James Bryan Smith, Embracing the Love of God: The Path & Promise of Christian Life (HarperCollins, 1995), 179 pp.
There are not many books that people can point to and with honesty say things like “that book changed my life,” or “I will never be the same after reading that book.” It has become too easy to say such things in today’s world. The obvious danger in such a statement is that until one’s life is over, he or she can’t really know if that work changed their perspective permanently. Without trying to sound sarcastic, it seems like it is only on one’s deathbed could someone make such a pronouncement.
With that in mind, let me state that while James Bryan Smith’s book may not end up being the most powerful spiritual formation work i ever read, it is certainly the “most powerful book i’ve read so far.” This book showed me and reminded me just how loving the God i follow is. What follows is merely a sketch of the overarching structure, themes, and weaknesses of the book.
The book is structured into three sections, dealing with three facets of the God’s love that Smith views as absolutely essential to grasp: 1) acceptance, 2) forgiveness, & 3) care. The opening chapter of each section deals with the unconditional move of God in our lives, followed by a chapter on how this move relates to our lives, and then a third and final chapter within each subsection that demonstrates how this move of God and our appropriation of it changes the way we relate to others.
This structure is not coincidental. The format of the book corresponds with how Smith views the spiritual formation of believers. For Smith, everything begins and ends with the graciousness of God. Such graciousness pervades all of our lives, and is not limited to the procuring of our salvation. Smith moves beyond the coservative evangelical propensity to reduce God’s grace to the salvific benefits of the cross, and into an understanding of God’s favor which pervades all of lives in the here and now.
Thus, for Smith God’s acceptance, forgiveness, and care forus is unconditional. He didn’t come to make us acceptable or forgiven only so that we can get into heaven one day. Rather, in Christ God has pronounced us accepted, forgiven, and cared for in the here and now. That being the case, the internalization of these truths are paramount. To do so is to be transformed from the inside out. This leads us to respond to God’s grace and our new identities by showing the same love we have been shown back to God and to our neighbors. In this respect Smith is following the plan of Jesus Himself, who gave priority to internal change (Mt 15:1-20).
Smith does strongly encourage the use of the classic spiritual disciplines. However, Smith doesn’t intend them to be thought of in a legalistic way. Rather, since the grace and love of God pervades all of our life, the disciplines are more therapeutic in nature. They don’t have to be done in order for God to love us. Rather, we should do them because God in His love uses them to stir our hearts and to draw us close to Him.
As much as i benefited from this book, i would be remiss if i did not mention what i perceived to be a couple weaknesses. My main issue is with his understanding of humanity and sanctification. Bryan wants believers to simultaneously believe that in Christ we are both holy and depraved. His goal is that we would be balanced in our view of ourselves. I can certainly sympathize with this desire, but i believe that Christians can affirm our dependence on God without sacrificing the ontological change of our being after we are united with Christ. This can be done by realizing that apart from an intimate relationship with God we cannot live out who we are in Him anymore than a brand new corvette can run without gas. My other main complaint would be with the occasional downplaying of the intellect, although this wasn’t a major theme, and thus it is a bit hard to say just how lowly his opinion of the human mind is.
That said, this is still a tremendous work, the kind of work that finds its immense depth in the simplicity of its message. We are loved, we are accepted, we are forgiven, we are cared for, and that will never change. This is a God of love, and one who treats us in such an amazing way that He is worth loving back with all that we are.