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Book Review – Your God Is Too Safe

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I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Mark Buchanan’s book Your God Is Too Safe and that I had recently finished The Rest of God. “What’s Buchanan like?” he wanted to know. The best I could do was to suggest that the style and theme of his writing is quite a lot like what he’d find if he read John Eldredge. But unlike Eldredge, Buchanan’s books are actually grounded on some solid theology. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed a book that was endorsed by the likes of Philip Yancey and Eugene Peterson. Yet it is also endorsed by J.I. Packer who says, quite accurately, “Within a framework of biblical orthodoxy, Mark Buchanan’s jabbing insights minister a salutary pastoral shake-up, drawing and driving us sluggards to come closer to our God.”

Buchanan believes that evangelicals have constructed a God of their own making: a God who is too safe. He is a loving God, but a God who is entirely predictable. But the truth is, this God bears little resemblance to the God of Scripture–a God who is entirely unpredictable. We dislike God as He really is, and so we run away from Him like Jonah or hide from Him like Adam. Where we end up when we do this is a place Buchanan calls “borderland,” a strange and safe place that promises nothing and delivers nothing. Your God Is Too Safe is a wake-up call–a call to escape this borderland and live with God in “the holy wild.”

In the first half of the book, Buchanan lays the groundwork, showing how and why we run and hide from God. The primary reason is bad theology: a steady traffic of invented or distorted ideas about God. But “God isn’t nice,” he says. “He isn’t safe. God is a consuming fire. Though he cares about the sparrow, the embodiment of His care is rarely doting or pampering. God’s main business is not ensuring that you and I get parking spaces close to the mall entrance [this was written pre-Osteen too!] or that the bed sheets in the color we want are–miracle!–on sale this week. His main business is making you and me holy. And for those of us who love borderland more than holy ground, whose hearts are more slow than burning, that always requires both the kindness and the sternness of our God.” After suggested that the Catholic cult of Mary arose because of a dark and punishing medieval portrait of God the Father, he challenges evangelicals. “In Protestantism, I think we’ve simply substituted the safe god. But the biting irony is this: Neither the safe god nor the tyrant god are the real God…the true God is far more fierce and fearsome than the bullying and petulant god of our imaginations. But His anger is not irritability: It is the distillation of His justice, His hatred of evil. It is what we would want, even demand, from a good God.” This is a cutting insight and one that challenged me. As Tozer said, we need to take refuge from God, in God.

The second half of the book challenges Christians with spiritual disciplines. “We have to train for the spiritual life. That’s the most lost idea to the world, and it requires whole books and sermon series to establish its value, even its validity.” We need to practice holy habits and to weave these habits deeply into our lives. Like all habits, good, holy habits eventually come to define us and to become our ways. They may be awkward and feel unnatural at the beginning, but they will soon become natural, beautiful and indispensable. The disciplines Buchanan teaches are: practicing the presence of God, understanding the wounds that have inflicted us and allowing God to heal them, confessing sin both to God and to others, solitude, fasting, reading Scripture, service, prayer and delight. Among the better chapters are those dealing with fasting, confession of sin and solitude. Buchanan discusses these without falling into the contemplative, New Age practices that have become far too common in the church today. He provides practical advice on how to proceed in developing such disciplines.

As may be clear by now, Your God Is Too Safe is quite a good book. Buchanan writes with force and conviction and a good deal of urgency. But one concern stayed in the back of my mind throughout the book. While Buchanan’s theology is generally sound, he often quotes those whose theology strays outside that framework of biblical orthodoxy mentioned by Packer. He quotes Philip Yancey on a few occasions and holds up Mother Teresa and Saint Francis as examples of people who have “gotten it.” He portrays Richard Foster as an expert on the spiritual disciplines. When I see people holding up Mother Teresa as the example of Christian virtue I always wonder just how much that person understands about biblical theology. How can a person truly understand justification, and yet hold as an example a person who denied it? Are there not better examples we can use? Do we really feel that Mother Teresa was such a wonderful example of Christian virtue, or is she just the easy and popular example? This was an ongoing disappointment with this book.

Like Wild at Heart, Your God Is Too Safe will not appeal to all Christians (though, unlike Eldredge’s book, this one is targetted at both men and women). My father, for instance, cannot tolerate terms like “the holy wild” or “woundedness” or “brokenness” and would get little enjoyment from this book. But for those who enjoyed the style of Wild at Heart but objected to the content, Your God Is Too Safe may have appeal. However, I would not recommend it in place of a book such as Don Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (my review) – a book that will provide a more consistently biblical framework in developing and enjoying the spiritual disciplines. Buchanan’s book is good. It is challenging. But it is not the strongest, most Scriptural treatment of the topic.

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