Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Just Be Honest

Just Be Honest: How to Worship through Tears and Pray without Pretending, Clint Watkins (Good Book Company, 2024)

When suffering or deep pain strikes, how do you respond? Or, more to the point, how do you think you should respond as a Christian?

For many, we suspect we are supposed to push on, finding ways to rejoice and be thankful. We think we’re meant to declare God’s goodness and sovereignty, but in this awful situation we can’t see how God is good or could allow this to happen. We feel we should pray polite prayers for God to help us, yet our hearts are crying out, “Why me, God?” We gather with God’s people and sing triumphant choruses, but our souls are aching, wondering why there are no words to express the pain of this dark valley. Church can be a hard place to be, for “spiritual positivity dominates the landscape” and people “wrap up their stories of suffering with lessons and silver linings” (17).

Grief. Loss. Pain. Heartache. Despair. Are we allowed to express such emotions? In Just Be Honest, Clint Watkins asked these same questions amid the searing pain of losing his infant son, Eli:
I’ve never had such intense conflict with the Lord in that season. I still believed he was sovereign and good. But his good promises felt hollow and his sovereign plan seemed harsh … how could I find refuge in the one who had the power to heal my son, but chose not to? It was not well with my soul. (16)
He invites us to rediscover the language and practice of lament, which “was how sufferers in the Bible struggled in their tension between their pain and God’s promises” (18). Scripture is full of people who struggle with depression, despair and doubt, and bring their questions and uncertainties to the Lord. Think of Hannah praying bitterly over her infertility (1 Sam 1:10), Mary accusing Jesus of not saving Lazarus (Jn 11:32), or Paul’s unceasing anguish for others (Rom 9:2). Lamentations is the corporate grief of a nation in exile. Many Psalms detail the pain of their authors and their complaints to God (Psalm 13:1; 55:2; 142:2).

Jesus Knows Pain

Even more than the model of the saints in Scripture, we have the model of Jesus.

Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death. Watkins highlights that Jesus’ tears were unnecessary; he knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. He didn’t need to grieve, but he slowed down and felt the pain of loss for himself and others.

Jesus wrestled with God before his own death with loud cries and tears (Heb 5:8) and was greatly distressed and troubled (Mk 14:33). On the cross, he cried out asking why God had forsaken him (Mk 15:34).

We are also allowed to question, weep, and mourn. But we don’t just respond like Jesus, we also respond alongside Jesus. He is with us:
And God will wait for you patiently, listen to you tearfully, and sustain you graciously, even as your prayers to him end in exclamation points and question marks. (48)
Learn to Lament

Watkins explores biblical lament and uses it to develop a framework of lament with four elements: 1) explained pain; 2) expressed protest; 3) earnest petition; and 4) eventual praise.

While we petition the Lord and we regularly praise him, explaining our pain to God and expressing our protest at him are often missing in our Western Christian climate. I wonder if we know that the Psalmists do it, but deep down we wonder—are we really allowed to do the same? It just seems risky. Therefore, Watkins’ exploration of the difference between grumbling and lament is very helpful. Lament is telling our troubles to God, whereas grumbling has three opposing characteristics. Firstly, you aren’t talking to God, only to others or yourself. Secondly, grumblers never get past the complaints, but lamenters fight to move beyond pain and protest to petition and praise. Finally, grumblers tend to walk away from the Lord, yet lamenters still seek him amidst their pain and confusion.

When we get this wrong and our lament turns to grumbling, we have the wonderful comfort of the Lord’s grace and mercy. He forgives our errors and continues to walk alongside us:
Suffering may cause you to entertain dark questions about the Lord. You might even say foolish things that you will one day regret and repent of. But God’s compassion does not depend on your ability to struggle perfectly … and if you cross the line, remember the cross. God covers your groans in grace. (80)
Walking Alongside Others

Watkins urges honesty with each other about our struggles and suggests adding lament into our corporate worship. This includes the songs we sing, but also how we preach about challenges and lead prayers and services. Let’s speak in ways that give permission to voice pain, confusion, and questions, and still lead people to Jesus as the source of all comfort.

He encourages allowing others to lament with us. We try to share honestly, wisely (perhaps with only a few in depth), and with hope. For those who walk alongside people in deep pain, we bear their burdens. Allow people to explain their pain and express their protest at God. Be okay with the theological tension. Let them sit in the confusion and uncertainty of what God is doing. Ask them how we can petition God for them. Help them walk towards praise.

Some books about pain and suffering are meant to prepare readers for future suffering, rather than intended for those who are in the midst of pain. However, I would offer Just Be Honest to someone in the middle of their own anguish. One possible limitation is how entwined the content is with Watkins’ own story. It fleshes out his content with personal experience, but it is only his own experience that is explored. The inclusion of other stories of different pain and loss may have helped readers find application in different circumstances. It may also be that Watkins’ r
aw and open emotion may be too confronting for those who are unable or unwilling to express pain or emotion. However, it could also be the catalyst that enables honest processing with God and others.

Watkins’ compassionate tone, biblical foundation, and clear understanding of pain and lament will help many to express their pain and protest and petition to the Lord, and God-willing, lead them to eventual praise.

This review was first published on TGCA.
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, March 11, 2024

Transformative Friendships

Transformative Friendships, Brad Hambrick (New Growth Press, 2024) 

Have you ever wished that your friendships were deeper? That you were able to share more honestly with each other, both the joys and the challenges that you each face?

Our inbuilt human desire for connection with others means that many of us do probably desire closer, more trusting and open friendships. But, we may not know how to move a friendship in this direction. We may have discovered that praying with a friend can strengthen a relationship, as we share more openly about the matters on our hearts and bring them to the Lord together. But, even a friendship that includes prayer may not always consider areas of sin, struggle, ruts, or future goals.

In Transformative Friendships, Brad Hambrick provides a simple yet effective guide to deeper friendships - through the use of seven questions: 
  1. What’s your story? 
  2. What’s good? 
  3. What’s hard? 
  4. What’s bad? 
  5. What’s fun? 
  6. What’s stuck? 
  7. What’s next? 
Each is broken down further into five depths of growth, starting with more surface knowledge to very deep and honest sharing. For example: in ‘What’s bad?’ (i.e., what’s sins are you struggling with, Depth 1 is our about respectable sins, Depth 3 is about your go-to escapes, and Depth 5 is about the sins most likely to shipwreck your life). 

He emphasises that this is designed for mutual friendships, where both are committed to deepening the relationship. This is marked by proportional voluntary knowledge of each other and shared investment in the relationship. “Growing deeper in a friendship must be mutually desired and mutually engaged. It cannot be compelled.” (148) As such, this is not intended to be a resource for counselling or mentoring relationships, for they are purposefully one-sided in disclosure. He also cautions - not every friendship will move to the deepest level. It’s appropriate to have numerous friends, all at different levels. Ideally, though, there will be some where both share deeply.

