Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of LivingSummary: A somewhat repetitive, although important call, to focus on the important things in life, and not get overwhelmed attempting to do everything or make everything perfect.

I like Shuana Niequist’s writing. Yes, it is very female focused, but men should read more things focused on women. Yes, there are a lot of similar themes of change and finding yourself from book to book, but we are continually changing and finding ourselves throughout life. Yes, I can’t completely comprehend her life of food and family and vacations and friends, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get the points. In the end, Shauna Niequist’s voice is an important voice that continually reminds us of the need for spiritual, emotional and physical health in a world that wants to push us toward giving everything for a goal.

Niequist has a clear heart to follow Jesus. She thinks about the normal stuff of life as an example of the harder things of life. She is a good illustration that simply growing up in the church does not make one comfortable with faith. She is also a good illustration of the problem of telling people, not only can you do anything you put your mind to, but you should do everything that  you can put your mind to.

One of the important trends in evangelical theology that seems to keep being brought out is a real worked out theology of human limitations. It may be one of the most important things that the church needs to be illustrating through out discipleship and evangelism. I think people naturally come to understand limitations as they age. But it is amazing to me how often I read or hear something like, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ be spoken about as if the second phrase were not the primarily emphasis.

Present over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living is pretty similar to both Bread and Wine and Savor but she seems to feel like there was something fundamentally different about the life that she was living when she wrote those books. As a reader, the calls to slow down and focus on family and the important things seem to be much the same, or at least very similar.

As I read this, I thought of several friends that I think would like this book. And several that need to put into practice the call in this book to say no to the many things, even really good things, in order to say yes to the more important things. I need to hear that message over and over and over again, especially as a parent of young children. However, as much as the general message is important (and I think it is), there were two nagging problems in the back of my head throughout the book.

First, this is a very privileged response to the world. Don’t hear me wrong. Privilege is not a bad word. It is a real word that designates that some people, while not necessarily having an easier life, have a life with more choices than others. When Niequist says she is turning down jobs in order to focus on her family, she is also saying that she has both the job offer and the ability to turn it down. Not everyone has that option.

That is not to say that Niequist should not talk about the importance of being intentional about how she is living just because she is privileged to have opportunities. The church needs to be speaking to people with and without opportunities. But I do wish there was some more acknowledgement of the privilege. Because one of the problems that often comes with privilege is the lack of awareness of the privilege. Will the increased focus on slowing down and being intentional about life and rejecting the traditional model of success be a message that only gets told to those that are already privileged?

The second problem that was nagging in the back of my head is that while most of this book is about saying no, because that is the place where she feels like she is, and where she feels like the reader probably is, there is less focus on how to discern what to say yes to. The positive case for Christian discipleship as a method of being a healthy and whole person requires understanding our purpose. It is too easy to say ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life’ if you there is not a way to measure whether the wonderful plan that we think God has for us is actually what God has for us. It is clear that Niequist is doing the hard work in the background (spiritual director, counselor, submitting her ideas and plans to friends and family and church community.) Maybe the mentioning of all of those things are good enough to illustrate that life is complicated and it is easy to take different paths.

But it seems to me that while I do think God has created us with particular gifts and skills and personalities, it is very easy to think that insular is what God intends. Suburban life is insular. We don’t see people that are unlike us, unless we look for them and seek them out. Our schools, churches and social organizations tend toward similar not different. So being present in life has to also mean being present in the full diversity of life. Not focusing on every problem that comes up. Not being martyrs or white saviors. Not ignoring the needs of our families. But actively seeking out difference because is it part of our actual communities and should be part of our actual churches and it is part of how we actually grow spiritually.

I do think Niequist is worth reading. Especially the last chapter where where she sums up what she has been learning really is worth reading. But I also think that we also need to be reading other voices that nuance our call toward simplicity in a slightly different mode.

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living  by Shauna Niequist Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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