The Power of Christian Contentment - A Review

download (7).jpg

Seemingly paradoxically, Western society is both discontent and complacent. We are surrounded by waves of unhappiness and perpetual reminds that we should want something more than what we’ve got, alongside similar messages that some things are better left unchanged or unconsidered. This paradox is exactly the reverse of what the Christian life should look like. We should perpetually be discontent with the presence of sin in our lives and the world, meanwhile we should be supremely satisfied with God’s provision for us.

Andy Davis, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Durham, promotes a positive vision of satisfaction in Christ in his recent book, The Power of Christian Contentment. Davis is a modern-day Puritan, meaning that word in the very best sense possible. He has read deeply in the Puritan tradition, and that influences how he preaches, what he writes about, and how he lives his life. Davis is, personally speaking, one of the more consistently cheerful Christians I have encountered because he generally forces his mind back to a positive focus on finding contentment in God’s goodness.

This book is built on the general ideas presented in the classic Puritan work, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by pastor Jeremiah Burroughs. Davis does a great deal more than simply summarize Burroughs’s sermons, though, he shows the contemporary reader the Scriptural foundations of Christian contentment and points us toward the means to develop a more carefully content disposition in this life.

The Power of Christian Contentment is divided into four parts. Part One points out the general discontentedness of our culture and shows the vision of contentedness that Paul presents as normative for Christians. In Part Two, Davis gives practical instructions for how to attain to Christian contentment. He begins with definitions, presents a vision for its application, and shows how Scripture, especially the life of Christ, reveal contentment. Part Three explains why Christian contentment is terrifically valuable, especially in our culture of wealth that is unlike any culture previously in existence. In the final section, Part Four, Davis shows that contentment is not complacency—it is not simply emptying the mind and heart of desire as some Eastern religions propose—and he also helps show how to protect the disposition of contentment in a world that is perpetually telling us that more, different, better, faster, higher, sexier, and newer is exactly what we need.

All of Davis’s books are helpful, from his book on spiritual disciplines, An Infinite Journey, to his book on church revitalization. He is personally one of the most consistent Christians I have met, which is significant as we read his explanations about how we should live and grow as Christians. The ministry that has been established to collect his teaching, Two Journeys, is a gift for those seeking for consistent expository teaching built on the orthodox Christian tradition.

One of the central elements of The Power of Christian Contentment is that our satisfaction in Christ is a primary tool for evangelism. Everyone is unhappy about something. Our political climate is entirely structured on creating unhappiness that only abolishing the other party can possibly fix. Economically, no matter how much we have, one side reminds us that someone else has more (which is unfair, they say) and the other side reminds us that some people are keeping us from getting more (also inherently unjust, in the eyes of some). Davis’s argument is that when we have Christ, we have everything we need. When we are satisfied in Christ’s provision, that shows and that satisfaction is attractive to the harried masses around us who are convinced that fewer social restrictions or a larger bank balance are the keys to eternal satisfaction.

Davis’s general framework is that there are two infinite journeys toward Christlikeness. One journey is the external journey, which entails the outworkings of the gospel in life. Christians are, without question, called to fight injustice, feed the hungry, and care for the socially downtrodden. The second journey is the internal journey, which focuses on the continual progress in sanctification. Both journeys are essential aspects of the Christian life.

This book unquestionably deals with the internal journey. It is focused on the very big problems that we are each having in our own hearts. Much of the social injustice in this world is, in fact, caused by widespread discontent that leads people to take advantage of others, seek personal gain over the common good, and fight against those that stand in a different place. We must engage in the process of pushing back the effects of the fall in the world around us, but if we do that to the neglect of personal sanctification, we will find that we will fail at both attaining personal holiness and social justice.

The Power of Christian Contentment is an important book for our time, and likely for years to come. This is a volume that is vital for pastors, as they seek to exemplify holiness to their people. It is also a significant book that will benefit the average church-goer as they pursue life in Christ.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Your Future Self Will Thank You - A Review

One of the most challenging questions for Christians to ask themselves is whether they are more Christlike today than they were a year or even a decade ago. Even among those of us active in our local churches on a regular basis, this question can lead to awkward silence and, perhaps, even prevarication. If we are brutally honest, most of us cannot claim to be more Christlike today than we ever have been and that should give us some pause to think.

