You know how I keep telling you I’ve read the Best Book Ever and I just have to share it? Yes, this is another one of those posts. Except this time, really, this book is amazing! It’s called With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, by Skye Jethani (note the link to his blog on the right side of this page). His previous book, The Divine Commodity, was excellent, and I highly recommend it. But this time, Jethani hit the ball out of the park. In one relatively short volume he manages to diagnose the problems with much of what passes for American Christianity, and offer a solution that leads directly back to Jesus. Pretty impressive!
In many churches, especially fundamentalist ones, faith has become a list of rules to obey, lest God become angry with our miserable, sinful selves. We’re motivated to obey God—or else. Legalism is pretty easy to spot in someone else’s church, but it can creep into even the most Godly congregation, as morality degenerates into moralism. Or it shows up when we try to bargain with God—”I’ll (pray more, read my Bible, stop swearing, etc.) if You will only (get me this job, heal my child, find me a spouse, etc.).” Jethani labels this way of relating to God “Life UNDER God.”
Or perhaps you view the Bible as a set of useful principles, sort of a handbook for life, written by the Manufacturer. You’ve seen the ads: The Bible Money Code, Seven Steps to a Happy Marriage, Biblical Principles for Effective Ministry, and so on. As I’ve noted in a previous post, it’s possible to live one’s life according to Christian values, while totally ignoring God.
It’s this mentality that resulting in an article I read recently, in a magazine aimed at church pastors. The author listed a page-full of practices that would improve a brain-storming session—things such as providing munchies, avoiding distractions, curbing rabbit trails. But nowhere in the article was God mentioned, not even once. There was no suggestion to pray for inspiration, or to listen to the Holy Spirit, who just may have some opinions to offer. Most common among highly competent people, such as business executives, Jethani calls this belief that we’re fully capable apart from God, “Life OVER God.”
Then there’s the prosperity gospel, the “name it and claim it” crowd. The Bible is full of verses urging us to ask God for whatever we want, and we want it all. God is viewed as a genie here to grant our every desire, or perhaps He’s a vending machine—put in the proper prayer and out pop the goodies. When we approach our faith from this point of view, our focus is on self. This focus on seeking the gift rather than the giver is called “Life FROM God.”
Jethani’s next chapter was one I identified with all too well, and it’s probably the most common among those in ministry: “Life FOR God.” At first, I didn’t see the problem. What’s wrong of wanting to live for God? But when I started reading, I saw his point—it’s not what we’re doing, but rather our motivation. We want to impress God with our service. We want to be significant. It’s all about us and the mission God has given us.
All too often, this attitude leads to burnout. If things are going well, we may say that God gets the glory, but it reflects pretty well on us, too. But when things don’t go as planned, our only option is to try harder. We want our ministry to be effective because our self-worth is linked to what we’re able to accomplish. It’s the results that matter, right?
In this view, there’s an implied hierarchy of vocations, with pastor or missionary at the top and secular jobs far down the list. Many churches subtly reinforce this attitude by making much of those with big, impressive ministries while ignoring the faithful servant laboring in obscurity.
If this is all the “Christianity” we’ve experienced, no wonder we’re frustrated and disappointed! While these four ways of relating (or not relating) to God all have a kernel of truth in them—God does expect moral behavior, He does give us guidelines to live by, He is our generous Father, and He did create good works for us to do—our problem comes when we take them to extremes and use them as substitutes for His presence in our life.
So then, what should be our focus?
God was with Adam and Eve in the garden and when they sinned, He searched for them. All through the Old Testament, He cries out for Israel to be with Him. Jesus came to break down the barrier of sin keeping us apart from God, so we could have access to His throne. And Revelation describes how God will dwell with us for eternity.
In the second half of the book, Jethani describes how being with Jesus is the ultimate goal of our faith. With plenty of stories and other examples, he talks about control vs. trust, hope, and love. He even includes an appendix on “Communing With God” to get us started.
I recommend this book for anyone who identifies with any of the postures mentioned above, for anyone disappointed with Christianity or the church, for those curious and/or seeking, and for anyone who knows anyone like that.
And then, when you’re done, read the sequel: Futureville. I just started chapter 1.