The breadth of questions and the various depths to which they are explored is quite extensive. Pretty much all aspects of our lives are covered. Some quotes that struck me along the way: 
“As you read your Bible, ask yourself, “Am I as honest with my friends about my life as these people were about theirs?” (21)
“Write a list of your primary roles: student, employee, boss, son, daughter, sibling, spouse, parent, teacher, friend, etc. Chances are, at least 80 percent of God’s will for your life is simply fulfilling these roles with excellence.” (37)
“There are mild life challenges and severe life challenges. But while one is heavier, neither is light….To appreciate this, we must remember that suffering is not a competitive sport.” (53)
“Identify your top three idols and you’ve probably found the root of 90 percent of your sin.” (73)
It is aimed at Christians, and assumes knowledge and understanding of the gospel. There is no overarching theological framework of friendship and how it could look. It assumes you are a Christian who wants to deepen your friendships with other Christians and dives right in at that point. This keeps the book short (150 pages) and easy to read, with each mini chapter being only about 3 pages. Of course, enacting it will take much longer with considerably more effort!

While Hambrick is keen to focus this resource toward the development of friendships, I can see other applications for the content. Increasing depth in sharing does apply in other settings. I think it could be used wisely by counsellors and mentors, to scaffold the process of more deep work (preventing perhaps diving too deep too soon). Hambrick does not talk about marriage in friendship, but I can imagine this being of great value to married couples, as they grow their friendship and are intentionally more vulnerable with each other. Finally, the questions and topics raised would bring helpful self-awareness even in personal private reflection and before God.

Hambrick’s goal however is to produce friendships “that enrich our lives a little more each day”. With some friendships, you might start by sharing a little bit more and allowing space for them to do the same. With others, you might choose to read this book together and intentionally plan to utilise it. However you use it, this book will give lots of prompts and encouragements to invest in good, supportive, honest friendships.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 4, 2024

My First ABC Book of Bible Verses

My First ABC Book of Bible Verses, Jonathan Gibson (New Growth Press, 2024) 

This is a lovely picture book that uses the alphabet as the springboard to explore different truths about God through bible verses and simple explanations. Full of God’s truths, it will be a good introduction to his word for young ones, using bible verses from the full bible, rather than a simplified kids’ version. As such, there may be a little too much content for very young ones, so you could dip in and out of it with toddlers, rather than read it cover to cover. Older pre-schoolers will likely appreciate the ABC structure, finding the letters on each page and how the bible verse matches with them.

The illustrations by Mike Mullen are fun and varied, with city and country scenes, and lots of different people. He cleverly utilises each letter, but keeps simplicity for younger ones. 

Gibson also authored The Moon is Always Round, which is an excellent kids’ book about God's goodness in the midst of hard times. He has also written a series of three rhyming acrostic books, so he clearly enjoys making things work around the alphabet.

However, there were two things that I noticed:

1. The ABC structure has driven the choice of bible verse whereas it would have been better to have the story of the bible drive the order. So, it oddly starts with Isaiah 53:6 - with sin, before God’s goodness or creation. The order feels haphazard throughout.

2. Three bible translations have been used: ESV, NIV and CSB, with the default being the ESV. This is an odd choice for young children, because the ESV's intention to retain Greek word order does not always correlate with the most natural English reading. The risk of including three translations is that it gives the impression of just picking the one that suits your purpose (like how to include a “Z”). Following on from this, verses weren’t always referenced quite right when the whole verse was not included (which is traditionally indicated with a letter, e.g., Romans 5:5b).

All in all, it’s a fun book that will engage parents and children alike to embrace, love and learn God’s word.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  

Monday, February 19, 2024

The fairytale of the Jeweller and his Pearl

The fairytale of the Jeweller and his Pearl, Raechel Joyce

A local Adelaide author, Raechel Joyce, reached out to share her new self-published book with me. I’m glad she did. 

There is a significant personal story behind it and there are numerous levels of meaning woven throughout. Written in the style of a fairytale and illustrated like a picture book by Jessica Scholich, it’s relevant for older children through to adults.

A friendly and knowledgeable jeweller lives with his family in a small village. One day a stranger gifts him a special and precious pearl. Word of it spreads and many flock to see it, including a deceptive and nasty jewel thief. The pearl is deeply damaged by the thief, and the Jeweller is heartbroken that he could not protect her. A gemstone fixer works to repair the pearl over much time, and a lovely guard-dog is dispatched to protect her. The scars of the pearl’s damage remain, but they somehow become beautiful and change her to be even more valuable and precious.

At one level it’s a modern fairytale about our value despite what happens to us. As such, younger readers will be able to appreciate it. For people who have been significantly harmed by violence or trauma, they will hopefully see the message that they are loved and precious, and that they can grow and strengthen despite the pain experienced. I could imagine counsellors using it with (especially female) clients who have experienced violence.

For Christian readers, there is subtle extra meaning, with the kind stranger being King Yeshua and echoes of the kingdom of heaven being like pearl of great value (Matthew 13:45). The author has clearly tried to make it accessible to anyone, whatever their world view. I found the story stayed with me for some time.

Raechel says that “this book is the outworking of Genesis 20:50-51 in my life: what the enemy intends for evil God can use for our good, and His glory.” If you are interested in knowing more or getting a copy, you can email Raechel at or see the Facebook page (under the book's title).

 (I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review)

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

You are welcomed

You Are Welcomed: Devotions for when life is a lot, Trish Donohue (New Growth Press, 2023)

This new devotional for women has been both an encouraging balm and challenging prompt to me over recent weeks. It’s structured to last for 10 weeks and is for women feeling burdened, overwhelmed and that life is all a bit too full. Which these days, is most of us! Each day starts with a prompting question, has a short bible reading, two pages of comments, and three questions to consider in more depth. It’s a simple, yet remarkably effective format. It’s also a visually attractive book, which would make it a very nice gift.

Donohue is a skilled communicator, bringing God’s word to bear to our current experience. My daughters and I have previously appreciated her insights in Between Us Girls. In You Are Welcomed, it is clear she knows the challenges of women’s lives today, and is also is honest about our sinful struggles, temptations, and areas where we need to be pushed a little. The overarching message was of the grace and rest offered to us in Christ, coupled with a desire for sanctification and godly growth.

In God’s providence, I have found the opening question of each study to be quite pertinent. The first three days are:
“Which of the following feels overwhelming in your life right now: tasks to accomplish, emotions to manage, choices to make, or relationships to tend? Or is it all of the above? (11)
“Have you considered that productivity can be an idol when it promises peace and joy? Have you found that it delivers the joy it promises?” (15)
“What self-help strategies and books do you tend to rely on more that God and the Bible? What do they promise you?” (19)
I am only a few weeks into this devotional, so I cannot speak with knowledge to the rest of it’s contents, but so far (and with a skim forward), I am very impressed, and thankful for Donohue’s wise use of God’s word in helping us to examine our lives and consider areas for change and growth.

“A life meaningfully engaged with pursuing Jesus and loving others is rarely simple or tidy, but it certainly can be beautiful” (11). Donohue helps to point us again to the beauty of Christ. 

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Pastor's Kid

The Pastor’s Kid, Barnabus Piper (The Good Book Company, 2020)

This honest book about pastors kids (PKs) was recommended to us by one of our children. Barnabus Piper, son of John Piper (of Desiring God), has written about the unique challenges PKs face as the children of ministers. While he does talk about opportunities and positives, his purpose is really to explore the harder parts.
“The life of a PK is complex, occasionally messy, often frustrating, and sometimes downright maddening. It can be a curse and a bain. But being a PK can also be a profound blessing and provide wonderful grounding for a godly life. Often the greatest challenges are the greatest grounding, and the biggest falls are the best blessings.” (p.16)
His premise is that “PKs face unique obstacles that create an environment that can lead to signification spiritual, identity, and lifestyle challenges.” (p26). He has three audiences in mind - PKs, pastors, and people in churches. So the focus changes at points, with specific attention given to each. He wants the PK to feel understood, and to truly know and love Jesus. He wants pastor parents to grasp the challenges their children may experience by virtue of them being in ministry. And he wants those in our churches to realise the expectations and pressures on PKs and how they might contribute to them.

