Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller

In his mini-book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Tim Keller managed to kick me in the spiritual guts, and I needed it.

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If you know anything about me, you know that I analyze absolutely everything. I critique everything I see, hear, taste, experience, etc. When someone says something, I wonder what they are really saying. When I say something, I wonder what I’m really saying. And while perceptiveness and heightened observational and analytical skills can be an asset from time to time, they certainly create a complicated dynamic in the mix of a sinner being sanctified by God’s Holy Spirit. I have consistently been counseled about my negativity from those who know me best and care for me most. I am constantly deciding if something “measures up.” I’ve struggled with leading confidently because I spend so much time questioning my own motives. And I’ve known that this has been a major hurdle in my christian growth for some time, because in all honesty, the observations are being used to connect everything to me in pride. So when I saw the title of this book last month while perusing Amazon for some good Christmas gift ideas, I knew I needed to read it and be challenged by it. Imagine the fresh air of living in a space without thoughts about yourself – free to focus on God, others, and other things without connecting them to me!

Keller starts his readers off with I Corinthians 3:21-4:7, where Paul says, “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent [justified]. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes…” (4:2-5).

The Corinthians were great examples of how every human ego functions. Instead of celebrating the influences of great leaders in their church (Paul, Apollos, Peter), they were using their connections to these men as a means of self-promotion. They were trying to fill a void in their egos that cannot be filled by any human means. They had put themselves on trial, deciding they didn’t measure up to a self-invented standard, and were trying to exalt their standing in any way they could.

After examining the Corinthian’s error, Keller then applies this pattern of thinking to our own lives. How often do we connect an event, a conversation, a relationship back to ourselves and wonder how we measure up? We enter a room and wonder what people think of us. We meet a new face and measure them while wondering what their opinion of us is. We crumble under the weight of what should be insignificant criticism.  We set goals and make them our measuring stick, only feeling satisfied once they are achieved. We are kind to others, faithful to attend church, careful to live a good Christian life, disciplined, and hard-working but it all ends up being about whether or not we measure up to some line in our own minds.

After examining some of our culture’s answers to the void (the feeling we don’t measure up), Keller then turns to the one permanent solution offered in scripture.

“How did Paul get this blessed self-forgetfulness? He does tell us – but we have to look carefully….he says, ‘my conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent‘…What Paul was looking for…what we are all looking for, is an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable. We look for that ultimate verdict every day in all the situations and people around us. And that means that every single day, we are on trial…Some days we feel we are winning the trial and some days we feel we are losing it. But Paul says that he has found the secret. The trial is over for him. He is out of the courtroom…Do you realize that it is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you get the verdict before the performance?…In Christianity, the moment we believe, God imputes Christ’s perfect performance to us as if it were our own, and adopts us into His family…You see, the verdict is in. And now I perform on the basis of the verdict. Because He loves me and accepts me, I do not have to do things just to build up my resume. I do not have to do things to make me look good. I can do things for the joy of doing them…(pp. 37-41).”

This one simple, often overlooked truth from Paul has so many implications for how I live my daily life, that I’ll be a long time in processing and applying it to my thinking and living. But I look forward to the outcome. I look forward to the fresh air of freedom. I’ve been living on trial long enough. Praise God that His love, His acceptance, and His opinion of our performance is unconditional because of Christ. Now let’s live in fitting response to that freedom, starting today.

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When God Says Wait – Part 3

Things have been busy lately (and will be for the next little while). Hence the non-postage.

But I wanted to share something a friend sent me recently from Paul Tripp that has bolstered much of the learning I’ve been experiencing on the topic of waiting.

Read.

Be challenged and encouraged.

And then read part two.

(The original post can be found here, along with a link to part two of his article).

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God’s Will for Your Wait (Part 1)

Waiting can be discouraging. Waiting can be hard. So what does it look like to wait in a way that makes you a participant in what God is doing rather than someone who struggles against the wait? Let me suggest four things today, and I’ll add three more on Monday.

Remind yourself that you’re not alone

As you wait, tell yourself again and again that you haven’t been singled out. Remind yourself that you’re part of a vast company of people who are being called to wait.

Reflect on the biblical story. Abraham waited many years for his promised son. Israel waited 420 years for deliverance from Egypt, then another 40 years before they could enter the land God had promised them. God’s people waited generation after generation for the Messiah, and the church now waits for his return. The whole world groans as it waits for the final renewal of all things that God has promised.

It’s vital to understand that waiting isn’t an interruption of God’s plan. It is his plan. And you can know this as well: the Lord who’s called you to wait is with you in your wait. He hasn’t gone off to do something else, like the doctor you’re waiting to see. No, God is near, and he provides for you all that you need to be able to wait.

