Category Archives: Books

Book: The Prodigal God

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Tim Keller has a real gift in speaking so clearly and relevantly into our modern lives – he is indeed a C.S. Lewis of our age. Every time I read Keller, I really do feel like I walk away having a better, sharpened understanding of the world I live in. He is so good at getting to the heart of the issue. Earlier in the year, I received a copy of his book ‘The Prodigal God’, and I only got around to reading it recently. Little did I know that this short book would turn out to be one of the most encouraging and influential reads in my Christian walk so far! It is concise and simple, yet rich and thought-provoking. Tim Keller could talk about anything, but in this book, he gets to the heart of the Christian gospel and presents the most important truths that we can hear – truths which transform our heart and shape our lives.

Let me share some of the lessons I learnt from this book, and some of the reflections I’ve had along the way.

‘The Prodigal God’ is all about a single story that Jesus once told, known as the parable of the prodigal son. And in this story, there are lessons for every single person no matter who you are. For me, one of the biggest lessons was redefining what it meant to be ‘spiritually lost’. Often, when I thought about people who were ‘lost’, I would think of people who went out and lived their lives chasing after things – money, success, other people, whatever it may be – people who were selfish and unkind and every other negative quality you might think of. Or, you may have heard the classic ‘lost person’ backstory, where they drank heaps of alcohol, was a hardened criminal with a deeply broken past, and so on. This is what often comes to mind when we hear think of spiritual ‘lostness’, and this captures the younger son in the parable. But there is another son – the elder son – in this story, who also teaches us something really important.

Jesus’ parable presents the elder son as a lesson: that there is a second way to be spiritually lost – one which is subtler but no less devastating. This is the lostness of self-righteousness. Elder brothers are not like the younger brothers, seeking after whatever they want. Rather, elder brothers pride themselves on their own superiority – their own moral record, their hard work, their service. Whilst everything on the outside is rosy, the elder brother is as equally alienated from his father as his younger brother.  He finds himself in anger, slavishness and burden, emptiness, insecurity and lack of assurance.

And I realised.

Hey, this is me.

This was the turning point for me. Yes. I realised that I was a deeply self-righteous person. I really am an elder brother. And reading Jesus’ parable explained by Tim Keller actually really hurt. But it was a good pain – a growing pain, as I was diagnosed and rebuked. I look at my life – and it’s true, I’m not quite like a younger brother. But in contrast, I do try really hard to live in a way pleasing to the Lord. I work hard, serve in as many ministries as I can, try to love the people in my life as best as I can, and so on. Yet, lately, all I have been feeling is burden and guilt and exhaustion and emptiness. And I realised that this was all due to a deep-set self-righteousness which animated my life. I did these things because I thought my identity and life depended on them. What I thought was living for God was really living for myself… and I was deeply lost as an elder brother.

As much as it hurt, this was liberating. Things finally made sense, and I could see where the issue was. And the lesson doesn’t end here. See, we have the problem. Now, we need the solution. We need to escape this elder-brother lostness, and thank God that he saves us from it. What’s the solution then?

The solution is to gaze at what God has done. We need to look at something so beautiful that our hard hearts are melted. Otherwise, we’ll fall back into our elder-brother (or younger-brother) ways. So, Jesus is the one who extends his hand and invites us into the feast – at his cost, on the cross. The more we look at his selfless love, the more our hard hearts melt. It is beautiful. It attracts us. Everything we’ve been seeking is here. We don’t need to work hard or do anything to receive this, and all fear and neediness is driven out. We won’t change by trying harder or wallowing more. We can only change as we take this gospel truth more deeply into our hearts, and let it seep through every single thing we think, feel and do.

I have been so encouraged by this book. It really has let me taste the goodness of God’s grace. And it is so sweet. I now know my own self-righteous tendencies – yet, I know the sweeter self-sacrificial grace of Jesus, which drives away my self-righteousness.  This is a truth which gets to the heart of the issue, and it’s something that has already started to genuinely change the way I live out each day. I am more joyful and secure. I am at peace. I have a deeper understanding of what Jesus is really saving me from.

Tim Keller’s ‘The Prodigal God’ has been an exceedingly helpful read. I would greatly encourage you to pick up a copy and have a read, whether you are a follower of Jesus or not. I think there is something here to be learnt for everyone.

