Periodically, someone will ask what books have shaped my thinking and impacted me greatly. Books have unlocked key concepts for me in some of the hardest times of my life.
Here are the top six books that God has used to get me “unstuck” during those hard times.
This one sounds like a good Christian response to a typical churchy question, but this book has truly opened my mind to things beyond what we can currently see.
It has shaped my identity, my values, my understanding of who God is, and my understanding of His relentless pursuit of us. It is life-giving, and it has withstood the test of time, persecution, attempted extermination, textual critics, and more. It is unbelievable and yet credible.
I grew up in the South and went to church a few times a week. I memorized verses, went to Christian camps, went on mission trips, and did many other church activities. No one never said that we had to earn God’s favor, but it sure felt like that. If I slacked off on Christian duties, I thought God was very displeased with me, and I felt great shame as a result.
After attending seminary and doing a few years of vocational ministry, I read this book and it changed both my understanding of how God saw me and also my understanding of how I needed to see others. Instead of being motivated by shame and judging others by their merits, I learned to do my best out of a response to God’s love and hopefully, to extend the same grace to others.
The reality is, we are all undeserving and in need of grace, and God pours it out.
In my early forties, I hit a wall. I found myself in a counselor’s office, barely able to function. I had gotten away from my understanding of grace and was depending on my gifts, skills, insight, and more to control my world. Once I realized I couldn’t control things any longer, I cracked.
One of the books I read in that season was The Return of The Prodigal Son. I grew up always hearing about how we are like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. But what struck me most from this book was Nouwen’s insight that, in reality, I was more like the prodigal’s older brother.
I realized that I felt as though God owed me for being a good son. I also found that I was quite judgmental of those who looked or acted like the prodigal son. And I rediscovered that there was even grace for me, the judgmental older brother.
I read this book in seminary, but I must have done so because it was on the required reading list. I did not take the time to absorb it until I found myself living a boundaryless, co-dependent life that was killing me.
Through helpful teaching from Townsend and Cloud and through carefully reading and writing chapter summaries of this book, I started changing interactions with family members and with people I served through my job. This was life-changing. It has helped me realize that boundaries aren’t ungodly and selfish, but rather helpful, protective, and life-giving.
This has been “my book” for the last couple of years. In it, John Townsend gives a clear picture of what a healthy person looks like. He talks about navigating seven different types of relationships; he also helps us understand that we have various needs that can only be met through other people.
I used to hate having needs and tried to live in denial of them. I also hated to share those needs with others. Once I understood the four quadrants of needs and started addressing them with comrades, I found myself more energized and more free from various stress points in my life.
I recommend this book every week to different people.
My job often calls me to create teams and help teams to function at a higher level. After hearing Patrick Lencioni talk about teams, I bought his book, read it, and then bought several copies and distributed them to staff leaders. I now use this as a primary textbook for onboarding new staff. I have found his five concepts to be spot-on and extremely helpful for every team.
The beauty of a Patrick Lencioni book is that it usually includes a one-page summary. He makes complex ideas simple, and I love simple.
I have friends whose lists of impactful books are much longer than mine—more like a “Top 100” than a top six—due to their ability to read and digest books so quickly. I, on the other hand, am a bit stubborn and get drawn to books out of need and sometimes out of desperation. Whatever your reading pace, I highly recommend the above six books. They have truly been transformative and life-giving to me.