A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships by Paul Miller

A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships by paul millerSummary: Using the book of Ruth to explore relationships as a Christian.

When I was offered this book to review, I was excited. I have read Miller’s previous book, A Praying Life, twice and highly recommend it as a practical guide on prayer.

But as much as it grieves me I had to really force myself to finish the book. Others might not be as irritated as I was, but it seemed to hit all of my major issues with Christian Living books. First, it attempts to use historical research and language study to try and establish authority and background on the book of Ruth. I am not opposed to this, strongly support this. But Miller seems to spend more time reading modern culture back onto the book of Ruth than using historical research to illuminate us modern readers. And his lack of academic skills shows through. This is reminiscent of a pastor that has a read a lot of commentaries and taken a few hebrew words and cultural concepts and pulled far more out of them than what is really warranted.

Second, Miller repeatedly over simplifies problems, which then leads to overly simplified answers. One good example:

“Our modern age creates categories…and then traps people in them. For instance if we label 2 year olds with ‘Terrible twos’ then they are no longer responsible. So when they lose their tempers they are just exhibiting the ‘terrible twos’ instead of sin in need of discipline. Labeling returns us to the rigid world of paganism which freezes everyone into a category, ethnic group, occupation or social status.”

Here I think is a good example of how he should have used the word stereotype instead of category, and not created a straw man argument. I agree that we can lock people into behaviors or statuses that are inappropriate for them. But to use this example, we do not help to bring 2 year olds into a right relationship with God and those around her by expecting them to behave like adults. Instead we properly identify the child as 2 years old and then love them as they need to be loved and discipline them (in a method that is appropriate for 2 year olds) so that they will not always behave like a 2 year old. Properly understanding someone is not ignoring their sin. Or said another way, It is not categories and understanding people that is the problem, it is stereotyping people and then locking them into stereotypes that is a problem. If this is what he had said, I would agree with it. But he seemed to say the opposite.

The third problem is that Miller is given to hyperbole. In talking about Ruth’s decision to leave Moab and go with Naomi he say, “There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.” And this is after reviewing Abraham’s decision to follow God into an unknown land and a few other similar decisions. It is not that I disagree that Ruth has made a radical decision, it is just that I am not sure that the book is helped by hyperbolic statements like that. Because instead of hearing a statement about Ruth, I instantly start questioning the hyperbole. And this is far from the only example.

In the end, while there are good things here I have a hard time recommending the book. Miller really does explore Ruth and the concept of what it means to love others, especially those that are less than lovable. But I am hesitant about giving books like this to people in difficult relationships. Many people in difficult relationships do not need to hear that God will work through their suffering and that they should endure abuse (he is clear to say physical abuse should be stopped, but he does advocate enduring almost every other type of abuse.)

I have a limited agreement with Miller (and to a lesser extend Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Marriage.) Life is not perfect. There are many places where we actually can make a difference by suffering in the short term for longer term benefit. But that takes discernment. In one example, Miller talks about an associate pastor that confronted the senior pastor over poor treatment of others. The senior pastor then started mistreating and minimizing that associate pastor to take away power of the associate and punish him for confronting his bad behavior. Miller talks about how in the end that led toward a greater glory. But another option would be to go to wise people in the church privately, explain the situation, seek counsel and have others individually or as a group confront the pastor as well (as the bible instructs.) It is exactly situations like this that are at the root of a number of problems in the Evangelical church where misbehaving leadership are given a free pass to abuse ‘for the greater good of ministry.’ This is never right.

What Miller is trying to talk about is that God can give us grace to live under less than perfect situations and that we can actually do well there because of God’s grace. I support that in theory. But when we ignore or minimize bad behavior under the concept of enduring in grace, we are not protecting others that have not reached that level of grace. We may be actually enabling sin to thrive. I think this type of acceptance of bad behavior, especially among Christian leaders, is what leads to situations where physical, mental and sexual abuse thrives in local churches. I don’t want to say this too strongly, because again, I do agree with the kernel of truth that is here. But we need to have a community around us that can help us discern the actual path that needs to be taken. And far too often Miller presents our Loving Life as an individualistic work, not a work done in community.

Many people are brought to repentance through the gentle suffering of those around them (this is basically Paul’s instruction about being a good wife and bringing the husband to faith.) But in other cases it is the opposite of grace to allow sin to harm, especially those that are vulnerable, new or not yet Christians. What I did not hear expressed, but I think underlies this book, is that as a mature Christian we should do the hard work of loving because God can empower us and the result will be to bring others to Christ or a deeper faith in Christ. If this were expressed explicitly (and the corollary, that those that are mature, often need correction in order to grow deeper), then I think I would have less problems with the book. Also many of the examples are from marriage, which has a fundamentally different covenant than do neighbors or church members or friends. Instead Miller seems to take what is right in marriage and apply it inappropriately to other relationships.

That being said even without the large problems, there are numerous small problems that I think really are serious. In one example, he complains about a child being diagnosed with a mental illness and Miller completely dismisses mental illness as a ‘pop psychology category’ that will limit the growth of the child. It is this type of minimizing of real issues that needs to be counters. Not combatively, I still really respect Miller, but lovingly in a way that he can see the unintended harm he is perpetrating by not fully thinking through the words he is writing.

A Loving Life Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, christianaudio.com MP3 Audiobook
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A copy of the MP3 audiobook was provided by Christianaudio.com for purposes of review.

2 Comments

I have not read the book but I deeply respect your commentary and I completely agree with your points. I have suffered in a spiritually abusive marriage where my children have been abused in the name of God. Now I’m getting a divorce and the backlash from my church and friends is insanely damaging. My friends are currently reading and recommending this book.
Thank you for seeing the bigger picture and understanding.

I forced myself to finish this book also. I agree with your conclusions. I will add that I feel that Miller created a straw man in his representation of Naomi. He attributed actions and attitudes to Naomi that are not found in Scripture and asserted those actions as facts. He did the same thing with the nearer kinsman and I have a hard time trusting an author who asserts his guesses as facts.

Miller doesn’t say that violence should be stopped. He says police should be called as if that’s just the answer that will stop it. This only betrays his ignorance on the matter of abuse. Barbara Roberts addresses the complexity of trying to leave an abuser in this post http://www.notunderbondage.com/WhyDidntYouLeave.html. Perhaps some will find that helpful. Gary Thomas has said that Sacred Marriage was never meant to be applied in an abusive marriage. I’d like to see Thomas say that early and often and I’d like for Miller to learn more about how to help targets of abuse than offering the “call police” blanket statement. Although it is much better than Piper’s “simply hurting her” video…

I cannot recommend this book for many reasons. I am thankful to see that others have seen the same issues with the hyperbole, the “pop psychology” remark and the other things you have pointed out here.

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