Don’t be surprised if, one day, you find me wandering through a library. I enjoy almost everything about libraries—the smell of books, the idea of discovering old treasures that have been lost for decades, and the ability to get lost in the labyrinth of shelves that reach to the ceiling.
Truth be told, I’ll just wander around the campus library sometimes to calm myself at the end of a hectic school day. I’ve found that surrounding myself with the voices that are bound in those leather and paper covers helps me recover proper perspective.
How does an old library do that to me? To ask it another way, what can we learn from a stroll down the many rows that fill a library? I’d like to give you three lessons that have struck me:
First, I’m finite. On any given aisle, I can find loads of books that I’d like to read. My lifespan could be that of a bowhead whale, and I still wouldn’t exhaust my reading wish list. Millions of books have been printed, and there’s no way one person could ever read them all. The problem is simple, yet unsolvable: I’m human. I have limits. There is much in the world that I do not know, and that is one fact which will never change.
So my walks up and down the aisles of the library are actually humbling for me. At the sight of the works lined up from floor to ceiling, I am visually reminded that I am not God.
Second, I have a specific place in history. Our love in America for all things modern runs deep. We embrace “new” ideas because we believe that is progress, the jettisoning of stale ideas for seemingly fresh ones. Here’s a secret though: we don’t have any new ideas, just a repackaged version of old ones. Even this insight is borrowed. The Preacher wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us” (Eccl. 1:9–10).
We don’t live as individuals isolated from the past. Our lives are deeply affected by those who have gone before us. Libraries can help us catch a glimpse of our indebtedness to previous generations. When I pass by a book on Athanasius, I’m reminded of the saints who have zealously defended the faith from heresy so that I might know the true message of the gospel. If I see a book detailing the life of a soldier in WWI, I encounter the sacrifice that others have made so that I may enjoy freedom. Likewise, passing a work on the history of missions helps me realize all of the pieces that had to fall into place for me to receive the gospel at this place during this short time period known as my lifetime.
Living in the 21st century doesn’t mean standing above the previous generations. It means that we stand on their shoulders, being indebted to them for the many blessings that we are able to enjoy. Though I may never read half of the books in the library, I am certainly thankful for their contribution to the society and culture which I have inherited.
Third, I am filled with a sense of urgency. This last one is more of a result of the previous two. When I am forced to recognize my finiteness and my specific place in history, a desire to act wells up inside of me. I’m finite, and there is much for me to learn; therefore, I cast aside some of the more meaningless things in life in order to make time for the important. This is not learning just for the sake of gaining more knowledge. It is filling our minds with truth so that our thoughts and actions reflect the Truth.
Strolling through libraries also fills me with urgency to act for the good of those who will come after me. In what way will I aid future generations in their growth in Christ? What about you? This doesn’t have to be limited to writing books. Maybe it will simply come through a couple of young men that you have discipled who will go on to disciple others who will go on to disciples others who will go on to disciple others and so on. I don’t know what it looks like for your life. I don’t even know exactly what it looks like for my life, but I do know that we should live to encourage and build up those who will live in the next scene of human history.
The next time you’re in a library, stop and listen to the many voices that fill those volumes of pages. You may be surprised. They may just teach you a lesson before you even crack a book.