A Review, Part V: The Explicit Gospel and Church Authority

See Parts I, II, III, and IV.

Chandler’s brief discussion of church covenants is concerning: “I am in a covenant relationship with the other members of The Village Church…we’ve been given the covenant community because we need each other, and together we’ll be more mature, experience more life, and know more joy than we ever would apart from one another.” (143-144) (See The Village Church’s covenant and statement of faith here.)

While the idea of a covenant relationship between the members of a church sounds good and very spiritual, the churches who practice this extra-biblical doctrine by having their members sign a covenant (which is actually a legal document) also have a pattern of high degrees of control over their members, including harsh church discipline.

This also plays into the alarming statement Chandler makes in chapter ten: “If there isn’t in the end a need to be sanctified by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, there certainly isn’t a need to be under the authority of a Bible-holding governing body of elders or pastors who can exercise church discipline, watch carefully over your soul, and make sure you are growing in your relationship with God.” (198)

Equating being under the authority of pastors or elders as equivalent to being sanctified by the Holy Spirit is disturbing. Being under the authority of sinful humans is not remotely the same as being transformed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit. It is not the responsibility of pastors or elders to exercise authority in making sure Christians are growing in their faith or watching over their souls or monitoring their relationship with God. Pastors are shepherds, not hall monitors or police officers. This directly contradicts the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:4-5), and contradicts Matthew 20:25-28, where Jesus tells his disciples that there shall be no authority among them.

The Village Church itself has a history of problematic church discipline and authoritarianism, encapsulated in the story that made headlines in 2015. A church member annulled her marriage after her husband confessed to viewing child pornography (more accurately known as child sexual abuse material).

The church then placed her under church discipline because she annulled her marriage without consulting church leadership and because she resigned her membership. Her former husband was never put under discipline, despite committing actual crimes, and church leadership declared him repentant, disregarding entirely how mentally disturbed a person must be in order to consume child sexual abuse material. It is absolutely inappropriate for church leadership to evaluate the psychological state of an individual with a long history of secrecy around his criminal actions and declare him “repentant.”

It was not until the entire situation was made public that Chandler and the church leadership backed down and apologized to the former member. This type of situation is often handled terribly when church covenants are in play: Chandler’s “covenant relationship” with the other members of his church led to this outcome as he and other church leaders assumed that the member’s marriage status was theirs to dictate.

It’s easy and convenient to say “we should not discount truth because of the existence of abuses” (201), and much more difficult to face the fact that some Christian “truths” are a matter of interpretation and opinion and actually produce great harm, let alone investigate how you yourself may have contributed to such abuses.

Conclusion

In 1 John, the Bible explicitly tells us that God is love. Not merely that God loves us or that love pleases God or that he is loving, but that God cannot be separated from love because love is his very identity. 1 Corinthians tells us what love is: patient, kind, protective, trusting, persevering, hopeful, and unfailing. This is who God is. Love is not self-seeking, easily angered, dishonoring to others, or proud. This is not who God is.

I cannot find patience, kindness, protection, trust, or hope in this book. That alone makes its portrayal of the gospel suspect, regardless of the many other problems I’ve described, and the ones I did not. I cannot emphasize enough the omnipresence of God’s wrath and the total depravity of humanity throughout this entire book. Without love, Paul says, we are nothing. Without love, the gospel is not the gospel at all.

The classic verse that simplifies the gospel into its essential components, the first verse many of us learned as kids, John 3:16, is not referenced once. I speculate that verse was left out because it is thematically focused on God’s love and the eternal life he offers to us, with nary a mention of wrath or hell.

The appalling reductionist theology featured in this book is far from unique; if you do find it meaningful, I recommend “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards as far more eloquent and concise.

If you find the theology in this book abhorrent, as I do, I recommend the Gospel of John, filled with the words and the love of Christ.

Find other (much shorter and sometimes much snarkier) book reviews I’ve written over on Goodreads!

A Review, Part IV: The Explicit Gospel and an Attitude in Opposition to Christ

See Parts I, II, III, and V.

Some might argue that my issues with this book can be chalked up to theological differences. So let’s delve into the concerning parts of the book that aren’t solely theological, that reflect a tone and attitude at odds with the way Jesus treated people.

On page 100, Chandler quotes his “good friend Mark Driscoll,” demonstrating an utter lack of discernment in citing as a theological authority a man who had a long history even in 2012 of abusive behavior as a pastor and of making other disgusting comments about both women and men, dating back to 2001 when he called women “penis homes.” The same Mark Driscoll who is even now terrorizing another congregation, to whom Christianity Today devoted an entire podcast detailing the destruction he caused.

The book is filled with unpleasant gendered analogies and anecdotes, with women on the losing end every time. From referring to those who studied Koine Greek together as a brotherhood (147) to crass jokes such as “Now, there isn’t any way to keep seven women happy, much less seven hundred” (124), Chandler treats half of his readership as inferior and outside the inner circle of theological knowledge. This book is not targeted toward men; it is addressed to both genders. What is the purpose of these demeaning jokes? When is it ever acceptable to treat women this way?

Page 200 has a long rambling section discussing people more theologically aligned with the gospel in the air versus people more theologically aligned with the gospel on the ground, except that every reference to people uses the words “brothers” and “guys.” This section leaves women out of the theological conversation entirely, with the implication that women do not have thoughts and opinions on the tension between the gospel in the air and the gospel on the ground, or if they do, that they are not worth addressing or considering.

Isaiah 6:8 is referred to as “gutsy, masculine. We can hear Braveheart’s guttural yawp in there.” (72) I have no idea what is masculine about saying to the Lord, “Here am I. Send me!”

Then there is this dreadful section: “Somehow Psalm 139 got hijacked by women’s ministries, and although I think it’s important for women to understand they are fearfully and wonderfully made and not get into the silly game of comparing themselves to everyone around them, I think this text is far weightier than that.” (178) Declaring that women’s ministries hijacked Psalm 139 implies that women’s ministries do not have the same full and equal right to Scripture that any other type of ministry or Bible study has.

He paraphrases Solomon in Ecclesiastes 1:16 as saying “In case you think I’m a liar, let me remind you of this. I’m smarter than you, more powerful than you, and have more women than you.” (119) Solomon makes no reference to having any women in this verse. That gross addition is all Chandler’s emphasis. Women are not possessions to have. They are people. Any reference to women as objects or possessions has no place in a book representing the gospel.

Is this how Jesus spoke to and about women?

Chandler’s atrocious attitude toward people is not limited to gendered remarks, however. He says, “The Psalms, one of my personal favorites, features some of the writings of the great schizophrenic king, David. (I think he’s schizophrenic, because in one line he will say, ‘How long, Oh Lord, will you forsake me?’ And then two lines later he will say something like, ‘How great you are to be so near to me.’)” (114)

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that severely impacts people’s experiences of reality. Casually assigning that label to David treats schizophrenia as a stereotype and an adjective rather than a devastating condition. This also twists David’s genuine expression of emotion into something abnormal, when it is perfectly normal to have conflicting experiences and emotions in close proximity to each other. This is not an accurate description of schizophrenia, let alone mental illness as a whole. Such things should not be treated so flippantly or used as humor. Imagine if someone battling schizophrenia read this passage!

On page 115, Chandler says, “People who have Job-like experiences may moan, ‘Well, if life wasn’t like this, if I had more money, if I had more power, if I had more friends, if I had better religion…’ or, ‘If my parents weren’t so mean, if I had grown up in a different place…’ What they begin to create in their minds is the idea that a better existence exists somewhere over the rainbow.”

Job lost everything he had – his home, his wealth, his health, his children – and then had to listen to lectures by his friends just like the one Chandler delivers here. God certainly is not impressed by his friends’ comments. Imagine saying to someone who just lost their entire home in a wildfire or their child to cancer that they are moaning and should not be dissatisfied with the suffering they’re experiencing. A Job-like experience is one where someone experiences absolute devastation, not one where they are unhappy and wishing for a different life.

“Keep reading, dummies; it goes poorly,” Chandler says at one point (50). Where is the respect for fellow image-bearers? Where is the humble kindness of a shepherd? It is not Christlike to condescend to your audience. Humor is not antithetical to the gospel. The sort of humor that is disrespectful and condescending, however, has no place in a book claiming to describe the explicit gospel.

And then there is this appalling paragraph: “At the end of the day our hope is not that all the poor on earth will be fed. That’s simply not going to happen. I’m not saying we shouldn’t feed and rescue the poor; I’m saying that salvation isn’t having a full belly or a college education or whatever. Making people comfortable on earth before an eternity in hell is wasteful.” (83)

Honestly, I wrote this review because of this passage. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus teach this. No, salvation isn’t “having a full belly or college education or whatever,” but only people who have a full belly or a college education can so casually dismiss the importance of these things to the millions of people on this earth who are starving or desperately trying to lift their family out of poverty through gaining an education.

If making people comfortable on earth regardless of their eternal destination is wasteful, then why did Jesus spend so much time doing exactly that? He healed many people without asking them to confess him as Messiah. Why does the Bible tell us over and over to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans? To stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves? God condemned Israel and Judah because of their refusal to care for the poor and their rejection of Him (see the books of Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, etc.). He saw those two decisions as inextricably linked – to disregard the needs of the people who did not have full bellies was to reject God.

This attitude, that making life comfortable on earth is wasteful, is actually a Gnostic way of thinking. Gnosticism is a heresy from the early days of Christianity, rooted in the dualistic belief that the world is divided into physical and spiritual realms. Only the spiritual realm is good; the physical, material world is evil. Therefore only the spirit matters and the physical reality of a person’s body and life are not important, and are in fact a distraction from spiritual matters because we are trapped in our bodies.

Chandler cites Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ teaching that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him, saying, “What becomes of those committed to the belittlement of God’s name?” (46). He uses this passage to reinforce his emphasis on humanity deserving hell for seeking our own glory, which is frankly the strangest emphasis I’ve ever heard taught from this passage. Jesus’ emphasis is on feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, and caring for the sick, and does not reference his glory once. Instead, he identifies himself as the hungry, the prisoner, and the sick, as the least of these. Eternal punishment is reserved for those who do not care for the least of these.

