Book Review of THE PRODIGAL GOD by Rev. Timothy Keller, Ph.D.

The Prodigal God (Riverhead 2011, Dutton 2008), 149 pages with 4 pages of notes.

This book took me less than five hours to read.  The parable is familiar, but the author’s ultimate conclusion–that Jesus is a prodigal God–is new.  This book discusses the parable of the prodigal son.  (Luke 15:11-32)  Here is the parable:

The Parable of the Lost Son

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”  (BibleGateway.com, NIV)

Jesus shows us a solution to the human dilemma of being experientially-driven humans who feel, need and desire, yet want to live a life that is in harmony with God.  We want to live at peace with God and people, while still enjoying our sensual nature.  How do we do that?  The prodigal son parable shows the two extremes to the dilemma through the older and younger brothers.  Most of us are neither as self-involved as the younger brother—wishing our parents were dead so we could have our inheritance.  Nor are we as dutifully moralistic as the older brother—serving his father because it is the right thing to do, but feeling no love for his father or his younger brother.  Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes.  We all grapple with the dilemma of reconciling our two basic selves: sensory and moral.  How can we successfully satisfy both sides of our human nature?  Dr. Keller suggests the same thing Jesus suggests, that we repent in order to know God better and to be fully renewed as God’s people.

“What must we do, then, to be saved?  To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you may remain just an elder brother.  To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right.  Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too.  We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness—the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord.  We must admit that we’ve put our ultimate hope and trust in things other than God, and that in both our wrongdoing and right doing we have been seeking to get around God or get control of God in order to get hold of those things.  It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord—lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness—that you are on the verge of understanding the gospel and becoming a Christian indeed.  When you realize that the antidote to being bad is not just being good, you are on the brink.  If you follow through, it will change everything:  how you relate to God, self, others, the world, your work, your sins, your virtue.  It’s called the new birth because it’s so radical.”  (pp. 87-88)

Dr. Keller is saying that in order to be made right with God through Jesus Christ, we need to surrender our hurts, our vanities, and our desire to control our world.  We have to surrender today and tomorrow and repent of everything in our past that did not begin and end with God.

Timothy Keller titled the book The Prodigal God.  The implication is that Jesus Christ laid down his majesty in heaven.  He left his Father’s house and went to live among sinful men to find his way in the world.  Sinful men took everything from him.  In fact, they beat and crucified him.  They killed him.  Why would Lord God Almighty, who has the power, resources and time to do anything choose to send his only begotten son to earth to live and die among sinners?

“Christianity, therefore, is perhaps the most materialistic of the world’s faiths.  Jesus’ miracles were not so much violations of the natural order, but a restoration of the natural order.  God did not create a world with blindness, leprosy, hunger, and death in it.  Jesus’ miracles were a sign that someday all these corruptions of his creation would be abolished.  Christians, therefore, can talk of saving the soul and of building social systems that deliver safe streets and warm homes in the same sentence.  With integrity.  Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much, he came and experienced it to defeat it and, someday, to wipe the world clean of it.  Knowing all this, Christians cannot be passive about hunger, sickness, and injustice.  Karl Marx and others have charged that religion is ‘the opiate of the masses.’ That is, it is a sedative that makes people passive toward injustice, because there will be ‘pie in the sky bye and bye.’  That may be true of some religions that teach people that this material world is unimportant or illusory.  Christianity, however, teaches that God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it.  Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opiate of the people.  It’s more like the smelling salts.”  (pp. 126-127)

Dr. Keller is saying that God created the earth and all its fullness as an act of love.  God created a good and beautiful world, but man wrecked it.  So God sent Jesus, His Son, to earth to restore to God what man had wrecked.

Our prodigal God is Jesus Christ.  Jesus is unique among all other gods in that he became one of us, in order to save us all.  If my God loves me so much he was willing to leave paradise to come to earth to pull me out of the muck and mire of this world, to set my feet on solid ground and to restore this fallen world to its original God-given glory, then surely there is hope.  Jesus truly is the light of the world, because he became a prodigal just like me. Isn’t that an amazing story of love?

I liked this book.  I recommend it.  It gave me plenty of things to think about.  This book review originally appeared on jaynechaseloseke.com on September 16, 2016.  You can find out more about Rev. Timothy Keller, Ph.D. at his website at http://www.timothykeller.com/.  You can listen to his sermons at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on iTunes.  His books include:

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

Every Good Endeavor

Center Church

Jesus the King

The Meaning of Marriage

Generous Justice

Counterfeit Gods

The Reason for God

Preaching:  Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism

Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions

The Prodigal God

Romans 1-7 For You

Romans 8-16 For You

Galatians for You

Judges For You

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness

Ministries of Mercy

King’s Cross

The Songs of Jesus

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

Hidden Christmas:  The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ

Book Review of SOUL KEEPING by Dr. John Ortberg

Soul Keeping (Zondervan 2014), 193 pages with 8 pages of source notes.