It’s not that we should be perpetually living on some sort of “mountain top” spiritual experience. Christlikeness has very little to do with how we feel, but it has a whole lot to do with how we live.

9780802418296.jpg

And the question of how we live is not a question of our avoidance of sin. Most of us don’t drink, smoke, chew, or hang with girls that do. This isn’t simply about ethics. The question of spiritual progress has a great deal more to do with the normal advance that takes place as we mature as Christians. Unfortunately, for many of us, that advance looks less like progress and more like a slow slide backward or an attempt to tread water while pretending to be moving ahead.

Every year we make new resolutions. We are going to pray more, lose weight, memorize Scripture, and be more diligent in a hundred different ways. However, it seems that a few weeks later our will-power has failed and we have slid back to where we started.

Drew Dyck’s recent book: Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science, is, despite its clunky title, a very helpful book. It is a quick read, but well-written and robustly researched. This book belongs in a reading list with other books on spiritual disciplines.

The basic topic of this book, as the subtitle indicates, is self-control. This seems to set the volume up for two potential errors: legalism and self-reliance. Dyck is careful to avoid both. He does this by reminding readers that self-control is a biblical virtue (e.g., Prov 25:28, 1 Cor 9:25) and by noting that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (e.g., Gal 5:23). We cannot earn salvation by being more self-controlled, but growth in godliness should result in greater self-restraint.

The Bible points us toward the need for self-control as a sign of and means to pursue spiritually maturity, but that leaves those of us who struggle with the virtue pondering why we can’t just be better. That’s where the science comes in.

As someone who struggles with self-control, Dyck set out on a quest to figure out why. This took him through a year or so of reading the literature available in the field of psychology and brain science. He has helpfully distilled the results in this book and carefully balanced those findings against the wisdom of Scripture. What he finds is much like the argument Christian Miller presents in The Character Gap: human character can be shaped, there are practical ways to do so, and that those practical means of forming our character look a great deal like traditional Christian devotional practices.

Having explained why we so often fall short of our goals of being more self-controlled, Dyck also helps explain how we can get better. He goes well beyond the usual Sunday School response: read the Bible, pray, and attend more church. These are all a part of the formula, but without a little more meat on the bones, such admonitions leave us asking why we haven’t gotten any holier in the past decade.

The basic formula laid out in Your Future Self Will Thank You is that we need to incrementally build new habits. Dyck sifts through research that shows that the problem with most of our self-improvement attempts is that we try to change too much too quickly and without the appropriate incentive structures. Dyck uses recent scientific research to show that will power is a finite resource. It can be developed over time. However, our self-control is subject to fatigue. When we are tired, stressed, or distracted we are much more likely to fail in our attempts at self-control. Not coincidentally, this happens to match what Scripture teaches. This is why Sabbath is built into the pattern of Scripture. This is why Proverbs focuses so much on patterns of life.

Interspersed with the explanations of why we fail, Dyck has included helpful steps to begin to develop better habits. His examples tend to focus on things that should matter to us as Christians: physical health, stronger prayer lives, more consistent Scripture reading. This is a long way from self-help book designed to unlock ten secrets to build a better you. This is a book that can help provide practical mechanisms to get Christians to develop better habits that lead us toward holiness.

Dyck’s book will benefit those who already have a good understanding of spiritual disciplines. For those that don’t, it should be paired with a book like Andy Davis’s, An Infinite Journey: Growing toward Christlikeness or Don Whitney’s, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. In fact, Dyck’s book fills out some of what is absent from traditional books on spiritual growth because it helps explain why we fail and what, practically, we can do to fail less.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Revitalize: A Book for Every Church Leader

While I was working on my MDiv, I was regularly surprised by the lack of men who were eager to become pastors in the local church. Even in my seminary classes, most of my fellow students were more eager to lead worship, work in parachurch ministries, or lead a youth group than to be the senior pastor of a church. Among those that actively desired to be pastors, most either wanted to get called by a healthy, growing church or plant their own.

