“Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance of books does his life consist of his library.”
A pastor in a small church received his first book allowance, provided by the church. He began to purchase the books he needed to stimulate his thinking, improve his understanding, and jolt his conscience. His library grew. Later, at a larger church the book allowance increased, and he was able to add resources of his own to enlarge his collection of fine books. Added to this was the enjoyment of finding rare volumes or used ones at the various bookstores, thrift shops, and booklists. He collected books for his family as well, since he wanted his children to be good readers. He wanted them to find books whenever they wished from among his growing collection, even with their pajamas on. After all, they would inherit his library one day. It had to be the best. His investment in time to buy books merged with his pastoral work, since it seemed to be one and the same.
Yes, it was a hobby, in one sense, though a beneficial one, he reasoned. The collection of books began to be prized for its size and scope. This was a library anyone would be proud to own. Other pastors looked on with envy at the array of tomes arranged so perfectly on his shelves, and especially at the rare books that he had gotten for almost nothing. Each purchase had its story. All his friends and all the church members thought the pastor must be very smart to own all this cloth bound knowledge. The pastor knew that he didn’t read one book out of twenty, but he consoled himself to know that at least, if a book were ever needed, or a subject ever raised to be explored, he would have the information readily available. It was beautiful to look at, yet, much to his dismay, there were still boxes of books sitting around filled with the most recent purchases, and some books had to be put away out of sight, or double-shelved, an unpleasant prospect for a collector.
One day the pastor said to himself, “What am I going to do since I don’t have enough shelves to store all my books?” Then he said, “This is what I’ll do: I will take down this old hodge-podge of shelving that I have constructed with boards and bricks and build new shelves, all matching. I’ll make them tall—up to the ceiling in height, so that I can store all my library neatly, attractively and conveniently with some room left over for new purchases. I’ll put them in the main rooms of the house, the basement, and, of course, in shelves covering the walls of my church office. Then I can say to my soul, “Eat chips, drink fine coffee, read and be happy, for a resting place has been found for all your massive library.”
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own all these books that you have collected?”
Indeed, God was right. The books that had eaten up so much of his time were not wanted by his children. They loved God, but had learned from their father’s poor example not to hoard. They preferred a small collection of usable books, and the use of the local library system or some online source. The supposed value of the collection took on a new prospect as the pastor reflected on this. He had thought of his collection as a pleasing gift to his family one day, and this had prompted much of his buying.
Then, the pastor mused, “I will sell the books.” But as he thought through the various options for selling them, he was disappointed to find that they took much more effort to sell than to buy. And, sadly, the value had gone down on most books due to all the people selling on the Internet, and because of digital versions provided free online. The pricing, promoting, selling, packaging, and mailing of books seemed a cruel price to pay for owning such fine works. Indeed, when he thought through things more carefully, he realized that, except for some exceptional volumes, it might be cheaper to burn the library than to sell it, especially if he intended to make even considerably less than minimum wage in the process. He knew their intrinsic value was much more than the actual value booksellers, who seemed to have no conscience, would be selling them for. Yet their pricing had to be his pricing.
The pastor thought, “If I give my library to some other pastor, it may distract him as it has me. And giving it away to a thrift store is a huge financial loss, since I don’t need the charitable write-off anyway.”
Of greatest concern was the neglect he had of the Bible, the sixty-six book library that was his first possession. He claimed he loved it, but his greed for more and more books proved otherwise. How easily, after a little devotional reading, he would turn from it to read sometimes for hours some new book. He had owned the Bible for years, yet was master of few, if any, of its books. His view of studying for sermons was even about books, as he spread commentaries and other resources over his table whenever he tackled a passage. He did not meditate on Scripture, but on what men said about Scripture.
He was in thick soup. He could not turn any way that proved satisfactory to him. And as God brought home the wickedness of his hoarding, he grew increasingly convicted. He knew that there was some value to books, properly used. There were books that could change a man’s life, but he knew that in the limited time he had on earth, he had better become a master at “the” Book, if he would ever please God.
In this state he died. The family was stuck with the huge collection. They tried to give some of the books away, but they were really not sure of which books came from the heresy section of his library and which were to be recommended to a young pastor. Once a couple of boxes of books were taken to a bookseller, but he only wanted a few volumes out of all that were brought. They tried to sell some in a garage sale, but few were bought there as well. Finally, they were donated to a charity thrift store. More than likely, a young pastor who is only beginning to be enamored with books will find a goldmine of them there and begin his own journey toward hoarding them.
Religious books solidly conforming to the Bible are not evil. Far from it. All of us can testify to being changed in good ways by the books we read. For instance, the reading of biography can be life shaping and provide just the role model needed, often far better than the examples of all others in your life, including parents and contemporary believers. Or, what can we say about those technical books that help us navigate through Scripture, or perhaps those volumes on biblical backgrounds? We can all name various works that are worth having. We should acknowledge this. But hoarding books that are not being read is a form of greed. And, if you have not found it out already, it is a way of eating up your life. Then, if you try to sell them down the line, you will be dismayed at the time investment required to do so compared to the return. Many hoarders of books have eventually come to realize that spending life’s hours collecting books to make an impressive library robs you of time in the Bible. It eats away at your desire to read the Bible; it is a substitute for reading the words that God says have life. Many pastors have wasted lots of God’s time this way, and for little good. Some of the worst believers and most inefficient pastors and leaders I know have great libraries, although the opposite might also be said.
I know there are the Spurgeons out there, who somehow manage to put God’s words first even though inundated with books. But sometimes, I wonder, does reading Puritans at night before preaching in the morning, the practice of Spurgeon, really substitute for Bible meditation? If it worked for him, will it work for us? Do we think we will glean more from these books about the Bible than the Bible itself? Doesn’t the time we invest say something about what we think is most important?
I’ve spent my life around pastors and church planters. I can tell you that most of them do not eagerly talk about new findings in the Bible, new insights from Jesus’ teachings, how they find Christ in the Old Testament, how passages are coming alive to them because they are finally understood. No, mostly they talk about what others say in the books they read. They speak like hoarders of books rather than lovers of the Bible. For me, correcting this problem takes true repentance. But, in my experience, and the experience of generations of Bible lovers, substituting saturation in the Bible for inordinate hours in uninspired books will do something for your soul that cannot be done otherwise.
What I’ve written is not entirely autobiographical, but it is close. I’m now in the process of removing loads of books from my shelves. Digging out will take a while and may be painful. For some time most of these books have been of little use to me except to hold dust and to look good. I have grown more and more in my desire for the Bible over these last years. Now I’m trying to master the books God guarantees will mold my life and provide the confident overflow of understanding I need to pass on to others. I’m repentant and happy about it. Sadly, I am more right than you may know about how much difficulty there is in disposing of books in such a way that honors God.
Travel lightly through this world.
Copyright Jim Elliff April 9, 2011; reposted June 14, 2021