” God did mean respecting Him but it also meant fearing Him. The answer didn’t come in a day but over weeks and months of pondering and digging into the hard things that the scriptures teach.
Before this experience, I never realized that everyone I was going to for gospel answers didn’t just read a book and figure it out. They personally spent time reading, pondering, and applying the scriptures in their lives. These individuals weren’t worried about finding out the definition of every word and the meaning of every scripture. They were on a personal journey to wrestle with the hard and sometimes paradoxical messages of the scriptures. More likely than not, they used the scriptures to know God, to draw upon the power of Jesus Christ, and to change their very souls.
Easy Answers vs Personal Growth
Personal growth is what we miss out on if we always get the easy answers from sources outside the scriptures. The scriptures are supposed to be hard. They are supposed to make us stop and think and say, “Is that what God is like?” “Would Jesus really do that?” “Why would God ever command such a thing?” You have two options when faced with such a question. You can either find the easy answer that someone else has already wrestled with, or you wrestle with the question yourself and in the process, learn something new about yourself and grow towards God.
Too many members are outsourcing the experiences they could have with God and Jesus through the scriptures to someone else who has written about theirs. Elder Oaks taught we can’t just be worried about what is good; we need to be urgently seeking what is best. Reading about others’ experiences and thoughts about God is good. Being in the scriptures ourselves and having our own experiences with God is best. No amount of reading can substitute for personal participation in reading and applying God’s Word.
The danger of an addiction to supplemental gospel writings may be suffocating the spiritual air that God’s word is supposed to provide with too many definitions and easy answers. There is nothing inherently wrong with such books. I know people who have incredible personal studies and also find growth in other gospel books. However, I know that there are many who neglect the scriptures and replace them with easier gospel topic books (and you know who you are). Frankly, the scriptures are hard and many gospel books are easy. But I think that is how it is supposed to be. The scriptures aren’t supposed to be a dictionary of gospel definitions. The scriptures are meant to be a journey, a journey of personal growth and a journey to God, not just in heaven but here in our everyday lives.
I do not concern myself much with reading long commentary volumes designed to enlarge at length upon that which is found in the scriptures. Rather, I prefer to dwell with the source, tasting of the unadulterated waters of the fountain of truth—the word of God as he gave it and as it has been recorded in the books we accept as scripture….Through reading the scriptures, we can gain the assurance of the Spirit that that which we read has come from God for the enlightenment, blessing, and joy of his children. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Feasting upon the Scriptures”)
If you know you struggle with neglecting the scriptures for other gospel books my advice is to give them up for a few months, or even a year. You don’t have to let them go forever, but you do need to spend a significant portion of time reading the scriptures in a meaningful way. Wrestle with them; grow with them; encounter Jesus personally through them. You can always add in gospel books later when you feel you’ve established a good foundation reading the scriptures purposely each day. However, if you neglect the time required to have meaningful experiences in the scriptures you may never have the type of experiences that others write about in those books that take the scriptures place.
Chandler Kendall is a co-founder of Bibleaid, a website that provides resources to help Latter-day Saints study the Bible. For more information and resources visit bibleaid.org.