Book Review of THE GOD FIRST LIFE by Stovall Weems

The God First Life (Zondervan 2014), 172 pages with 8 pages of endnotes.

 

This book looks deeply at Matthew 6:33 – “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Stovall Weems explores the depths of this advice from Jesus by considering the concepts of first, which implies order; kingdom of God, which Weems believes is community with other believers; righteousness, which Weems interprets as the decisions we make to pursue and obey God: read the bible, help others, and live a life that honors God. And the result and all these things will be given to you implies freedom, joy and fulfillment. We find our greatest fulfillment when we partner with God and follow Jesus’ wise advice.

 

Here are four of my favorite excerpts from The God First Life.

  1. “My walk with God began solely and completely by his grace, and yet somehow I thought that everything after ‘the prayer’ was based on the sheer force of my own willpower and self-discipline. Every time I felt spiritually empty, lacking in zeal and power, I prayed to ‘get more’ of God, more of his nature, grace, love and power. The problem was that I didn’t need to ‘get more’ of God. I just needed to understand the treasure he’d already given me.  It wasn’t until nearly a decade after I was saved that I truly understood the power-of-God treasure that was within me. Paul tells us that we ‘have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.’ [2 Cor. 4:7] I was all too familiar with the earthen vessel. I knew every chip, crack, and leak in mine. I thought that the best way to ‘carry’ the power of God was to patch up that old clay pot and make it as strong and efficient as humanly possible. I wanted my vessel to be worthy of the treasure it was carrying. Even with all my good intentions, the point of Paul’s statement was totally lost on me. The jar will never be worthy to carry the treasure within it. In fact, the opposite is true—it’s the treasure that gives value to the vessel.” pp. 70-71.
  2. “John 13 tells us that Jesus left the table where the disciples were sitting. He took off his robe, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist, filled a basin with water, and then proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples. In Jesus’ day the outer robe signified a person’s position in society. Jesus wore the robe of a rabbi, signifying his role as a teacher. It was an honored position in Israel. When Jesus took off his robe, he was laying aside the symbol of his earthly rank. He was sending a message: Status does not define my disciples; servanthood does.  Next, Jesus put on the servant’s towel and washed his disciples’ feet. In doing so, he redefined greatness just like he redefined happiness. In his kingdom, we climb down the corporate ladder to success by taking on the identity of a servant above whatever other role and position we may have in life.  One of the most unexpected things about this account of the Last Supper is the statement that leads into the foot-washing moment. ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.’ [John 13:3] Jesus knew. He knew the extent of his authority: over everything. He knew where he came from and where he was going: from God and back to God.  Jesus was secure. He was not having an identity crisis at this moment. He was not pandering to his disciples for affirmation. He was doing what he had always done, teaching them how to love one another. Serving like Christ means serving from a place of strength, not of insecurity, compulsion, or the need for approval. We never have to prove ourselves when our identity is rooted in Christ. Our worth is not in question; only the condition of our heart.” p. 121.
  3. “From the time we are born, our soul (mind, will, and emotions) is programmed and shaped by our experiences. Everything we see, observe, learn, hear, and experience through our five senses is mapped out in the soul. Some of that learning is good, necessary, and intentional (like formal schooling). But a great deal of that programming is just plain toxic.  Everything from traumatic experiences (accidents, death, war, abuse), generational patterns (behaviors adopted intentionally or unintentionally from family), cultural patterns (prevailing ideas in our society)—all of these shape our conscience and program our mind and emotions in destructive ways. Sexual abuse in childhood, for example, warps the normal development of the soul. It fundamentally changes the way that a developing child will think, feel, and behave. A soldier returning from the horrors of war will have seen and experienced things that reshape the soul, and that soldier will look at the world through a new (and possibly distorted) mental and emotional lens.  When experiences like these are imprinted on an individual, the inevitable result is unhealthiness and injury to the mind, emotions, and will. See the problem? This vital part of the soul, which is responsible for making choices, is led to make those choices based on corrupted information. In most cases, this hurt soul goes on making those same unhealthy choices, establishing a pattern of sin and shame that continually repeats like a broken record. That pattern might lead to a coping pattern, such as drug or alcohol abuse, further fracturing the soul.  These tendencies toward wrong thinking, wrong behaving, and wrong choosing can run deep. We must be filled with the Holy Spirit so that those old patterns are erased and new, healthy, Spirit-led patterns are created. The Bible tells us to ‘throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ [Hebrews 12:1] The power word in that reference is “entangles.” Some translations read, “ensnares.” To ensnare means to set a trap. When we fall into the trap of sin, we are bound to its consequences and pain. Thank God that Jesus can truly set us free and make us whole again.” p. 139.
  4. “When you choose to live the God-first life, you are making the choice to restore order. Not things first, stuff first, or me first, but God first. When order is restored, blessing is released.  You will find that a world where you are not at the center is a world where happiness and blessing can be experienced—God’s way. The truth is that ‘first’ is not a place you can fill; it never was and it never will be. As long as you rule your world, the weight of it will fall on your shoulders, but when you step aside and let God step into his rightful place, the weight of your world falls on his shoulders. In the end, he is the only one who is truly able to hold it in place.  Everything around us and within us tells us that the secret to happiness is a world where it’s all about me. But Jesus consistently says the opposite. True success is not a world where I am at the center but a world where God is at the center and my life is in proper order. First place belongs to God alone.  Why do so few people in the body of Christ experience true blessing and freedom? They may no longer be bound in sin, but they are trussed up by the cares of this life—the baggage of their past, the worries of the present, and anxiety about the future. They are repeating old patterns, behaviors, and habits that shaped them in their old life, not realizing (or having forgotten) that God has given them everything they need to walk away from those things.  The God-first life comes down to decisions. Adam and Eve decided not to put God first. Faced with a choice that looked tasty and attractive and would put them in the know, they bit. And we do too if we forget that we’re not in the choosing game. We’ve decided, and now we need to simply maintain, what we’ve already committed to…” pp. 154-155.