Some pastors (and their wives) will find this hard reading. Some church members might think it’s too critical and misreads good intentions. Some might feel like his comments are overstated, or too negative, or too harsh. Or perhaps too simplistic and one-sided. At points it feels like it’s been written by an angry or disillusioned teenager still grappling with the issues, rather than someone who has been able to process and synthesise their experience from a broader perspective.

Yet, much of it rings true. Piper speaks of pain and misunderstanding that many PKs experience, which is worth hearing and exploring. He is honest about the challenges PKs face, how they want to be known, want to be allowed to be normal, and not to be assessed by who their parents are. In the end, all have a deep need to know the gospel of grace personally.

He notes that pastors and their wives are called to ministry, but their kids are dragged along for the ride. He exposes the fishbowl lifestyle where so many know about them, but do not truly know them. “Even the sheer number of people who greet the PK by name is constricting. It all adds up to a feeling of being watched.” (p.31)

He names assumptions that PK’s deal with: that they have a great relationship with God and their family, that they love the church, are confident in their faith and are leaders. This, combined with unrealistic expectations, can set many up for either false morality or a sense of failure:
“There is a straightforward, blunt, in-your face-expectation that PKs will behave better than our peers. We will have inherently better judgement, avoid temptations common to our age and gender, express none of our baser thoughts or feelings, and generally reflect positively on our parents and their position. Which is total nonsense.” (p.44)
“These three expectations - perfect angel, biblical superstar, and theological extraordinaire - are ingredients to a pressure that many PKs feel.” (p.48)
Piper concludes that PKs need to know they are sinners in need of Jesus and grace: “Only in the person of Jesus is there power enough to free the PK to know who she is” (p.66). He spends a fair bit of time expanding on what grace will look like from the pastor parent to the PK. Pastor parents could find this both insightful and personally challenging. But those with humble hearts and a willingness to consider things from their kids’ perspective could come away with much to think about, and hopefully talk about with their wives and kids.

He finishes with encouragement about the blessings of being a PK - how they are raised in God’s word, how they see ministry up close, and how they have parents who love and serve Jesus. What was missing was the acknowledgement of the positive aspects of being known by many: you are also loved, cared for, helped, and prayed for by many in the church. You are more likely to be mentored by young adults, and church members are more likely to invest time in you. You are not likely to be a youth who falls through the cracks or doesn't get followed up.

This is thought-provoking reading for pastors who are parents (noting it is really about dad being the full-time minister). It could be helpful for PKs (teenagers and older) who want to read something that relates to their own experience, although it would be a shame if it led to further bitterness. As for those in our churches - it’s useful for everyone - but perhaps specifically those who minister to PKs - be they children’s or youth group leaders.

We all need to hear the gospel of grace, but Piper suggests that some PKs need to hear it a little more strongly. If this is a way to assist with that through understanding or conversations, he has done PKs a good service.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Something Scary Happened

Something Scary Happened: Comfort for Children in Hard Times, Darby A. Strickland (New Growth Press, 2023) 

This picture is for a specific situation - when something scary has happened to a young child and you want to help them process it and understand that God and his good shepherd Jesus are with them in their pain. 

Miles the lamb has lots of fun in the meadow with his other lamb friends: they play soccer, they eat, and they all sleep in a pile together. But one day something scary happens, and Miles is so scared that he doesn’t know what to do, and pretends it didn’t happen. 

But he can’t really forget, and he gets mad at his friends, and then he cries, and he can’t sleep - he feels all alone. But then the good Shepherd comes and promises Miles that he is with him - when he is scared, when he is mad, when he can’t sleep. 

All of this in anchored around Psalm 23, and beautifully illustrated by Carlotta Notaro. It’s a gentle book, introducing helpful concepts for little ones (2-5s) about how our bodies, emotions, and relationships can all be affected when something scary happens. Because the “scary thing” is not specified - it could be used for numerous scary circumstances or traumas, e.g., a car accident, cases of abuse, seeing a confronting thing, or challenging events in a family. There are also helpful guidelines for carers in the back of the book.

One of those books that you hope you don’t need, but will be helpful if you do.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

You are still a mother

You are still a mother: Hope for women grieving a stillbirth or miscarriage, Jackie Gibson (New Growth Press, 2023)

In this heartfelt and honest book, Jackie Gibson reaches out to mothers who have lost a child due to stillbirth or miscarriage, and shares the comfort and love of God who is with them in their pain. She begins by sharing the devastating story of the stillbirth of her daughter Leila, and so forms an immediate connection with the reader - this is someone who knows this sadness.

Each brief chapter brings a truth about God to the fore, in light of such loss. These include:
  • Cling to God’s truths - we believe in the darkness, what we have seen in the light. 
  • We turn to Jesus, the man of sorrows, who wept at death and knows what it is to suffer. 
  • God is sovereign, even in this. This can help with the ‘what-ifs’, for God numbered this child’s days. 
  • Questioning whether God really is good, if he allowed this to happen. As Job conceded, there are things too wonderful about God for us to grasp, and sometimes we have to live with not knowing the why. 
  • The child is safe in the arms of Jesus. 
  • The child is precious in his sight (and what has happened is not a punishment for any sin). 
  • In time, you may see that God has not wasted your suffering. 
  • Suffering makes us groan for our home in heaven. 

Gibson also addresses other aspects of loss:
  • You are still a mother, for motherhood begins at conception 
  • She notes that there is a particular complexity to grief with a miscarriage before a baby’s gender is known. 
  • The pain and grief will change, but be aware of symptoms of trauma and stress. 
  • You have had a significant loss, don’t allow our society to minimise it. 

I realise starkly writing the topics out above has unhelpfully reduced them to simplistic points. While the chapters are short, there is nothing simplistic about the content. Gibson has carefully worded everything she says to represent gospel truths with compassion and care. Because it is both very short and very caring, it could be read soon after a grief. The rawness may assist some to express their own pain. It’s clearly aimed at mothers, but fathers will also find much to help them process their loss as well. It is also for Christians. I wouldn’t give this to an unbeliever with such a loss. Partly because it is only through the gospel that the truths of God’s goodness and sovereignty in this context are a comfort. But also because while she is confident that the unborn children of believers are safe in the arms of Jesus, she does not comment about the unbeliever, leaving this unspoken question unanswered.

I particularly liked her comments about the everlasting arms (from Deut 33:27).
“There was only one pair of arms that could hold me through the worst moment of my life—the everlasting arms of an eternal God.”
And the reminder from an anonymous author:
“Suffering is not a question that demands an answer. It is not a problem that requires a solution. It is a mystery that needs a presence.”

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

How Can I Feel Closer to God?

How Can I Feel Closer to God?, Chris Morphew (The Good Book Company, 2023)

This has always been the ache of the human heart, that God feels far away when we want him to be close:
Why, O LORD, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Ps 10:1)
O God, be not far from me;
O my God, make haste to help me! (Ps 71:12)
The quick, snappy reply has often been, “If God feels far away, who moved?”, suggesting that any distance we feel from God is more about us, than him. While there is truth in this, it’s also a cognitive response that doesn’t fully address the heart issue. Thankfully, Sydney-based chaplain Chris Morphew has taken the time to provide tweens with a fuller answer. He addresses the longing many of us experience when we have chosen to follow Jesus: “believing he loves you is one thing. Actually feeling that love is something else” (7-8).