The one job no one ever expressed any interest in was taking a position at a dying church and attempting to revitalize it. Much better, most argued, to let the sick churches die and plant new ones. This idea was supported by the real statistic that church plants tend to be more effective at reaching the lost. On the other hand, other statistics argue in favor of revitalization: billions of dollars in buildings and other assets simply waiting to be sold off when the last member of a dying church kicks the bucket and millions of people, many spiritually dead, sitting in the pews of those buildings thinking their meager giving and occasional participation in church life count for something with God.

Had it not been for the time I spent at FBC Durham under the supervision of Andy Davis, I might have ended up in the same boat. However, instead of rejecting the idea of church revitalization, I heard his story of God’s renewal of FBC Durham and met many who had walked with Davis through the process. It is that experience and vision for the renewal of a once-healthy local church that invigorates this recent volume from Baker Books.

Summary

Revitalize is divided into seventeen chapters. Each brief chapter focuses on a particular element of a holistic vision of church revitalization with bulleted points of practical advice related to the contents of the chapter. The first chapter emphasizes Christ’s zeal for revitalizing his church; this is not simply a quixotic mission of a man on a reclamation effort. Davis opens up with an overview of the book, which introduces each of the remaining chapters. Chapter Two continues on the introductory vein, outlining the nature of a healthy church, justification for revitalization, and the signs a church needs revitalized.

Chapter Three begins the practical portion of the volume. Davis exhorts his readers to embrace Christ’s ownership of the church; the church does not belong to the pastor or the congregation.  This attitude makes the rest of the volume possible. In the fourth chapter, Davis emphasizes the need for personal holiness and a proper view of the holiness of God. Chapter Five calls the pastor to find strength in God, not to attempt to win a victory through self-effort. The sixth chapter underscores the need to depend on Scripture for church renewal rather than a mysterious cocktail of programs.

In Chapter Seven Davis highlights the centrality of personal and congregational prayer to turn a church around. The eighth chapter explains the need for a clear vision of what a revitalized church should look like. Chapter Nine makes a case for personal humility in dealing with opponents of revitalization; Davis is clear that a proud pastor may win the battle, but miss the point in reclaiming a church. The tenth chapter calls the pastor to be courageous, even as he is humble. Patience is also a necessary virtue, as Davis notes in Chapter Eleven, so that significant capital is not spend making minor changes to the detriment of the greater revitalization project.

In the twelfth chapter Davis provides some advice on how to discern between big issues and little issues, which is essential if patience is to avoid becoming tolerance of evil. Chapter Thirteen exhorts the reader to fight discouragement, which is a real possibility in the face of human and satanic resistance.  The fourteenth chapter surveys the need to raise up additional men as leaders in the church to assist in the revitalization process and move the church forward in the future. Chapter Fifteen encourages the revitalizing pastor to be flexible with worship, but also to help keep the church up to date. In the sixteenth chapter, Davis hits one of his favorite topics, the two infinite journeys, which refers to inward holiness and outward obedience, both being markers of spiritual maturity. Chapter Seventeen is a brief conclusion pointing to the eventual renewal of all things, of which local church revitalization is a part.

Analysis and Conclusion

Every church needs revitalization, so this is a book for every pastor and church leader. The steps Davis outlines to help bring back a church to health are the ones every local congregation needs to do to stay healthy. This is the sort of well-reasoned, thoughtful volume that every aspiring pastor ought to read.

Davis strikes the right balance between recounting his own experience, drawing out important truths from Scripture, and providing practical steps. Church revitalization is not method-driven, it is Scripture driven. However, there are certain methods that will lend themselves to a higher probability of success.

Above all, this volume is an encouragement for the pastor or leadership team of the local church. Over and over Davis reminds his readers that a church that rejects Scripture is not rejecting the pastor, but God himself. None of this work can be done apart from the special work of God. These refrains run through the pages of Revitalize, exhorting the reader to continue striving in Christ and trusting in the work God is doing without becoming discouraged. Davis himself stands as evidence there is hope on the other side.

Note: I was provided a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.