In The God First Life, Stovall Weems is giving us biblical keys to victorious living: put God first, remember that it doesn’t depend on me and my power, it depends on God’s power in me. Serve others from the strength of knowing who you are in Christ and what gifts and assignments God has given you. Reconcile yourself with your past. Forgive those who harmed you and receive forgiveness from God and others who want to be reconciled to you. And honor the choices you have made soberly. Weems believes we can accomplish these things by contemplating deeply on Matthew 6:33 “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

You can find out more about Stovall Weems at www.stovallweems.com and www.celebration.org.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a free advance copy of The God First Life from Icon Media Group.  However, neither Icon Media Group nor any other entity paid me for my book review.  This book review of The God First Life originally appeared in jaynechaseloseke.com on April 17, 2014.

Book Review of WHO IS THIS MAN? by John Ortberg

 (Zondervan:  Grand Rapids, MI) 2012.  202 pages of text.  17 pages of references.  Forward by Condoleeza Rice.

 

I enjoyed Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus
It is an overview of the areas of life today affected by the life of Jesus Christ.  The areas Pastor Ortberg considers are the value of children, women’s rights, slavery, education, leadership, forgiveness, health care, separation of church and state, marriage and art.  The undergirding concept is that Jesus lived 2000 years ago in a small town in Israel.  He worked for three years in the region of Galilee as an itinerant rabbi who travelled from town to town, teaching and performing miraculous healings and displaying signs and wonders.  He was revolutionary in his time.  He caused people to think about God, themselves, their religion and others in new ways.  Two thousand years later we are still trying to understand his teachings.

John Ortberg includes quite a few quotes from Aristotle, Winston Churchill, St Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, William Shakespeare, Origen, Pliney the Younger, the bible, Plato, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther, G.K. Chesterton, ancient Roman laws, Dallas Willard, Tertullian, Tacitus, Plutarch, Caesar Augustus, Thomas Cahill, and many others.  I enjoyed the quotes from famous people.  The author compares quotes of famous people, which were popular concepts in their day, to Jesus’ teachings.  Jesus’ teachings are still relevant and challenging to us today.

The author also includes interesting statistics.  I had not heard before that so many girl babies were abandoned at birth, that the biblical population was affected.  Pastor Ortberg claims that during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry there were 1.4 million men and 1 million women alive.  Why were there 400,000 more men?  Because baby boys were preferred over girl babies at that time, too often new parents would leave girl babies outside to die of exposure.  Eventually the population ratio reflected that value of the time.

Forgiveness is another topic Pastor Ortberg discusses.  He quotes Aristotle’s “great-souled man,” among other contemporary Greek and Roman sources, to point out that forgiveness was not valued in the Greco-Roman world.  Forgiveness was seen as a sign of weakness.  People in those days valued strength, military might, power, wealth and beauty.  John the Baptist taught the ministry of repentence.  Jesus taught the ministry of reconciliation and the necessity of forgiveness.  These were radical concepts in their day.

My favorite quotes from this book are:

1)      “Aristotle’s ‘”great-souled man” is extremely proud.  He despises honors offered by the common people…He indulges in conspicuous consumption, for “he likes to own beautiful and useless things, since they are better marks of his independence.”  Incidentally, he walks, slowly, has a deep voice, and a deliberate mode of utterance.’”  (page 74)

2)      “In Bath, England, at the hot springs that formed a combination spa/Roman worship center 2000 years ago, scores of prayers have been excavated that ancients paid to have written down and offered there.  They are called “curse tablets” because by far the most common kind of prayer was a curse.  People would give the name of someone who hurt them, tell what their crime was, then specify how they wanted the gods to harm them.  ‘Docimedus has lost 2 gloves.  He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes in the temple at the place where the goddess appoints.’  No matter how much you love your gloves, this seems a tad harsh.”  (page 87)

None of the 2000 prayer tablets asked Zeus or Bacchus to bless their enemies and forgive them.  People didn’t pray for forgiveness for enemies to Zeus.

3)       “Leadership, says Harvard’s Ron Heifetz, is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.”  (page 102)

4)        “To that world, the movement of these followers of Jesus was ‘like Churchill’s description of Russia:  ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’  Christians were actually called atheists by Romans because of their neglect of the gods.”  (page 130)

5)       “Luther in turn deeply influenced composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who would begin each work by writing “J.J.”—Jesu, Jusa, “Jesus help me” –on his manuscript.  (It is a universal prayer for all writers, but often they wait until they are desperate.  I’m praying it right now.) at the end of a piece, he would write three letters—S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria)—that meant “To the glory of God” on all his music.  (page 158)

I recommend this book.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.  It took me about a total of 5 hours to read. 

I would like to read more of John Ortberg’s books.  His books include:

Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them

If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat

Know Doubt: The Importance of Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith

The Life You’ve Always Wanted

The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You

Teaching the Heart of the Old Testament: Communicating Life-Changing Truths from Genesis to Malachi (Truth for Today: From the Old Testament)

When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box

The book review of Who Is this Man? originally appeared on jaynechaseloseke.com on September 11, 2013.