Soul Depths Soul Heights

Written 140+ years ago (1874), the Puritan Octavius Winslow's collection of sermons on Psalm 130 is fresh, deep, and timely. 

Winslow walks through Psalm 130 phrase by phrase, following the ardent prayer of a man who is distressed by God's anger against his sin. Winslow follows the earnest penitent turning to God, and longing for forgiveness. The trajectory of the Psalm is upward: depth; prayer; conviction; light; hope; waiting; watching; longing; confidence; assurance; and joy. 

Winslow invites to follow this upward trajectory in our own hearts and is such a faithful and thoughtful guide along the way. There are times when he is surprisingly contemporary: "To look then, within ourselves for spiritual light, joy, and hope, is just as unwise and vain as to put sound for substance" (11). 

The depth of Winslow's pastoral wisdom is profound. To those struggling with the doctrine of election he urges, "You are not called to believe that you are one of the elect; but you are called to believe in Jesus Christ -- that you are a poor, lost sinner, feeling your need of the Saviour, looking only to his blood and righteousness as the ground of your pardon, justification, and final glory. Thus called by grace to be a saint of God, election will become to you one of the most encouraging, comforting, and sanctifying doctrines of the Bible" (15). As such, as deep as we may sink in sin, we are never out of the embrace and hold of Christ. 

Winslow has a heart and eye for the beauty of Christ: "Oh, to learn experimentally these two great facts -- sin's infinite hatefulness and loves' infinite holiness! The love of God in giving his Son to die; the love of Christ in dying; the essential turpitude an unmitigated enormity of sin, which demanded a sacrifice so divine, so holy, and so precious!" (36). In the cross, the grace of Christ has "not only cancelled the built, but it has conquered the power of sin; it has not only deposed, but it has slain the tyrant" (53). 

Read this book, friend, and be encouraged. "Arise from your 'depths', and give yourself to prayer! Lift up your eyes, dim with tears though they be, and gaze upon those sunny heights of divine communion towering above and smiling down upon you, and inviting your ascent. There sits your Father! There ministers your Intercessor!" (127).

Good and Angry

David Powlison’s Good and Angry is a powerful book. In the book Powlison dives deep into what anger is and then gets very practical about how to biblically deal with your own anger issues (issues, he assures us, we all have). 

From the outset, Powlison makes it clear that anger, while dangerous, can be handled to produce good. “At its core anger is very simple,” Powlison says, “It expresses ‘I’m against that’” (39). Powlison says that each of us handles anger differently. Some of us freeze over, some of us quietly brood, some of us simmer, some of us explode. Powlison encourages us not to look at the way others mismanage worse than us, but rather, how do we mismanage anger? Each type has their own blind spots.

Powlison then dives into anger itself. Anger is about our displeasure toward something, so what are we displeased with? And why? How are we justified? Unjustified in our anger? And what do I want to happen? Anger is physiological. As embodied beings, anger manifests itself in us physiologically. How is it impacting me when I’m angry? 

Powlison then dives into mercy, what he calls a constructive displeasure, or constructive anger. When the constructive displeasure of mercy is functioning as it ought, it has four characteristics: patience (a wonderful biblical synonym of patience is “forbearance”), forgiveness (which is “mercifully unfair” (80)), charity (a spirit of magnanimity), and constructive conflict (“Mercy is not a free pass. It is an invitation to turn and repent” (94). All of these fundamentally point to the work of God and his righteous response of anger to our rebellion. “The constructive displeasure of mercy means the redemption of the world” (102). Powlison walks through how God’s anger works: through his righteous and holy response to our sin, to him taking his wrath upon his son on the cross. He concludes, “God’s wrath is your hope. God’s wrath is my hope. We don’t often hear that, but it appears everywhere in the Bible. Wrath is our hope because love masters anger” (121).

The final portion of the book steps back and helps us move through analyzing our own anger. Powlison uses James 4:1-12 to help us analyze our own anger issues. At the heart of this analysis is James’s own analysis of his hearer, that they are fighting and quarrelling because of their “desires that battle within” them. In other words, if we have an anger problem (which we all do), we have a malformed desire problem. In other words, we have a heart problem. Significant in digging into this question is the ability to analyze my own motives. The issue isn’t what has happened with me, but is my heart and my heart’s motives and desires in the midst of any given situation. Key questions to ask myself when in a moment of anger are: “what do I want?” “what do I fear?” and “what do I most love?” (154-55). 

Powlison concludes with a strong word of hope. God is in the process of changing us and reshaping our heart. Our problem, Powlison says, is that we tend to talk to the wrong person in the midst of our anger – ourselves. But when we turn and talk to our Good Shepherd, we will experience hope and change. 

I’m so grateful for this book. It is a profoundly biblical and wise book with both subtle and profound insights. I know I have been impacted by the book personally and will both turn to it in the future for personal use and as a resource for others who struggle with anger. 

Visual Theology

Challies and Byers introduce "Visual Theology" by saying, “we live in a visual culture, increasingly relying on infographics and other visuals to help us understand new and difficult concepts.” Challies and Byers are spot on with this need and the first thing that struck me about their book is how aesthetically pleasing its production was. I try to buy as many books as I can via Kindle today, but was glad in retrospect to be unable to purchase this book in that medium. The book is well designed and even the thickness of the pages makes a reader happy.

That said, the title itself is a bit misleading. The book wasn't visual in the way I anticipated nor was it theology in the way I anticipated. Once I re-calibrated my expectations as I read the book I was much happier, but I do wonder if the title will make more readers than just myself surprised by the contents. The visuals are almost mostly word art, with some infographics thrown in. Depending on your tastes, this might be disappointing. It was to me. That isn't to say that some of the art isn't very helpful (Byers infographic on the books of the Bible with information about date of writing and authorship is fantastic, for one), but that at least to me a fair portion didn't inspire or lead me to a deepened understanding as I would have hoped. 

Likewise, Challies's writing (which he fully acknowledges) is not attempting to plunge deep, but rather sweeps through four basic categories of becoming and living as a Christian: (1) Grow Close to Christ, (2) Understand the Work of Christ, (3) Become Like Christ, and (4) Live for Christ. Unsurprisingly given that division (but surprising to me given the title) the book is much more practical and basic than intellectual and historical. 

Far and away my favorite section was found in the first part of "Becoming Like Christ" where Challies as clearly as I've heard anywhere explains how we destroy sin in our lives. It is an excellent practical and succinct contemporization of John Owen's "Of The Mortification of Sin." This section alone makes the book well worth reading and using. 

I hope to use this book (particularly the section just mentioned) in counseling as well as in some introductory classes. Additionally, I hope the book finds its way into the hands of many as a first introduction to practical theology. Finally, I do hope for more books to be written in this vein. I would love to see, for instance, a book where Makoto Fujimura or Bruce Herman partnered with a theologian to provide a more abstract and contemplative take on the same premise.