With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. By Skye Jethani. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011. 121 pp. Paper, $14.99.
This book is a rather skillfully disguised presentation of contemplative spirituality. Jethani cites Henri Nouwen a lot (pp. 119, 120, 161, 162, 165, 168, 193). He also cites other contemplative teachers, including Dallas Willard (p. 125), Richard Foster (p. 184), Eugene Peterson (p. 185),Teresa of Avila (pp. 160, 161), and Brother Lawrence (p. 184).
Jethani defines faith in this way: “Faith is…the courage to surrender control” (p. 167). He explains, “If we return to Nouwen’s trapeze analogy, we can see the transient nature of both faith and hope. Faith is the courage to release the trapeze trusting that the Catcher will rescue us. Hope is the peace and assurance we experience as we soar untethered through the air knowing the Catcher will not let us fall. But once we are caught, once we are safely and fully in his grasp, faith and hope disappear” (p. 168). He may be suggesting that we go through this life surrendering control to God and hoping that we will be saved in the future. But until then, we are unsure of our eternal destiny.
However, the emphasis in the book, as seen in the subtitle, is how we relate to God, that is, how we experience eternal life right now: “The fact is, having been united with God through Christ, we are invited to experience LIFE WITH GOD now” (p. 111, small caps and italics his). He emphasizes the need Christians have “to experience his [God’s] presence in their lives” (p. 3). (Though he does say once that “eternal life begins now and will continue forever. The life we are now living with him will never cease,” p. 132, emphasis his. However, he is not clear what one must do to gain eternal life [see, for example, pp. 83-87].)
The author finds fault with four ways he thinks that Christians wrongly relate to God.
He chooses four prepositions to define these four views: over, under, from, and for. These four prepositions have nothing to do with the use of those words in Scripture. Instead, these are the ways in which Jethani chooses to characterize these four views.
For example, “Life Over God” (chap. 3) is the approach in which “God is abandoned in favor of proven formulas and controllable outcomes” (p. 6).“Life Under God” (chap. 2) “sees God in simple cause-and-effect terms—we obey his commands he blesses our lives, our family, our nation. Our primary role is to determine what he approves (or disapproves) and work vigilantly to remain within those boundaries” (p. 7). “Life From God” (chap. 4) occurs when “people… want God’s blessings and gifts, but they are not particularly interested in God himself” (p. 6). “Life For God” (chap. 5) believes that “the most significant life…is the one expended accomplishing great things in God’s service” (p. 7).
The correct approach according to the author, as his title suggests, is “Life With God” (chap. 6). Jethani says this approach “is different because its goal is not to use God, its goal is God…God himself becomes the focus of our desire” (p. 102). It is easy to see where contemplative spirituality comes in. Prayer is now not so much talking with God as it is experiencing God. The meaning of Scripture is not as important as the way in which it can cause us to experience God. Jethani says, “Lectio divina (divine reading) approaches the Scriptures not as a depository of principles and applications, but as the self-revelation of God and his people. The Bible is the Living Word of God through which he still speaks and communes with us” (p. 176). Why the either/or approach? Should we not find in the Bible principles for living? Should we not apply God’s Word? And what does Jethani mean when he says that God “still speaks…with us”? Is this extra-Biblical special revelation received as we reflect on “a word, phrase, or sentence from the Bible reading” (p. 177)? And what does it mean to him for God to “commune with us”? Is that a feeling?
There is truth in what the author says about each of these four approaches. However, his explanations are a bit misleading as well. They are like caricatures of any view that is not contemplative.
It is true that some if not many pastors make decisions for their churches based on principles of church growth (“formulas and controllable outcomes”). And it is true that parts of the church growth model are inconsistent with Scripture. However, some of these pastors proclaim the free gift of everlasting life, love the Lord, and are watchful for His soon return. Few if any of them are guilty of abandoning God.
Similarly, there is much correct about what Jethani calls the life under God model. He presents it as rigid, legalistic, and divorced from love for God. But seeking God’s approval and blessings is a good thing. If one loves God and seeks transformation from God’s Word, this approach is not objectionable.
The same could be said for the life from God approach if one loves God and seeks Him in a Biblical manner.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to accomplish significant things for God (life for God approach). Again, if one loves God and seeks the renewal of his mind through the work of the Spirit as we are taught God’s Word, this approach is not objectionable.
The author never discusses two key texts on the Christian life, Rom 12:2 and 2 Cor 3:18. His approach is not that we grow by taking the Word of God and changing our worldviews with the result that our lives are transformed. He sees growth occurring by mystical contemplative practices.
I would think that if one wished to find a preposition which summarizes the key to Christian living, it might be the word by. We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). We live by faith (Gal 2:20). Remembering that we are justified and born again by faith in Christ, apart from works, is crucial in our fellowship with God (1 John 5:9-13). Living ever aware that we will be judged by the Lord Jesus at the Judgment Seat of Christ is a vital part of victorious Christian living (Rom 2:16; 1 Cor 4:3-4). A better one-word title would be By. Or maybe In (e.g., Rom 5:2, 3, 11; 8:9-11; 12:4-16; Gal 5:1, 16, 25; Eph 5:2). A concordance study might yield a more Biblical title.
There are no Scripture or subject indexes. Jethani rarely quotes Scripture, and when he does, he does not indicate where it is from in the text. (He did on p. 124 mention Psalm 23.) Instead, one must go to the notes at the end of the book to find out where the reference is from.
Jethani is a gifted writer and storyteller. However, what he is teaching is misleading and dangerous. I do not recommend this book.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society