Soul Keeping is a book that offers hope.  Dr. Ortberg takes a look at the state of our souls.  He intelligently discusses some common problems in our society:  addiction, materialism, self-absorption and busyness.  He offers a new way to look at these problems.  Ortberg suggests we have lost our way because we have lost touch with our souls.  He offers hope by suggesting we consider the state of our souls, with God’s help, to improve our lives and our society.  He accomplishes this provision through an homage to Dallas Willard.

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from Soul Keeping.

  1. “I recall Jesus’ memorable words about the soul: ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?’ I have always thought this verse meant that in the long run it won’t do you any good to acquire a lot of money and have a lot of sex and other sensual pleasures if you end up going to hell. When I mentioned that to Dallas, he gently corrected me.   ‘That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not talking here about people going to hell.’ He explained that Jesus is talking about a diagnosis, not a destination. If we think of hell as a torture chamber and heaven as a pleasure factory, we will never understand Jesus’ points. For the ruined soul—that is, where the will and the mind and the body are disintegrated, disconnected from God, and living at odds with the way God made life in the universe to run—acquiring the whole world could not even produce satisfaction, let alone meaning and goodness. To lose my soul means I no longer have a healthy center that organizes and guides my life—I am a car without a steering wheel. It doesn’t matter how fast I can go, because I am a crash waiting to happen.” Pp. 40-41.
  2. “Our world has replaced the word soul with the word self and they are not the same thing. The more that we focus on our selves, the more we neglect our souls….because we have replaced church, faith, and community with a tiny little unit that cannot bear the weight of meaning. That’s the self. We’re all about the self. We revolve our lives around ourselves. Ironically, the more obsessed we are with ourselves, the more we neglect our souls.” P. 42.
  3. [I condensed this excerpt for brevity and clarity.] “How does the world we live in keep us from attending to our souls? Jesus told a story about this…It’s a story about seeds, a sower and some soil. In a story like this one, it helps to notice what are the constants and what are the variables in order to understand Jesus’ point. The seed is a constant. This is not a good story about good seeds and bad seeds. The seed will take root given half a chance. The seed is a little picture of God’s desire and action to redeem souls. The sower is a constant. This isn’t a story about good sowers and bad sowers. The first thing we notice about him is how generous he is with the seed. He scatters it everywhere. It is the soil that gets interesting. The soil is the variable. And for ‘soil,’ we might replace it with the word ‘soul.’ The closed soul is death. The receptive soul is life. Some seeds fall on the path, Jesus said. In the Middle East, conditions are already dry. The path is the place where farmers walk, where sheep make their way to water and grass. The path is hard and dry, and the seeds don’t have a chance. Souls get that way. Often these seeds are people who have been hurt or disappointed. They form a protective shell. They become cynical or bitter or suspicious. The world diverts my soul-attention when it encourages me to think of myself more as a victim than as a human. I am so wrapped up in the hurt I have received that I do not notice the hurt I inflict.  Some of the seed fell on rocky soil. The idea here is not that there was a bunch of rocks, but that there was only a thin layer of topsoil with solid rock underneath. The seed had life until the sun came out. But the life withers quickly, Jesus says, because the soil is too shallow for roots….’Superficiality,’ says Richard Foster, ‘is the curse of our age.’ The desperate need of the soul is not for intelligence, nor talent, nor yet excitement; just depth….There is depth to your soul that is beyond words. For much of our lives, we live in the shallows. Then something happens—a crisis, a birth, a death—and we get this glimpse of tremendous depth. A soul becomes shallow when my interests and thoughts go no further than myself. A person should be deep because life itself is deep. A deep soul has the capacity to understand and empathize deeply with other people—not just himself. A deep soul notices and questions and doesn’t just go through the motions.  Some seeds fall among thorns, which grow up and choke the plants. Jesus said that is the condition where the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things come and choke the soul. We mistake our clutter for life. If we cease to be busy, do we matter? A person preoccupied with externals—success, reputation, ceaseless activity, lifestyle, office gossip—may be dead internally and not even recognize it. And our world has lots of ‘other things.’” Pp. 50-56.

I liked this book.  I recommend it.  It gave me plenty of things to think about.  It took me a few weeks to read because I kept stopping to think about the ideas Ortberg presents.  Soul Keeping made me want to spend some time contemplating the condition of my soul.  And this book has inspired me to read books written by Dallas Willard.  John Ortberg is on Twitter and Facebook.  You can find out more about him at www.johnortberg.com. His books include:

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

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.