Apprentice to Jesus

In How Can I Feel Closer to God?, Morphew begins with a framework of faith—if you want to feel closer to God, you have to be friends with him first. Thankfully, Jesus has done everything we need to enable us to be friends with God: “Jesus invites us into deep, life-changing friendship with him, right here, right now, today” (18). We are to be an “apprentice”—someone who learns from Jesus how to live and be friends with God. This terminology is helpful for tweens, because disciple is no longer common vernacular, and being a follower is more associated with social media.

Morphew’s message is that the key to feeling close to God is to intentionally and diligently invest in our relationship with him though prayer, Bible reading, and meeting with God’s people. Many find this hard—it can feel awkward because we are out of practice, or we struggle with busyness and distraction. I’m not certain that busyness is one of the biggest struggles for tweens preventing them spending time with God. I wonder whether it could also be a lack of confidence, uncertainty of its value, and a general disinterest in things that take thoughtful time. However, whatever the reason, Morphew assures: “if feeling close to God doesn’t come easily to you, it’s important to realise that’s completely normal” (28).

Pray, Read, Meet

These struggles are indeed normal, yet we still want to feel closer to God. So, what does Morphew suggest it might look like for tweens to invest in their relationship with him?

1. Take 10 minutes a day to be still and thank God—for anything and everything. He encourages a daily habit of prayer, using the Lord’s prayer as a guide, and explains what it means to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). “God isn’t inviting us to pray instead of living the rest of our lives. He’s inviting us to pray as we live the rest of our lives.” (46). We can talk to him throughout the day, with a simple please, sorry or thank you. Writing prayers down also helps us to see God at work over time.

2. Regular Bible reading is essential: “As apprentices of Jesus, getting to know the Bible inside and out is one of the most important, most valuable ways we can grow closer to God.” (52). The advice is obvious, yet still important for shaping young believers: read a book not random verses, write about what you learn, and talk about it with others.

3. Be part of Christian community: “If you want to feel closer to God, you need to stay connected to his people” (63). I love his encouragement here for hesitant youth to “go all in”. Sing aloud, join in prayer, follow along in the Bible, get to know people, and generally be involved. When many young people prefer to hang back to see if others will go first and no-one wants to stick their neck out, this is excellent advice. (He notes he could also have written a whole chapter on how music can help us feel closer to God. Part of me wishes he had, but his brief comments still point readers in that direction.)

The whole book is written assuming hesitation and uncertainty—I want to feel close to God, but what can I do about it? I like the way Morphew addresses questions honestly (How much time will it take? But what if I find it boring?), but also with an element of challenge. Yes, it will take time and, in fact, God wants your whole life, not just bits of it. If you find it boring, perhaps you haven’t gone all in.

Feelings Aren’t Everything

But there’s one more key answer Morphew gives: it’s not all about how we feel.

Considering the title of the book, this is a crucial point to end on. Some days we will feel incredibly close to God—loved by him and connected to him. Yet, there will also be times that he feels distant, no matter how much time we might spend in his Word, in prayer, or with his people. Feelings absolutely matter—we want to pay attention to them and have language to express them. But at the same time, feelings aren’t always true.
Your feelings are your mind’s and your body’s responses to what’s happening in your life. Sometimes those feelings match up with how things really are, and sometimes they don’t. (83)
It’s critical for young people (and all of us) to grasp this—we need to balance a healthy awareness of our feelings, with a scepticism of their accuracy.

Morphew’s style is so winsome for this upper-primary age. Direct, age-appropriate, fun, and no condescension. Just like a normal conversation with a younger person. Emma Randall’s minimal illustrations add variety and interest, and there’s Bible references throughout (though I wonder how many young people are likely to look them up – perhaps including some more in full text would have been a good idea).

The whole series is one that many tweens (and their parents) will want on their bookshelves. The six books cover numerous topics, answering questions about faith, suffering, and our identity in Christ. If you have tweens in your life—these books address the questions they are asking. if they long to feel closer to God, share your own experiences, and give them this book to help guide them along the way.

This was first posted on TGCA.
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2023


Valuable, Liz Carter (The Good Book Company, 2023)

“God can use you.” 
“God will use this for his good purpose.” 
“You have great gifts—use them for God.” 
“Jesus—use me for your kingdom.”

This language echoes across our churches. We all want to feel useful, and using our productivity to serve God feels right. I mean—isn’t it biblical? We’re all part of the body, contributing in our own unique way (1 Cor 12:12-26). God can use us weak jars of clay for his purpose (Rom 9:21, 2 Cor 4:7, 2 Tim 2:21).

But what about when we feel useless? When illness prevents any service in church? When vulnerable health means staying at home is the only option? When exhaustion overwhelms and getting out of bed is all that can be accomplished in a day? When our history leaves us struggling with triggers that could floor us at any moment?

Are we still useful? Can God still use us?

When we esteem and magnify the ideas of use and usefulness, we can move into dangerous territory. In Valuable, author Liz Carter, who suffers from chronic illness, proposes throwing out the language of “use” entirely, and instead considering “value”.

The Productivity Lie

Almost the first question we ask someone new is, “What do you do?” Even creative ways around this (“What fills your week?”, “What keeps you busy?”) suggest we need to be doing something to be worthwhile. There’s an ongoing internal question: “Do I measure up?”

How do we respond when we cannot be productive by the world’s (or even our church’s) standards? We come to Jesus and see again that he doesn’t want us for our usefulness. He wants us because he loves us. He cares for the weak, the vulnerable, the downtrodden. He turns lives upside down. This phrase is the theme of the book: God calls us into “the Upside Down”, where we have value and dignity because of who he made us to be—not because of what we do.

Carter is not speaking a new message here. This is the truth of the gospel, that he made us with dignity, and he loves us so much that he sent his Son for us. There isn’t as much on our deep need for a saviour, for sin is not the emphasis of this book, but more how those who suffer are still loved, valued, and honoured by the Lord.

Further, sharing our vulnerabilities openly with others combats the lies we’re tempted to believe: “I’d be more useful if I were whole / healed / better”. When we take off the “everything’s fine” mask, we find amongst God’s people “a place where we can safely bare our souls and bear one another’s burdens” (72). Our wholeness (in Jesus) can bloom in our brokenness:
What if instead of looking for usefulness in wholeness, we find a new and more dynamic power in God’s weakness-powered wholeness? (79)

God is Not a User

Imagine the meaning of “use” to those who have been used. This point struck me—for when we talk of one person using another, it is not positive. This language can imply manipulation, exploitation, control. But this isn’t how we should view God.

Carter considers the verses that refer to God’s people as vessels or pots. Rather than us being items of use for God, these verses show the great power of the gospel in our frailty (2 Cor 4:7); God’s sovereignty over his creation (Rom 9:21); and his call to holiness and service (2 Tim 2:21).
Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the desire of God’s heart is to get his children to do things for him. God’s heart is for intimacy and transformation. (58)

God Gives Hope In Our Pain

For those who suffer, another insidious message can be heard—that God is using you in your pain. if I can be useful in my weakness, I shouldn’t feel bad about it, and (more devastatingly) God must be content to see me suffer.

