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.