Someone gave it to me in passing a couple of years ago. I opened it the next day, skipped the introduction, and began reading from left to right, as quickly as possible. The first chapter was on “celebration,” and the second was on “gratitude.” Since I felt devoid of both, reading about their explicit practice was too much for me to bear. I felt exhausted, and stopped reading the book altogether.
I know. Awkward way to start a book review.
But I’m reviewing the book because months later, a friend told me that I was not supposed to read it from back to front; and that reading the introduction was vital to my understanding the rest. So I sat back down with what I thought was a terrible book, and read the first twenty-three pages that night. Everything changed. That night.
It morphed from a book about trying harder to a book exposing my innermost self. Calhoun spends the first few pages carefully articulating a theology of desire; that is, how our desires work, how sin distorts our desires, and how God heals them. Against this, I always thought of spiritual disciplines as pietistic acts of self-hatred—-means and methods for suppressing desires, not listen to them. Now, there is a clear thread of self-denial woven through all biblical disciplines; but self-denial is not self-hatred. As Calhoun explains, the process leading to self-denial must inevitably start with a degree of honesty and vulnerability. This means listening to our desires. It doesn’t mean they are right desires. It doesn’t mean God won’t change those desires. It just means they are true, and that they tell us something about ourselves. This makes the beginning of any spiritual discipline fairly straightforward: “We simply desire. We bring our ache for change, our longing for belonging, our desperation to make a difference” (19). All of this then sets us up for any spiritual discipline worth its salt: “they simply put us in a place where we can begin to notice God and respond to his word to us” (19). That’s just from the first few pages of the introduction! The rest explains how our desires help us find what discipline is necessary for spiritual maturity in any given area of our lives.
After reading this introduction, I felt a hunger in me begin to simmer, and skimmed through the various disciplines Calhoun lists to discover what I needed to single out the most in my life. The result has been spiritual, emotional, and even physical health; the thing I’ve learned the most through this process is that time spent alone with God is the best thing I can do for myself and others.
The structure of the book is easy to follow. After the introduction, Calhoun offers sixty-two disciplines (!). This large swathe of practices makes up seven larger groupings: worship, opening self to God, relinquishing the false self, community, hearing God’s Word, incarnating the love of Christ, and prayer.
Each discipline is given a page or two of summary, along with simple, practical instructions, Scriptures, and questions to not only discover which disciplines are right for each person’s desires, but also to guide the process of practicing them once the right discipline is found.
If you have ever felt a longing inside for something deeper in your spirituality, this might be the book for you. If you’ve ever felt a disconnection between your heart and your actions, this might be the book for you. Or if you just want to wake up every day and “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7)—in other words, to live everything Jesus taught and did at every moment of every day…this might be the book for you. Over the last two years, I have felt all of these things to the point of frustration. And this was book really helped me. It is the single most comprehensive, simple, and practical book on the disciplines I’ve ever read. I would probably still be depressed, teasing burn-out, and closed off to God (I share about that here and here) had it not been for the compassionate wisdom and simplicity of Calhoun’s writing. Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended by me.
It’s important at this juncture to know at the outset that spiritual disciplines are the means, not the end. Spiritual transformation is the end. Things get out of hand when these get mixed up. What transforms a person is not disciplines, but the Spirit of God in Christ indwelling the human heart. What disciplines can do is posture that person, already desiring God, to then receive from God and live for God; not just in moments of spiritual prosperity, but in the tedium of normal life. It’s this consistent Spirit-fanned flame of devotion, even if small at first, that causes the Christian life to soar long and true through circumstances and setbacks of any kind. Isn’t this the Christianity we long for? It is available to you. You just have to want it bad enough.
Purchase Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun here.
We’re celebrating Advent at our church. and decided on calling the series “The Arrival.” When Christ arrives, He brings with Him the hope, love, joy, and peace characteristic of the Kingdom.
This is the first sermon of the series; it’s about hope arriving with Christ to his people, freeing them from despair. I pray it bless you on your own Advent!
(Thanks Nathanael Matanick for posting this link)
The past historical event of the resurrection tells us what to believe about Jesus…
The present implications of the resurrection tells us of the justification wrought by Jesus…
The future implications of the resurrection tells us of the hope that we have in Jesus…
Enjoy Jesus, my friends. See you next Sunday at Del Playa Stadium!
So, what does this have to do with a review of a book on God?
What I just described is how many deal with the doctrine of the Trinity, Christianity’s basic belief in a God who exists in three persons. We sense that it’s an important doctrine to believe, but we may not necessarily know why we believe it, or why it matters. So as I did with pre-calculus, we put the doctrine of the Trinity on the shelf where it won’t bother us, but can be easily accessible in case an angel of the Lord drops in to give us a theological pop-quiz.
But there is good news!
Michael Reeves writes Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith to confirm that our intuition is at least half correct. It is an important doctrine, for “what makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God” (15). But it can also be thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, Reeves will make his case that the doctrine of the Trinity is worth pulling off the dusty shelf to gaze at for a while.
The first two sections are worth the price of the book alone.
In the introduction, Reeves explains that the essence of the Trinity is the source of everything Christian you will ever experience, declaring that “what we assume would be a dull or peculiar irrelevance turns out to be the source of all that is good in Christianity. Neither a problem nor a technicality, the triune being of God is the vital oxygen of Christian life and joy” (18). And it’s this hope that Reeves uncoils through the rest of the book.
