Burnout (book review)

Reset: living a grace-paced life in a burnout culture
David Murray
Crossway, 2017

reset

Being at a gathering of pastors from many different theological backgrounds this week reinforced to me that burnout is an issue faced by those in all flavours of Christian ministry. Last year’s big book on burnout was by an Englishman (Christopher Ash – Zeal without Burnout), this year’s is by a Scot (now an American citizen). While Ash’s book was solely aimed at those in ministry, Murray tries to aim at a wider constituency (men in general – he and his wife are bringing out a book for women later in the year).

The book is well-structured, and follows a series of ten ‘repair bays’ that Murray has used when walking through this process with others. As well as being helpful in and of itself, Murray’s system would be a good guide to use to help others through burnout.

For those who’ve followed Murray’s writing, it’s a familiar mix of Scripture, personal examples and scientific/medical research – he argues that the sufficiency of Scripture means that we don’t need any more special revelation, not that we should shun every nonbiblical source of knowledge.

Murray uses a lot of examples of things he does in his own life, some of which I found helpful and some of which I didn’t. Living a life as regimented as his may help him in his battle with burnout, but I found it exhausting just reading about it. Like Ash, he also just talks about the Sabbath as a pattern rather than a specific day. This is perhaps understandable when writing for those ministering on Sundays – then again, as Paul Levy noted recently ‘I’m not convinced there’s an exemption for ministers’.

If you were just to read one book on burnout, I would recommend Ash’s. It’s more concise, less prescriptive and brings out a helpful theme that Murray doesn’t stress – those who are burnt out may well not realise it. Having said that, burnout is a common enough and serious enough issue that there’s no need to limit yourself to one book. If you enjoy Murray’s writing, you’ll enjoy this.

To close, here are some great lines if you don’t fancy reading all 200 or so pages (most of the first person examples aren’t from Murray himself):

– ‘When and how long we sleep makes a huge statement about who we are and what we believe about God’
– ‘digital technology is one of the greatest impediments to a life spent in communion with God’
– ‘Pascal: “All our miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone [with God]”. We’d like it to be different. But as Psalm 46 confirms, God has inseparably and irrevocably joined quietness with knowledge of him.’
– ‘Two minutes of silence are more relaxing than listening to music…Experiments on mice found that two hours of daily silence produced new brain cells in the area of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion’
– ‘If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath’
– It’s not “Rest when you have nothing to do”, but “Rest because you will never be done”
– ‘We’re not really relaxing if we’re still emailing every day or preaching on the weekend’
– A couple of good scenarios of where people find their identity in chapter 6: Seth attends a church where important doctrines are ‘only postscripts to lengthy tirades about what’s wrong with people, the church, and the world. He has little or no sense of God’s love or of being God’s child… His children dread family devotions…’
– ‘The worst thing that happened to me in ministry was when I forgot who I was in Christ. The second worst thing was when I tried to make what I did as a pastor fill that void’
– ‘What happens if I lose my job, retire, or if my job does not go well? I lose my identity’.
– ‘Learning to fail well is a vital part of the Christian life’
– ‘My failures may have been painful, but unbroken success would have been deadly’
– ‘My failures have drained my sinful self-confidence and filled me with sympathy for others’
– ‘For Christians, our best days are ahead of us’
– ‘A denial of the existence of mental disorders is essentially a denial of biblical anthropology in that it is a denial of the extensive, damaging effects of the fall upon our whole humanity’
– ‘Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work’
– ‘Would you accept a “successful” job (or ministry) at the cost of a happy marriage?’
– ‘The best decision I ever made was to pull back from ministry and reconnect with my family. It may be one of the few things I have done for which I have no regrets’
– ‘I have never regretted saying “I’m sorry” to my children.
– ‘Contentment in ministry is a secret of endurance in ministry. Pastors must learn to be content with what hand God has dealt them’.
– ‘When we live a grace-based life, we not only receive more grace, we give more grace’

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Greater than Gold (Book review)

Greater than Gold: from Olympic heartbreak to ultimate redemption
David Boudia with Tim Ellsworth
Thomas Nelson, 2016

9780718077419.jpg-2

I first came across Olympic diver David Boudia when I saw him and his excellently named teammate Steele Johnson talk about having their identity in Christ when interviewed after winning silver at the Rio 2016 (a video which has been watched nearly 5 million times).