The most condescending anecdote in the book is too long for me to quote in its entirety (107-109), so I will summarize. At the end of chapter five (Creation), Chandler tells the story of a time he was preaching from Ephesians 2 on the doctrine of total depravity, once again disregarding the nuance of normal childhood development and declaring that “children are horrifically selfish; they don’t have to be taught that…we are born, in essence, evil.” He notes that he is preaching in front of twelve hundred people, and that a young woman interrupts him to ask if he has any children, and when he says no, she responds, “Then don’t tell me my baby’s evil.”

Chandler questions her and leads her to the conclusion that because “her son consistently chose to inflict harm on others and disobey her rules… [he has] a rebellious spirit that’s intrinsic within him.” Babies literally do not have the ability to understand morality. So yes, while babies will inevitably sin, a baby hits or pinches or screams because they are learning to communicate with the world and are discovering cause and effect. As Kyle J. Howard says, “Total depravity does not mean babies are evil. The doctrine, better expressed as “total inability” teaches that all of humanity is impacted by [the] Fall to such a degree that they’re unable to come to God & live righteously [without] God converting & sanctifying.”

Christian teachings on children having naturally “rebellious spirits” have directly led to children being abused and sometimes killed. Is that the norm for most Christian parents? No, but a lack of understanding of child development combined with this theology can be very dangerous even in the hands of well-meaning parents.

After Chandler “lovingly” rebuts the young woman, he continues preaching until an older woman interrupts to say that she agrees with the young woman. Chandler “couldn’t believe it” and delivers this lecture: “If anyone can give me any verse in the Bible that supports the default innocence of human beings, let’s talk about it. But there is a way that seems right to you that in the end leads to death (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). So if you want to talk about what the Bible teaches, we can have that conversation all day. But if you’re saying, ‘I don’t care what the Bible teaches,’ then we can’t really have that conversation, because you and I see the world through completely different lenses. You’re arguing upon what you think, and I’m arguing on thousands upon thousands of years of theology and God’s self-revealed will. But if you want to talk Scripture, let’s talk Scripture.”

Once again, just because Chandler holds strongly to this one-dimensional view of humanity does not mean he has the only revealed interpretation, particularly since he is once more being intellectually dishonest. (The doctrine of total depravity, developed during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, stems from the concept of original sin, which was fully formulated by Augustine in the 300s A.D. It is a nuanced interpretation of Scripture, not a black-and-white fact.) Just because he is a pastor preaching to a crowd of over one thousand does not mean he speaks for God. Telling a woman in front of a crowd that “there is a way that seems right to you that in the end leads to death” because she disagrees with him is using Scripture as a weapon and is spiritually abusive. Disagreeing with Chandler is not saying “I don’t care what the Bible teaches.”

I do not care what Chandler has to say about theology and doctrine if this is the way he manipulates and hammers it into people. Jesus did not teach this way. If your pastor behaves this way when you disagree with him in public, be wary of private disagreements with him. Leaders who use spiritually abusive tactics in front of a crowd will not hesitate to use them in private to an even greater extent.

The story has a somewhat less horrific ending, although the bar is on the floor by this point. Chandler “start[s] to prepare [his] defenses” and the woman responds to his challenge, “That’s easy. Genesis 1 says God made it and it was good.” Chandler acknowledges that she is right, and then plays his trump card of Genesis 3, which changed everything. And he’s not wrong! But his road to that place, and the bodies he left on the side of that road, speak volumes about his attitude toward his flock.

Attitudes and behavior like this are absolutely unacceptable in any pastor.

A Review, Part III: The Explicit Gospel and the Role of Women

See Parts I, II, IV, and V.

I am not debating the role of women in the church, society, or the family in this review. But I take major issue with the way Chandler handles this entire topic.

He begins with, “Just consider the slide on this slope within mainline Protestantism in the West when it comes to the issue of women in church leadership. The issue has been viewed basically the same way for two thousand years of church history, a view that can summarize this way: Men and women have been created equal and yet distinct by God. Men are charged with leading in the home and the church and women have been given to men as helpmates. However, as the church began to engage a modern culture, we began to hear questions such as, ‘Aren’t women just as gifted as men? Surely those texts in the Bible can’t mean what they appear to say, because, I mean, look at our culture.’ The frame of reference shifts. The culture begins to define the Scriptures instead of the Scriptures defining the culture.” (194)

Contrary to what Chandler says, the issue of women in church leadership has not been viewed basically the same way for the past two thousand years of church history. This assertion is factually inaccurate. Prominent early church fathers viewed women as inferior to men rather than equal, a view that persisted for centuries of church history. Women were public ministry leaders and preachers in eras when women’s leadership and teaching in mixed-gender Western circles was countercultural. Baptist denominations themselves have a long history of female preachers, including female pastors, dating back to colonial America.

Chandler claims “that Paul never uses a cultural argument in declaring God’s design for gender roles; rather, he always points back to God’s creative work. Paul shows us how God’s design can be applied to cultural environs, but he doesn’t establish the distinct genders and their distinct roles by the cultural environs…So Paul doesn’t argue culture. He doesn’t think the role of women in the church is a cultural issue. He doesn’t think the problem is the result of some kind of patriarchal brokenness, a rigid system that, in the end, needs to be adhered to in order for men to hold on to power.” (195)

I will point out that Chandler does not reference any Scripture, Biblical scholars, belief statements from mainline Protestant denominations, or anything at all other than his own opinions, which are insufficient commentary on the complex topic he is delving into. Insisting that Paul is not using a cultural argument defies basic literary and Biblical analysis. The reader can either analyze or interpret the text with the author and their historical and cultural context as part of the frame of reference, or the reader can take the text standing alone and interpret it without any context whatsoever. There is nuance to both approaches, but no writer writes in a black void and no writer can separate themselves from the cultural context they write within, including Chandler himself.

This is true for divinely inspired Scripture as well as secular literature; basic Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics demand that the original context of the passage be considered in order to understand and interpret it properly. A particular passage of Scripture may very well transcend its original author and readers’ cultural and historical context and be applicable in a literal sense to Christians throughout time, such as Paul’s many exhortations for unity among the church. But this is not what Chandler argues. Additionally, any Scriptures he may be thinking of when making these assertions (1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy, probably) are in fact letters Paul wrote to specific audiences in response to previous correspondence and communication. That is as far from writing in a black void as one could get.

None of us can escape our cultural context, either secular or Christian, and we must always be mindful of that when interpreting Scripture. Christianity is not defined by what it opposes in secular culture. We look to Jesus to define the truth we stand firm in, instead of doubling down on whatever viewpoint might be the opposite of current secular culture.

Gender roles are not part of the gospel. These roles are an integral part of many Christians’ faith and practice of Christianity, but Chandler attaches a specific set of gender beliefs to the gospel and insists that despite this being a secondary issue, if we disagree “our trust in Scripture gets rattled and we start to become our own authority—or worse, we let culture dictate to us what’s true—and in the end, we begin to slide away from what is clear in Scripture and justify how we read the Scriptures in order to say what we want it to say and make it more palatable to the world around us.” (195)

His logical progression is that if a Christian disagrees with his view on gender roles, then that Christian necessarily is letting their own cultural context dictate their interpretation and trust of Scripture, which leads directly to dilution of the gospel message, which has implications for one’s salvation.

This raises gender roles to, in fact, be part of the Gospel, rather than a secondary issue. The slippery slope argument is disrespectful to the many theologically conservative Bible scholars and theologians and faithful ordinary Christians who hold Scripture in high regard, yet have views on women’s roles in the church and the family that differ from what Chandler presents here, and it is intellectually lazy. Rather than proving his views with Scripture and sound exegesis, Chandler presents himself as a foremost authority on God’s design and equates disagreeing with him with disagreeing with God. This behavior is not Christlike and is unacceptable.

Pastors are not God and their interpretation of Scripture is not somehow more accurate or holier than other Christians’ interpretations merely because they are pastors. As believers, we must be like the Bereans and measure everything presented to us as Biblical and spiritually correct against Scripture and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

If someone who presents themselves as a spiritual authority fails to respect those they are teaching by presenting the information that led them to a particular interpretation, and instead insists that disagreement with them equals disagreement with God, they should likewise not be respected as a spiritual authority, because this behavior in any other context is rightfully seen as manipulative.

I welcome a thoughtful, researched discussion of women’s roles in the church, society, and the family in theological books, but you will not find that in The Explicit Gospel.

A Review, Part II: The Explicit Gospel? Not Likely.

See Parts I, III, IV, and V.

The Gospel in the Air

After wading through the first four chapters describing the gospel on the ground, I was surprised to find that the next four chapters, focused on the gospel in the air, were less appalling. All of the issues with the gospel on the ground are present in the gospel in the air, but since there are fewer references to God’s wrath, the reader can take a breath and hope for mercy. At least, until she runs into total depravity again.

In chapter five, Chandler examines creation. He spends four pages discussing science and six pages on a cursory examination of the various views Christians have of how God created the universe and why his view (historical creationism) makes the most sense. Is this a good discussion Christians ought to have? Of course. But does it belong in a book describing the gospel? Not when it tries to deride Christians who do not hold to young earth creationism as “naturalists” accommodating science. (100)

Ironically, Chandler dismisses science as “ever-changing” (96) and says that it’s “demand for trust requires at least as much faith as God’s demand” (95), then appeals to science using the first and second laws of thermodynamics as evidence that theistic evolution is impossible. (98) This is not an intellectually sound discussion of the various views of creation.

The manner in which God spun the universe into motion is not part of the gospel. If holding to a specific viewpoint of creation were integral to following Christ, it would be negligent of Jesus to simply not mention this important element during his time on earth.

This issue is very important to many Christians, but it is a secondary issue. Faithful Christians can disagree and still hold fast to the gospel. If we need to be certain of God’s method of creation in order to consider ourselves truly a Christian, then our faith is weaker than that of all the Christians throughout history who were not having these debates and yet believed.