Having a knowledgable professor (King’s College) write on a weighty topic with a young audience in mind seems to give the book a pleasant feel. Reeves keeps the jargon at a distance, choosing to wrestle only with concepts that satiate the average reader’s appetite for who God is. His writing style is sprinkled with a charming vernacular not ordinarily found in a subject of this girth. For example, he refers to the doctrine of the Trinity as a “perplexing dish” (12), a “vital oxygen” (18), and “delicious” (96). One of my favorite aspects of this book is that Reeves wrestles with your affections, as well as your intellect.
But don’t think this book is only for the young believer. Though Delighting in the Trinity is winsome, it is imbued with a robust theology spanning a panoramic view of church history, ranging everywhere from the Athanasian creed to Martin Luther, from ecclesiastical developments, to vignettes of past saints.
Chapter one is a beautifully crafted doxology. If Reeves desires to persuade you in the introduction, his main intent in this chapter is to thrill you. He moves you past the necessity of believing in the Trinity to wondering how your communion with God ever got along without such a potent view! Interacting with God the Father and God the Son, he tackles the themes of life they affect, from childhood issues and broken relationships to our longing for something more.
The rest of the book is filled with the personal interactions between each Trinitarian Person, where Reeves devotes one chapter to each. This is followed by a treatment of inevitable misunderstandings that are typical when talking about God, such as the reason for evil, and whether God is just in displaying his wrath. Throughout his writing, Reeves never assumes the reader will capitulate to his viewpoints, but carefully navigates his convictions using clever analogies, conditional statements, and sound logic, all of which is done with tremendous compassion.
The book concludes as succinctly as it began, with an intellectually honest appeal to consider the object of your worship. If you are a Christ-follower, or are thinking about becoming one, this is a fine introduction to Christianity’s most enduring tenet: “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three God’s, but one God.” (Athanasian Creed, 15-16)
Get your copy on Amazon!
I was recently communicating the gospel worldview in a Christian church service, and used an illustration to describe the implications of following Jesus. I thought it was a great illustration–I tend to use metaphors and stories that are dramatic–and several Christians pointed out that the illustration was very convicting and effective for them. Christians respond well to certain phrases and one-liners. We use slogans that reflect where we are at in our faith, and they make sense to us.
Shortly after the gathering, a millennial, who was not a Christian or a church-member, approached me with a different response than what I was expecting. She shared with me that my illustration, and the things I said, were confusing and traumatic for her. It made her feel shamed, not convicted. Some of my phrases were foreign to her, kind of the way inside-jokes feel to an outsider who hasn’t been around long enough, and my passion only added to this, coming across condescendingly. She felt that I was looking down on her. Now, this girl was very humble, and gracious in her approach. She never accused me, and spoke in a way that was disarming and conversational. I never felt like she was complaining or attacking me in any way. But it was still a great surprise to me! I had no idea that I was coming across as judgmental. I apologized to her very quickly.
I have posted several blogs on the problem of Christianese (see reader comments!), why we should care what other’s think, that we must make our beliefs comprehensible, and how to speak in everyone’s language, because those outside of our church culture don’t understand the way Christians speak. This experience brought it even closer to home, and humbled me. What made it even more alarming was that the part of my teaching most Christians commented positively on, and that I was most proud of, produced the opposite experience for someone who does not regularly hang out with Christians. I failed to explain a simple truth in a way that she could understand, in fact, I communicated in a way that gave her the wrong impression of the gospel.
I was unaware of this happening because I am so deeply immersed in a church culture that I don’t know how foreign my words are to many people outside of the church. And apparently, lots of my friends talk the same way too, because afterwards, we give each other high-fives over something profound that was said, while others may have no clue what I meant. We can be great at explaining the gospel to each other, but not to those who have never heard it before. I’m really glad that girl spoke up, and was so nice about it. Not only did I get the opportunity to clarify myself, but I also got to understand her worldview, and dialog with her about Jesus and the church.
This is our story.
We’ve discovered that our beliefs about ourself have a profound influence on how and what we worship. The power of the gospel can widen our capacity to worship God with relative ease, since the gospel—with its outlandish teachings of an alien validation wrought in Jesus—manhandles what we end up thinking about ourselves.
We exchange our identities for Christ’s. This is why I spent the first year of Adorn focusing on one section of our vision: Jesus must be our highest joy. It occurred to me that there was no real output (mission) in our first year of gathering, and I often fought with the pressure to create programs, outreach, and missional opportunities for this rambunctious group of millennials. But the God and time would prove my stress unfounded. After a year, a culture had developed where people’s identities were being transformed into the image of Jesus, and the outflow that resulted from inward change would yield far more motivation and opportunity than any program I could contrive or manufacture. Without warning, we had a gathering of young people who were ready to change the world, yet firmly grounded in the unchanging identity of Jesus. It wasn’t “callings” that I was supposed to dish out, but rather, a clear, direct route to the person and work of the mighty Son of God.
If we do not shape our identity around Jesus, we will quickly default, wrapping our individuality around what we can carry out because we are a generation that is driven to make a difference in the world.
Consider these two scenarios…
In the first scene, your passion determines your identity; in the following scene, your identity determines your passion. Since our identity forms our worship, we must be exceedingly careful not to develop our identity (who we are) around our calling (what we do). These things must stay separate! An identity formed in Christ will create the motivation to succeed, without the fear of failure. But an identity formed by calling will relegate worship from God’s performance to ours, and will set us up for heartache when we fail miserably to match his impossible standards in every way. This generation must understand that our primary goal in this season of life is not in figuring out what we are supposed to do, but who we are supposed to be.
Anything I’m missing from this list?
(Thanks for the thoughtful contributions from Derek [#1], Bethany & Matthew [#5], Kaleb [#12]), and Bobby [#15])