Monday, September 1, 2003

MY GOD AND I by Lew Smedes

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

Sing Me to Heaven (see my review here) is an utterly honest memoir written by a theologian who takes comfort in God's sovereignty. The late Lewis Smedes's My God and I is its equal in astonishing honesty. But though he was a theologian trained in the Dutch Calvinist tradition, Smedes could take no comfort in its teachings about God's meticulous providence.

With characteristic economy, Smedes explains, "About four years into our [decade at Calvin College], Doris gave birth to a beautiful baby boy who died before he had lived the whole of a day. God's face has never looked the same to me since."

Although this tragic death moved Smedes to deny God's meticulous providence, he never formulated an alternative theory of how evil fits into the story of God. He emphatically rejected the Process Theology that was the fashion in those years. "I would rather have my problems with the God who created the world," he wrote, "than solve my problems by trading him in for a God who is being created by the world."

Lew Smedes was a theologian who sought the face of God rather than the facts of God. And that is the point of this book. The book's title is ironic. "My God and I" is also the name of a Latvian song that celebrates the sweetness of divine-human communion: "My God and I walk through the fields together. We walk and talk as good friends should and do." This was Smedes's goal, but a goal he never realized. Other Christians had it. He didn't. And that pained him deeply.

As a youth, Smedes believed he must be one of the reprobate. Once he shed his belief that God predestined some people to damnation, he lived with a melancholy conviction that God probably didn't really like him. What made Smedes's life with God bearable was his wife's faith. "One reason that I have clung to my veiled God is that my transparent wife has clung to me… . Walking with God has been for me inseparable from walking with Doris."

She seems to have been the perfect wife for this neurotic theologian: "She was too smart to try to convince me that I was really a fine fellow; her method was to persuade me that if I had to be the kind of nut who gets a kick out of beating on his own soul, I should resign myself to my own wackiness and trust that God has grace for fools as well as for sinners."

My God and I is a sad book, because even in his later years, Smedes was looking for an experience of God. A chapter near the end of the book is titled, "God and I, Almost Friends." He made it a goal of retirement to deepen his friendship with God, but seven years after leaving the classroom, he wrote, "God and I are still not what you would call close friends. What is taking us so long?" And yet, this frustrated hope was framed in gratitude—even down to his gratitude to God for his antidepressant. "God … comes to me each morning and offers me a 20-milligram capsule of Prozac. With this medication he clears the garbage that accumulates in the canals of my brain overnight and gives me a chance to get a fresh morning start."

This account of Smedes's unfulfilled search for God's face should give comfort to melancholic Christians who cannot see their own reflections in the warm and joyous communion described by more upbeat believers. For Lew Smedes was without a doubt an authentic follower of Jesus. And knowing God as we are known by God is, after all, reserved for eternity.

One fruit of Smedes's authentic faith was his ability to be a bridge person. Among his Calvinist co-religionists, Smedes found people of the gap and people of the bridge, believers who focused on the chasm created by doctrinal and behavioral differences with others and believers who felt compelled to bridge that gap. When Harper published Smedes's first book on forgiveness in 1986, he was featured on talk shows and the book sold briskly in secular bookstores. It was the wisdom of a bridge person who, for all his searching for God, nevertheless had God's heart for reconciliation. Unfortunately, his impulse for reconciliation sometimes outran his wisdom, as when late in life he urged his church to find a way to compromise with the needs of gay couples just as it had earlier adjusted to the realities of divorce.

Lew Smedes's theology was never tidy, but his heart was true. Though he never felt a friend of God, he was always a minister of reconciliation. And he was precisely the kind of person you would want to spend eternity with.

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