Book Review: Suffering Is Never for Nothing

Suffering Is Never for Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot is “a very slight adaptation” of a series of talks Elisabeth gave at a conference. Someone had given a set of the conference CDs to Jennifer Lyell. She was so blessed, she gave copies to others. Finally she met and befriended Elisabeth and her husband, Lars, when Elisabeth could no longer speak. Later she obtained permission to transcribe the talks and have them published.

Though this volume wasn’t published in Elisabeth’s lifetime, if you’ve read her books, listened to her radio program, or heard her speak, you’ll hear familiar themes.

Just a bit of background for those who might not be familiar with Elisabeth: she and her husband were missionaries to an Indian tribe in Ecuador when several of the missionary couples were burdened to try to reach a tribe then known as Aucas ( later it was discovered they called themselves Waorani). The Aucas were thought to be a savage tribe: their every encounter with any from outside their world ended badly. After several seemingly friendly encounters, the men thought the time had come to try to meet the tribe in person. The first visit went well, but then the Aucas speared all five of the men to death. A few years later Elisabeth, her young daughter, Valerie, and Rachel Saint, sister to another of the men, Nate Saint, went to live with the Auca/Waorani. Elisabeth shared that story in Through Gates of Splendor. In later years, Elisabeth remarried, but her second husband died of cancer. Before that marriage, Elisabeth lost almost the entire body of the translation work she had painstakingly labored over in the jungle. Along with these major losses in her life, she’s dealt with the everyday ones we all face.

I don’t know if Elisabeth intended to start a writing career when she published her first book: she was still a missionary in the jungle at the time. But God led her to write several more. I was one of many who considered her a mentor from afar, appreciating her no-nonsense, straightforward style and firm foundation on the Word of God.

To come back to this book, after naming several examples of suffering, Elisabeth boiled it down to this definition: “Suffering is having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have” (p. 9). That’s well and good, but what do we do about it? Elisabeth says, “I’m convinced that there are a good many things in this life that we really can’t do anything about, but that God wants us to do something with” (p. 8).

Probably our biggest struggle concerning suffering is wondering where God is in it and why He allows it. Verse after verse assures us that God is right there with us in suffering. And some passages give us a few ideas of why He might allow it. Elisabeth says, “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and hottest fires have come the deepest things I know about God . . . The greatest gifts of my life have also entailed the greatest suffering” (p. 9).

Still, “There would be no intellectual satisfaction on this side of Heaven to that age-old question, why. Although I have not found intellectual satisfaction, I have found peace. The answer I say to you is not an explanation but a person, Jesus Christ, my Lord and my God” (p. 12). She shares that when she first heard the news that her first husband was missing, she didn’t hear anything more about his condition or whereabouts for five days. God brought to her mind Isaiah 43:2-3: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.” She realized God wasn’t promising anything about her husband, but He promised to be with her.

“The questions remains, is God paying attention? If so, why doesn’t He do something? I say He has, He did, He is doing something, and He will do something” (p. 13).

She discusses the perspective of the cross and the two different kingdoms, the one on this world and the kingdom of God.

It’s He who was the Word before the foundation of the world, suffering as a lamb slain. And He has a lot up His sleeve that you and I haven’t the slightest idea about now. He’s told us enough so that we know suffering is never for nothing (p. 16).

We are not adrift in chaos. To me that is the most fortifying, the most stabilizing, the most peace-giving thing that I know about anything in the universe. Every time that things have seemingly fallen apart in my life, I have gone back to those things that do not change. Nothing in the universe can ever change those facts. He loves me. I am not at the mercy of chance (p. 43).

Faith is not a feeling. Faith is willed obedience in action (p. 45).

She then discusses our response: acceptance, gratitude, offering whatever it is back to God, and the transfiguration He works in us, with a chapter devoted to each of those.

Now if I had had a faith that was determined God had to give me a particular kind of answer to my particular prayers, that faith would have disintegrated. But my faith had to be founded on the character of God Himself. And so, what looked like a contradiction in terms: God loves me; God lets this awful thing happen to me. What looked like a contradiction in terms, I had to leave in God’s hands and say okay, Lord. I don’t understand it. I don’t like it. But I only had two choices. He is either God or He’s not. I am either held in the Everlasting Arms or I’m at the mercy of chance and I have to trust Him or deny Him. Is there any middle ground? I don’t think so (pp. 26-27).

Many years ago I read a different book by Elisabeth on this topic, A Path Through Suffering. At first I thought this was a republication of that book by a different name. It’s not, though. Some of the information probably overlaps, but they are two different books, both worthy to be read and extremely helpful.

I enjoyed reading this book over the last few weeks with the True Woman Summer Book Club and looking through the comments and study questions there.

