What stands between you and a deeper spiritual life that makes you more like Jesus? For some, it’s a simple matter of not knowing how to pursue the spiritual life. For many of us, though, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about God and how he’s relating to us. James Bryan Smith explains and tackles this problem in his book, The Good and Beautiful God (IVP, 2009).
Smith is a theology professor, and a regular contributor to Renovaré, which is, in my opinion, one of the best sources today for finding books, events and other equipping resources for pursuing the spiritual life. The Good and Beautiful God is a Renovaré resource, and the first volume in their “Apprentice Series,” a sort of ‘curriculum for Christ-likeness” and means of making time-honored spiritual disciplines accessible to Christians today.
In The Good and Beautiful God, Smith addresses a number of the “false narratives” that we tend to tell ourselves about God. We might convince ourselves that we suffer because God is punishing us for our sins. We assume that the way to earn God’s favor is by doing good things, and if we don’t do enough God won’t bless us. Sometimes we tell ourselves narratives opposite of these but equally problematic – that God doesn’t care about our actions at all. Chapter by chapter, Smith dispels these and other false narratives we may tell ourselves, and replaces them with narratives that present God as the good, beautiful, generous and holy God that he is. At the end of each chapter, Smith presents a “soul training” exercise for the reader to try out over the course of a week or so. The exercises range from different forms of engagement with Scripture (from lectio divina to reading the Gospel of John straight through) to practices as simple as getting enough sleep. The goal of the exercises is to embed more deeply the true narratives about God, and us that Smith lays out. They’re a way to embrace the true story, and in so doing also embrace the true, good and beautiful God made known to us in Christ.
I would recommend this book to any Christian who’s been hanging around the Church, sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, with little else to say about their faith, but wanting to set out into something deeper. This book provides a helpful introduction to a number of spiritual disciplines to get people started in pursuing the spiritual life. But plenty of books do that. The real genius of this book is that it presents these practices in the context of addressing the false narratives that usually keep us from pursing the spiritual life in the first place. The narratives we tell ourselves, after all, create the reality in which we live.
If you’ve already been practicing spiritual disciplines for some time, this may not be the book for you. You’ll likely read it, nod your head a lot in agreement, maybe find an explanation or illustration helpful, but mostly be thankful that this book exists as a resource for others. You may also wish it was available to you years ago near the start of your spiritual journey. (I did.)
If you do choose to read this book, take heed to Smith’s advice. Go slowly, and read it in the company of a supportive group of others. Many, perhaps all, of the disciplines that this book will teach you are counter-cultural. They will make you less like the rest of the world even as they make you more like Jesus. That, can be lonely without a supportive community trying the disciplines with you. And when you’re done, don’t stop at the end of the last chapter. Skim the footnotes and make a note of the books Smith cites. There’s a gold mine of good literature to help you continue your journey.