This book, written before Rio, recounts Boudia’s life and conversion up to and after he won gold in the 2012 Olympics in London. But this is far more than just a Christian sports autobiography – it’s a portrait of someone trying to apply the gospel to every area of life. For example, Boudia shows very clearly that the gospel isn’t just for the start of the Christian life – he talks about wrong behaviours and attitudes in his life that have emerged when he’s stopped living in light of the gospel. Before he became a Christian, sporting success was where he looked for his identity – and that idol didn’t just disappear once he was born again.

Boudia is insightful on nearly every subject area he touches – marriage, work etc. For example he writes: ‘sometimes we get the idea that we should be passionate about our work all the time [but] our work was never designed to provide us with the joy and satisfaction we can only find in Jesus’. Reading this book is nearly like a reading a Christian counselling book, because he makes it so clear what it looks like to apply the gospel to every area of life.

I’ll close with the reaction of this newly converted Olympic athlete to hearing that he could get to go to church TWICE in one day:

“My heart leaped for joy when [they] said they’d be going back again that night. ‘You’re going back back to church again’, I asked in astonishement. ‘Yeah, I’d love to go with you’.
Church twice in one day? The old me would rather have done anything else. The new me – the one in whose heart God was doing a work of grace and redemption – couldn’t get enough.”

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a complimentary copy of this book

Gospel Fluency (book review)

Gospel fluency: speaking the truths of Jesus into the everyday stuff of life
Jeff Vanderstelt
Crossway, 2017

gospel_fluency

Having enjoyed Jeff Vanderstelt’s previous book, Saturate, I thought this was worth a look. The subtitle reads ‘speaking the truths of Jesus into the everyday stuff of life’, and what’s not to like about that?

Early on Vanderstelt diagnoses what he sees as the problem. Many Christians speak about the gospel but people don’t listen to what they’re saying, and so they conclude: ‘People just have hard hearts and deaf ears’. However Vanderstelt believes it’s actually because many Christians are speaking ‘gospelish’ – a set of phrases or propositions which don’t make sense to their hearers’ context, culture or language. Therefore people are not rejecting the gospel, they’re rejecting what Christians are saying because there’s no good news coming through.

However, we have to wait nearly 100 pages until the author starts talking about what ‘Gospel Fluency’ actually looks like. The first two thirds of the book largely just elaborates on what the gospel looks like in day to day life and how to use it to fight sin etc. It also includes a slightly odd chapter where he coaches his wife through her anxiety issues (‘What else do you believe, babe?’).

Once we finally get to the 4th and 5th of the 5 sections of the book (speaking the gospel into the lives of our churches and then into the lives of unbelievers), it finally feels like you’re reading the book that was advertised. He provides many helpful examples of what speaking the truths of the gospel into everyday situations looks like. It’s a great vision of God’s people speaking more about Jesus both to themselves and to outsiders.

Overall I enjoyed the book and I’m glad I read it, but would have felt short-changed if I’d paid money expecting it all to be about what’s described in the subtitle (especially if it was the £18 the book costs on Amazon!). But if it’s going cheap some time it would be worth picking up, even just for those final two sections.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

The whole message of the Bible in 16 words (book review)

The whole message of the Bible in 16 words
Chris Bruno
Crossway, 2017

the_whole_message

To quote the catchphrase of the Bible Project, the Bible is one unified story which leads to Jesus. The emergence of good quality resources to help people see this is a great thing, and Chris Bruno’s aim with this book is to further that good work.

The book comprises 16 short chapters and would be ideal for someone who is new to the idea of seeing the Bible as one story. Stand-out chapters included ‘Creation’, ‘Temple’ and ‘Exodus’. Bruno is also to be commended for at least attempting to tie in the Wisdom literature to the big picture of the Bible. Very helpful summary sections at the end of each chapter consolidate the message, and are parts of the book I can definitely see myself going back to.

Encouragingly, Bruno classes himself as a covenant theologian rather than a dispensationalist, and argues that Adam’s relationship with God was a covenant one. Presbyterians may quibble however with his chapter on ‘Law’ and the limited role he sees for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.