(Sharing with Grace and Truth, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

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Book Review: Buried Dreams, Planted Hope

Katie Neufeld was the young daughter of our pastor when we lived in GA several years ago. In the intervening years she grew up, went to college, became a nurse, met the man of her dreams, and got engaged, following close to God each step of the way.

Then the unthinkable happened. A few months before the wedding, Katie and her fiance, Jerod, were in a horrific car accident, hit from behind and “pinballed” between two other cars. Jerod did not survive his injuries.

Katie shares her story in Buried Dreams, Planted Hope. She tells her background of how God worked in her life as she grew up, how she and Jerod met and fell in love, the accident, the raw grief afterward, and the many ways God ministered to her heart. Her father, Kevin, writes from his standpoint as a parent helping his daughter through such deep pain. At some point he realized he had suffered a loss of a friend and future son-in-law as well and had his own grief to deal with in addition to hers.

Part of their reason for writing is to share with others who might be going through their own season of grief the comfort and hope that they’ve found. Their joy is not the pasted-on, grin-and-bear-it, “everything is fine” when it’s not variety. It’s hard-won, through the pain and not bypassing it. There are still unanswered questions and mysteries about God’s will in all of this. But they’ve found, as Job and countless others have, that God shares Himself even when He doesn’t give satisfactory answers to our whys.

A few of the quotes I marked:

We made the conscious choice to be honest about our thoughts and feelings with those around us. Far too often Christians froth at the mouth with pious platitudes and paint an impossibly rosy picture (p. 3).

In all of these things, God is really taking me back to the basics and teaching me to trust. To believe that He will take care of me and provide for me in this drought. When I start to worry or dread, I am not trusting. As messy and ugly as the circumstances of my life are right now, I know my God, and I know I can count on Him (p. 113).

That last quote reminded me of something Spurgeon said about Hebrews 12:27, that God sometimes shakes up our world “that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.”

One of the lessons we learned was that it wasn’t our job to stop her tears. The Bible says to weep with those who weep. Oftentimes we attempt to stop the tears of others, but this, though well-intended, turns out to be more about our own discomfort with tears than the one who sheds them. In those initial days, there were many times where we would wrap our arms around Katie and cry with her (p. 142).

Taking every thought captive isn’t an easy or a one-time-fix-all task, but it’s a critical skill to learn and put into daily practice that will serve you well when those thoughts start to creep in that you know are not of God (p. 243).

When I reached my rock bottom, I found that Jesus was the Rock at the bottom, that sure and steady Rock that I could hold onto, the Rock that I realized was already holding on to me. And in those darkest and lowest moments, when He was all I felt I had left, I realized like no time ever before that He was all I’d ever needed (p. 245).

Suffering has this way of liberating us from the petty concerns and worries of everyday life. It clears the clutter and idols and helps us realize that Jesus really is all we need (p. 247).

Even though my story doesn’t have the cliche happy ending right now, there is still joy, although different from any I’d ever experienced in the past. A more pure form of joy (p. 252).

One of the ways God ministered to Katie was by unexpectedly bringing across her path people further along on the road of grief who could assure her that she wasn’t crazy, understand her feelings, and provide hope that things would get better. Katie and Kevin want “to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved, and Booknificent)

Book Review: How to Understand and Apply the New Testament

I had several reasons for getting How to Understand and Apply the New Testament by Andrew David Naselli. I very much enjoyed his book about the conscience. We attended the same church (though several years apart) in SC (in fact, I’m pretty sure I knew his wife and her parents when she was a little girl). He has respect for two men from that church whose exposition I trust more than anyone else’s. And the book I am writing discusses understanding and applying the Bible, among other things, so I wanted to use this book as a reference.

As I perused the table of contents and flipped through several pages, however, I wondered if perhaps I was in over my head. But I gleaned much that was beneficial for this average suburban homemaker. Even when the author used terms unfamiliar to me, he explained them in a way that was easy to understand.

Naselli starts by explaining the difference between exegesis — drawing the meaning out of the text — and eisegesis — reading meaning into a text. And of course we want to do the former: we want to understand what God said and meant in His Word, not project our own thoughts onto it.

Naselli then details several ways to exegete a text. First you have to consider the genre. For example, poetry has different characteristics from the law and prophecy, etc. Then he advocates comparing the manuscripts or copies of the original text, studying Greek grammar, and comparing translations. He shows different ways to trace the process of thought through a passage. He advocates studying any passage both in its historical and cultural context as well as its literary context (how it fits within the particular book of the Bible). He recommends word studies to help understand words and phrases in the text more clearly. Then he considers different theological aspects: biblical theology, how the passage relates to the Bible and its progression as a whole; historical theology, how Bible scholars have understood the passage through history; systematic theology, how a passage fits into the teaching of the rest of the Bible; and practical theology, how to apply the text to ourselves and others. He devotes a chapter to each of these topics. He doesn’t check all of these off as a list each time he studies, but they each factor into his study to varying degrees.

