The Good and Beautiful God
Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows
James Bryan Smith
InterVarsity Press, 2009, 229 pp. ISBN 978-0-8308-3531-7
Smith is a theology professor at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. He has studied extensively under Dallas Willard and Richard Foster and authored other books including a biography of Rich Mullins. This is a book on soul training, the first of a three-part curriculum for developing Christ-likeness in individuals and churches. At the end of each chapter are soul training exercises. A small group discussion guide is included at the end. See also www.apprenticeofJesus.org.
1. What are you seeking?
The passion of my life has been to discover how we become like Christ. The problem is that we have never been taught a reliable pattern of transformation. We change by changing the way we think. We must examine what we think, what we practice, and who we’re with. “If we think the things he thought, do the things he did and spend time with likeminded people, we will become like him, and it will not be difficult.” (23) The triangle of transformation includes the stories in our minds, engaging new practices, and reflecting with others on the same path under the leading of the Holy Spirit.
We live by our stories. We turn things into stories to make sense of life. Our stories help us navigate the world and provide meaning. They determine much of our behavior. Our narratives run (and sometimes ruin) our lives. Having identified our stories, we can measure them against the truth from Jesus. We can deepen the right stories by practicing activities, soul-training exercises, that make them real in our minds and bodies. This works best in a group. The Holy Spirit is our unseen teacher. He comes alongside and illumines our mind, intercedes for us, and helps us in our weaknesses.
What we truly desire, what we are most passionate about, will determine how we organize our lives.
“The number one enemy of Christian spiritual formation today is exhaustion.” (33)
2. God is good.
When considering narratives about God, ask: Is this understanding of God consistent with the God Jesus revealed? Jesus’ view of God is one who is altogether good and is always out for our good, even when we don’t understand it.
We never know why anything happens to us. All these things are beyond our grasp. But one day we will understand. All the judgments of God will be clearly fair. Jesus experienced suffering. He understands. God’s goodness isn’t determined by my judgment. My disappointments with God tell about me, not Him. We do not ask for trials but we grow through them.
3. God is trustworthy
4. God is generous
“The dominant narrative of the Bible is a story of unearned grace, of a God whose love is not thwarted by human sinfulness, and of a Christ who dies for sinners (Romans 5:8). The minor narratives are a part of the ambiguity of all epic stories.” “Therefore we should interpret the entire Bible and each of its parts in light of Jesus. It is noteworthy that every time Paul brings up a story from the Hebrew bible, he interprets it in the light of Jesus.” (79)
5. God is love
Soul Training. The spiritual exercise called lectio divina is a method of reading the Bible that involves listening with the heart. “In lectio divina we turn to a passage of the Bible—usually no more than a few verses—and read it over and over, very slowly, reflecting on each word and phrase, all the while paying attention to the impact the words have on our hearts. In this way we are ‘praying the Scriptures.’ It is very different from studying Scripture, in which we come to the text to try to understand its meaning. In lectio divina, the Bible passage ‘studies us.’” (108)
6. God is holy
One the one hand some think God is mad all the time. Others think God does not care about our sin. The teddy-bear god seems inviting, but a nonwrathful god is powerless against the deep darkness of sin. God’s wrath is a beautiful part of the majesty and love of God. God is both kind and severe. We cannot have one without the other. And this is very good news.
Love is the desire for the well-being of another, like a parent’s love for a child more than infatuated teenagers for each other. It is not an emotion that wanes. Neither is wrath. Wrath is not God’s fit of rage. It is his consistent opposition to sin and evil. His wrath is not reckless and irrational but a mindful, objective, rational response of love. “God is fiercely and forcefully opposed to the things that destroy his precious people.” (121) God’s wrath is “a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil.” (121, quoting J. I. Packer)
God’s essence is holiness. God is pure—no sin, evil or darkness. “Wrath is the just act of a holy God toward sin.” “Wrath is what humans experience when they reject God. And it is a necessary part of God’s love.” “God is against my sin because he is for me.” (123) “Though we are now reconciled through Christ, God is not indifferent to my sin. It hurts me, and therefore it hurts God—because God loves me.” (124) “Being soft on sin is not loving, because sin destroys.” (125)
7. God is self-sacrificing
Jesus’ death is the core of Christian theology, and yet its significance is often misunderstood. Repentance cannot change our corrupt nature. Our human nature can be reversed only by the sacrifice of complete incorruption. Jesus reverses the original Fall by doing for us what we could not do for ourselves by sacrificing His own sinless body.
The disgrace they thought to inflict on Him has become the glorious monument of death’s defeat. The cross, meant for shame, stands for all eternity as a symbol of the glory of God. Self-sacrifice is the highest act of love. The more we come to know God, the more natural self-sacrifice will become for us. It is a key principle of the Kingdom: what we let go of will never be lost but becomes a thing of beauty.
8. God transforms (the power of the resurrection)
When we think of ourselves as sinners, our mental picture of ourselves in our old body with our old memories and our old habits makes it easy for us to continue in sin. We must change our narrative. We are no longer defined by sin. We have been reconciled and sin has been defeated. He took away the guilt of sin and the power of sin. We are forgiven so we can learn to become holy. Christ dwells in the Christian. We are a new species, a new creation, with Christ within. We are butterflies, not worms with wings. We must learn to live a new way in relationship with and in utter dependence on God. We must get the narrative right and practice spiritual exercises to deepen our awareness and experience of truth.
“The spiritual life is not a life of laws and precepts but a life of participation, affection and love, a life mingled and mixing with God.” I make choices in the light of who I am, not to determine who I am. I am meant to house the fullness of God. “The New Testament approaches the Christian life by telling us who we are and whose we are, and then it encourages us to live in a manner worthy of that identity.” (164)
9. How to make a pickle
Soul Training. “The deepest part of the soul likes to go slow, since it seeks to savor rather than to accomplish; it wants to rest in and contemplate the good rather than hurry off to another place.” (189, quoting Robert Barron) “We are driven by speed and stimulants, and thus the most needed discipline for us is to slow down, to calm down, and to make time for rest and contemplation.” (190)
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