In his excellent treatment of the Bible’s passages on God’s love, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson retells the Les Misérables’ story of Jean Valjean to make the point that we must “never, never underestimate the power of the love of God to break down and transform the most amazingly hard individuals”:
“Sentenced to a nineteen-year term of hard labor for stealing bread, Jean Valjean becomes a hard and bitter man. No one could break him; everyone feared him. Released from prison, Valjean finds it difficult to survive, as innkeepers will not welcome him and work is scarce. Then a kind bishop welcomes him into his home. But Valjean betrays the trust. During the night he creeps off into the darkness, stealing some of the family silver.
“But Valjean is brought back next morning to the bishop’s door by three policemen. They had arrested him and found the stolen silver on him. A word from the bishop, and the wretch would be incarcerated for life. But the bishop instantly exclaims, ‘So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?’
“Jean Valjean is released, and he is transformed. When the gendarmes withdraw, the bishop insists on giving the candlesticks to his speechless, mortified, thankful guest. ‘Do not forget, do not ever forget that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man,’ admonishes the bishop. And meanwhile the detective constantly pursuing Valjean, Javert, who is consumed by justice but who knows nothing of forgiveness or compassion, crumbles when his black-and-white categories of mere justice fail to cope with grace that goes against every instinct for revenge. Valjean is transformed; Javert jumps off a bridge and drowns in the Seine.
“Of course, this is Christian love – i.e., the love of God mediated in this case through a bishop. But this is how it should be, for God’s love so transforms us that we mediate it to others, who are thereby transformed. We love because he first loved us; we forgive because we stand forgiven.” (81-82)
Those things may be important, and even defining, aspects about who you are. But as Dave Harvey writes in the book When Sinners Say I Do (Shepherd Press, 2007), the most important thing about you is what you believe about God. He explains this in the context of the marriage relationship, arguing that our theology is the most important part of the marriage equation (a clear example of this relationship is having a greater capacity to forgive because one believes that God has forgiven one’s sins, even the ugliest ones), but this applies to all of our lives, not only marriage. Here’s how he puts it:
“The most profound thing that shapes anybody’s worldview is their understanding of God. What a person believes about God determines what he or she thinks about how we got here, what our ultimate meaning is, and what happens after we die. So essentially our worldview, our perspective on life, is determined by our perspective on God.
“… Whether we realize it or not, our ideas about life, needs, marriage, romance, conflict, and everything else reveal themselves all the time in our words and deeds, inevitably reflecting our view of God. If you listen closely, theology spills from our lips every day” (20-21).
This is why in this book about marriage, Dave Harvey can make the fundamental claim, “What we believe about God determines the quality of our marriage.” But as we’ve seen above, this same claim can be applied to every major area of our lives. So, what do you believe about God? And how does it show in your everyday life, at work and at home?
When’s the last time you went out of your way at work to help someone?
When someone at work asks you for a significant favor, do you first think about how doing this favor will help you advance your own interests?
Are you frustrated because your boss or co-workers don’t give you the recognition you think you deserve?
In the theologically-grounded and practical book The Gospel at Work (Zondervan, 2013), Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert show why being accepted by Christ means we really are free to serve and do good to others at work without expecting recognition or personal gain. They write:
“It’s incredibly difficult to find someone who simply wants to do good to others. As somebody who is working in order to love God and love others, you can be that person. You should be that person! Why? Because all that you really need is already secured for you by Jesus. It’s nice to be appreciate by your boss and respected by your peers. But everything you think you need that appreciation and respect for – affirmation, love, acceptance, a sense of well-being, future reward – is already yours in Jesus. You are freed from having your identity tied to what people think about you. You are free to serve them without an agenda” (53).
One of my favorite professors at Georgetown, Father James Schall, S.J., often said that simply knowing something was pleasurable in itself. In an article, he writes: “Truth, Plato often said, is to say of what is that it is. This knowing of truth results in its own delight.”
This same kind of pleasure in knowing is recognized by the great 18th-century American theologian Jonathan Edwards* in his 1739 sermon, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth.”
From The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader (Yale, 1999):
“Knowledge is pleasant and delightful to intelligent creatures, and above all the knowledge of divine things; for in them are the most excellent truths, and the most beautiful and amiable objects held forth to view. However tedious the labor necessarily attending this business may be, yet the knowledge once obtained will richly requite the pains taken to obtain it” (45).
* Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is widely considered America’s most important and original theologian. Though best known for his fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” used in many public schools as a caricature of 18th-century American Puritanism, Edwards was a brilliant philosopher, pastor, and theologian who deeply influenced American Protestantism. He was also President of the College of New Jersey, which today is Princeton University, and later in life became a passionate missionary to Native Americans.
2012 has been a year of many great reads, but these were the standouts.
5. Augustine of Hippo (Peter Brown)
Peter Brown’s masterful Augustine of Hippo is widely considered the definitive biography of the bishop, and with good reason. He is exhaustive in his use of original sources and other scholarly material (it seems that every other line has a footnote); he skillfully re-creates the world in which Augustine moved, giving us a tangible feel for the rich and volatile atmosphere of North Africa in the 3rd century; and most gratifying, he writes beautifully, making it a great pleasure to read and soak in. For the uninitiated in Augustine, this book should be like the main course that comes after some appetizers that can give you a taste for what is to come. It also is abundant in details, concerning not just Augustine but surrounding controversies and political problems, which might not interest the reader meeting Augustine for the first time. For such a reader, I recommend beginning with his Confessions.
4. Confessions (Augustine)
Augustine’s Confessions is an important and rich work. It’s important because it is the first autobiography of the modern world, containing deep psychological and existential reflections, long before such terms and concepts came into popular use. And it is a rich work in that it is no mere recounting of events and reflections on these, but rather a lengthy prayer to God that takes the reader (and as a renowned and popular bishop, Augustine knew he would have many readers) from the earliest memories of infantile selfishness (he shows us why babies are not really “little angels”) to the loftiest meditations on the nature of time and memory, and his place in God’s cosmic plan. The Confessions give us Augustine in full measure: the young and promiscuous “lusty stallion,” the demanding and intense friend, the brilliant rhetorician and philosopher, the loving son who never spoke a harsh word to his mother (she commended him for this in her dying moments), and ultimately, the giant of the church who was, through and through, a true lover of God.
3. Churchill (Paul Johnson)
The list of Churchill biographies is almost endless. This is part of what makes Paul Johnson’s book a great contribution: it gives us a great sense of the man, and covers the crucial events of his outsized life. More than this, Johnson generously shares all those quirky and fascinating details that have made Churchill one of the most closely studied persons of history (e.g. his talent for going from hard-charging, energetic work to being able to, almost at will, relax and recuperate his energies; it helped that he was a great napper!). Johnson writes of Churchill, whom he once met, with warmth and affection, yet he does not try to hide character defects and other less than flattering facts about him. And in true form to the kind of historian he is, he concludes his brief but highly enjoyable biographical portrait with five lessons (see my post, listing these, below) we can take away from the life of Churchill.
Just Courage was the most challenging book I read this year. It is International Justice Mission president Gary Haugen’s highly personal account of his work to end human trafficking as well as an impassioned call to Christians to take justice seriously, because justice matters to God. He compellingly shows that justice for the vulnerable (e.g. the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan) is a major concept in Scripture which we ignore to our own spiritual loss. One thing I appreciate about Haugen is that he understands the fears and hindrances that keep many of us, with our comfortable jobs and pretty houses and neat lives, from engaging in this kind of work (granted, not everyone is called to fight human trafficking halfway around the world; many can do it from their own house or church, even). He admits that it can be scary to leave what to us mean comfort and security and predictability, and to go risk your safety by upsetting the snake pit that is the world of human trafficking. But as a man who knows and loves Jesus, he then reminds us that we have better reasons not to fear: because God is the one doing the work; we are but the instruments he chooses to use to accomplish his purposes in this world.
Before he wrote the recent, highly acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), Eric Metaxas wrote of another great man: William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a highly successful Member of Parliament from the late-18th century to the early 19th century, whose lifelong mission as a gifted politician was to abolish the slave trade. This was my favorite book not only because it is about my historical hero, but also because it is superbly written. Furthermore, It is not an exhaustive biography of Wilberforce. It focuses on his conversion to Christianity and his subsequent decades-long struggle to abolish the slave trade. Metaxas does a great job of showing us Wilberforce the person – lively, cheerful, witty, indefatigable, and keen on putting his faith into action. This was not only a pleasurable read, but personally important in that it painted a picture for me of how a committed Christian can successfully navigate the dangerous world of politics, and not just survive or keep his position, but accomplish a great victory in the cause of justice in this dark world.