Here are my top five books of this year. All are excellent in their own way, but I’ve ordered them with the ones I consider the most widely helpful and applicable at the top.
5. Born Again by Charles Colson
Before he was “born again” by putting his faith in Christ, Charles Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon and known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” “incapable of humanitarian thoughts” and willing to do anything to get the job done. With the Watergate scandal, Colson fell from the summit of power to the depths of nationally-televised trials, a conviction, and seven months in prison. This experience showed him the emptiness of power, revealed his ugly pride, and opened his heart to a new and infinitely better boss: Jesus Christ. This candid, moving, and powerful autobiography takes the reader into the smoke-filled rooms where Nixon men schemed of ways to destroy their opponents, through the heady days of Watergate, and illustrates the power of the Gospel to transform one’s life in ways nobody thought possible.
4. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics by Robert Benne
Don’t mind the ugly cover; this book is an excellently reasoned guide to thinking about politics from a Christian perspective. Benne rejects what he sees as two wrong ways to relate religion and politics: “separationism” and “fusionism.” The first would have Christians reject all political engagement, and the second fuses religion and politics in an unwarranted manner that ends up distorting both. He offers a better way: a helpful framework for discerning how the Christian faith informs political stances and involvement. This is a helpful read for those who are wary of the use of Christianity by politicians and political parties who are more interested in scoring political points than being faithful to the teachings of religion. It is also good that Benne does not say what positions Christians should hold on specific issues, though he does use a few, such as abortion, as examples for his framework.
3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In this book Stevenson, an attorney who runs a non-profit legal defense group in Montgomery, Alabama, shares how he went from a directionless Harvard Law student who didn’t connect with his studies to becoming a passionate defender of the poor and disadvantaged whose lives are being stolen, and for some, threatened by an electric chair, by a broken criminal justice system. The people Stevenson represents are typically poor, uneducated, and often with disabilities, many of whom don’t receive the attention and care necessary to address the struggles they face. Full of harrowing real-life stories, Just Mercy is eye-opening, infuriating, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful. And if you pick it up, make sure you keep some tissues with you.
2. What’s Best Next? How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
As those who know him say, there is probably no one who has thought more about the relationship between the Gospel and productivity than Matt, and I think this book proves it. He first lays out the theological basis for caring about productivity, arguing that real productivity is not just getting things done, but getting the right things done. Christians are called to be rich in “good works,” which means we should seek to be productive not only because this brings glory to God, but also because our good works and effectiveness in doing them blesses our family, friends, or co-workers. Beyond being theologically sharp, Matt is full of practical advice, showing through his example and that of others who’ve written on productivity and management how to create a “life vision,” set goals, plan out your week, process e-mail, and so much more. Want to start the new year with a bang? Do yourself a favor and get this book!
1. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
In his characteristically thoughtful way, Tim Keller, who is the pastor of a large church in Manhattan, tackles the subject of suffering and offers biblical counsel on how to “walk with God” through trials and suffering. He begins by showing how our modern culture fails to see the uses of suffering that many in ages past recognized, resulting in inadequate ways of dealing with suffering. Keller then looks at the various reasons for and types of suffering (if you’re in the middle of suffering and just really need a hug, skip the entire first half of this book), and then shows us how the Bible depicts suffering and offers examples, such as Job, of how we can respond to and redeem our suffering. The biblical answer, as he describes, is compelling, in that it tells us to not ignore or run away from our suffering, but to trust the God who knows our pain and walk through the suffering as we talk to God (prayer) and hold him by the hand.
“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10)
Christ’s call of love and restoration encompasses our humanity in all its totality, and therefore it absolutely is concerned for the physical and material suffering of people. But is this concern evident in your Christian life? Does your budget or calendar show you care about those who are most in need among us? I don’t put forth these questions from a place of having “gotten” this; this is an area I want to grow in and which I want to partner in with my wife and eventually my family. I love how Matt Perman puts it in his excellent book, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Zondervan, 2014):
“Christianity teaches that we are to be concerned for the whole person, not just the spiritual dimension. As agents of the kingdom, we are to bring healing to all realms of life, not just the spiritual realm.
“Further, God’s call is that we make a large dent, not a small dent, in helping the poor, because the needs are large, not small. We live in a world where 26 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. In addition to malnutrition and hunger, other giant problems like disease, lack of access to clean water, illiteracy, poor education, and corrupt leadership affect billions. As Christians, we are to attack these problems head-on. God’s call is that we bring the gospel to all nations and engage in the fight against large global problems. Anything else misrepresents the pervasive concern of God, who cares about all suffering and distortions of his handiwork” (313, emphasis mine).
In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013), Tim Keller says that one reason we can trust God when we suffer, and don’t understand how he’s in control in that suffering or how it fits into a bigger and better plan, is that there really are no coincidences. Sometimes we are able to look back on discrete life events and make sense of how they fit into a bigger scheme, but sometimes we can’t. He offers a fascinating and compelling personal example of how a series of events led to the founding of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan:
“Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were sent to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.
“This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications. What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.
“What if the security guard had not noticed that door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction? In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidence’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.
“Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is, and therefore you can be assured he will not abandon you” (265-266).
In showing us Lincoln at his lowest – in the darkest fits of gloom and depression – and at his best – telling humorous stories to guests, comforting others who are suffering, and achieving great political triumphs – Joshua Wolf Shenk gives us the picture of an integrated life.