Admittedly, some of this is beyond many of us. Most Christians don’t study Greek or know how to navigate textual criticism (although he explains textual criticism very well). We rely on a good study Bible to help us out with some of these categories. Nevertheless, there were good points to consider in every chapter. And Naselli ends every chapter with a list of resources for further study and commentary on each one, like which he considers the best, which is more scholarly and which is more accessible, etc. And, as he notes in the chapter about Greek grammar, “at the very least, this chapter can help you better appreciate grammatical issues that interpreters wrestle with” (p. 82). That applies to some of these others issues as well and should motivate us to pray for our pastors, and for ourselves, as we study.

Though I have myriad places marked, one of my biggest takeaways from this book was what he calls argument diagram: not an argument as in a fight, but as in a debate: discerning the line of thought in a passage. We tend to read isolated passages rather than tracing the flow all through a given book and within particular passages. As he says:

The New Testament is not a list of unrelated bullet points. It’s not pearls on a string. No, the New Testament authors argue. They assert truths and support those truths with reasons and evidence. They attempt to persuade others to share their views. Their arguments are always profound and sometimes complex. Connectives such as but, therefore, and because can be hugely important to understanding what an author is arguing. Tracing the argument is not dull. It makes your heart sing” (p. 123).

The last thought he pulls from a letter of C. S. Lewis, in which Lewis speaks of studying

. . . the general drift of whole epistles: short passages, treated devotionally, are of course another matter. And yet the distinction is not, for me, quite a happy one. Devotion is best raised when we intend something else. At least that is my experience. Sit down to meditate devotionally on a single verse, and nothing happens. Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden (p. 123, from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis).

Naselli then explains and provides examples of several ways of tracing an argument through a passage: arcing, bracketing, and phrasing. I had never heard of any of these, but they all look beneficial. Phrasing appeals to me the most.

A few quotes that stood out to me:

The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. So a sound principle is that we should interpret less clear passages in light of more clear passages. We shouldn’t zoom in on just one text and interpret it without reference to the rest of the Bible. That’s what heretics do (p. 16).

Don’t view English Bible translations as a competition–in which you choose one as the best and then look down on the rest as inferior in quality. Good Bible translations are incredibly helpful resources, and English readers should benefit from more than one of them. It’s both-and, not either-or (p. 60).

Grammar matters because God chose to reveal himself to us with grammar (p. 82).

Sometimes a New Testament author may write a command to prevent an error rather than to counteract a present error. When you see a command or prohibition in a text, you shouldn’t automatically assume that this reflects a present problem in the church that the author addressed (p. 172).

The beautiful thing about the Bible is that it never gets old. You can read it every day and make connections that you hadn’t made before (or remind yourself of details and connections you had forgotten!). It’s a special book–a book like no other, a book God himself wrote. And we have the pleasure of reading it at this time of salvation history: Jesus the Messiah has come, and he is coming back to consummate his rule. So read every part of the Bible in light of the whole (p. 239).

Christ-centered teaching and preaching is not eisegesis. It’s exegesis that requires biblical theology. It doesn’t creatively make stuff up to imaginatively get to Jesus. It follows themes and trajectories that are right there in the text if God gives you eyes to see them. And when you do see them, you worship God for his wisdom. He breathed out Scripture through individual men who didn’t always understand every nuance of typological trajectories to which they were contributing. And the entire finished product brilliantly coheres (p. 238).

I have no patience for suggestions that preachers need to dumb it down. Preachers need to be clear, and they need to be able to explain things in understandable ways. But human beings do not need the Bible to be dumbed down. If you think that, what you really think is that God the Holy Spirit did not know what He was doing when He inspired the Bible to be the way it is. Not only does the suggestion that the Bible is more than God’s people can handle blaspheme God’s wisdom; it also blasphemes His image bearers. People are made in the image of God. Human beings are endowed with brains and sensibilities of astonishing capacity (p. 258, from a quote from James M. Hamilton Jr.’s Text Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon).

As you can surmise, this is not a cozy, warm fuzzy type of book. It’s more of a “gird up the loins of your mind” book. But that’s exactly what the Bible tells us to do. And, as the author quotes B. B. Warfield as saying, “pitting doctrine against devotion is a false dichotomy because God intends them to go together” (p. 9). He quotes Warfield further from “Spiritual Culture in Theological Seminary”:

I have heard it said that some men love theology more than they love God. Do not let it be possible to say that of you. Love theology, of course: but love theology for no other reason than that it is THEOLOGY–the knowledge of God–and because it is your meat and drink to know God, to know him truly, and as far as it is given to mortals, to know him whole (p. 10).

