Sunday, April 19, 2015

Smith's "Good and Beautiful God"

I finally read The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows, the first of the James Bryan Smith "Apprentice Series". (The good and beautiful "Life" and "Community" follow "God" in the trilogy.) He sees these forming a "curriculum for Christlikeness" (13, 14). This phrase comes from Dallas Willard's awesome book, The Divine Conspiracy, and was one of many inspirations for our Thoroughly Equipped (DC)

As an aside, Smith's goals for multiplication and disciple-making are less direct than ours in DC. In the intro, he mentions leading three groups of 25 people through a 30-week course he developed. I'm confident that his mentees were greatly influenced by this-- often in a life-changing way: "...the results have always been the same: significant life change.") By way of comparison and contrast, DC is longer (21 months) and seemingly more intense; it relies far less on the initial source (Kurt and I have only led 50 of our 2000 "graduates"); and it is more explicitly focused on multiplying disciple-makers. 

First, Smith's overview of his own journey and his amazing set of mentors. He refers to himself as "the Forrest Gump of the Christian world" (10). It's funny and true, with mentors like Willard, Richard Foster, Rich Mullins, Henri Nouwen, and Brennan Manning!

As for the book's structure, there are nine chapters, seven covering a principle about God's character. (The intro chapter asks about the reader's goals; the concluding chapter reminds us that the process of discipleship and sanctification takes a lot of time.) Each chapter concludes with a relevant activity/exercise in "soul training". (These exercises are commonly called "spiritual disciplines", but Smith wants to avoid that term.) Each exercise can be practiced individually, but is ideally done in community for accountability, comparing notes, etc. The seven principles: God is good, trustworthy, generous, love, holy, self-sacrificing, and He transforms.

Another key theme for Smith is "false vs. true narratives" and its application appears in every chapter. We convince ourselves on things about God that aren't true-- and get ourselves in a lot of trouble, theologically and practically (25-26). These should be replaced by true narratives (Rom 12:1-2, Col 3:2, Phil 2:5). 

The false narrative where Smith brings the most value (alone, worth the price of the book): chapter 6 (esp. p. 115-125) on "God loves sinners but hates sin". Smith observes that we usually err in one of two ways, elevating God's wrath against "sinners" and/or diminishing his passion against sin. Smith quotes Romans 11:22 on the kindness and severity of God". But he notes that "Integrating God's love and his wrath is difficult. Most people don't; they simply decide to go one way or the other." (118) 

Key points: "The cushy, fuzzy god is neither biblical nor truly loving...powerless to stand against this darkness...the wrath of God is a beautiful part of the majesty and love of God...The wrath of God is not a crazed rage but rather a consistent opposition to sin and evil...the wrath of God is pathos not passion...God is never described by Paul as being angry...Wrath is not a permanent attribute of God [but] is contingent upon human sin...Wrath is not something that God is, but something that God does. While it is correct to say that God is holy, it is not correct to say God is wrathful. Wrath is the just act of a holy God toward sin." (116-117, 120-121, 123)

Other stuff:
-Smith is careful to balance God's provision and our participation:  God's grace within justification and here, sanctification-- but also our work within that grace through the disciplines and otherwise. 

-Smith explains the origins of Brennan Manning's first name (142): His original name was Ray but he changed it after his best friend Brennan saved his life by diving on a grenade. Wow!

-Some really good stuff from Smith on Psalm 23: God is present, pure, and powerful; and He provides, pardons, and protects (60-62). "Psalm 23 is a beautiful expression of the kingdom of God, in which God is with us, caring and providing for us, and blessing us, even in trying circumstances...this psalm is not primarily for funerals but for everyday life...Try to recite this psalm before you fall asleep each night and again when you awake...This psalm contains a narrative about the exceedingly generous God. By letting the images wash over your mind, you imbed this true narrative into your soul." (90-91)

-Smith is good on why we should not underestimate what God has done in dealing with the power of sin as well as the guilt of sin (153). This reminds me of Watchman Nee in The Normal Christian Life on God dealing with sin and "the sin factory". Smith compares Christians saying "I'm just a sinner saved by grace." to "I'm just a worm with wings." before asking "Why would a butterfly want to act like a worm?" (156)

-I LOL'ed at this quote on the common idea that we're too busy, choosing the good over the best: "Most of us do not need to eliminate bad things from our lives...Which should I keep? Bible reading or recreational drug use?" (181) And he repeats a funny/telling story of Dallas Willard communicating wisdom to John Ortberg on the occasion of him taking a new, demanding role in ministry. Willard's only counsel: "Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life." (183) Smith concludes "It is possible to act quickly without hurrying...Hurry is an inner condition..." (183)

-Finally, I like Willard's line that God can only bless you where you're at. In contrast, we're often trying to get out of various circumstances. Smith runs with that theme and offers an exercise to help: He tells his son that they can leave a place (where the boy is bored) when he notices five things about the place he hadn't noticed before. After his boy found the first thing, here is "the amazing thing. Instead of wanting to leave right away, he kept looking around." (172) The punch-line: "Stop feeling bored and start enjoying life." (173) Or quoting Robin Myers: "In every waking hour, a sacred theater is in session, played out before an audience that is largely blind." (185)


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