Carter suffers from a chronic lung condition that leaves her bed-ridden or hospitalised for days or weeks at a time. Talking about this kind of thinking, she says:
It reduced my agony to a tool and my suffering to a means to an end. It turned my sadness and disappointment into self-indulgent emotions that would not matter because I was being useful. (90)
Romans 5:2-5 gives us a different framework—that God is with us, he is helping us persevere, drawing us closer to God to make us more like him, and leading us to hope.
Maybe, instead, if we think of God at the centre of the brokenness, joining in with our pain and working in and through it to build up our hope, we can live a much more glorious story. (100)
Besides her own, Carter includes stories of others whose illness, mental health, trauma, grief or other circumstances have redefined what their usefulness for God looks like. Much of the personal application will be found by those who use the reflection questions, or the study guide at the end. Her eloquent, poetic writing style evocatively draws the reader into a deeper experience of God’s love.

For those who have been impacted by the unhelpful language of use, this book could be a balm to the soul, and enable us to shift our gaze back to the Lord who loves us, delights in us, and walks alongside us through the challenges of life. For others, it may be a necessary reminder to check our language and how it impacts others. But this message is for everyone, for while we all want to be useful and feel useless at times; what we really need is a broader, truer message of grace found in Christ’s love that goes far beyond use and leads to his glory. You are valuable because “you’re a loved child of your heavenly Father” (105).

This review first appeared on TGCA.
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, October 23, 2023

Caring for Families Caught in Domestic Abuse

Caring for Families Caught in Domestic Abuse: A Guide Towards Protection, Refuge and Hope, Chris Moles (ed) (New Growth Press, 2023) 

This is another excellent resource, but one we all wish didn’t need to exist. Sadly, the stain of domestic abuse (or intimate partner violence, or family violence) spreads throughout families, and Christian homes are not untouched.

It is edited by Chris Moles, who is a pastor, biblical counsellor, and works with perpetrators. He has brought together very experienced people in this field, providing a guide to care for families caught in domestic violence.
“My hope is that this book will help pastors, elders, deacons, counselors, and other church leaders move toward greater unity in how they respond to domestic abuse, and thereby prevent or lessen some of the potential conflicts and missteps.”
I am not going to write a detailed review. It’s something that needs considered reading and thought, and my summary won’t do it justice. Responding to domestic violence is a specific ministry area and one that requires skills, training, time, and energy. I suspect that few of my readers or their churches will get deeply involved in this space in a structured way. Not for lack of desire or a belief that it’s unimportant, but due to lack of skills, training, and resource allocation. However, it’s so important that I want to flag this book’s existence for those for whom it may be helpful.

I will provide some summary points and some quotes:

Regarding the church:
“My prayer is that the church of Jesus Christ will be the safest place on the planet for women and children. I pray that the church will lead the way in not only providing compassionate care, but also in developing best practices to address the needs of victims and confront the abusers. We represent an army of responders who can effectively, graciously, compassionately, and firmly confront the evil of domestic abuse. As we do so, we will simultaneously promote healthy, God-honoring relationships.” (Chris Moles)
A church needs to consider what they can offer with the resourcing they have. This is not an area that you can partially help in, you really need to be there for the family for the long-term.
“My desire is … to encourage you undershepherds as you seek to minister in a complex, confusing, time-consuming, and redemptive ministry. I want to help you think through how to address domestic abuse in your church in a biblically faithful, organizationally sustainable, and practically helpful way.” (K├»rsten Christianson)
They propose a team-based approach to domestic abuse, requiring numerous people (e.g., victim counsellor, crisis counsellor, victim advocate, perpetrator counselor, pastor). My overwhelmed thought was: this is a massive undertaking for a church. Of course, worthwhile and needed, but I don’t know many churches who could even attempt to do this well (knowledgeably and skilfully) with one couple, let alone numerous couples.

Caring for survivors:

Is long term care, needing awareness of the impact of trauma.

It was openly acknowledged that this is “likely the most complex and difficult problem most counselors will ever face” (Joy Forrest). Few women realise they are experiencing abuse, and abusers are often charming, confident and convincing.

Confronting and counselling abusers: 

The most important rule of engagement - safety - the victim must give consent and advice. This would be an area where churches need to be very careful, for the increased risk if this goes wrong can be devastating.

“One way of thinking about abuse relative to other relational sin is to say that most relational sin is competitive, while abuse is parasitic or predatory.” (Greg Wilson) Relational is me before you, abuse is me over you.
“Working with abusive people often feels a bit like the work of Jeremiah or Isaiah—you care in grace and truth as well as you can, but in the end there is a high likelihood that they will reject you and/or your message.” (Greg Wilson)

There is a helpful chapter about how to discern true repentance (godly sorrow, not worldly sorrow).

Impact on children:

Two initial priorities for working with children who have lived or are living in homes with domestic abuse:
  • determine whether they blame themselves 
  • discover how the distress impacts them and what coping strategies they employ. 
“Several factors can influence the severity of the impacts (age, socioeconomic status, birth order, frequency and form of abuse, duration of exposure, existence of supportive relationships, and cultural beliefs). Generally, preschool-aged children tend to have physical and anxiety-based symptoms. School-age children tend to show stress along behavioral and emotional dimensions, and teenagers tend to be at risk of seeking relief destructively (drugs, sexual activity, running away).” (Darby Strickland)

Appendices include a safety plan and basic abuse screening questions (a much more comprehensive list is in Darby Strickland’s Is It Abuse?)

A very worthwhile resource for anyone in Christian churches who is counselling or working with families affected by domestic violence, or looking to establish a ministry to do so.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, October 16, 2023

Moving Forwards after Abortion

Moving Forwards after Abortion: Finding Comfort in God, Camille Cates (New Growth Press, 2023) 

This book completes the newly released additions to the Ask the Christian Counselor series by New Growth Press.

Camille Cates has written this caring, gentle yet honest book for women who have had an abortion. It is aimed at Christian women, but does spell out the gospel for those who are unbelievers. I’m not sure if an unbeliever would pick it up - but God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

Cates is uniquely equipped to write this book, both having had an abortion herself, and having worked with women since 1999 “who have been left with hurt, confusion, and unanswered questions after an abortion.”
“I hope and pray that you feel comforted as you read this book, not only by my words as a woman who has had an abortion, but by God’s Word. The Bible truly has answers for aching hearts and mixed-up minds.”
She starts sharing her own story, full of sadness, grief and shame, and how she then found a bible study for women struggling with post-abortion trauma. Her openness can help other women acknowledge their own experience. So many in our churches find this so hard to talk about, yet many are sadly dealing with their struggles alone.