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: Love Is Not a Special Way of Feeling

I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes struggle with the concept that Christian love, agape love, is said to be more about what we do than how we feel. Yet 1 Corinthians 13 warns that we can do notable, even sacrificial things without love, which sounds like clanging gongs and such. So if I go through the motions of, say, caregiving without feeling warm and loving about it, is that lacking in Christlikeness and therefore assigned to the gong department?

Evidently this question has been on my mind for a long time, because I got this book, Love Is Not a Special Way of Feeling, way back in college. Yet, somehow, I never got around to reading it. I just rediscovered it recently and determined to get it read this year.

First of all, I do not know much about the author, Charles G. Finney. I had heard him quoted favorably in my first few years as a Christian (which probably was a factor in my picking up this book). In more recent years I’ve heard him referred to negatively as somewhat manipulative in his revivalist methods. His Wikipedia page says he was an advocate of Christian perfectionism, which I do not believe in (not until heaven, anyway). So I especially prayed for discernment while reading this book.

As it turns out, the text of this 1963 book is taken from a section of Finney’s 1846 Lectures on Systematic Theology titled “Attributes of Love.” The latter is much more accurate. The back of the 1963 books admits the new title was an attention-getting device.

After a chapter on “What is Implied in Obedience to the Moral Law?” Finney discusses three to four attributes per chapter. Some you would expect: kindness, impartiality, holiness, truth, justice, sincerity, self-denial. Some were a surprise and took a bit of reading to discern how he meant them in regard to love: economy, efficiency, severity, complacency, and others. Some words have changed since the book was originally written. Finney supports some of these attributes with Scripture; others seem based on conjecture.

The language was very difficult to work through: the back of the book and the foreword concede that. But if I am reading him correctly, he seems to be saying that emotions are in themselves neutral. They are only good or bad depending on one’s will or intention. Anger can be a sin or not, depending on what one is angry about. There’s a righteous anger against wrong-doing, like slavery, human trafficking, abuse, etc. But there’s an anger the Bible warns against, especially in Proverbs, Colossians, and Ephesians. I don’t think I’d agree entirely with the thought that emotions are totally neutral, because some of them spring from my sinful nature before I even have time to think about will and intent.

On the other hand, faith is not based of feelings: it is based on facts. He remarks rightly, I believe, that too many Christians, when asked about their spiritual life, will reply with how they feel.

They judge their religious state not by the end for which they live–that is, by their choice or intention–but by their emotions. If they find themselves strongly exercised with emotions of love to God, they look upon themselves as in a state well-pleasing to God. But if their feelings or emotions of love are not active, they of course judge themselves to have little or no religion (p. 31).

I agree that our spirituality is not just a matter of our feelings. But I disagree “that feeling and outward action are only results of ultimate intention and in themselves neither virtue or vice” (p. 125).

Some of Finney’s statements were helpful. Some I strongly disagreed with.

The biggest takeaway from the book for me was that a thought or feeling can sometimes be just a temptation and not a sin in itself. I’m sure I knew this to a degree, but these pages brought it home to me in a new way.

Patience as a phenomenon of the will, tends to patience as a phenomenon of the sensibility. That is, the quality of fixedness and steadfastness in the intention naturally tends to keep down and allay impatience of temper. As, however, the states of the sensibility are not directly under the control of the will, there may be irritable or impatient feelings, when the heart remains steadfast. Facts or falsehoods may be suggested to the mind which may, in despite of the will, produce a ruffling of the sensibility, even when the heart remains patient. The only way in which a temptation, for it is only a temptation while the will abides firm to its purpose, I say, the only way in which a temptation of this kind can be disposed of, is by diverting the attention from that view of the subject that creates the disturbance in the sensibility. I should have said before, that although the will controls the feelings by a law of necessity, yet, as it does not do so directly, but indirectly, it may and does often happen, that feelings corresponding to the state of the will do not exist in the sensibility. Nay, for a time, a state of the sensibility may exist which is the opposite of the state of the will. From this source arise many, and indeed most, of our temptations (pp. 66-67).

