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With: Book Review

Do we love God for who he is or for what he can do for us? This is one of the central themes that runs throughout Skye Jethani’s recent book, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. The book examines some of the ways in which we tend to relate to God, diagnosing some problematic and unhelpful tendencies, and arguing for a mature commitment to live and walk with God for his own sake, rather than for the advantages we can secure or as a strategy for coping with the fear and unpredictability of life.

There are four common postures toward God that Jethani identifies in the first part of the book:

  1. Life From God: People here want God’s blessings and gifts minus the interest in God himself. The self is the orbit around which God is thought to revolve, always ready to be summoned to provide comfort, blessing, and validation.
  2. Life Over God: People here seek to discern proven principles and formulas for how God works. These principles and formulas can then be mastered to produce maximum benefit.
  3. Life For God: People here are concerned with how best to serve God. God is often thought—implicitly or explicitly—to require heroic acts of self-sacrifice and service in order to achieve significance and approval.
  4. Life Under God: People here conceive of God in simple cause and effect terms. Obedience = blessing; disobedience = punishment. Proper moral behaviour is here thought to be the key to properly understanding and relating to God.

In each of these four postures, says Jethani, the desire for God himself is substituted for some lesser thing. Whether it is mission, blessing, principles, or morality—none of which are harmful or destructive in and of themselves—each takes the place of God as the object of our desire. Each represents an attempt to manage the ordinary fear of existence through an illusory control over God and God’s gifts. Each of the four approaches represents an attempt to figure out how God works, what God wants, and how best to respond. According to Jethani, each response is rooted in the fear of an unpredictable and unmanageable world that we cannot control.

The solution, according to Jethani, is to move beyond our need for control, beyond our tendencies to be dominated by our fear and uncertainty, to a place where we can confidently live with God, secure in our identity as beloved children, freed from the need to perform, and the desire for the material benefits God can provide. Jethani helpfully summarizes his argument thus:

The Life With God posture is predicated on the view that relationship is at the core of the cosmos: God the Father with God the Son with God the Holy Spirit. And so we should not be surprised to discover that when God desired to restore his broken relationship with people, he sent his Son to dwell with us. His plan to restore his creation was not to send a list of rules and rituals to follow (Life Under God), nor was it the implementation of useful principles (Life Over God). He did not send a genie to grant us our desires (Life From God), nor did he give us a task to accomplish (Life For God). Instead, God himself came to be with us—to walk with us once again as he had done in Eden in the beginning. Jesus entered into our dark existence to share our broken world and to illuminate a different way forward. His coming was a sudden and glorious catastrophe of good.

Overall, I found this to be a persuasive and well-written book. I would, however, like to have seen more engagement with the biblical material that can so often seem to legitimate the four inadequate approaches Jethani identifies. To cite just one example, what of the extensive material in the Psalter (and elsewhere) that so explicitly links human obedience with divine blessing? Each of the four approaches Jethani critiques obtains biblical warrant from somewhere. Jethani does a good job of advocating the “with” approach based on the broader trajectory of the biblical narrative, but some will undoubtedly wonder why some texts are privileged over others, how difficult passages are incorporated into the broader picture, etc. Yet, while Jethani may not lay out his hermeneutical strategy as explicitly as some might like, it must be said that he does an admirable job of analyzing the psychology behind our partial, misguided attempts to relate to God, as well as the existential realities that give them shape.

Ultimately, Jethani argues, living with God (as opposed to under, over, from, or for God) is based upon the conviction that the qualities upon which the latter are predicated are temporary and will not endure. In God’s new world, human beings will not constantly seek to manage, control, and manipulate relationships (with God or anyone else) in order to deal with the fear, uncertainty, and threat that dominate our current experience. In the new creation, God will be all in all, and love, not fear, will be the ultimate reality with which we have to deal. A powerful hope indeed—and one that we can anticipate and live into, as we strive to continually reimagine how we relate to God in the present.

I commend With to anyone who is interested in both diagnosing some of the unhelpful ways in which they might currently be relating to God and learning more about what a life genuinely lived with God as the true object of our desire might look like.

I received a copy of With courtesy of Booksneeze’s review program.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. OK, I’ll ask. What does living with God in the 21st century look like to Mr. Jethani?

    Do I understand correctly that it is absent of service, dependence, blessing, obedience and understanding?

    With regard to his four criticisms are there not ways of positively characterizing these persuits? As you state there are certainly numerous biblical passages recommending (a right application of? ) these behaviors.

    September 8, 2011
    • Well, in general terms I don’t think it looks that much different than at any other point in the history of the church (he emphasizes, for example, a return to solitude, contemplation, etc). Jethani seems to be urging more of a recovery of a proper perspective that has been lost or distorted than advocating something new. It certainly includes aspects of the four approaches he critiques. His critique is mainly that often one (or more than one) of the four takes on an exaggerated significance, and comes to represent the totality of our relationship with God. I think for him, the positive way of characterizing these four approaches would be to locate them within the broader context of a life WITH God, where God is the object of our desire, as opposed to what we can get from God.

      Having said that, I’m not so sure we can entirely separate the matter of the benefits we can “get” from God from our relationship with him. Ours is, fundamentally, a relationship of ontological unequals, after all. We actually DO need things from God and it is not wrong to be honest about this. Part of me would really like to desire God for his own sake (not least because is sounds so holy and advanced!), but the truth is that I don’t. I do my best, but at the end of the day, I cannot pretend to be disinterested in what I receive from the deal. My desire for God cannot be divorced from my desire for the good and necessary gifts God gives.

      September 8, 2011
  2. Yes the journey from self centeredness to other centeredness is long and arduous.I hope to get there some day. Truth be told I still have quite a way to go…The St. Francis prayer helps;

    Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
    Where there is injury, pardon.
    Where there is doubt, faith.
    Where there is despair, hope.
    Where there is darkness, light.
    Where there is sadness, joy.
    O Divine Master,
    grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
    to be understood, as to understand;
    to be loved, as to love.
    For it is in giving that we receive.
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

    I think this kind of prayer works best not when it is quickly recited but when it is contemplated, line by line. It helps me to think about people I love and the real experiences of my life, when I consider the implications.

    Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said we are engaged in social work but we are not social workers. We are not animated by theories of philosophy, politics, career or self affirmation, we are animated by Christ. We must contemplate His being and allow Him to be present in ours.

    Maybe the fullness of Christ is best experienced in otherness. We can experience Him in exegesis and right understanding, we can experience him in personal petitions and their outcomes but the fullness, both giving and receiving, we find in service. When we receive the least, we receive Him. What we do for them, we do for Him. And what we give to them, it came from Him. In selfless giving we can truly become conduits of His love. My, my isn’t that a worthy aspiration.

    I haven’t read the book and to be honest, probably won’t. But if Mr. Jethani points to contemplative prayer as the right foundation on which to build our understandings, I think he’s on to something.

    September 8, 2011
    • It’s a beautiful prayer.

      I like what you say here, Paul:

      When we receive the least, we receive Him. What we do for them, we do for Him. And what we give to them, it came from Him. In selfless giving we can truly become conduits of His love. My, my isn’t that a worthy aspiration.

      It is indeed.

      September 9, 2011

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