Chapter five also contains the most condescending anecdote in the entire book, where Chandler tells a story about a time he lectured two women about total depravity, but we will get to that later.

Chapter six focuses on the Fall, primarily through the lens of Ecclesiastes – without God, our existence is meaningless, not merely on an individual level, but on a cosmic level. Chandler is not wrong that this world is broken, that we are searching for, in the words of Plumb, something to fill the God-shaped hole in all of us.

But once again, we come back to total depravity. Chandler asserts that from the beginning of our existence, we are demanding and selfish, saying that “from the second we are born, we seek our own happiness, don’t we? At 4:00 a.m., in the middle of the night, the middle of the afternoon, in a church service, or during Grandma’s funeral, it doesn’t matter: ‘Give me a bottle. Give me my thumb. Give me some food. Entertain me. Dance for me. Make those funny faces.’ We pop out snapping our fingers for satisfaction, and we never really stop.” (125-126)

The problems with this one-dimensional view of total depravity are legion (not to mention the problems with categorizing a baby’s need for food and affection and comfort as sinful). Yes, humanity is broken, fallen, and searching for purpose, and no one is without sin. But we are made in the image of God. He breathed life into us, knit us together before we were born, and delights in us as his creation. I only found three references to imago dei in the entire book: twice in one paragraph in chapter six (111) and once more in reference to the nation of Israel failing to walk with God (160). This focus on total depravity as humanity’s essence is inadequate, incomplete, and inaccurate.

Chapter seven discusses reconciliation: “From the ground we see the cross as our bridge to God. From the air, the cross is our bridge to the restoration of all things.” (142) At last Jesus’ full life and ministry is acknowledged (136-139) as Chandler describes the work of Christ in cosmic terms, that “when Jesus forgives sin and raises the dead, he is saying the gospel is about individuals being born again, but he’s also saying that the gospel is about his conquest of sin and death.” (138) Naturally the cosmic scale of the gospel has immense implications for the shape and mission of the church. I was happy to see that the hope and purpose for the church laid out in this chapter align much more closely to the gospel than anything previously described in the book.

In chapter eight, focused on consummation, Chandler talks about the new heaven and new earth that is yet to come, about the resurrected bodies Jesus’ followers will have, how everything will be made new. He touches the topic of end times analysis, but says that “the Bible would have us look forward to our destination and think about the wonders of that city to come” rather than obsess over the details (157), and I think he’s right. The details of the end times aren’t something that anyone can know with certainty, and are not part of the gospel that Chandler is trying to present.

I have to wonder why Chandler’s description of the gospel as it applies to individuals is so flawed and incomplete, yet his explanation of the gospel as God’s great plan of redemption and reconciliation for creation is less horrific. Is it because God reconciling creation to himself consists of mostly abstract ideas, things that will happen in the future and have not yet come to pass?

The Dangers of the Gospel on the Ground and in the Air

After thoroughly examining both the gospel on the ground and the gospel in the air, Chandler turns to the dangers on focusing too strongly on either. Ironically, when discussing too strong a focus on the gospel on the ground, he warns against doctrinal arrogance (185), an error he himself commits as he insists that his depiction is the only doctrinally correct gospel. If this book intends to present the gospel, it ought to present the entire gospel rather than a one-dimensional Calvinistic view of it.

This warped and limited understanding is made clear in the next chapter, where Chandler says, “Those who hate the true gospel and love themselves always insist that the atoning work of Christ is a secondary issue. This is how the doctrine of penal substitution has come to be considered a secondary issue” (193) and later claims that “where the substitutionary atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross is preached and proclaimed, missions will not spin off to a liberal shell of a lifeless message but will stay true to what God has commanded the church to be in the Scriptures.” (198)

To be clear, penal substitutionary atonement is only one of many theories of the atonement, and it was not fully formulated until the Protestant Reformation. For fifteen hundred years, Christianity managed to survive without this particular piece of doctrine, and still does in many corners of the world. It is a valid doctrine, but to assert that the true church must believe it or become “a liberal shell,” that this exact doctrine is necessary for true salvation, is laughable. One can hardly accuse the Eastern Orthodox church of liberalism.

The gospel is far more than a set of doctrinal beliefs specific to a subset of Christianity.

A Review, Part I: The Explicit Gospel? Not Likely.

See Parts II, III, IV, and V.

Two years ago my small group attempted to read The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler. I say attempted, because we voted to abandon it halfway through. The book upset me on many levels: as a Christian, as a writer, as someone trained in literary analysis, and as a woman. Hence the existence of this thorough and lengthy book review. Does this book have good qualities? Perhaps, but the bad heavily outweighs the good. This book is not the explicit gospel and will do more harm than good to those who read it.

To begin, some facts about the book: it was published in 2012 by Crossway; endorsed by James MacDonald, Mark Dever, Ed Stetzer, and Rick Warren, among others; and is 240 pages. Matt Chandler is the lead pastor at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas (a Southern Baptist church), and president of the Acts 29 Network.

Chandler looks at the gospel from two vantage points, which he calls the gospel on the ground and the gospel in the air. The gospel on the ground “traces the Biblical narrative of God, Man, Christ, Response…we see clearly the work of the cross in our lives and the lives of those around us.” (16) The gospel in the air is the meta-narrative, “reveal[ing] to us the big picture of God’s plan of restoration from the beginning of time to the end of time and the redemption of his creation.” (16)

The Gospel on the Ground

Chapter one’s focus is God, who is depicted as a terrifying, narcissistic glory hound, the focus on his power and sovereignty. Chandler writes, “From beginning to end, the Scriptures reveal that the foremost desire of God’s heart is not our salvation but rather the glory of his own name.” (33-34) How does he define glory? He doesn’t. He tells us about God’s transcendent creativity, his sovereign knowing, his perfect self-sufficiency, and his glorious self-regard, but he does not define glory. God doesn’t need us; God reigns supreme, he says. “This world is not present…so that you and I might be saved or lost but so that God might be glorified in his infinite perfections.” (34)

But this depiction of God is incomplete and therefore terribly warped. God says of himself in Exodus 34 that he is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin while punishing the guilty, yet Chandler mentions none of these attributes.

After describing God’s power, creativity, and sovereignty, he provides a list of Bible verses to prove that God’s glory is his chief concern (34-35). Yet the Psalms tell us over and over that God is worthy of praise and glory because he is good, because he is love, because of his great deeds, and because he is sovereign. Describing only the omnipotence and glorious self-regard of God reduces our majestic loving Father to a monstrous deity who regards us as insignificant gnats next to his own glory.

How can this book explain the explicit gospel when it does not tell the whole truth of who God is?

Chapter two focuses on man – our belittlement of his name and turning away from him and God’s severity toward us as a result. Chandler introduces the idea of humanity’s total depravity, which colors every chapter in the rest of the book.

Rather than give equal emphasis to God’s kindness toward fallen humanity and his severity toward us, as Paul does in Romans 11:22, Chandler brushes by God’s kindness with a few quick words about how we “get that stuff somewhat readily” (40) and then spends page after page describing God’s severity and wrath and the horrors of hell (41-51).

Ironically, given the preceding pages, he says, “You cannot scare anyone into heaven. Heaven is not a place for those who are afraid of hell; it’s a place for those who love God.” (49) Yet two pages prior, he paraphrases Jesus as saying in Luke 12:4-5, “Seriously? You’re afraid of what people think of you more than you’re afraid of me? You’re afraid of what people can do to you rather than what I can do to you? You’re more afraid of how people might perceive you than how I perceive you? Are you serious? Listen, the worst they can do is kill you.” (47)

If that is not scaring people into heaven, I don’t know what is. Chapter two contains not a single reference to imago dei, that we are image-bearers of God, not a single mention that we are beloved by him. In Luke 12:6-7, Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid, that they are more valuable to God than the sparrows that He cares for. Divorcing verses 4 and 5 from verses 6 and 7 paints a false picture of God’s love. Do we deserve that love? The answer is both yes and no: we are fallen sinners who have wandered far from God, and yet God has said we are precious and worth the sacrifice of his son, therefore by his decree we are worthy.

Christianity is full of paradoxes: humanity is broken and depraved and made in the image of God; God is holy and mighty and love; God knows every choice every human will make and humans are free to make those choices; we are distanced from God because of our brokenness and he bridged that distance with his great love.

How can this book explain the explicit gospel when it does not tell the whole truth of who humanity is?

Chapter three is centered on Christ the sacrificial lamb. After a brief discussion of the horror of the crucifixion, Chandler wades through the Old Testament and the sacrifices God required of Israel: “And in the tent of meetings and in Jerusalem, blood was always flowing. Blood constantly coursed out of slashed arteries and flowed from the temple. Can you imagine the stench in Jerusalem? Can you imagine hundreds and thousands of people regularly carrying a goat, a lamb, a chicken, or a dove into the place of sacrifice and cutting its throat and draining its blood? A river of blood is flowing out of the temple.” (60-61)

Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all others, to appease God’s wrath. How odd that in a chapter titled “Jesus,” the only description of Jesus is as a bloody sacrifice, e.g., “The blade of God’s wrath penetrates the Son and bleeds him, and he absorbs the wrath of God toward mankind.” (62)

Jesus is a person, who lived and breathed and had an entire life and ministry before his death. Jesus is God, Jesus is Messiah, Jesus is active and present and real. He is not a bleating sheep helplessly sent off to be sacrificed to a vengeful God on behalf of mewling humanity. He walked among us and chose to give himself up. He is Lord. Jesus’ life and ministry are vital to his message; treating the cross as the only event in Jesus’ life relevant to the gospel is cherry picking.

Equally disturbing as the way Jesus is treated in this chapter is the way Chandler fixates on the cross as the entire gospel. “The cross now stands as the central tenet of all we believe about salvation,” he says. (58) But without the resurrection, without Jesus conquering death and rising again, the cross means nothing. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

A gospel without the resurrection is not the gospel at all. Jesus defeated sin and death by dying and rising again, not by sacrificing himself on the cross alone. The cross and the resurrection cannot be separated; to ignore the resurrection is to preach a false gospel. In this entire book, the resurrection is mentioned only eight times, always as a brief aside, and not once in this chapter.