I wish now, then, to state distinctly what I should have said before, that the state or choice of the will does not necessarily so control the feelings, desires, or emotions, that these may never be strongly excited by Satan or by circumstances, in opposition to the will, and thus become powerful temptations to seek their gratification, instead of seeking the highest good of being. Feelings, the gratification of which would be opposed to every attribute of benevolence, may at times co-exist with benevolence, and be a temptation to selfishness; but opposing acts of will cannot co-exist with benevolence. All that can be truly said is, that as the will has an indirect control of the feelings, desires, appetites, passions, etc., it can suppress any class of feelings when they arise, by diverting the attention from their causes, or by taking into consideration such views and facts as will calm or change the state of the sensibility. Irritable feelings, or what is commonly called impatience, may be directly caused by ill health, irritable nerves, and by many things over which the will has no direct control. But this is not impatience in the sense of sin. If these feelings are not suffered to influence the will; if the will abides in patience; if such feelings are not cherished, and are not suffered to shake the integrity of the will; they are not sin. That is, the will does not consent to them, but the contrary. They are only temptations. If they are allowed to control the will, to break forth in words and actions, then there is sin; but the sin does not consist in the feelings, but in the consent of the will, to gratify them. Thus, the apostle says, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” That is, if anger arise in the feelings and sensibility, do not sin by suffering it to control your will. Do not cherish the feeling, and let not the sun go down upon it. For this cherishing it is sin. When it is cherished, the will consents and broods over the cause of it; this is sin. But if it be not cherished, it is not sin (pp. 67-68).

The example from which Finney posits this truth is Christ in Gethsemane.

Patience as a phenomenon of the will must strengthen and gird itself under such circumstances, so that patience of will may be, and if it exist at all, must be, in exact proportion to the impatience of the sensibility. The more impatience of sensibility there is, the more patience of will there must be, or virtue will cease altogether. So that it is not always true, that virtue is strongest when the sensibility is most calm, placid, and patient. When Christ passed through his greatest conflicts, his virtue as a man was undoubtedly most intense. When in his agony in the garden, so great was the anguish of his sensibility, that he sweat as it were great drops of blood. This, he says, was the hour of the prince of darkness. This was his great trial. But did he sin? No, indeed. But why? Was he calm and placid as a summer’s evening? As far from it as possible.

Patience, then, as an attribute of benevolence, consists, not in placid feeling, but in perseverance under trials and states of the sensibility that tend to selfishness. This is only benevolence viewed in a certain aspect. It is benevolence under circumstances of discouragement, of trial, or temptation. “This is the patience of the saints.” (pp. 69-70).

In conclusion, at the very least I can say that I have finally read this book. I gained perhaps a bit more insight into my original question of faith vs. feeling, but not a definitive answer.

As I have thought through this repeatedly over the years, I agree that love sometimes means doing the right thing despite feelings. A weary mom awakened by her baby for a 2 a.m. feeding probably doesn’t feel warm and loving at first. She probably feels groggy and maybe even grumpy at having to get up in the middle of the night. But those warm, loving feelings kick in later. I don’t necessarily feel the joy of ministering to my family as I make dinner: sometimes I am frustrated at not being able to finish whatever I was doing. I don’t feel kind and loving when I’m interrupted at the computer just when I’m on a roll in my writing. And some of those irritations at being interrupted are selfish. But the kind and loving thing to do is to give my attention to my loved one and hope that the brilliant ( 🙂 ) thoughts come back to me later. “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:17, KJV). But, hopefully, as I grow in the Lord, my feelings as well as my actions will line up more and more with a true expression of godly love.

Book Review: Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon

SusieSusie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Wife of Charles H. Spurgeon is a new biography by Ray Rhodes, Jr. Susannah’s life can’t be told apart from apart from her husband’s, but Rhodes doesn’t describe her just in relation to Charles. He tells her own story fully.

Susie, as she was called because her mother and an aunt were also Susannah, “shared a lifetime” with Queen Victoria. “Susie was five when Victoria was crowned, and she died two years after Victoria’s death.” She was a city girl, living in London all her life and traveling often to Paris.

She became a Christian at about age 21, but experienced a lot of doubts for a while thereafter. She was not impressed with Pastor Spurgeon at first. He came from a rural background, and:

Charles violated her preconceived notions of what was appropriate for a polite young man in Victorian times, and a preacher at that. Susie found Charles’s hair, suit, mannerisms, and his provocative preaching style offensive. Later, reflecting on her earlier sentiments, she wrote:

Ah! How little I then thought that my eyes looked on him who was to be my life’s beloved; how little I dreamed of the honour God was preparing for me in the near future! It is a mercy that our lives are not left for us to plan, but that our Father chooses for us; else we might sometimes turn away from our best blessings and put from us the choicest and loveliest gifts of His providence.

Charles’ counsel and gift of Pilgrim’s Progress helped Susie. It wasn’t long before his pastoral concern turned romantic. The sections about their courtship are sweet, but Susie had a cold splash of reality one day. Charles was asked to preach somewhere and Susie accompanied him. They got separated in the crowd, but Charles never noticed. Lost, alone, and upset, Susie went home. Her mother “wisely reasoned that my chosen husband was no ordinary man, that his whole life was absolutely dedicated to God and His service, and that I must never, never hinder him by trying to put myself first in his heart.”

