Books we love: With

Rev. Julie Raffety reviews Skye Jethani's book about four common perspectives in the American church that try to control God. In contrast, Jethani promotes the goal of having a relationship with God, simply for the joy of God.

After moving the physical copy of With by Skye Jethani from Illinois to New Jersey years ago, something – I’m not sure what – compelled me to finally read it in July. Here are my thoughts.

One of the reviews on the back of this book from Margaret Feinberg reads, “You can’t read this book and not see yourself and others differently!” Of this, I would have to agree. Spoiler alert coming: Jethani’s main premise of the book is that most Christians mistakenly adopt one (or some combination of) four main postures when relating to God. Below are his labels with my interpretations:

  • Life Under God (the bargain): Morality is exchanged for a blessing from God.
  • Life Over God (the dream): A relationship with God is exchanged for divine principles, resulting in practical atheism/deism.
  • Life From God (the inkblot): “God exists to supply what we need/desire.” There is no purpose/explanation for pain.
  • Life For God (the house of despair): Achieving God’s kingdom is an idol. There is a fear of insignificance.

I will admit that the prepositions don’t completely do it for me. I have trouble remembering which preposition goes with which posture. And yet, Feinberg’s review holds true. After reading the book, I found myself applying these God-views to different preaching, teaching and language that I encountered both inside/outside of the church world easily and readily.

Jethani’s overarching premise is that each of these perspectives seeks to gain control (over God) in order to reduce fear in our own lives. I can relate to this personally, and I have seen this frequently as a pastor. If we can control God through strict obedience to “the law,” implement God’s instructions and principles in this world, use God to achieve our desires, and/or gain meaning from our service to God, then we won’t have to be afraid of the unknown. When I reflect on the times I’ve walked with someone through a crisis of faith, almost always one of these core interpretations is to blame. Jethani’s book is specifically geared towards Christians and their mistaken approaches to relating to God. However, the same fears might be said to inform the worldview of the atheist who steps completely outside of God to gain control and repress fear.

In the final chapters, Jethani contrasts these four misguided approaches to God with the relationship approach — life with God. “Life under, over, from, and for God each seeks to use God to achieve some other goal. God is seen as a means to an end … But life with God is different because its goal is not to use God, its goal is God.” In articulating four relatable ways the American church culture relates to God, Jethani then dramatically and successfully conveys how all four of these perspectives fall short of pursuing God.

Admittedly, there are some disconnects in the book. As a single person, I particularly appreciated his recognition that the church often fails to reach over 50% of American households with its focus on its misaligned definition of families being married couples or those with children. However, he undoes his own point towards the end of the book by arguing in the “Life with Love” chapter that our intimate identity shared only with our Creator can only be compared “to the secret knowledge shared between a husband and wife in the loving intimacy of marriage,” once again discrediting and devaluing the experience of the single Christian as lesser or at least unable to fully understand God without marriage on earth.

Secondly, Jethani, a graduate of Trinity Evangelical School, does not stray away from pointing out the tendency of evangelical Christians to be predisposed to adopting the life for God approach. Yet, Jethani uses only male language for God throughout the book, making this a challenging read for a non-male audience who already feels excluded by the church.

Having said all this, more than any book I’ve picked up in the last five years, this book has challenged me to think differently and critically when I encounter people around me and their views on God. I believe it has very real and poignant applications for all who struggle with how to engage and how to connect with God in daily life. To this point, Jethani includes an appendix with some helpful practices for communing or living life with God. I very rarely read a book twice, but this is one that I plan to read again. I highly recommend it for anyone who is struggling in their faith, engaging God in some type of transactional relationship, and/or wondering if there is another way to encounter God in the everyday.