This chapter is full of heavy-handed, twisted penal substitutionary atonement theology. Penal substitutionary atonement is defined as the atonement theory that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God directed his wrath at Jesus, who bore the guilt of our sins and the weight of our punishment on our behalf. God’s wrath was satisfied by Jesus’ sacrifice and God now forgives sinners freely without compromising his righteousness.

This doctrine as depicted in this book is horrifying. Kyle J. Howard points out that without the unity of the Trinity, the Godhead acting with one will, this doctrine is abusive. God pouring wrath onto Jesus as his hapless victim is not the same thing as “the Godhead working together to accomplish a goal.” He says, “When preachers & theologians discuss the Cross, & do so [through] personally punitive language [between] The Father & The Son; they are misrepresenting Trinitarian relations that lead to blasphemy & profound harm.”

Chandler pays lip service to this issue and cites John 10:18 (58), yet uses “personally punitive language” throughout the book, including mere paragraphs prior to his caveat: “The cross of Christ was God’s idea. The death of Jesus was God’s idea…the cross of Christ cast its shadow across all of eternity. It was the predetermined plan of God. The death of Jesus, the wrath-absorbing cross of Christ, was the plan of God before creation.” (57-58)

The Trinity is a minor detail in this depiction of the cross, mentioned in two sentences in this chapter, and not even listed in the book’s index. Nor is there any discussion of Jesus as our Savior and Messiah, also missing from the index.

How can this book explain the explicit gospel when it ignores the resurrection and reduces Jesus to a bloody sacrifice subject to divine punishment rather than one member of the Godhead choosing to give himself up for humanity?

Chapter four looks at humanity’s response to everything that Chandler has described so far: God, Man, and Christ. Our response, Chandler says, is far too often a works-based faith, “people who have been conformed to a pattern of religious behavior but not transformed by the Holy Spirit of God.” (72)

The response he chooses to focus on is based in Isaiah 6, where God instructs Isaiah to tell the people their hearts will be dull and unresponsive to the Lord, and backed up by Matthew 13, the parable of the sower, and Acts 2, Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. He uses these texts to prove his point that the gospel is not seeker-sensitive, that “we are never, ever, ever going to make Christianity so cool that everybody wants it.” (80)

This leads directly to the idea that God hardens hearts (71), that “the hearer of the gospel is responsible for his response, but God is responsible for his ability to do so,” that “blessed are the eyes that see and the ears that hear because the Spirit of God has opened them to do so.” (77)

Let’s be clear: this is only one theological perspective among many that Christians throughout history and throughout the world have held to. The idea that God chooses who will be saved and who will not respond to the gospel is unconditional election, the U in the acronym TULIP, which sums up the basic doctrines of Calvinism. This flows directly into the L for limited atonement – Christ died only for the sins of the elect, or those chosen by God for saving.

These doctrines pop up throughout the entire book, despite Chandler mentioning nowhere that the gospel he is presenting is rooted in a twisted version of Calvinism. This chapter includes only a brief mention of irresistible grace (I): “It is all of grace that some do hear” (77) and of course always comes back to total depravity (T): “Because we are stained with sin from conception, we are rushing headlong into the fires of hell before we can even walk.” (64) This assertion leaves no room for the concept of the age of accountability.

The book does not even mention the extraordinary beauty of the gospel, the love and forgiveness and new life Christ offers us that draw us to the gospel. It instead implies that because the gospel is offensive and bloody, only through God choosing to soften hearts will anyone respond to it. Certainly no one would be drawn to respond to this version of the gospel of their own accord!

I am not debating Calvinism in this review. Many Christians hold fast to these doctrines and it is no reflection either positive or negative on their commitment to Jesus, particularly since the Calvinist theology within this book is so one-dimensional and limited. But I find Chandler to be intellectually dishonest because he fails entirely to acknowledge that he is presenting one specific theological tradition as the gospel and insisting that only this theological tradition in all its minutia is the real gospel.

Now, if your heart is not hardened to the gospel but is instead softened, this chapter does not allow you to rest in and be transformed by Christ’s magnificent love for you and completed work through his death and resurrection. Instead, “we must test ourselves to see if we are in the faith” (84) and “be very careful about going to church, reading [our] Bible[s], saying prayers, doing good deeds, and reading books like this through anything but faith in the living Lord.” (85)

How utterly exhausting. There is no joy, no life, no freedom in this response to the gospel. Did Jesus not say that he came so that we would have abundant life? Did Paul not say that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free? Focusing intently on your motivations for doing good works should not be your primary response to the Good News.

How can this book explain the explicit gospel when it describes a response to the gospel completely devoid of transformation and new life in Christ?

Reading Recap 2021: Three Stars All Around

Last year was a strange reading year. I enjoyed most of the books I read, but didn’t love very many of them. I read 121 books and while I’m glad I read nearly all of them, I’m not sure how many will stick with me. Fiction particularly took a hit, which is sad because I love novels! How this happened, I’m not sure, although perhaps I read too many ebooks (59), which tend to be books I’m not quite as excited about. Of course, we can always blame it on the pandemic! To reinvigorate my reading life, my only reading goal for 2022 is to read a lot of books that make me love them (definitely fewer ebooks).

But never fear, I still have some standout books to highlight. As always, keep in mind that I read a wide variety of books with a wide variety of content, so here’s your blanket content warning for any books you see from me. If you have questions about a specific book, ask away!

The Most Fun Book:

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

A young woman accepts a job as caretaker to her old schoolmate’s twin stepchildren, who burst into flames when they get agitated. Lillian doesn’t really believe Madison when she says the kids spontaneously combust, but it’s true, and very inconvenient for Madison’s husband’s political ambitions. So Lillian leaves her dead-end job behind and spends the summer bonding with a pair of kids as lonely as she is, putting out fires both real and emotional. With the wild premise and Lillian’s strong character voice, I’ve never had so much fun reading about humans doing the best they can with what they’ve got.

The Best Non-Fiction:

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

A therapist tells the stories of four of her patients as she also grapples with a devastating breakup and her own journey through therapy. Lori Gottlieb pulls back the curtain on the experience of therapy, offering an intimate look into one therapist’s personal and professional life and four ordinary people’s private worlds. I was particularly moved by John’s story, a man deeply reluctant to face the pain buried deep in his life, who frustrates Gottlieb with his well honed aversion tactics until he at last begins to reveal himself. Life isn’t easy, even for a therapist, but we all can face it better with someone who walks with us through what we struggle with most.

Bonus:Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality by Rachel Joy Welcher

Rachel Welcher examines the complex and heavy legacy of purity culture that framed the way an entire generation of evangelicals saw lust, modesty, sex, dating, marriage, and God.

The Best Memoir:

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton

Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted in 1985 of two murders he did not commit, and spent 30 years on death row before finally winning his freedom. He fought the absolute injustice of his imprisonment through silence, through the legal system, through building relationships with the other prisoners on death row, and through his faith. The total lack of control he had over his situation would be enough to drive anyone mad, particularly as he faced blatant racism in the legal system again and again. Yet his story is one of choosing hope, even through the grief and anger and despair. His writing is raw and powerful and gave me chills.

The Book That Kinda Exploded My Head:

God’s Word to Women by Katharine C. Bushnell

Originally published in 1921, this groundbreaking work of theology thoroughly exposits Scripture regarding women and the many ways those same scriptures have been twisted to oppress women. Katharine Bushnell spent years working for reform on behalf of trafficked women, fighting the men who brutalized them in India, in logging camps across the US, and throughout East Asia. She could not reconcile these men’s professed Christianity with what they did to women, and finally concluded that Christianity itself was distorted through the lens of patriarchy. This book is the culmination of her years of studying the Bible in its original languages and its historical context, and I could read it fifty times without fully understanding everything in it. One major area of Scripture she delves into is what it means to take God’s command that “man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife” literally. I promise, you’ve never heard any of this in church or Bible study.

Bonus: Jesus and John Wayne: How Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Seventy-five years of evangelical culture and theology crescendoed in the 2016 presidential election, the emphasis on militancy and patriarchy embedded in evangelicalism since its very beginning.

The Book I Learned the Most From: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

In 1972, as a bloody sectarian war raged in Northern Ireland, a mother of ten was dragged from her home, and her children never saw her again. The violent thirty-year conflict known as the Troubles turned city blocks into war zones and ordinary citizens into terrorists and martyrs. Patrick Keefe traces the history of this war through bombings, hunger strikes, the fierce loyalty of the IRA to their cause, to finally the uneasy peace in 1998. Impeccably researched, his sources hammer home just how recent this history truly is, and how it affects Northern Ireland and its people to this day. Riveting, tragic, and brutal – if you like history, you must read this book.

Bonus: Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen

While millennials were maligned for years as lazy kids living in their parents’ basements, the truth involves far more hustle and student loans and productivity and exhaustion than older generations gave them credit for, as the drastic shifts in the American employment landscape made the very nature of work inescapable.

The Other Best Memoir: What is a Girl Worth: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics by Rachael Denhollander

In 2017, Larry Nassar was convicted of sexual assault, but it took years and hundreds of victims before Rachael Denhollander and other survivors finally won their fight for justice. Now Denhollander is an incredible advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, but her story begins as she herself is abused as a child. Most of us have no idea how difficult it is to report abuse or assault, let alone face the incompetence and hostility of the very institutions that should keep us safe. This book describes that battle in painstaking detail, from the powerful moment when Nassar is sentenced to the horrific personal toll Denhollander experienced. As story after story of abuse emerges from all corners of our society, this book is a must read for anyone who cares about victims of abuse.

I still happily recommend the books that I rated three stars, because even if I didn’t love them, you might! Come join me on Goodreads and check them out! At the beginning of each month I update with my reads from the previous month, and I’m always adding to my TBR. And I do enjoy writing snarky or gushing reviews for books that irritated me or made me fall in love.

Other reads I enjoyed were the several urban fantasy series I devoured, the Israeli spy series that I’ve almost caught up with, the mermaid horror novel, the middle grade novel tackling very heavy themes, and the lovely book on writing and faith by Madeleine L’Engle.