Charles and Susie married and enjoyed home life, travel, and togetherness. They had twin sons, Charles and Thomas. But both Charles and Susie developed health problems. He suffered from gout, kidney problems, and depression. It’s not known exactly what Susie’s health issues were, but severe endometriosis is suspected. She had surgery at one point but spent much of her life in pain. Sadly, she usually could not accompany Charles to places he was advised to go for his health. But he wrote to her every day, and their letters to each other are often delightful. In one of his letters from before they were married, Charles wrote:

I shall feel deeply indebted to you if you will pray very earnestly for me. I fear I am not so full of love to God as I used to be. I lament my sad decline in spiritual things. You and others have not observed it but I am now conscious of it; and a sense thereof has put bitterness in my cup of joy. Oh! what is it to be popular, to be successful, to have abundance, even to have love so sweet as yours, if I should be left of God to fall and to depart from His ways? I tremble at the giddy height on which I stand, and could wish myself unknown, for indeed, I am unworthy of all my honors and my fame. I trust I shall now commence anew and wear no longer the linsey-woolsey garment; but, I beseech you, blend your hearty prayers with mine, that two of us may be agreed, and thus will you promote the usefulness and holiness and happiness of one whom you love.

Once Susie wished aloud that one of Charles’s books could be sent to poor pastors who could not afford a much-needed library. Charles said, not in these words but to this effect, “What are you going to do about it?” That was the beginning of Susie’s book fund, which grew far beyond what she envisioned at the beginning. In one particular month, Feb. 1883, Susie received 657 letters. In 1886 she distributed 9,941 volumes. Correspondence as well as packaging, sending books, and seeking donations was a blessed ministry yet took time and energy. This ministry spawned others, like a pastor’s aid society for sending money and clothes, an auxiliary book club for lay preachers, and the Home and Foreign Sermon distribution. She said, “It is the joy of my life thus to serve the servants of my master.” She felt that the confinement necessitated by her illness enabled her to minister in these ways.

Though Susie knew some congregations were themselves poor and could not provide for their pastors, she encouraged those who could to do so in her book Ten Years of My Life in the Service of the Book Fund:

Keep your minister’s table well provided, and you shall be fed with the finest of the wheat; see that his earthly cares do not press on him painfully, and your own hearts’ burdens will be lifted by his heavenly teachings; supply him with this world’s needful comforts, and he will not fail to bring you solace and consolation in the time of your extremity. If he has sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if he shall reap your carnal things?

Susie did a fair amount of her own writing, and, after Charles’s death, was instrumental in planting a church and edited The Sword and the Trowel magazine.

I’ve read Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon by Charles Ray several times, and this book draws heavily from that one. But Ray’s book was written in 1903, not long after Susie’s death. I’m sure more resources were available to Rhodes than Ray might have had, plus over 100 years of perspective adds to Rhodes’ book.

I did get just a bit frustrated at times with how the book was laid out. Though Susie’s life is covered chronologically, at each point Rhodes goes backward and forward in time to pull details about that point. So there’s a lot of back-and-forth and repetition. It helped to think of the book as a documentary. I listened to the audiobook, but I think this book would be better read than listened to.

Nonetheless, this is a great resource. I enjoyed so much hearing again the parts of Susie’s life that I knew and learning what I did not know. I appreciated the historical context, something Ray’s book could not have given as effectively since it was written in the same era. I especially enjoyed both Charles and Susie’s letters. And I was blessed by her heart and her walk with God. One phrase that stood out in many of her writings was “the glory of God.” Everything she did was ultimately for His glory.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Come Back, Barbara

Come backFather and daughter C. John Miller and Barbara Miller Juliani team up to share Barbara’s prodigal daughter story from both sides in Come Back, Barbara. In each chapter John – also known as Jack – shares situations from his point of view at the time, then Barbara shares hers.

Miller and his wife, Rose Marie, thought they had a fairly normal Christian family until Barbara suddenly announced at eighteen that she wanted nothing to do with their rules and their Christianity any more. She wanted freedom on every level. The Millers were stunned. They had caught Barbara in a few lies over the years but thought those were isolated incidents. Her outward conformity for most of her life had fooled them into believing her heart was right as well. They realized they had been mistaken in not looking below the surface.

For a time they puzzled over comparing what they had always thought about her and the “new Barbara” emerging now. It just didn’t seem to fit – she had seemed like a genuine Christian. They thought at first that perhaps she was just going through a rebellious phase and would hopefully come out of it soon. Gradually they realized that her rebellion and deception went further than they had ever guessed. They had to accept, by her words and actions and reactions, that she was not a Christian, though she had once professed to be.

There’s no five-step foolproof plan to winning back a prodigal, but Jack shares some of what he learned. First, he had to realize he was truly powerless. All his efforts backfired. Often control is the first weapon against rebellious children. Of course, some degree of control is necessary in raising children, but parents “have to confront your own manipulative techniques of consolidating power” (p. 160).