 

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Book: Mere Christianity

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Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis has an extraordinary ability to take what you already know – or what you think you know – and make you think about it in ways in which you have never before. When we wake up every day and live out our lives, there are so many things working in the backgrounds of our minds which help us make sense of our world. Very often, we take these things for granted, and for the most part, we hardly even notice them. In Mere Christianity, Lewis directs our attention to these unnoticed aspects of our daily experience with grace, wit and razor-sharp logic, and uses this to present an endlessly fascinating account of how Christianity works. What I have found particularly refreshing is that Lewis starts with nothing, and builds his case from the ground up. There are no assumptions. He begins with what we all know, and experience, and feel in our day to day lives – and then he goes from there.

Let’s put things in context. The year is 1942, and Great Britain is at war. The front line is at the doorsteps of the civilians themselves, as planes bombard this small island nation each night. C. S. Lewis is called to deliver a series of radio broadcasts on BBC on the Christian faith, and these speeches were eventually gathered into a single volume and printed. See, Mere Christianity was not originally a book. It was a series of radio speeches to a broken and war-weary nation.

Here are some of the nuggets of truth and insight I have gleaned from Mere Christianity:

1. The reality of the moral law. “Hey, that’s not fair!” – “Come on, you promised…” – what occurs so naturally to us is that there is some sort of standard of behaviour which we expect other people to follow. Yet, this standard, or ‘law’, is very peculiar if you think about it. Consider the idea of science for a second. Science is able to observe the world around us, and tell us how the world works. It can provide ‘laws’ which describe the world – Newton’s laws of motion, Mendel’s laws of genetics. But the ‘moral’ law is different – it doesn’t actually describe anything that we are doing. Instead, it describes what we should do. In fact, many times what we are actually doing is contrary to this moral law. So, this moral law is very real… but at the same time, it isn’t really “real”. It’s a thing, but it’s also a not-thing. This is something that we can’t learn from external observation. We can observe humans, but unless you were actually a human – you wouldn’t experience, and thus understand, this idea of a ‘moral law’. Where does this experience come from? What lies behind this ‘moral law’? Our experience of the moral law raise many questions, and it is in this context which Christianity starts to speak.

2. The person of Christ. We look for something to help explain our ‘moral law’. Enter first century Palestine, and we see a man – Jesus of Nazareth – make the preposterous claim that he is able to forgive sin. This phrase – ‘forgiving sin’ – is a phrase that we have difficulty understanding. We throw the phrase around often, and we don’t realise the scandalous implications of what it actually means. Consider this. Let’s say you punch me, I forgive you. Or you steal my money, I forgive you. But let’s say you hit me, and a stranger off the street – completely irrelevant to our situation – comes up to you and says, “I forgive you”. You would make him out to be a fool. “Get out of here”, you’d say. So, we see Jesus acting like he’s the chief party concerned in any offence. And if you think about it carefully, Jesus is claiming to be the power behind the ‘moral law’ I spoke of above. He’s the one who sets what is right and wrong. He is the one who you are offending every time you break this moral law. And so, what can we conclude something about this man, Jesus of Nazareth? He is a lunatic. Or, he is a liar – a really great actor. Or, he is God himself. How do we approach the person of Jesus?

3. The root of evil. Lewis spends an entire section of the book talking about Christian ‘virtues’ or ‘values’ – ways in which Christians should live and behave, and how to make sense of them. There is so much good stuff here I cannot possibly write it all down, I may as well quote the entire book! So, if I was to draw attention to one thing which really stuck out to me, it is what Lewis calls the centre of Christian morals: “the essential vice, the utmost evil – Pride”. Pride is the vice that leads to every other vice, and is the complete anti-moral, anti-God state of mind. We aren’t proud of having something, but rather, we are proud for having more of it than the next person. See, the very essence of pride is competition. Once we take away competition, there is no pride. Pride, as Lewis says, is enmity. I’ll keep quoting Lewis (I can’t think of any better words to say): “For Pride is spiritual cancer, it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense”.

4. Heaven and Longing. This idea of ‘heaven’ is central to popular views of Christianity – “I want to go to heaven” is a popular sentiment. Whilst this idea is common misunderstood, I think there’s something quite important and insightful here. Here are a few things that Lewis says. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither”. Or, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Interesting.