My 2022 reading life is already off to a good start, with five library books in my possession that range in topic from the enneagram to historical fiction to a horse biography. I’m also about to jump into a memoir by someone who grew up in foster care. I’m definitely biased, but I think there’s no better way to spend a cold winter evening than curled up under a blanket with a good book.

Happy reading!

Modesty: From Anxiety to Freedom

It’s 2017, and I’m standing in a Target fitting room, checking the shorts I’m trying on. I turn from side to side, looking at the mirror. These shorts are so comfortable. They fit great. But they don’t come down to my fingertips when I hold my arms at my sides. I know they’ll be even shorter when I sit down.

These shorts.

I study my reflection for a few minutes, chewing my lip. These shorts look so good! They’re so cute! Then I change back into my own clothes and go to check out, where I buy not just one pair, but three pairs.

I’ve worn shorts that didn’t come down to my fingertips before, but this is different. Those shorts were hand-me-downs or didn’t fit comfortably or just worn for bumming around; I had one nicer pair I loved that I always wore with guilt, because they definitely weren’t fingertip length. The shorts I’m buying now are for me to wear anywhere and everywhere I want, and I’m buying them on purpose.

It’s hard to describe, four years later, how that decision would send me on a journey to feeling comfortable in my body, comfortable in my clothes, in ways I didn’t know I wasn’t. I was tired of hunting for cute shorts that fit and also were long enough. I was tired of feeling like I couldn’t wear anything mainstream fashion had to offer because it wasn’t modest. I was tired of always figuring out how to wear cute clothes in ways that covered enough of my body.

I grew up knowing that good Christian girls were modest. The message came up regularly in youth group, in books and magazines and anything and everything directed at Christian teen girls. What I wore mattered a lot to God, I understood. What I should wear was also clear: long shorts, nothing that showed cleavage, nothing that was too tight or too short or showed my bra, and absolutely no bikinis or spaghetti straps or leggings-as-pants, ever.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those standards by themselves. But I’ve realized that rather than make me more holy, more pleasing to God, those standards made me anxious and uncomfortable in my own body and frankly, judgmental of myself and others.

I wore camisoles under v-neck T-shirts, tanktops under tanktops that cut low under my arms, always thinking in layers, always worrying that my camisole would slide too low. I had a freckle on my chest that I kept an eye out for, because if I could see the freckle when I looked down, I knew I needed to pull up my shirt. Some of my friends and I watched out for each other in social situations; if someone’s shirt was too low or her bra strap was showing, we would let each other know.

Once again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with girls looking out for each other regarding wardrobe malfunctions. But we were policing each other’s bodies, making sure we were modest at all times, in all ways. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I needed to pull my shirt up or tuck a bra strap away, I felt anxious and ashamed that I had let that happen, that I had failed to live up to those standards even for a moment, that people might have seen what I should never have let them see.

I wore crew neck T-shirts and jeans all the time as a teenager. They were comfortable and easy to move in, and I didn’t have to worry about what I was or wasn’t revealing because all of me was covered. It was easier that way, but I wished I could dress like the stylish girls I knew. I liked my T-shirts and jeans, because I didn’t have to be anxious when I wore them, but they weren’t exactly the image I would have always chosen.

When skinny jeans came along, they posed a conundrum for me. I remember one book discussing modesty with the specific example of immodest jeans that were so tight the girl had to lie down on her bed and suck in her stomach to get them zipped. I didn’t know anyone who wore jeans that tight, because how could you even move in them? And then skinny jeans appeared, and everyone was wearing them. But were skinny jeans modest? They fit the book’s example better than any jeans I’d ever worn, so I wore my looser flared jeans for several more years before uneasily joining that trend.

Swimsuits were the most stressful piece of clothing of all. I spent most of my time keeping my thighs covered and monitoring the length of my shorts, but if I put on a swimsuit I could suddenly bare my entire leg? It was uncomfortable and confusing. Plus, while a swimsuit may fit great in the fitting room at the store, it’s impossible to know how actually swimming in it will change the fit. Wet swimsuits stretch, slide, and sag, which is a big deal if you need to stay modest and keep certain inches of skin from showing. Shopping for a swimsuit was always an ordeal. Wearing one was even more nerve-racking.

I knew some people wore skirts to be modest, who felt that God had convicted them that skirts should be their standard. It seemed that they were better, more godly Christians than I was because of the skirts. But I hated skirts; I felt vulnerable and uneasy when I wore them, and the idea of wearing them every day, all day, sounded terrible. Did that mean I wasn’t willing to be convicted that skirts were more modest than pants? Clothing apparently had a godliness scale; I was a better Christian than some people because I never wore a bikini, but other people were better Christians than me because they never wore pants.

The most confusing part of modesty standards, however, was how they weren’t the same for everyone. Skirts versus pants, obviously, but also I had friends who wore swimsuits that showed their bellies or their cleavage, and I knew for a fact they loved God and had faith stronger than mine. Other people always wore shirts that came up to their collarbones or only wore swimsuits with shorts or skirts to cover their bottom half. The church would issue a dress code for youth retreats or VBS, and then people didn’t follow it and no one seemed to care.

I know now that enforcing modesty-focused dress codes is often more damaging to teenage girls than ignoring them, but it was very frustrating to me then. If modesty was so important, then why didn’t the youth leaders make sure everyone followed the dress code? If the standards that pleased God were so clear, then why didn’t we all have the same standards? And if Christians had different standards, then which ones were most pleasing to God?

I wish I could say that resolving the inconsistencies and digging deep into what God actually said about modesty is what prompted me to buy those shorts. But that actually happened later, when I was figuring out why I was so much more comfortable in my clothes and body when I wasn’t even trying to be modest.

It’s practically a requirement for youth groups to teach a lesson based on 1 Samuel 16:7 at some point, and I heard more than one. But if that verse is true, that man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart, God does not care at all if my shorts come down to my fingertips or if I wear a tank top with straps narrower than my finger. If my heart is modest and my intentions honorable, then what I wear is not important to God. Of course my clothes should still be appropriate for the situation, the culture, the era in history I move through.

But walking around deeply self-conscious and anxious about my body and my clothing does not honor God, and it does not honor me. The way modesty was taught in Christian culture objectified me; it objectified all teenage girls. It did exactly what we were told boys would do if we wore short shorts or let our shirts dip too low. It looked at my body and my clothes and decided those spoke louder than me the person.

Deciding if a girl is modest based on the clothes she is wearing is the very definition of looking at the outward appearance. God sees that girl’s heart, not the length of her skirt or the type of tank top straps she’s wearing. This doesn’t mean a girl should wear whatever she wants whenever she wants; clothes need to fit the situation she’s dressing for. But measuring someone’s godliness based on their adherence to a specific set of modesty standards is the opposite of how God instructs us to see people, the opposite of how God sees people.

All of this emphasis on modesty, on making certain I only showed the acceptable amount of skin, led to an inevitable conclusion: I was always on guard against my own body.

I could never relax in my own skin because my skin was the enemy. Unless I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I had to always be aware of how I moved, how my clothes shifted, if I was revealing something that I shouldn’t.

The modesty message for teenage girls always came hand in hand with the stumbling block message: we needed to dress modestly so that boys and men who saw us wouldn’t be tempted to lust because of the leggings or low-cut shirts we might wear. Thankfully, I somehow never internalized that message very deeply and was always more concerned about pleasing God rather than hiding my body from men.

This message has done enormous damage to thousands and thousands of women and been used to justify sexual assault and abuse. I’m a best case scenario for someone who had the modesty and stumbling block messages drummed into my head over years and years of church life, but it wasn’t until I left those messages behind that I could truly begin to feel comfortable in my own body.

The Bible only talks about modesty a couple of times; it spends a lot more words on concepts like following Jesus and how to treat other people. The targeting of teenage girls for modesty messages during my years growing up in the church is actually quite upsetting, in retrospect – either modesty applies to everyone or it applies to no one. I’ve never once heard a Sunday sermon on modesty, even though no age group or gender is immune from showing off via their clothing, which is what 1 Timothy 2:9 actually addresses.

Those who taught me the modesty standards, whether in person or via a book or a study, had good intentions. No one meant for me to be stressed and anxious and self-conscious about my body. But if we judge the modesty teachings by their fruit, the fruit is rotten. My story is just the tip of the iceberg. Much to my own shame, I perpetuated some of these teachings with teenage girls I knew, until I picked up that pair of shorts in Target and decided it was time for a different way.

I don’t choose my clothes based on modesty anymore. Now I choose clothes that I feel comfortable in, that make me feel like myself, that make me feel pretty and strong, that show I respect myself and the people around me. I no longer rely on my clothing to prove that I care about honoring God. (And I have removed just about everything from my closet that could possibly need a camisole layered under it – I’m done with that forever.)

My journey isn’t over. I imagine it will be ongoing for years to come. But I’m free from constant anxiety and discomfort as I go through my days and choose what to wear each morning, and it’s impossible to describe the relief. I feel settled and calm in my body rather than uneasy. My hope is that younger generations of Christian women don’t have to struggle the way I did, that they have learned a much healthier message in church around modesty and their clothing. For anyone who understands what it is like to never be comfortable in your own skin: It doesn’t have to be that way. You can be free.

Reading Recap 2020: When the Library is Closed

Welcome to my annual recap of what I read last year! Despite the title of this post, I did read a great many library books in 2020, but for someone who uses the library constantly, being without it for two months due to the pandemic was an Experience, in more ways than one.

I had plenty of time to read, since I was home so much, and it was good to sink into the rhythm of carrying a book around my apartment with me from room to room, to stash a book in the car when I did go somewhere. Unfortunately, I read a lot of two and three star books in 2020, for reasons that I’ll get to shortly.

First, the numbers: in 2020, I read 128 books, a 13% decrease from 2019. While I did not set a numeric goal for my books and am happy with that number, I was curious about the decrease. It turns out that working from home dropped my audiobook hours significantly – I only listened to 17 audiobooks in 2020, almost entirely in the first half of the year.