Realize that waiting is active

Usually our view of waiting is the doctor’s office. We see it as a meaningless waste of time, like a man stuck in the reception area until he has nothing left to do but scan recipes in a two-year-old copy of Ladies’ Home Journal.

Our waiting on God mustn’t be understood this way. The sort of waiting to which we’re called is not inactivity. It’s very positive, purposeful, and spiritual.

  • To be called to wait is to be called to the activity of remembering: remembering who I am and who God is.
  • To be called to wait is to be called to the activity of worship: worshiping God for his presence, wisdom, power, love, and grace.
  • To be called to wait is to be called to the activity of serving: looking for ways to lovingly assist and encourage others who are also being called to wait.
  • To be called to wait is to be called to the activity of praying: confessing the struggles of my heart and seeking the grace of the God who has called me to wait.

We must rethink waiting and remind ourselves that waiting is itself a call to action.

Celebrate how little control you have

Waiting is difficult for us because we want to be little gods that reign with complete power over a small piece of creation. But ultimately that’s a draining and futile pursuit, so waiting should actually be a relief to us. It’s a reminder that I don’t have as much power and control as I thought I had.

Pastors, elders and ministry leaders, let me speak to you right now. When you’re required to wait, you realize again that you don’t have to load your church onto your shoulders. You may have God-given responsibilities in a number of areas, but that’s vastly different from pretending you have sovereignty in any area.

The church is being carried on the capable shoulders of the Savior Shepherd and the King of Kings. All we’re responsible for is the job description of character and behavior that this King has called us to in his Word. With the remainder, we’re free to entrust to him, and for that we ought to be very, very thankful! He really does have the whole world in his hands.

Celebrate God’s commitment to his work of grace

As you’re waiting, reflect on how deeply broken the world that you live in actually is. Reflect on how pervasive your own struggle with sin really is. Then celebrate the fact that God is committed to the countless ways, large and small, in which his grace is at work to accomplish his purposes in you and in those to whom you minister.

When it comes to the ongoing work of grace, he is a dissatisfied Redeemer. He won’t forsake the work of his hands until all has been fully restored. He’ll exercise his power in whatever way is necessary so that we can finally be fully redeemed from this broken world and delivered from the sin that’s held us fast.

Celebrate the fact that God won’t forsake that process of grace in your life and ministry in order to deliver to you the momentary comfort, pleasure, and ease that you would rather have in your time of exhaustion, discouragement, and weakness. He simply loves you too much to exchange temporary gratification for eternal glory!

~ Paul Tripp


The Hidden Smile of God – A Book Review

“With great spiritual privileges comes great pain. It is plain from scripture that this is God’s design: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself!” Great privilege, great pain, God’s design. So it was with Bunyan, Cowper, and Brainerd. But they did not all have the same pain. For Bunyan it was prison and danger, for Cowper it was lifelong depression and suicidal darkness, for Brainerd it was tuberculosis and the ‘howling wilderness.’

What was the fruit of this affliction? And what was the rock in which it grew? Consider their stories and be encouraged that no labor and no suffering in the path of Christian obedience is ever in vain. ‘Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face’” (14).

So ends the preface to John Piper’s book, The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. God has greatly used this book to illustrate biblical truths about himself to me, and to solidify my trust in His sovereignty.

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There can be no harder test of your trust in God than to face suffering that comes straight from His decree and design. It would be one thing if a person caused you hurt. God would still have allowed it, but there would have been an intermediary choice maker who was most likely in sin. But when there’s no one standing between you and God during your time of pain, that is when trust is most potently tested. It is difficult to know that your suffering comes (in a different sense) straight from God’s hand – meaning that he designed it and intends to use it in his plans. But it’s that very truth – that he intends to use it – that has brought me the most comfort through the past year and a half. Even today as I write this, my fiancée, Anna, and I are facing new trials and are finding comfort in the truth that God is somehow using it for good. She keeps saying to me that, “God is doing a thousand things in everything he is doing,” a very helpful and needed reminder.

INTRODUCTION:

Piper wisely begins the book with an introduction that highlights the fruit accomplished in their suffering before delving into the darkness of their experiences. Also, he handles the question of God’s role in our suffering (designer yes, but not implicated in sin).

“The afflictions of John Bunyan gave us Pilgrim’s Progress. The afflictions of William Cowper gave us [hymns like] “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” And the afflictions of David Brainerd gave us a published Diary that has mobilized more missionaries than any other similar work. The furnace of suffering brought forth the gold of guidance and inspiration for living the Christian life, worshipping the Christian God, and spreading the Christian Gospel.