She addresses common questions women are dealing with:
  • Is God going to punish me for this? - No, Christ has borne the punishment of all sin, and now is the time to draw near the God for healing. “God, in his mercy and kindness, doesn’t waste the pain and suffering that his children endure….He uses both our sin and suffering to reveal more of himself to us.” 
  • Why is it so hard to move on? - You need to acknowledge your sin, idols and trauma. 
  • What do I do with my thoughts about the baby? - Acknowledge it was your baby, take time to grieve, consider memorialising in some way. 
  • Why am I struggling with forgiveness? - There are helpful comments here about the myth of forgiving yourself - for only Christ can atone, redeem and forgive. 
  • Will I ever stop feeling this way? - Need to work through the guilt, grief, anger, anxiety, depression and numbness. 
“Processing your thoughts and emotions after an abortion can be daunting. You may have felt like it’s all too much to work through on your own. Yet, you may not have asked for help, believing no one could possibly understand what you’ve been through. Maybe you’re scared to lift the lid off your heart, afraid of emotions boiling over and spilling out into your life, making things messy. However, God wants you to understand why you feel the way that you do, especially if it is hindering your relationship with him or other people.”
There are self-reflection questions at the end of each chapter, and many recommended resources throughout. It is strongly encouraged that one reads this alongside a trusted friend, pastor or counsellor. Cates encourages women to talk about their journey, to help others who are going through the same thing, and to share how Christ’s redemption has worked in their lives. We want to be communities who walk alongside each other sharing our struggles, pain, regrets and griefs, and rejoicing in the healing and forgiveness that Jesus offers.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Bible verses to remember series

Bible Verses to Remember book series, Sally Michael (New Growth Press, 2023)

This cute new series from Sally Michael teaches little ones (aged 3-7) truths about God while also helping them start to memorise bible verses. Eye catching and cheery illustrations by Sengsavane Chounramany will engage kids and caregivers alike. Each book goes through each verse, exploring different parts of it and how we can trust God, rejoice in him, trust in him, or praise him as a result.

Good Gifts Come From God shows how many gifts we receive from God - in creation, in other people, and most of all in Jesus. Anchored in James 1:17a “Every good first and every perfect gift is from above” (ESV), it helps children to see how much in our lives is a gift to thank God for. 

Our Great God shares the truth of Psalm 95:3 “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods”. There is certainly overlap with the above book, but it’s more about everything God knows and how we praise him with thankfulness. 

Give God Your Worries helps kids to see that we share our worries with God and trust him with them, with the encouragement to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). This might be for slightly older kids, but it certainly gives a biblical, helpful framework for us when we worry. 

All three will be appreciated additions to a family’s collection of Christian children’s books.

I was given ecopies of these books in exchange for an honest review.  

Monday, October 2, 2023

I have PTSD

I have PTSD: Reorienting after trauma, Curtis Solomon (New Growth Press, 2023)

This is yet another very helpful release in the expanding Ask the Christian Counselor series by New Growth Press. While it is a short book, Solomon sensitively and carefully unpacks the core issues well, explaining trauma and it’s impact, and then guides the trauma sufferer through a process of reorientation in God’s love and care keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.

He is clear from the beginning - God knows about trauma: 
“If you open the Bible to its first book, Genesis, you will read story after story of trauma inflicted and endured. Trauma did not take a break or disappear; it has been with us ever since. In each generation, people from every tribe and nation have experienced and inflicted trauma.”
Throughout, he uses three ongoing examples of people who have experienced trauma:
  • Vanessa - who watched her brother die from a football injury 
  • Javier, an army ranger - who experienced traumatic events in war, including the explosion of an IED which took a friend’s life. 
  • Carl - who was in a car accident where a child died. 
Therefore, the focus is on trauma that is connected to a specific event, not long-term childhood abuse or neglect. For those who are aware of diagnostic labels - this means it’s more for people experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not complex PTSD (C-PTSD). In fact, Solomon is clear that he is not addressing abuse (particularly long-term).

He is clear that this is not a battle for one to fight on their own. You need a team around you - he has specific ideas who that should be, including a biblical counsellor, a counselling ally (someone who does counselling with you) and trusted supporters who you can call when things get tough. It’s a specifically structured approach, but one that could have value.

Early on he explains trauma and post-traumatic stress, and how the body responds to it, noting:
“Your response to trauma is unique because you are a unique person with a unique blend of genetics, relationships, history, thoughts, feelings, and desires. Nevertheless, while the difficult things are unique, they are not uncommon. So when you face them, remember you are not having an abnormal response to normal life; rather, you are living a common response to extreme suffering.”

Because of this, Solomon (like many others) takes issue with the term ‘disorder’. As such he refers to PTS throughout (rather than PTSD). 

He helps the reader to develop a “peace plan” when triggered - which includes praying, sitting down (for safety), breathing (with instructions), thinking truths about God, and considering who to call. He further explores triggers and how to manage them, including how to face them wisely and in small doses. Next, there is encouragement to grieve your losses, and take responsibility for what you can, noting that while some things may bring shame, they do not necessarily stem from actual guilt.

In reminding of how Jesus restored - he notes that Jesus suffered as well, and that he is our saviour. We need to remember that:
  • The world has been disoriented since sin entered the world 
  • God came to rescue the world and put things right 
  • Jesus understands your suffering because he has suffered 
  • God does bring transformation out of trauma 
It’s this idea of transformation that structures the final part of the book - how to reorient your past, present and future. There are concepts of CBT in here, as well as general trauma—informed therapy - there are trigger logs and charts to help you process. But all also focus on God, who he is, how he loves us, and how he brings transformation even through awful suffering.
“One hope that God offers trauma sufferers through the Bible is the happy news that a person’s PTS can be reframed to become Post-Traumatic Sanctification.”

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

Raising tech-healthy humans

Raising Tech-Healthy Humans, Daniel Sih (2023)

As a parent, how do you feel about technology and your kids? Do the statistics about addiction, risks of pornography or grooming, and increased anxiety in kids hooked on social media scare you?

Maybe you’re excited about the creativity technology offers—your kids design amazing things on Minecraft, or learn to code and play cooperatively with their friends. Maybe it’s a helpful extra babysitter—allowing dinner to be prepared, a bit more work to be done, or just allowing a breather for a moment.

For many parents, all of these things are true, all at the same time! We know that technology has benefits and risks, so we’re trying to figure out a way forward in this screen-saturated world. However, charting that path sometimes feels more like floundering. Questions abound around when to let a child have a phone, what boundaries are needed, how to manage screen time and so on.

Daniel Sih has written a very helpful, succinct and practical book helping parents to think through the main issues and then implement practices that promote healthy tech use. Raising Tech-Healthy Humans is aimed at parents of primary-aged children and under and is designed to be read in less than two hours. It will still have benefit for parents of younger teenagers, but many of these decisions are now being made long before that age. Sih is clear that the book is not aimed at parents whose teenagers are already addicted to their phones, although those willing to re-examine their household’s choices would likely still find much of benefit.

Sih sets the scene with three parenting philosophies that shape tech-healthy parenting. Firstly, we are raising adults, not children. So, our long-term goal is to train them for the real world, able to cope with the challenges of adult life, ‘building their character muscles for when they need them most’ (p. 6).

Secondly, we need to prioritise healthy brain development, particularly higher brain skills of thinking, processing and planning. Our lower brain systems are important for emotional responses as well as impulses and reactivity; they provide safety systems when we’re in danger (for example, the ‘flight or fight’ response). But the problem with technology is that it overstimulates the lower brain: ‘electronic media has a significant role in causing children to enter a state of hyperarousal, leading to chronic stress in the developing brain’ (p. 13). This is why kids are so grumpy when the screens turn off—they’re super-activated and full of adrenaline. This can then impede the development of higher brain function. Sih draws a distinction between passive and interactive media, which he terms ‘lean back’ or ‘lean forward’ technologies, encouraging more ‘lean back’ options, such as television. We all instinctively spot this difference— everyone’s usually satisfied at the end of an episode of Lego Masters but when you turn off Fortnite mid-game, uproar ensues!

Thirdly, Sih suggests that limits are essential and in fact, life-giving. He considers both screen time and content limits, as well as creativity with how you control or enable tech time in your home.