Quantity does not trump quality, though, and I wish I’d had more five star reads last year. Unfortunately, I did that to myself. When the library shut down from March through May, I was limited to the books in my apartment and the ebooks I could access through the library’s app. Reading through some of the books on my shelves and in my roommate’s collection was fantastic, since I tend to check out library books like some people shop at Target. I found several new favorites that had been in the same apartment as me all along, including one that inspired me to finish writing my first novel.

But I’m very picky about which books I read as ebooks and which books I read in print, and I don’t like reading books that I suspect I’ll love as ebooks. Reading on my phone messes with my experience of the book. (Just try reading a 500 page fantasy novel on your phone and see how you feel about that.) So although I did want to read the ebooks I borrowed, I only picked books I didn’t expect to love and was rarely proven wrong. Then when the library reopened for me to request physical books, I ended up with still more mediocre reads, because it’s tricky to pull myself out of a book slump once it’s started.

Never fear, though. Despite the so-so ebooks that litter my 2020 book list, I did read some amazing books and am thrilled to share them. A quick note: I read a wide variety of books that have all kinds of content, so this is a blanket content warning for any and all books I mention. If you have questions about a particular book, just ask!

The Book I Finally Read: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

During the early 19th century, England’s magic revives in the form of two magicians, whose very different ideas about magic lead both to a final reckoning with the legend of the Raven King and the dark magic of the fairies. Readers who prefer fast paced plots need not tackle this book; topping out at over 800 pages, the novel is subtle and slow, layer upon layer of plot and character elements rising quietly to its climax. The beautifully crafted prose pays homage to classic British literature; the meticulously researched historical context provides an incredible backdrop to characters flawed yet sympathetic; deep reflections on myths, magic, history, warfare, politics, and mundane life are woven throughout the story. While the two main characters are British gentlemen, subplots focused on women, servants, and minority characters also provide clever social critique to contrast the central narratives. While I’ve owned this book for at least six years, I had no clue how enthralling it would turn out to be.

The Saddest Book: Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar J. Mazzeo

A young Polish social worker risked her life to save 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Sometimes called the female Oskar Schindler, Irena Sendler was deeply concerned about poor Jewish families and the strong anti-Semitism in Poland prior to the Nazi invasion. When the Nazis herded Warsaw’s Jewish population into the ghetto, Irena began knocking on doors and convincing Jewish parents to entrust their children to her. She enlisted a network of ordinary people to help her smuggle children out of the ghetto and hide them with Polish families, at extreme risk for everyone involved. But not only did Irena save the children, she also saved their identities, keeping records of each child in the hopes of reuniting them with their families after the war. This book chronicles the absolute decimation of the Warsaw Jews, the devastation of Warsaw, and the heartbreak of a war that ended with Poland in the hands of the Soviets and children with their entire families dead. I rarely cry while reading, but this book left tears streaming down my face more than once.

The Best Non-Fiction: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang

China’s factories are powered by millions of young migrant workers from rural regions, a sociologically significant movement of epic proportions illustrated by the stories of two young women. We all know what “Made in China” means when we see it, but who are the people manufacturing these items? The factory cities are complex and fast-paced, places where ambitious workers can get three different jobs in two months and each time gain better wages and positions simply through a few English classes, places where losing a cell phone severs all connection with friends and boyfriends since no one stays in the same place long enough to be found again, places where many workers endure abysmal working conditions because it’s still better than being jobless back home. Leslie Chang provides the historical context for China’s great migration through tracing her family history and shares the intimate stories of two modern young women through three years in Dongguan. My life is nothing like these women’s, but I saw pieces of myself in their hopes and dreams and struggles, as Chang offers a glimpse into the individual lives of the flood of workers who powered China’s economic rise.

The Other Best Non-Fiction: Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

While the Little House books are beloved to generations of readers, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life was far more complicated than her books portray. The Little House books were the foundational books of my childhood: they’re the first chapter books my mom read to me, and the first book I ever read myself was Little House in the Big Woods as a picture book. This book lifts the curtain and places Laura’s story in the context of history and reality, not only tracing her life and those of her parents and daughter, but also diving into the many forces that shaped the Ingalls and Wilder families. I had never thought much about the immense poverty, tragedy, and suffering Laura and her family experienced when I remember the Little House books, but this book will never allow me to forget again. From the actual chronology of Laura’s life to the parts she left out of her books to her adulthood and her daughter’s wild and fascinating life, no stone is left unturned, including the complex process of writing the books themselves. A brilliant, must read book, for anyone who has ever loved the Little House books or is fascinated by the history of the American West.

The Best Historical Fiction: Genghis: Birth of an Empire by Conn Iggulden

Before he was Genghis Khan, he was Temujin, a boy of the steppes surviving a brutally difficult adolescence while dreaming of uniting the Mongol tribes. Book one of five, it covers the first two decades of Temujin’s life in vivid, painfully sharp detail. The characterization is absolutely top notch, particularly for Temujin’s brothers, wife, and mother. Historical fiction sometimes has trouble with depicting real historical figures as fully rounded characters rather than stereotypes or cardboard cutouts, but Temujin always felt like a living, breathing person who might walk off the page at any moment. The steppes and Mongol tribal culture came to life through the rich, powerful descriptions. I devoured this book in two sittings, loved experiencing a culture and worldview vastly unlike mine, and am fully invested in reading the rest of the series as well as picking up nonfiction about Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire.

The Book I Learned the Most From: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Through the story of the Equal Justice Initiative, the many horrendously unjust pieces of America’s justice system are unveiled, embodied in the lives of the many people trapped within that system, such as Walter McMillian. I’ve never personally encountered the justice system, so this book was a revelation to me. The devastating cases of people who have lost everything due to false convictions, including their freedom and their dignity as human beings, the absolute injustice of a system that penalizes poor people for being poor and Black people for being black, and the unbelievable callousness of judges, juries, and prison officials have forever changed my my understanding of justice. Bryan Stevenson lays bare the desperate situations of thousands of prisoners and death row inhabitants, the fierce opposition against his pursuit of truth for his clients, and EJI’s fight to save children sentenced to life in prison. Every page I read horrified me more – it’s not an easy book, but it is vitally important.

Bonus: When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

Gail Collins chronicles the sweeping societal changes American women experienced over the fifty years from 1960 to 2008, illustrating those changes through the lives of the dozens of women she interviewed.

The Most Powerful Novel: Beartown by Fredrick Backman

A small, fading town’s hopes rest on the junior hockey team’s performance in the national semi-finals, but when a young girl is violently assaulted, every person in town must reckon with their own darkness and motivations. This book is incredible: powerful storytelling, heartbreaking themes, and wonderful prose. Fredrik Bachman’s characters are astonishingly real; he refused to let me paint anyone with a good/bad paradigm and instead delves into each character’s motivations and experiences with such depth and clarity that I understood each of them, including the antagonists, even as he never condones all of their actions and behavior. It’s rare that I encounter characters this compelling and true to the human experience. The story addresses really hard issues of responsibility, power, courage, and friendship, yet it never preaches and instead lets the characters do the talking. I couldn’t put the book down and the ending just blew me away.

The Best Spiritual Memoir: Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings by Sheridan Voysey

After a decade of unsuccessfully trying to have children, Sheridan and Merryn Voysey close the door on their hopes of parenthood and spend a year reimagining their lives and wrestling with the pain of shattered dreams. Simple, quiet prose paints a clear picture of how deeply their faith was shaken when God did not answer their prayers for children and the long journey they take to find God’s goodness in the midst of the pain. While Merryn resurrects her career aspirations and takes a prestigious job in Oxford, England, Sheridan gives up his career and his identity as a radio host to support his wife as they move from Australia to England. This book spoke to my soul, and is for anyone who has carried the pain of broken dreams, for anyone who has questions for God and isn’t finding answers in the rote platitudes the church so often offers, for anyone who has given up their identity, and for anyone who is asking what happens now.

The Book That Restored My Faith In Humanity: The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede

On 9/11, thirty-eight jets en route to the US were forced to land on Newfoundland Island, flooding the small town of Gander with nearly 7,000 exhausted and scared passengers. Over the next four days, the people of Gander threw open their homes and their hearts, caring for the passengers as if they were family. From collecting toys for the children to respectfully accommodating passengers from other cultures to helping passengers get in contact with family members across the world, the kindness and generosity of the townspeople made an enormous impact on the people stranded there. No detail was too small to care for, no person too unimportant for gentle generosity, including the pets trapped aboard the planes. In a year when fear and suffering seem to be overwhelming the world, this book helped me remember that when we as humans are kind and generous with each other, we can help carry each other’s burdens and bring a little goodness into dark places.

Then there was a backlist fantasy title by one of my favorite authors, several powerful memoirs, and a hilariously specific alternate history novel. I’m still devouring an Israeli spy series I started last year, and went deep into a heavy tome about the enneagram. I also did more rereading more than I usually do, and was thrilled to find that one of the books I loved as a teenager stood the test of time and was as good as I remembered.

Come find me on Goodreads so you can see me review books all year long with two word reviews for the books I loved and five paragraph reviews for the books I didn’t! Convincing other people to hang out on Goodreads with me is one of my favorite things – Instagram’s got nothing compared to my favorite social media app. Why would I stalk your stories when I can stalk your books?

I have a long list of books I’m excited to read in 2021, including lots of sequels in fantasy series I’ve already started, A Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, the story of a terrible blizzard, and Rachael Denhollander’s memoir. Hopefully I’ll also pick up a C.S. Lewis book or two and a few rereads. Will this be the year I attempt War and Peace? We shall see!

I’m currently on a library fast, because why not, and am looking forward to the end of February when I will be requesting books like there’s no tomorrow. Right now I’m reading about a Jewish couple in Germany just prior to WWII and am excited to pick up a biography of Secretariat next. When it’s cold outside, there’s no better place to be than curled up indoors with a book.

Happy reading, everyone!