The author explains that knowing the story is like having the box of a jigsaw. As we look at the individuals pieces, we can glance back at the big picture and get a sense of how it all comes together. This book will help readers see more of the big picture, and that can only be a good thing.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Marriage and the mystery of the gospel (book review)

Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel
Ray Ortlund
Crossway, 2016

marriage and the mystery of the gospel

For all the talk Christians do about defending the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage, much of it falls far short of the grand Biblical vision of marriage as a picture of the gospel. Ray Ortlund here seeks to correct that, and does it well. There’s nothing radical or earth shattering here, but there are some lovely insights.

There were two things which stopped this being a 5-star book. First, the chapter divisions are unbalanced. 42 pages on marriage in Genesis means that one of the four chapters takes up nearly half the book. Undoubtedly, Genesis is foundational, but it made reading the book feel more of a chore than it might have been.

More importantly, Ortlund’s section on the law is terrible. He states that ‘the Bible advances beyond the law of Moses’, and sees all law (he doesn’t differentiate between moral, civil or ceremonial) as temporary. If that’s what he believes about the law, it perhaps helps understand how he could be a Presbyterian minister one minute, and in an independent Acts 29 church the next.

Surely future generations will look back in bewilderment at how a gifted pastor and a respected publisher could bring out a biblical theology on marriage that failed to mention the seventh commandment. For now though, it seems that no-one has noticed.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Parenting (book review)

Update: Jonty Rhodes just linked on twitter to a review by Shane Lems which shares some of the same concerns I raise below – and articulates them a bit better! Are Our Children Lost?

Parenting: The 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family
Paul David Tripp
Crossway, 2016

parenting

I suppose it’s about time I started reading some parenting books, and I’ve been looking forward to this one since reading Tripp’s section on parenting in his earlier book Awe.

If you’re familiar with Paul Tripp, this book follows his usual format. As ever, he’s good at getting to the heart issues behind the outward problem. ‘The struggles over food, sleep, homework, sibling conflict, possessions, wardrobe and dating are theological struggles’. He recounts that someone who had been brought up in a Christian family and attended a Christian school and a good church once told him: ‘I’m 35 and you’re the first person who has ever talked to me about what rules my heart’.

Like most Tripp books, it could have been shorter. When giving examples, he tends to give 10 when 2 or 3 would do. The structure of the book with a chapter on each of his 14 principles means that the same things are being addressed from multiple angles. It does help reinforce the message, but makes the book feel more repetitive. On the plus side, it means that the chapters are fairly self-contained so a busy parent could read one a week (they take 15-20 mins each to read according to my kindle) and it wouldn’t matter how much they’d forgotten from the last time they picked it up.

Strangely for a Presbyterian, Tripp seems to be working on the assumption that the children of believers will be unregenerate. The fact that they’re dead in sin seems to be Tripp’s blanket explanation for their behaviour. Of course, the behaviour of Christian children is also due to sin, and all children need to be pointed to the gospel whether they’re believers or not, but a bit more nuance here would have been helpful.

Perhaps connected with this, there isn’t much treatment of discipline and what it looks like. At one point Tripp comments promisingly ‘Your discipline must every time be coupled with clear, biblical instruction’, but he doesn’t really develop this. The message that comes across clearly is that behaviour modification isn’t the goal and that our children need new hearts. But does parenting look any different if they already have those new hearts (or aren’t showing any evidence that they haven’t)?

Given where many parents are coming from though, applying the principles of this book would be revolutionary. Tripp talks about those who ‘reduce their parenting to trying to control their kids’ behaviour’. Sadly that statement would be incomprehensible to many, because they think that controlling their kids’ behaviour IS parenting.

Another positive is that Tripp isn’t afraid to address controversial that might be close to the bone even for Christian parents – such as both parents working and what he calls ‘monastic parenting’ (the idea that trying to cut our children off from the world will deliver them from moral danger).

Overall, this is a solid book which addresses the default parenting mindset even of many Christians. In fact, you don’t need to be a parent or impending parent to benefit. Children are one way God reveals to us what’s really going on in our hearts, but there are many others. For adults as well as children, ‘the heart is the issue’.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.