Next, Sih builds on these principles and offers practical strategies to set your kids up well for a lifetime of healthy tech use. He calls this the ‘STARTER’ framework:
  • Start with self: consider your own tech habits and make changes where necessary.
  • Take it slow when adopting tech. Sih busts the three prominent myths parents fall for regarding when to get their children various technology: safety, it will stop the nagging and that it’s educational.
  • Age-appropriate tech that can be ‘graded up’ as they grow up—with suggestions about digital contracts, filtering and parenting controls.
  • Regularly talk about tech and how your kids experience it—what they like, what they don’t like—and share in their interests.
  • Tech-healthy rhythms are important for families, including tech-free times (especially meals, sleep and car trips).
  • Encourage tech-free adventures and family time—provide a better alternative to what the screen offers.
  • Rely on others: parent in community and help each other out with these issues.
Over the whole book is a strong sense of grace. We are all imperfect parents, with real struggles and real mistakes. None of us parent perfectly, and in the tech space we’re all finding our way as we raise the first generation of true digital natives. Sih is honest about his own mistakes and there is no feeling of judgment as you read it—more a sense of ‘we’re in this together; let’s do better’. Technology has brought us some great gifts—we can video chat with extended family who live far away, we can play interactive games together, we can share music playlists and grow in our appreciation for each other’s tastes. Yet we can also choose to say no and reclaim time together in person which refreshes, relaxes and restores.

The version of the book I read was a ‘Christian parenting special edition’. I suspect very little was different from the original version, besides the addition of a preface and Bible verses at the beginning of each chapter. The preface encourages us to view this issue through a more biblical lens. Tech can create a massive idol, tempting us and confronting us with our sinful desires to be in control, to be always available, to seem important, to want to impress others and to promote ourselves.

So, if you have younger children and are struggling to know how to chart a healthy family path in the tech space, Raising Tech-Healthy Humans is a great book to help you out. In addition, let’s take Sih’s advice and be communities that talk about how we use tech, how we make decisions about it, and where we struggle. Let’s walk alongside one other, as we all seek a healthy balance:
‘Let’s enjoy the best of the online world but not be diminished by too much technology, and raise a generation of healthy, faith-filled kids who love God and love others in beautiful, life-giving ways.’ (p. xv)

This review first appeared on Growing Faith
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

My spouse was unfaithful

My Spouse was Unfaithful: Finding Strength in God's Presence, Robert D. Jones (New Growth Press, 2023)

This new book in the Ask the Christian Counselor series by New Growth Press is quite specific - addressing when a spouse has been unfaithful. It is aimed at Christians, who wants to process this in light of God’s word and with a biblical framework, including concepts of forgiveness and repentance.
“As we begin our journey, we must recognize that God doesn’t promise you restoration with your spouse. He only promises to be with you as a Christian—to help you know, follow, love, and enjoy him, however your spouse chooses to behave.”
Jones recommends reading it through first to get the big picture, and then turn to consider personal application. He also strongly recommends both counselling and pastoral care, and a group of supporters who will walk this road with you.

I’ll outline each section in brief:

1. Moving forward with God-given hope, which means recognising the hope that we do and do not have. So, we do not expect God to remove troubled feelings, for the Lord to restore the marriage, or to undo the consequences of a spouse’s sin. We can however hope in “the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [who] promises to be with you, watch over you, and walk with you through the entire aftermath of your spouse’s infidelity.”

2. Identifying your hardships and temptations. This encourages exploration of what has happened through a biblical lens, including the various emotions one might be feeling (e.g., confusion, despair, anger, jealousy, regret, shame, vindication or freedom). There is encouragement to pay attention to your own response (e.g. beware of bitterness, vengeance, rash decisions, gossip, cynicism, etc.)

3. Drawing near to your gracious, compassionate God. Believing that God is present to help you, trust that he hears you when you cry out, and to recognise your core identity is as his beloved child (not as someone’s spouse). 
“My brother or sister in Christ, God has not abandoned you just because your spouse did. God is with you amid your marital crisis. He is ever-present, always available, on call. He is your refuge, strength, and fortress. He stands by your side. Begin your path by striving to believe this.”
4. Humbly responding to God - seek to obey God, embrace his purpose in your suffering. Here Jones includes seven ways God uses hardship to make us more like Jesus - which have much broader application than this book’s topic:
  • to enhance our relationship with him, 
  • to help us experience Christ’s sufferings, 
  • to expose our remaining sin, 
  • to engage us in the body of Christ, 
  • to exhibit Christ’s work in us, 
  • to equip us for wiser more compassionate ministry, and 
  • to elevate our eyes longing for Christ’s return. 
5. God’s way to view and treat your spouse - cultivate mercy and attitudinal forgiveness, confront them to encourage repentance and reconciliation, and deal biblically with the sin in your marriage.

6. Responding wisely to your spouse’s decision - which will depend on whether they repent or not. His options seem to be: if they repent - you commit to rebuilding your marriage, if they do not - you demonstrate Christ-like love and mercy. He addresses separation and divorce, suggesting separation is probably necessary for a season, and divorce is an option, especially if they are unrepentant.

Sections 5 & 6 raised some issues - mainly because they are such large, complicated and individual circumstances and this approach, by virtue of being short, seemed to leave some gaps in terms of the reality of dealing with this. I’m not sure that one’s response will be entirely dependent on what their spouse does and whether they are repentant. The wronged spouse has more agency than just waiting to see how the other acts. There is also a brief reference to ‘make’up’ sex which trivialises the deep pain and significant healing that would need to occur before intimacy is considered.

The Gottman Institute has some helpful (secular) research and therapy for couples experiencing infidelity. They suggest that a spouse that has been cheated on is often found to have symptoms of PTSD). They also note that at the point of an affair marriage #1 is over, it’s now up to the couple to decide whether to proceed with what will become marriage #2. They also note the important of rebuilding trust and hope. Jones takes it further (noting this is not a promise):
“Jesus can not only restore your marriage but make it stronger than it was before. We don’t want to merely revert to the pre-infidelity state of your marriage. In Christ, God provides something better. Here’s why: Our God delights in making broken things better than they were.”
In this book, Jones has explored the need for grace, mercy, repentance and forgiveness after adultery - not just between partners, but also with God and with ourselves, with the overall goal being maturity in Christ, whatever happens with the marriage.

I was given a ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Down, Not Out

Down, Not Out: Depression, anxiety, and the difference Jesus makes, Chris Cipollone (The Good Book Company, 2018) 

Lots of books about depression and anxiety are about understanding it, or helping those around us who are struggling, which are very helpful and needed. However, this offering by Chris Cipollone is much more for the person living with depression and anxiety. It’s gentle, loving and honest as he shares his own journey, and guides the reader through the gospel truth that God loves them and is with them through it all.