Reading Recap 2019: A Bajillion Books

I thought I read a lot of books in 2018. But last year I blew that out of the water by somehow reading 146 books! Now, 35%, or 52, of those were audiobooks, so it’s not like I sat down and read all of them. Audiobooks mean multitasking, which is a huge bonus. I also never watch TV or movies, so all my story consumption comes from reading. About 63% of the books are nonfiction, but only 13% were not narrative driven (mostly spiritual formation with the occasional investing or time management book thrown in the mix).

IMG_8842I didn’t set a reading goal this year, since I wanted to see how many books I picked up without a numerical finish line in sight. It worked so well, I surprised myself! And of course I’m not setting a goal for 2020 after that stellar reading year. Can I make it to 150? Who knows! I’m not stressing about it.

But reading so much means I read a ton of amazing books. Choosing which books to feature in 2019’s reading recap was agony. If you want to jumpstart your own reading life with top notch books, or have a weird interest in survival stories like I do, boy have I got recommendations for you!

As a heads up, I read a huge variety of books with all kinds of content, and so this is a blanket content warning for any and all books I mention. Please ask if you have any questions about a specific book. (There’s a lot of gruesome death and cannibalism in those survival stories, yo.)

Okay, on to the books!

The Indifferent Stars AboveThe Saddest Book:

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown

A party of settlers treks across America to California, but disaster strikes, turning their story into the most well-known tragedy of the westward expansion. Full of terrible decisions and devastating loss, the Donner party’s journey drives some people to madness and all to the most terrible decision any starving person makes. Brown tells their story by following one young woman and her family, leading the reader to know them as people, not just names attached to a famous tragedy, and his writing does not shy away from the horrors they experienced. I learned about the Donner party in school, of course, but this book covers the full scope of the tragedy and how a series of poor decisions eventually boxed the settlers into a barren valley in the Sierra Nevada during the middle of one of the worst winters on record. Beware, this book is not for the faint of heart, but I’m fascinated by the decisions people make during unimaginable suffering and how those decisions shape their ultimate fate.

Bonus: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

In 1879, one daring explorer and his crew attempt to reach the North Pole, but when their ship sinks, they must trek a thousand miles across the ice to Siberia, fighting to survive.

The Winternight Trilogy

The Best Trilogy:

The Winternight Trilogy: The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, & The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

A young Russian girl must defy her society and battle dark forces to keep the magical world of Russia – the house spirits, old gods, and mythical creatures – from being destroyed. This trilogy landed on my all-time favorites list before I even finished the first book, and the next two were more incredible than I had dared hope. It reminds me of one of my favorite books of all time, Daughter of the Forest, the highest compliment I can bestow. Vasya has to make hard choices, but she does not play to anyone’s expectations, including the reader’s. A stereotypical YA fantasy heroine she is not. She talks to horses, loves her family, and chooses her own path every time. How could I not love her? The tight prose weaves a fairytale with gorgeous descriptions, fully realized characters, and a heart-rending coming of age story. If you like your fantasy with a historical bent, full of fairytale magic and wonderful characters, this trilogy is for you.

Daring to DriveThe Best Memoir:

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal al-Sharif

A woman born and raised in Mecca tells her story of awakening from Islamic fundamentalism and finding herself at the center of the Saudi women’s campaign to drive their own cars. A deeply intimate look at a world Westerners literally can never enter, this memoir demonstrates the power of a single woman to make a difference. I was fascinated, disturbed, and awed by the Saudi Arabia Manal introduces me to: a country where women are nearly powerless, where families battle poverty in the geographic heart of Islam while the Saudi rulers hold enormous wealth, and where education truly changes lives. Manal bares raw and personal parts of her life, and inspires and challenges with her sheer courage to drive, against everything her entire culture holds sacred.

Grace for the Good GirlThe Best Spiritual Book:

Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life by Emily P. Freeman

Living as a good girl is deeply exhausting and painful, but Jesus sets us free. Emily P. Freeman’s beautiful, gentle prose provides a path toward that freedom for every woman who doesn’t have a dramatic testimony, a clear before Jesus and after Jesus story. It’s no exaggeration to say this book changed my life; it lifted a weight from my shoulders I didn’t know how to set down by myself. Being a good girl means wearing a mask before other people and before God, but God wants more from us and for us. You won’t find any shame or burdensome lists of what we ought to be doing for God in this book, only the truth that God delights in exactly who we are now, this moment. If you have a young woman in your life who bears the good girl reputation and all that comes with that, Emily also has a book for her that presents the same truths: Graceful.

Bonus: Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

Being in relationship with an invisible God is more difficult and incredible than anything else we do in this life and is a profound and painful mystery.

A Year of Living PrayerfullyThe Most Fun Book:

A Year of Living Prayerfully: How A Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life by Jared Brock

Two millennials go on a year-long quest to reawaken their prayer lives and explore prayer practices of Christian denominations ranging from ancient Orthodox monasteries to modern name it and claim it preachers. The sheer breadth of the traditions and beliefs Jared Brock explores astonished me. He visits Jerusalem, Rome, and the largest church in the world, located in South Korea. Only in this book will you find bemused commentary on the author’s experience visiting a Hasidic Jewish community as well as acute observations on Catholic saints and their monasteries. I couldn’t put this book down and was captivated by how much I didn’t know about the history of Christian prayer traditions. He even visits Westboro Baptist and lurks outside Billy Graham’s compound trying to snag a visit. After all, he got to meet the pope using a similar strategy!

Bonus: The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road by Finn Murphy

A trucker tells stories about his decades as a mover, giving you the wry behind the scenes look at the moving industry you didn’t know you wanted.

Tattoos on the HeartThe Most Beautiful Book:

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Greg Boyle

How does love change a life? By showing a gang member he is worthy, loved, and known, then officiating his funeral days later. Father Greg Boyle has spent decades working with the deadliest gangs of Los Angeles through Homeboy Industries, providing jobs and second (and third, fourth, fifth) chances to the young men and women trapped in the cycle of poverty and gang violence. This book captures the beautiful and devastating stories of these men and women in thematic essays on love, redemption, grief, and hope. Sometimes it’s only when the trappings of life fall away that we truly understand what it means to love each other, and Boyle writes about human frailty and compassion with equal frankness. Not only is this book thematically gorgeous, it’s also beautiful, simple writing that goes straight to the bones of what matters.

The Marsh King's DaughterThe Best Thriller:

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Set in the Upper Peninsula, this dark suspense novel introduces Helena, the daughter of a kidnap victim and her kidnapper, just as her father escapes from prison. Raised in isolation, without running water or electricity, Helena has built a life for herself beyond her origin, but to protect her daughters and husband, she must face her origin and track down her father, the man who taught her to survive in the marsh. The flashback scenes are as riveting as the present scenes, the psychological intensity building in both past and present until Helena comes face to face with her father again. It’s not often I find books set in Michigan, but this one has a strong sense of place and Michiganders will delight in the author’s attention to detail, with references to the bridge, Marquette and Northern Michigan University, Tahquamenon Falls, Yoopers’ unique culture and challenges, and more. Most thrillers let me down at the end, but this one kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end.

Somebody's DaughterThe Book I Learned the Most From:

Somebody’s Daughter: The Hidden Story of America’s Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them by Julian Sher

Human trafficking in America isn’t limited to women and girls brought across the borders, and prostitution isn’t limited to adult women living in poverty. The problem of child prostitution is complex and far reaching; Julian Sher follows the stories of several girls as they drift in and out of prostitution and come into contact with different pimps, law enforcement, and social services. He explores the organizations, most founded by former prostitutes, who are fighting for these girls, and he digs into police departments and FBI units who battle the pimps, the attitudes of their colleagues and society, and the desperate circumstances of the girls themselves. His point is clear: child prostitutes are not prostitutes; they are victims of the men who prey on them. This book was hard to read, but it’s vitally important.

BonusMountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

Dr. Paul Farmer is fighting to cure the world, one disease at a time, starting with AIDS in Haiti and tuberculosis in countries from Russia to Peru.

The TigerThe Best Nonfiction:

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

It’s 1997, and a man-eating tiger is terrorizing a village in Russia’s Far East. A perfect kaleidoscope of my favorite topics: Russia, tigers, and survival, this book was basically made for me, but it’s also brilliantly written. John Vaillant takes the reader on a journey through the effect of post-Soviet chaos on the Far East, the history of tigers in the region, the struggles the remote villages faced, and the battle Russian officials waged against poachers and their own government to protect the Amur tiger. He writes the stories of the tigers and the people with elegant detail, and the man-eating tiger’s menace leaps off the page as the hunters track it down. The sheer amount of research he did, including visiting the villages and talking to the people who lived through the terrifying episode, is remarkable. I listened to this book on audio, and immediately decided to buy my own copy, which almost never happens to me.

I could also tell you about the historical fiction set in the Arctic with a supernatural horror element that I read during the Polar Vortex, the enormous literary Western, and the historical non-fiction from freshman year in college that I loved enough to read again. But I’ll stop here.

Reading 146 books this year didn’t put much of a dent in my TBR, though. Trying to decide which books are worthy of my time helped me abandon more books half-finished than I’ve ever dropped before. Here’s to DNF’ing more books in the future!

If you want to see what I’m reading all year round, come find me on Goodreads! I love to make new Goodreads friends so I can stalk follow your reading life – discovering new books and quirky interests through other people is the best.

I already have my “excited to read next” list drawn up for 2020, which I realize might give you spontaneous folks hives, but makes me feel super pumped to get started. I’ll be trying my first Madeleine L’Engle book since A Wrinkle in Time as a kid, reading a whole bunch more fantasy books and survival stories, finally reading the big habit book of the past couple years, and maybe I’ll get around to the Shakespeare play I didn’t read last year.

Last January my library was closed for carpet replacement, so I stuck to my own books and my roommate’s books for the whole month. This January I have a (large) library fine (darn you, 900-page Peter the Great biography!), so I’m staying clear until my hold comes in, then I’ll pay off my debt. I’ll be reading books a friend lent me, rereading some of my own well-worn copies, and digging through my roommate’s shelves again. Basically, living the bookworm life.

Happy reading, everyone!

A Response: God Does Not Call Us to Suffering

This summer I heard a sermon that upset me deeply. This message was spoken to Christians about Christians, and it declared that God calls some to suffering and some to victory.

