Takeaway: Christianity is about a relationship With God.
You know how sometimes you read a book and at 10% in you are enjoying it, at 30% you are ready to through it across the room, at 50% you are ready to give it another chance and by the end you enjoyed it but are glad it’s done? If you have not experienced that, you might want to pick up With.
The concept is pretty simple. Jethani thinks that we should live life with God. This is over and against the other four postures in relation to God, Over, Under, From and For.
The first half of the book explains the four wrong postions. Living life Under God means you are trying to get God to bless you, so you do everything that you think God wants, not because of a relationship with God, but because you are trying to make a deal with God.
Life Over God comes out of the Enlightenment where we see God as the watchmaker. God has created the world to run by principles and laws and all we need to do is figure out the principle and laws and we can have a great Christian life. No real relationship with God required, just God’s rule book and insight.
Life From God views God as our provider. We are the consumer and God provides everything we could possibly want. We just have to ask for it and enjoy it. Again, we are not in relationship with God, we are dependent on God, but only for all the good things he gives us.
Life For God attempts to serve God with everything we have. This might look good, but our mission and the purpose we find for ourselves is more important than the actual God that we claim to be serving.
The problem I have with the first half of the book where it describes the negative postures is that it ends up giving examples and mischaracterizing a significant part of the church. I get the point, and yes all of these postures are both posible and real in the Evangelical world. But the reality is that most of the people he cites have a much more nuanced view of God than what he is showing. Often Jethani does not use names, but as a fairly well read person, I usually know exactly who is being referenced.
So in the chapter about living Over God, my pastor, Andy Stanley, is referenced without being named. Jethani, an editor at Leadership magazine, cites an interview with Stanley where Stanley is asked about what is Christian about the leadership principles that Stanley teaches and uses to lead Northpoint.* Stanley said that mostly, he just uses good leadership principles that are not particularly Christian. Stanley thinks that there is no reason that just because you have a church, you should have bad leadership principles. The problem is that while Jethani is not taking the ideas out of context, he is giving a slanted view of the church and Stanley.** Do I think that there is a potential for people to fall into the Over God trap, absolutely! In fact, in my review of Andy Stanley’s last book, I comment on the fact that without more context the book could just be a self help book. But I also hear sermons week after week and know that while some people will fall into this trap, Stanley, and the rest of the church leadership, are not teaching the trap, but teaching the With God posture. The problem is more the socio-economic status of the church. Because it is primarily a well off suburban church, many of the people in the church can get alone just fine without God. Many of them probably do life a Life Over God, at least part of the time.
I could do a similar explanation of the other three false postures. They are really caricatures of reality. There is value in trying to show the reader where not to go wrong, but overall I was just not all that happy with the whole first half.
When Jethani gets to describing the With God posture, it could be caricature as well, but it is not, it is much more throughly developed. The With God postures is about a relationship with God. Yes we want to serve God and we graciously accept God’s provision and follow God’s commands, but we do those things as part of a relationship.
One of the most important focuses of this section is the discussion of fear and control.
But the LIFE WITH GOD posture departs from the other forms of religion because it accepts this simple fact: control is an illusion. No amount of control will ever be enough to ensure our safety, and no amount of control will ever remove our fears. In addition, whatever comfort we do gain through control is little more than a placebo effect. We are fooling ourselves into believing we are safe when in fact we are not.
I do think that fear is a very real problem in the church, one that is solved by a better understanding of living With God. Too often Christians’ fears are actually encouraged by pastors. But as Dallas Willard is quoted in the book as saying, “This present world is a perfectly safe place for us to be.”
The best summary of the book is a quote by Os Guinness (with follow up thought by Jethani), ” ‘First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).’ In other words, it is not our circumstances or behaviors or radical decisions that give our lives meaning and hope, but our unity with God himself.”
At the end of the book is an appendix with descriptions of spiritual disciplines. These are helpful (and seem to be in virtually every book I am reading lately.) Overall I am glad I read the book. There was good food for thought. I wish the first half was a bit better, but the second half did make up for it.
This book was provided by the publisher for purposes of review.
*This is my paraphrase, not the actual quote from either the book or the magazine interview.
**Jethani also does not mention general revelation, which is a concept that I think underlies Stanley’s concept of leadership principles.