Embracing True Narratives: A Review of The Good and Beautiful God

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.

Deeper Gratitude = Wider Mission

I recently started working my way through the book, The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. It’s a spiritual formation book (one of Renovare’s), and after each chapter, Smyth suggests a “Soul Training Exercise.” At the end of the chapter I read today, the exercise was titled “Counting Your Blessings.” It’s a cliche phrase. All I could think about was the cheesy hymn with the chorus: Count your blessings, name them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God hath done! Count your blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done. I almost turned the page to skip right over the exercise and move on to the next chapter. I’m glad I didn’t.

The exercise was simple. Make a list of good things God has blessed you with for which you ought to be thankful. Try to make a list of 100 blessings. So, I pulled out my macbook, opened the word processor, and started my numbered list. The first few things on  my list were easy to think of because they were either obvious, very simple, or in my immediately memory: the beautiful, clear blue sky I got to look at while running yesterday afternoon; an encouraging message I received from a friend; a funny joke that made me laugh; my icon of Jesus that helps me focus when I pray; etc.  But then the exercise got a little challenging. Not because God isn’t good, but because making a list of 100 anything becomes daunting after the first 10 items or so.

I tried to keep growing my list by looking at what I had already included and identifying other blessings connected to them. My friend who sent the encouraging message is also a loving, compassionate person in general. The person who told the funny joke has a gift for adding humor to situations that would other wise be less pleasant. My icon was painted by an iconographer whose work has helped thousands of others worship Christ more intimately.

Then it occurred to me: Making this list of blessings was forcing me to go deeper with my gratitude, and the deeper I went the more outwardly focused I became. The first things on my list of blessings had to do almost exclusively with myself. I was thankful for the blue sky because I got to see it. My friend’s message encouraged me. The joke made me laugh. The icon helps me pray. But my deeper expressions of gratitude reflected things and people who are blessings to others. The beauty of creation is a gift God is always giving to everyone. My friend has a gift for encouraging a lot of people, and it’s a gift that God uses in her to build up our church. My joke-telling friend makes a lot of people laugh and diffuses a lot of tense situations for a lot of people. My icon is actually a reprint of an older, larger icon that’s been seen and used by many in the Church.

The deeper we go in our gratitude, the broader our outlook becomes. If we want our churches, or our own lives to be missional, outward-focused expressions of God’s love for the world, then we need to practice the discipline of gratitude. Count your blessings. You’ll be surprised what the Lord will do.