This article responds to the teaching in that sermon, because I believe it was unbiblical and harmful. I am not questioning or discussing the speaker’s intentions with the sermon, only the message spoken and implied. For anyone who has heard this sermon or others like it, this article is for you.

The sermon itself was about Hebrews 11:32-40, and I have no objection to the majority of it, until we reached verses 35-40. The speaker said, supposedly based on these verses, that God calls us to suffering. He went on to say that God calls some of us to suffering, some of us to victory.

I do not agree.

First, the only victory we have is Christ. He triumphed over death, and by choosing him, his victory becomes ours, regardless of the suffering we endure in this life. (Hebrews 10:12-14) The entire book of Hebrews talks about enduring suffering in faith, not being called to it!

Christ’s victory means we have new life and freedom from our sin and shame. It does not always mean we see freedom from everything we struggle with in this life. 

Second, it’s often those of us in a position of “victory” who feel free to use the deterministic language that God calls some to victory and some to suffering.

I myself speak from a position of “victory,” to give it the implied definition: I have suffered no trauma, no abuse, and no immense loss. I have never experienced discrimination, never been assaulted or mocked, never worried about having food to eat or a warm place to sleep. My family is stable and intact; I live in the wealthiest country on earth; I have never battled mental or physical illness.

A person who survived the Rwandan genocide or the Holocaust, a person who was molested as a child, an African slave who lived and died never knowing freedom – were they called to suffer? They were certainly not experiencing the “victory” implied in the sermon.

Suffering versus victory is a false dichotomy. As I said above, Christians always have victory because we are in Christ, while we also experience hardship and pain in our lives. We suffer and we are victorious simultaneously. It is not an either/or proposition. 

Victory in Christ doesn’t always look like we think it ought to when we are dealing with pain and anguish in our lives, so we struggle to recognize it. This adds to the false dichotomy, because then we do see it as victory versus suffering, rather than the two existing alongside each other.

But even if we were to use the “victory” definition, one can have a loving family and also battle debilitating illness. New moms often face both the joy of a new life and the deep darkness of postpartum depression. Rachael Denhollander suffered sexual abuse, the effects of which are deeply scarring, and also fights for other survivors as a lawyer today while she raises her own children.

By separating suffering and victory, we do not allow either those “called to suffering” to have victory or those “called to victory” to suffer. This concept hurts everyone, regardless of the level of “victory” in their lives.

Third, when we speak of suffering, if we don’t acknowledge different types of suffering, we are not correctly addressing the subject. By no means am I a theologian or philosopher, but I have identified at least three different varieties of suffering.

  1. Suffering as a result of a broken world. (Romans 8:20-22). Natural disasters, cancer, disease, aging, depression. Our world is deeply wounded and broken; God did not intend for humans to starve to death or take their own lives because their brain chemistry is unregulated.
  2. Suffering as a result of human evil and sin. (Romans 1:28-32) Slavery, abuse, child molestation, genocide, war, PTSD. Humanity is capable of great evil. What humans do to each other is far outside what God created us to be. We must be mindful, however, that the sin of humans exists on a spectrum: a child hitting his brother does not in any way compare to a grown man abusing his family. To say that it does is sin leveling. While we are all sinners, some people have embraced wickedness, some sinful acts are far more destructive to other people, and true acts of evil are often committed by people who profess Christianity and yet are wolves in sheepskins, who do not know Christ at all.
  3. Suffering as a result of choosing Christ. (John 15:18-21) Persecution, martyrdom, imprisonment, torture. Jesus warned us not only that we would suffer, but that we would suffer in his name, for him. Christians around the world have died, are dying, and will die because they love Jesus. People have lost their entire families when they were disowned for following Christ.

Obviously these three categories overlap: the Haitian people suffer from diseases and starvation, both elements of a broken earth, imposed on them by the terrible legacy of colonialism, the evil of humans.

Free will and demonic evil also play significant roles in our pain.

Free will means that you can choose to live in a state regularly affected by tornadoes or hurricanes, that you can lie to your boss and be fired, or marry someone who chooses to abuse you. You can also choose to follow Jesus even when the path leads to a prison cell or death, yet you can always turn away.

I don’t think we can truly know the role of demonic evil in our suffering. What illnesses or accidents or disasters are the devil’s handiwork? What human evil does he prompt or spread? When is he persecuting followers of Christ through unwitting human puppets or willing abusers?

Finding him in every heartbreaking circumstance denies the fact that humans are capable of great evil all on their own, but to dismiss him as inconsequential is to be spiritually blind. (1 Peter 5:8)

To say that God calls us to suffering without also describing some of the nuance and variety of suffering and its causes is inadequate. It traps people in abusive situations and tells them that suffering is God’s will for them and plan for their life, and that is spiritually abusive. It tells people that God arranged earthquakes and hurricanes specifically for them; that God chose their baby for SIDS. It places concentration camps in the same category as forest fires without accounting for the differing causes of each.

Suffering is not straightforward. There’s no easy answer or clear reason. Saying that God calls us to suffering jumps past all the complexity and tells us that God has a plan that requires our pain. 

If we take this concept to its logical extreme, people who seek treatment for physical and mental illness and people who flee from abuse, war, genocide and slavery are thwarting God’s will and disobeying his call on their lives. This logical extreme leads people to say, “Sometimes children dying is godly.” Ideas like this wreak heartbreaking devastation upon people’s faith in Jesus.

These are the problems with saying that God calls us to suffering. I do not believe God ever calls us to suffering.

The only possible type of suffering we might say God calls us to is suffering for Christ, but that elevates suffering to a level it was never meant to attain. God calls us to him, to follow him, to be loved by him. That path may lead to suffering and through suffering, but the suffering is not the point and it is not the destination

Jesus warned us over and over that persecution comes when we choose him. But that’s all he said. He did not tell us that he calls us to suffer for him, only that it will happen because of his name. (Matthew 10:22-23) 

When we imply that suffering is holy, do we then extend that to mean Christians fleeing persecution in Iraq or China should stay and endure? Do we mean that escaping persecution is wrong? 

The believers in Jerusalem fled persecution at the very beginning of the church – are we suggesting they should have stayed? From our vantage point 2,000 years later, we can see that God used the Christians escaping from persecution to spread the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, just as he brings light from the darkness of our own lives. If they had all stayed in Jerusalem and Israel, the world would look very different today.

There is no one answer; each Christian must follow Jesus’ leading for their own life. Sometimes that will mean enduring persecution for Christ’s sake, sometimes that will mean fleeing.

But we must not confuse suffering because of Christ with suffering of any other kind. 

They cannot be addressed as if they are the same, because enduring persecution for sharing the Gospel is not the same as battling chronic illness or grieving the sudden death of a son or daughter, although they are equally devastating and difficult. 

Natalie Hoffman spent twenty years in an abusive marriage. Jesus did not want that for her. He led her to freedom through divorce. Did good come from that marriage? Yes – she has nine children and a powerful abuse ministry that has helped hundreds of women break free from their own abusive marriages. God brings beauty from ashes in a million different ways, but he does not require or plan your suffering in order to do so.

If you have heard this sermon or others like it and…

…you see God as abusive for orchestrating your suffering…

…you feel that God wants you to stay in your abusive marriage, relationship, or spiritual community…

…you believe God caused your abuse or sexual assault or trauma…

…you think that God chose you for suffering above and beyond what other people suffer…

…your soul is bleeding and your heart breaking because you have been told that God took your child or gave you an illness or tore apart your relationship…

I am so sorry.

These ideas are not of God.

Jesus loves you and he wants you to be safe and free and to know that you are precious and beautiful to Him. God weeps and rages on behalf of the wounded, the abused, the grieving, the poor, the bullied, the oppressed. (Psalm 34:18) He is a God of justice and love and one day he will judge the wicked for what they have done. (Psalm 37:28)

If anyone who claims spiritual authority over you has told you that God’s will is for you to stay in your suffering, run from that spiritual community. It is not safe for you or anyone else who has been abused or broken.

Search for books and resources and communities that will help you find freedom and truth in Jesus and please, reach out to people who understand abuse and trauma who can support you.

If this is the God, the Jesus, that you believe in as a Christian, a God who calls people to suffer Alzheimer’s, child molestation, emotional abuse, or miscarriage, my heart breaks for you.

This is not the Jesus I know. The God who breathed life into us and created salvation just for us does not call people to suffer. He calls us to him.

My fellow Christians, we ask why people are leaving the church. Before we blame secular culture, we need to assess the church with brutal honesty. (Luke 6:41-42) This goes beyond hypocrisy. Why would anyone want to follow a God who wants them to suffer?

If someone came to church because they are trying to be faithful, trying to love their abusive spouse as he destroys their soul, and heard a message like this, why should they stay in church? Why would they want to?

The church should be full of more abused, wounded, and broken people than anywhere else in the world. We carry the love of Christ and should be loving the lost and hurting, who need it desperately. Jesus came for them! Sermons that tell people that God selected suffering as their life path, their calling from him, leave room only for the “victorious” within the church.

While I am happy to agree to disagree with Christians of all theological backgrounds, if your theology traps people in their pain and suffering, if it leads you to say and do anything to another person that does not reflect the way Jesus loves and cares for people, you need to take a good hard look at what you really believe.

We must always consider the painful stories of others before we express our theology. If we don’t speak to others with compassion and love because of what we believe, we are not loving people as Christ calls us to.

Humans do not have an answer to suffering. Oh, we have ideas and philosophies and millions of words about suffering and why and how and who. Many of those ideas and philosophies and words are healing and clarifying and of the Lord; many are abusive and wounding and false. But we just don’t know the full truth.

I heard this sermon months ago and am still deeply affected by it. Can you imagine looking in the eyes of your neighbor who is dying of cancer and telling her that God called her to suffer? Or a child who has been molested and abandoned in the foster care system? 

I don’t want anyone to ascribe this false doctrine of suffering to the God who loves us so deeply that he died for us. Jesus suffered for us; he doesn’t need our pain for his work. When no one else wants us, God does. When this life tries to destroy us, he is with us.

If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this:

Jesus loves you.