He shows us that suffering, even in the form of mental illness, which Lincoln had, need not be the whole story. Indeed, it can be a crucial part of one’s personal growth and maturity into greatness. Lincoln never wished for affliction and surely he must have wished depression away many times during his life. But with the help of others as well as several coping mechanisms, such as reading poetry or telling jokes, he harnessed the monster of depression in a way that strengthened his character, his endurance, and allowed him to rise to the great historical challenges that confronted his presidency. I like how Shenk puts it in some of the last lines of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006):
“The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity, and joy are possible in life, it is easy to be impatient with fear, doubt, and sadness. If one desires to ‘stir up the world,’ it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story’s end can forsake its beginning and its middle. Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there…The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await” (215-216). (Emphasis mine.)
My last post on Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), offered a brief preview of how Lincoln embodied mental illness and mental wellness (and even greatness) at the same time.
To best appreciate Lincoln’s greatness – his strength of character and mental fortitude – it helps to see him at his darkest, most desperate moments – in the valley of depression. This is the picture I want to offer here.
Lincoln once confided about his depression to a colleague, a fellow politician, who didn’t suspect that he suffered from depression. This man recalled, “He told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket” (23).
His second episode of major depression was triggered by a “long period of intense work,” “profound personal stress,” and “a stretch of bleak weather.” He “spoke openly about his misery, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide. He was unable to work. His friends feared that he might kill himself, and that if he lived, he might go insane” (23).
“By the time he was in his early thirties, he faced a lifetime of depression…The acute fits of his young manhood gave way to less histrionic, but more pervasive, spells of deep gloom. Dramatic public avowals of his misery gave way to a private but persistent effort to endure and transcend his suffering. Yet the suffering did not go away…And even when he began to do the work for which he is remembered…he continued to suffer” (23).
These passages describe a turbulent, and pitiable, emotional and mental state. Because of these episodes and his behaviors, some even thought Lincoln was crazy. Yet at this very point, it is worth remembering that this man, who couldn’t carry a knife from fear of hurting himself and at times believed that he would go insane, went on to become president of the United States and steer this nation through the Civil War and take the first major step toward freeing the nation’s slaves.
Lincoln not only carried the enormous burden of leading the Union through the Civil War, he carried the personal burden of clinical depression. He experienced his first severe episode in his 20s, and from then suffered through a “lifetime of depression.”
Many people don’t know this about Lincoln, whose strength of character and ability to cope with adversity commanded the respect of his contemporaries and continues to capture the attention of historical observers. In Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), Joshua Wolf Shenk shows us Lincoln’s experience of depression and argues that his response to this suffering was one of the roots of his greatness. (This book was one of my top reads of 2013, which you can see here.)
Read this and see how it might challenge your view of terms such as “mental illness,” “success” and “healthy”:
“Can we say that Lincoln was ‘mentally ill’? Without question, he meets the U.S. surgeon general’s definition of mental illness, since he experienced ‘alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior’ that were associated with ‘distress and/or impaired functioning.’ Yet Lincoln also meets the surgeon general’s criteria for mental health: ‘the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive facilities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity.’ By this standard, few historical figures led such a healthy life” (25).
Indeed. Few historical figures led such a healthy life.
Happy birthday, Mr. President.
Earlier in the book he notes that unlike in ancient cultures and in every major religion, modern Western society is often unable to adequately deal with human suffering. Many see it as an accident or inconvenience of life that simply gets in the way of our comforts and happiness.
I share this excerpt because as someone who’s been influenced by this world, I’ve sometimes viewed suffering in this superficial way, especially my own. But we should be equipped to wrestle with it so as to learn from it and through it grow stronger. This isn’t the same thing as glorifying suffering and claiming that it is good in and of itself, but it is meant as a perspective that I believe is often missing but which is at the center of the Christian faith – where the greatest triumph over evil was achieved through the great suffering of a Perfect Man on a cross. As Keller writes: “Trials and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same” (190). Below are his points. His explanations for each point are worthwhile, so I encourage you to read them:
1. Suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves.
It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows us how fragile we are…average people in Western society have extremely unrealistic ideas of how much control they have over how their lives go. Suffering removes the blinders.
2. Suffering will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives.
We will see that some things have become too important to us. [Here he gives the example of someone who’s invested too much of their hopes in their career, which when this is lost or threatened, is devastated.]
3. Suffering can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can.
When times are good, how do you know if you love God or just love the things he is giving you or doing for you? You don’t, really. In times of health and prosperity, it is easy to think you have a loving relationship to God. You pray and do your religious duties since it is comforting and seems to be paying off. But it is only in suffering that we can hear God ‘shouting’ a set of questions at us: ‘Were things all right between us as long as I waited on you hand and foot? Did you get into this relationship for me to serve you or for you to serve me? Were you loving me before, or only loving the things I was giving you?’
4. Suffering is almost a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go through their own trials.
Adversity makes us far more compassionate than we would have been otherwise. Before, when we saw others in grief, we may have secretly wondered what all the blubbering was about, why people can’t just suck it up and go on. Then it comes to us – and ever after, we understand. When we have suffered, we become more tenderhearted and able to help others in suffering. Suffering creates wisdom in people, if they handle it and it doesn’t make them hard.