There is a certain irony to the fruit of these afflictions. Bunyan’s confinement taught him the pilgrim path of Christian freedom. Cowper’s mental illness yielded sweet music of the mind for troubled souls. Brainerd’s smoldering misery of isolation and disease exploded in global missions beyond all imagination” (19).

“We are the beneficiaries today of the fruit of their affliction. And God’s design in it is that we not lose heart, but trust him that someone also will be strengthened by the fruit of ours” (38).

CHAPTER ONE:

Piper recounts the events surrounding the long imprisonment of John Bunyan, which prompted Bunyan to pour himself into Bible study and to write as extensively as he did. It has been said in reference to the apostle Paul that much of the New Testament’s existence is owing to his long periods of imprisonment. Though Bunyan’s works came after the close of the scriptural canon and are not God-breathed, the same thing could generally be said about his active writing career. His passion to dig deep into God’s Word and then to correspond with his church in writing has given us many great works, not the least of which is Pilgrim’s Progress.

“This, in the end, is why Bunyan is still with us today rather than disappearing into the mist of history. He is with us and ministering to us because he reverenced the Word of God and was so permeated by it that his blood is ‘Bibline’ –the essence of the Bible flows from him.

And this is what he has to show us. That “to live upon God that is invisible” is to live upon the Word of God. To serve and to suffer rooted in God is to serve and suffer saturated with the Word of God.” (78).

CHAPTER TWO:

If there has ever been a man who fits the description of a troubled soul, William Cowper was the man. His mother died when he was 6 years old and his father sent him away to school. His courtship and engagement to his loving best friend was suddenly broken off by his father-in-law to be and she remained single for the rest of her life due to grief. They corresponded in writing but were never married. His shaky career was derailed when mortal fear of a public interrogation-like job interview sent him into what would be the first of 4 major valleys of depression in which he would repeatedly try to take his own life.

“In 1786 Cowper entered his fourth deep depression and again tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide…He wrote his last original poem in 1799, called “The Castaway,” and then died…

William Cowper’s melancholy is disturbing. We need to come to terms with it in the framework of God’s sovereign power and grace to save and sanctify his people. What are we to make of this man’s lifelong battle with depression, and indeed his apparent surrender to despair and hopelessness in his own life?” (98-99).

““Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification….” One might wish that the story were one of emotional triumph after his conversion. But it did not turn out that way. Far from it.” (93-94).

“God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower” (80).

CHAPTER THREE:

When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable….Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God….Oh, that I may feel this continual hunger, and not be retarded, but rather animated by every ‘cluster from Canaan,’ to reach forward in the narrow way, for the full enjoyment and possession of the heavenly inheritance. Oh, that I might never loiter on my heavenly journey!” (122).

To read Brainerd’s writings and to meet the man in person would likely have seemed to be two contrasting experiences. His relationship with God and his love for scripture poured out with passion in his writings. But his solitary personality, gloomy moods, and almost constant, debilitating struggles with health would have made him a solemn roommate.

Piper gives enough background about Brainerd’s struggles to help us understand where the gloominess comes from. His tuberculosis made life difficult, let alone trying to minister to the native villages that he travelled to. His desire and vision for ministry seems not to have been realized (at least not what he dreamed of accomplishing). But the limitations he faced in public ministry were made up for in God’s blessing of the influence of his writings on many others who would take the gospel around the world.

“We turn finally to the question, what was the fruit of Brainerd’s affliction?….As a result of the immense impact of Brainerd’s devotion on his life, Jonathan Edwards wrote, in the next two years [after Brainerd’s death], the Life of David Brainerd, which has been reprinted more often than any of his other books. And through his life the impact of Brainerd on the church has been incalculable. Beyond all the famous missionaries who tell us that they have been sustained and inspired by Brainerd’s Life, how many countless other unknown faithful servants must there be who have found from Brainerd’s testimony the encouragement and strength to press on!” (155).

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CONCLUSION:

Piper’s main purpose in this book is not merely to recount the difficult events of the lives of three faithful servants of Christ. His purpose is to use those accounts to solidify our confidence in God’s goodness even in the middle of our trials.

“The afflictions of John Bunyan and William Cowper and David Brainerd were not for naught. The pebbles did not drop in vain—neither in their own lifetimes, nor in the centuries to follow. God has breathed on the waters and made their ripples into waves. And now the parched places of our lives are watered with the memories of sustaining grace” (164).

The waves of cause and effect resulting from Heather’s cancer and death have just begun to travel through time. But I am confident in God’s design despite those plans involving my pain. I trust Him. I know it has brought Him glory. And I know it will continue to do so in His perfect way.