With 15 very short chapters, it’s very readable in small chunks, purposefully designed for the person who doesn’t have a long concentration span. Again and again, there were messages of hope and encouragement:
“I still live with depression. But life has seasons, and in God’s grace it is possible to press on. Your life has dignity because God gave it to you.” (p.13)
“We are beloved children of God, and this, more than any other truth, must impact how we navigate mental illness.” (p.15)
“You may live with mental illness for a while, or for the rest of your life. However, the extent to which this affects your daily life will fluctuate. When you are having a good day, praise God for this mercy. When you are having a bad day, know that God is still for you and not against you. His love never changes, and salvation is not dependent on our ability to function how we would like.” (p. 23)
While the chapters are short, they are not light. He addresses feelings (which do not change our reality in Christ), sin (how mental illness is the result of sin in the general sense but not necessarily specifically), and how Satan could be at work in this space (yet God is always more powerful). He encourages the pursuit of maturity rather than happiness, and warns us to be aware of idols that underlie our struggles. 
“It could be that your depression or anxiety reveal something about the ways in which you become dissatisfied with God. If so, your gospel identity tells you that you can bring your heart to him with honesty, and rest in the grace the he has shown you in Christ.” (p.73)
He openly addresses suicide: “It may not look impressive but the act of not succumbing to suicidal thoughts is in itself a reliance on God’s strength” (p.79)

He encourages seeking wise help, both Christian and secular, and utilising what is helpful and available in terms of medication and therapy. Our prayers can speak our pain and longing honestly to God - we can groan, mourn and wail, but we hold back from cursing God. We continue to be involved in our Christian communities, despite the challenges.
“However, we who wrestle with mental illness must also remember to be gracious to ourselves for we have a Lord who is wonderfully gracious with us. We may find that in our darkest moments worship simply looks like getting through each day that God has given us.” (p.66-67)
He finishes with the encouragement to carers and supporters to just keep patiently loving - when people are struggling and when they are not.

In the end - the framework to persevere is found in Jesus:
“Your identity is in Christ, and you’re loved by God, who you worship each and every day” (p.134)
If you are struggling with anxiety or depression (or someone close to you is), and you want to explore it through a compassionate and understanding Christian lens, this is an excellent choice.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Someone I Know is Grieving

Someone I Know is Grieving, Edward T. Welch (New Growth Press, 2023) 

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to review the new additions to the Ask the Christian Counselor series published by New Growth Press. They are very short books that aim to explore life’s common challenges, but not overwhelm the reader.

Someone I Know is Grieving is a gentle and compassionate offering by Edward Welch. Welch is prolific writer in the biblical counselling space, and he always has a kind and wise perspective (see his other books I have reviewed here.

It is structured simply and effectively, in four easy to read chapters:

Responding wisely to suffering - we all want to help rather than hurt people, so our goal is “to care very well for those who suffer; to bring life to those who are hurting. As we grow in this goal, the body of Christ will be drawn both toward Jesus and toward each other.” He encourages reflection on what you have found helpful in times of suffering.

Consider Christ our wisdom - who reshapes our hearts with love and humility. From here he springboards into the two our care should be offered:

Care shaped by compassion means we want to know people, and we understand that life experiences and emotions are complex.
"Compassion means that you love the person and are affected by his or her hardships, no matter how transient those hardships might be. They leave their mark. You remember them and are changed by them. Such a response takes you into the very heart of God, who chooses to place compassion at the forefront of how we know him."

Practical tips here include: say something, do something, avoid stories about you, and remember the details and the dates.

Care shaped by humility means we listen to what people want and need, and don’t assume that we know better.
“For us, humility knows its creaturely limits and persuades you that your comforting skills need work. You don’t always know what is helpful to say or do, and you can’t fully understand another person’s pain.”
Tips here include: prayer for and with them, don’t over interpret grief and suffering, hold your advice, and be careful using bible passages and responding to theological questions.

The end of each chapter has questions to prompt further thought and consider how it personally applies (the book is really acting as a counsellor at this point).

Welch has combined the theological realities about God’s care, sovereignty, and love for his people with thoughtful application about how to apply that to those who are grieving. The humility perspective adds a dimension of self-awareness - we must know people well before we can speak to them helpfully. We cannot think we have the answers to their concerns. And while God’s word speaks to all situations, sometimes silence, prayer and companionship is the more compassionate response in the immediate moment. Theological reflection on how God has been present in the moment will likely come later, as people process their experience. So, we walk alongside people as they grieve: learning, supporting, encouraging, and showing them Christ’s care.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Being the Bad Guys

Being the Bad Guys, Stephen McAlpine (The Good Book Company, 2021)

This is another book that resided on my shelf unread for a few years as people around me sang its praises. I am glad to have finally gotten to it!

McAlpine exploring what Christians in the Western world know to be increasingly true: over the last 50 years we have shifted from being the good guys (well respected in communities), to just one of the guys (one of many neutral options), to being the bad guys (rejected, disdained, and considered almost evil by secular culture). McAlpine doesn’t suggest we fight this reality - how could we?
“This book isn't about how to stop being the bad guys; it's about how to be the bad guys. It's about how to be the best bad guy you can be – to refuse to be surprised, confused, despairing, and mad about it, and to find a way to be calm, clear-sighted, confident and even joyful in it.” (p. 11)
He begins by outlining the cultural shifts that have brought this about, noting how quickly ideas move: “massive technological progress is fast-tracking the age of authenticity” (p.21). Yet we should not be surprised, God never promises a life of ease; suffering and pain for Jesus are expected. Part of this is understanding that God is using these times to refine and purify his church, which is a good thing. 

He then explores what it looks like today to be the bad guys, through themes of diversity, power and victim narratives, and self-denial and self-actualisation. His observations about culture changes, Christian responses (both helpful and unhelpful) will help believers put words and explanation around their experiences. While exposing the flimsy foundations of a world built on self- actualisation and personal fulfilment, he also outlines where the church has failed to understand, care or support those who most need it. He warns about the church playing the victim, or retreating into cloistered seclusion.

Rather, “the way we live must be shocking in a way that is also compelling” (p. 58). We need to admit our mistakes, the reality of the world in which we live, and embrace those who are seeking a deeper, more satisfying identity that one the world defines:
“When the actual victims of our culture start looking for grace and solace from its bruising brutality, we should make it easy for them to conclude we have been the ones to provide that all along.” (p. 76)
“We must say no to both secular and sacred self-fulfilment agendas, and contest any vision of the good life that is grounded and self-fulfilment and self-expression rather than self-denial. The gospel will lead to human flourishing; but it has a different understanding of how to achieve such flourishing.” (p. 85)
McAlpine finishes by considering how to be the best bad guy you can be in three areas:
  • church - keep meeting with God’s people, promising his praise and promoting his promises to others 
  • the workplace - there is practical wisdom here for those who are negotiating increasingly hostile work (and less diverse in thought) work environments. This includes being known for the right things: our character, our love and care of others, our attitude, etc. There is apt guidance for pastors “if you are a church leader, prepare your people for the week they will be having, not the week you will be having (p.115). 
  • the reality of living in two worlds at the same time - our Christian community and society in general - and how to do both well. 
McAlpine states from the outset that much of the discussion and examples are connected to sexuality and gender, not because he is obsessed with it, but because our culture is. So while very relevant now, it will be interesting to see whether it still is in 5-10 years for the cultural landscape and key issues change very quickly. For the moment though, many Christians will find this a very helpful and accessible book that puts into words what they experience on a daily basis, and then encourages us to live God-honouring lives that respect and love those around us, despite our different beliefs.
“in this time and place in history, we might just have to put up with being the bad guys. And that can drive you back into the community of God's people and to all the richness that dwells there, thanks to the unity gifted to it by the Holy Spirit… And you can go forward together to engage with the world bravely and courageously, and with love and concern: to continue to be all that Jesus has called us to be [and] … humbly, but resolutely to hold out a different story and a better way and a happier ending” (p.142)