Many fathers and mothers are simply more satisfied with a child’s conformity and less concerned with the youngster’s motivation and hidden desires, with what the Bible calls “the thoughts of the heart.” Often unconsciously, the self-centered parent labors to form an orderly child who performs well in public and does not shame the family by disturbing the status quo. The problem, of course, is not with the orderliness of the child, but with the shaping of a person with a desensitized conscience, a performer who has never learned to love God or people from the heart (pp. 160-161).

He had to give up control to God and depend on Him to draw Barbara to Himself. He also had to confront his own sins, realizing the irony of God’s using a rebellious child to show him his own heart.

And he had to genuinely apologize to Barbara. Even though he felt wronged and wounded, he could not hold on to victim status. He had to confess his wrongs whether she did or not. And that humility and honesty was a step in the right direction in their relationship.

The constant practice of forgiveness leaves no room for self-righteousness. Frustrated condemnation of others and treasuring of old wrongs are not part of the artillery of God, but the slithering, slimy, deadly creatures of the Prince of Darkness (pp. 79-80).

Jack and his wife wrestled for a long time over whether Barbara had apostatized and how to respond if she had. Finally they just had to accept that she was not a believer and treat her as they would any other unbeliever. They just had to show her Christ’s love. That didn’t mean accepting everything she did, but she knew where they disagreed. They asked that some things not be done in their house.

Showing such love in the face of disdain and rebellion is exactly what God has done for us. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NASB). Drawing from His love and grace enabled them to show love and grace to Barbara.

We were facing the death side of the Christian life, but there was a resurrection waiting to take place as we stepped into the grave. Today it is my conviction that no matter how heavy the blow inflicted by circumstances, each negative experience is part of the heavenly Father’s perfect plan for each believer. He allows the hour of destruction for the purpose of building something better in its place. Our part is not to run away from the pains but to walk through the briars and thorns and let Christ teach us how to turn each scratch into positive learning about the depths of God’s love (p. 67).

There is no more impenetrable barrier to God’s love than the sense of being right. So often self-righteousness controls a parent’s attitudes toward a rebellious offspring (p. 150).

He’s not saying to ignore right and wrong: they had to stand up for right and truth often. But they had to “speak the truth in love,” not from a sense lofty condescension.

Many parents tend to turn out an erring child, and sometimes indeed that’s the only option. The prodigal in Scripture left his father’s house in rebellion, and Barbara did that for a while, too. But Jack and his wife felt they needed to be open to Barbara, and when she moved back in their area, the Millers welcomed Barbara and her friends in their home, to show love and kindness to them as Jesus did with “tax collectors and sinners.”

At one point Barbara had “come back” in the sense of “settling down,” becoming responsible, not engaging in destructive behaviors. But she still was not a believer. As Jack pressed that point, it led to a major battle between him and Barbara.

Barbara, meanwhile, began “groping for the light while still resisting it” (p. 139). “Many painful things happened to me during this period, but the work of the Holy Spirit was to gently lead me from darkness to light” (p. 167). She described it like walking into a large, dark room, turning on the nearest lamp, moving to another area and turning on another lamp, continuing until there’s enough light to clearly see. She didn’t think she could have stood it if God had turned all the lights on at once. “Instead, God showed me the truth about myself bit by bit, in pieces I could handle” (p. 167.) One “light” was the realization that the things she thought would bring her happiness and allay her insecurities and anxiety could not. She was still unhappy, anxious, and insecure though at one time she had everything she thought she wanted. Another “light” was realizing her tendency to deceive and blame-shift. One by one God opened her eyes to the needs of her own heart and to His love.

I’ve noticed that C. John Miller has written some other books, but I don’t know anything about his theology other than what is in this book. One aspect that I was a little wary of was what he called “praying with authority.” In my experience, people using that kind of terminology advocate “demanding” answer to prayer, which to me seems to contradict the humility and surrender manifested in Scripture. But from what’s said in this book, that didn’t seem to be what they were talking about. Jack’s wife had said in the beginning of their troubles that she felt like an orphan. But gradually she realized she could come to God as a child to her Father, basing her requests on Scriptural truths. If that’s what they mean by praying with authority, then, yes, I agree. I was also a bit cautious when they talked about “claiming” certain things, associating that with the “name it and claim it” culture. But, again, in the context here that doesn’t seem to be what they are referring to.