5. Life and transformation. The last thing I want to say, and probably the most profound thing I have learnt. We say that ‘Christ has come to give us life’. Hold on, aren’t we alive already? Why do we need to be given life? So, Lewis makes a distinction between natural, biological life, called ‘Bios’, and Spiritual life, called ‘Zoe’. Imagine bringing a tin soldier to life. This is what it’s like bringing a being from Bios to Zoe. When we put our faith in Christ, we aren’t just committing ourselves to follow another set of rules, but rather, we are being given life and being transformed into a timeless, spiritual being.

What I’ve written so far is completely inadequate in capturing the spirit of Mere Christianity. There are so, so many nuggets of insight strewn throughout its pages – so many little word-bites that get you thinking long after you’ve read them. If you haven’t read it before, I must recommend it. This is definitely a book which I’ll be revisiting again and again.

Crazy Busy

Life can get terribly… busy.

I mean, even in the holidays (it’s the last day as I write this!), it feels like there’s an endless list of things to do. Thrilled to to see how busy the term will get. In my life, there’s always this feeling that I need to be doing something. I’m sure it happens in yours too. There’s just so much to do, and so much that can be done. But alas, we are given 24 hours a day, and that’s it, so I guess that’s something we just need to deal with.

What can happen though is that busyness turns into stress. Sometimes, I feel completely overwhelmed by the ten million different things I need to do, and it feels hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. You don’t know where to start, you don’t know what to do. Need to do this. Oh, but don’t forget that. And that other thing you had to do. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. Please stop. Life just generally sucks when you’re stressed, doesn’t it?

Before the holidays started, I picked up a book called ‘Crazy Busy – A (Mercifully) Short Book About A (Really) Big Problem’ – by a guy called Kevin DeYoung. It’s a book written from the Christian perspective on busyness, what it means, why it happens, what to do about it, so forth. Here are a few things I got out of it:

We are finite beings.
Bluntly put, we can’t do everything. We are limited beings constrained by our physical bodies and mental needs. We are not God, because God is God. That’s really important. We can’t do everything or serve everyone simply because we are finite. Often we forget this, and we try and do way too much, which makes us busy, then stressed. Accepting our finitude   also means to set priorities – because you cannot do everything or serve everyone. This is important if we are to keep ourselves from becoming crazy busy.

We are prideful beings.
Pride is one of the things which can make us really busy. Sometimes, we try and do things for the purpose of glorifying ourselves – making ourselves look good. Other times, we try and do things to please people. I guess, these are all manifestations of pride. We should question who we are doing it for. Am I trying to do good or to make myself look good? I mean working hard isn’t bad – but when you work to feed your pride, things can go crazy.

Sleep is important!
Sometimes, one of the most productive things to do is sleep. As physical human beings, we need sleep. You simply just can’t ignore it, or sooner or later, you’ll crash. It is hard work indeed to let go, trust God, and go to sleep. Yeah. Sleep. Good stuff.

Rhythm is important too.
Like sleep, rhythm is important. I guess they are all linked. Rhythm means purpose and order – if you have a rhythm of doing things, things become easy to do. It makes things less stressful. It makes things seem less busy. It’s important to have a rhythm of work and rest.

Lastly, and most importantly, we need more Jesus.
Life can get so crazily busy that we forget the most important thing. Coming before God, learning more about Him, spending time with Him, in a world where we need to do this and do that, is the single necessary thing. I guess, the last sentence of the book sums it up quite well – “What is wrong – and heartbreakingly foolish and wonderfully avoidable – is to live a life with more craziness than we want because we have less Jesus than we need”.

So yes, there we go, 5 points that I took out of the book (there’s plenty of other good stuff which I haven’t included though). Busyness is something I continue to struggle with. Hoping that through this busy year of HSC, I place my trust more and more in God, who unlike us, is infinite, is powerful, and is in control.

I want to end with a rather lengthy quote from the book. I think it ties everything above nicely together.

“Busyness is as much as a mind-set and a heart sickness as it is a failure in time management/ It’s possible to live your days in a flurry of hard work, serving, and bearing burdens, and to do so with the right character and a right dependence on God so that it doesn’t feel crazy busy. By the same token, it’s possible to feel amazingly stressed and frenzied while actually accomplishing very little. The antidote to busyness of soul is not sloth and indifference. The antidote is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our own finitude and trust in the providence of God.”