I found this book on a sale table at a Christian bookstore years ago: the name in the title caught my eye. 🙂 I don’t know why I haven’t gotten to it before now, but I am glad I finally did. I marked many more places in the book than I have space and time to share here. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a prodigal friend of family member or anyone who wants to read how God worked in lives to bring people to Himself.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: More Than These

More Than TheseWhen I saw More Than These: A Woman’s Love for God by June Kimmel featured at By the Book, my interest was piqued for three reasons: JustRead Publicity Tours was sponsoring a giveaway of the ebook; I had used some of June Kimmel’s Bible studies before; June’s son-in-law was our youth and music pastor at the church we attended when we first moved to Tennessee, and he and his wife are some of the dearest people on the planet. Fortunately, I won a copy of the book!

The premise of the book is that we have multiple facets of our lives that vie for first place in our hearts, crowding out our first love for God. Some of these are God’s good gifts, like family, friends, and ministry. But when they take His place, we’re not loving either Him or them in the best way. Others are sinful aspects that we need to put to death. So June examines several of these issues, couching them in a time when she and her husband felt led of the Lord to move from South Carolina, where they were near all of their grown children and grandchildren and had jobs and ministries they loved, to Wisconsin for a new ministry opportunity.

A few quotes from the book that stood out to me:

Without love, our good efforts are empty and hollow. We are useless and unprofitable if our service, however noble, is done without supreme love for God.

We must be in the Word to know God’s promises. Sometimes people expect God to do what he never promised to do.

May we see beyond the circumstances of the moment and praise God continually. May our fear never exceed our love for God.

Do you have goals for tomorrow? Did that ambition begin at the feet of the Lord Jesus? Our plans may be exactly what God has for us, but is it the dream we long for or the Master?

We all have positive and negative experiences to recall, but God doesn’t want us living in the past or focusing on it instead of Him. God simply wants to use our past as a tool to shape us into His image.

Unless we surrender our fearfulness to the Lord, it will draw our focus off the Savior by consuming our thoughts. The circumstances intended to draw us closer to the Master will attempt to capture the throne of our heart.

June encourages us to “diligently study His Word and endeavor to take the truths we learn and turn them into daily actions that demonstrate the goodness of our God.” The more we get to know Him, the more our love for Him grows.

I would have preferred the study questions at the end of each chapter rather than all together at the end of the book, but that’s just a matter of personal preference.

Thanks to June, By the Book, JustRead Publicity Tours, and Ambassador International for the giveaway and for sending me a copy of the book!

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Drawing Near to the Heart of God

Heart of GodI had read a number of Cynthia Heald‘s Bible studies in my early married days, but I couldn’t remember much about them. So when I came across Drawing Near to the Heart of God: Encouragement for Your Lifetime Journey (previously published as A Woman’s Journey to the Heart of God), I gave it a try not just for the content, but also to reacquaint myself with Heald’s writing.

Heald frames the Christian life as a journey. The first section covers “Essentials for the Journey,” like “Traveling Light” (things to set aside), “Righteous Clothing” (holiness), “The Guidebook” (the Bible), “Fellowship With Our Guide” (abiding in Christ), and others. Section Two focuses on “The Destination: God’s Heart” and spends time on some of His attributes. The last section. “Enjoying the Journey,” covers “Bearing His Fruit,” “Experiencing His Rest,” “Living for the Eternal,” and “Bringing God Glory.”

Heald writes in an easily understood style. She particularly handles Biblical stories well, drawing the reader right in to what the character was probably feeling without a lot of extra-biblical conjecture.

A few of the many quotes that stood out to me:

My journey to the heart of God does not begin tomorrow; the choices I make today determine whether I move towards Him or toward self and the world (p. 20).

[Re the Israelites failure to obey God and go into the promised land the first time] The people decided to focus on the potential risks instead of the promised blessings (p. 47).

My definition of abiding is “consistently sitting at the feet of Jesus and continually depending upon Him by listening to His words with a heart to obey” (p. 68).

When you fear God, you will be freed to listen to His “fear nots” (p. 87).

We cannot expect to make steady progress on our spiritual journey if we insist on taking little side trips away from the highway of holiness (p. 110).

Since we can do nothing to captivate [God’s] love, we can do nothing to lose it (p.136).

God has His time schedule, and He uses what we call delays to produce in us patience and trust and to accomplish His purposes in establishing His kingdom (p. 234).

To understand the difference between living for heaven and demanding that life here on earth be like heaven is an important lesson in learning to live for the eternal (p. 241).

I disagreed with her in a few spots, like when she said the Bible is “one of the best ways to hear God speak” (p. 244). It’s not just one of the best – it is the primary way we hear from God, some would say the only way. She speaks of “hearing God’s voice” in a couple of places, but I don’t think she means it in terms of an audible voice or extra-biblical revelation. This would have concerned me more if she had written anything doctrinally questionable. I also wouldn’t endorse everyone she quotes.

But for the most part, this is a fairly solid explanation of how to grow in the Christian life. Even though I was already familiar with these truths, it was good to go over them again.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)