Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Notes: Battles Christians Face by Vaughan Roberts

This is a great little book about the battles of the Christian life, it is helpful, pastorally gentle, wise and encouraging. The simple style of language and argument does not mean that the author hasn't wrestled with the issues involved, the extensive footnotes and poignant quotations are one of several giveaways that these short chapters are but the summary-conclusions of a great weight of thought and scholarly engagement, as well as personal experience. Indeed, although I have an early edition of the book, I have read that in the fifth anniversary edition Roberts explains that the selections of issues he addresses in this publication are not random or arbitrary - but are his biblical response to his own personal struggles in the Christian life over several decades.

The opening chapter looks at 'image', which Roberts notes is a problem in western society today in an historically and culturally unique way. The very idea of  projecting or choosing an image would be so alien to most humans that this issue is one of our own making, The author spends much of this chapter exploring how and why we struggle with this issue before turning to the Bible's alternative - which is to see ourselves as God does in Christ. That is to say, adopted, forgiven, renewed and His.

The book then turns to the issue of lust, examining how this fault is a distortion of the God-given sexual drive which was meant for good but when misused can cause much harm. Roberts draws lessons from the fall of King David in the Bible, and looks at ways in which Christians should handle their desires in Godly ways. Next he examines the thorny issue of guilt, arguing that genuine Christian faith is tied to the experience of being forgiven by God, and cleansed from sin. Roberts shows how Christians weighed down by guilt should not try to excuse or justify their sins, but have them dealt with by our gracious God.

The chapter on doubt is a real highlight of the book. Roberts neatly distinguishes between doubt (questioning the truth of an aspect of the faith), and "unbelief" which in the Bible is the wilful, sinful decision to turn from God. He notes that while several of the Biblical authors are scornful of unbelief, Jesus dealt very compassionately with genuine doubters who came to him, like Thomas. There is great pastoral advice in here for honest, genuine, handling of doubt - which every Christian with an enquiring mind experiences. His chapter on depression is fascinating too, opening up and responding to an all pervasive issue. He looks at the basis of Christian hope in a depressing world, tells stories of Christians who have wrestled with depression - and importantly de-stigmatises the condition with frank acceptance of its existence, and all too frequent occurrence.

Pride is seen in this book as the foundational sin of all the others - and the chapter on Christlike humility is helpful. Roberts' chapter on homosexuality will no doubt be the most controversial part of this book. He is one of those who believes that God loves gay people but prohibits all homo-erotic practice, drawing his thinking from the Bible. The chapter doesn't just talk about the Biblical prohibitions however, but talks about pastoral care for people who experience same-sex attraction within the Christian community. He wades into the furore about the ex-gay movement and seeks to frame all his comments within a gospel-centred world view in which this life is not the be-all-and-end all. Roberts has clearly laboured over these issues at great length, and it was when he subsequently noted that all the struggles in this book were his own that the reasons for this became clear. He discusses his own situation at greater length in this interview: CLICK HERE.

The book finishes with a call to ongoing spiritual health, in which Roberts talks openly about times he has struggled to maintain his own prayer-life, bible-reading, and closeness to God. He talks about strategies which have worked for him in the quest to maintain the kind of spiritual life we all crave.

The strengths of this book are the honesty with which it is written, the simple easy-to-read language, and the way in which the author consistently points Christians to ground themselves in the grace of God in Christ. The brevity of the book does leave a few questions unanswered (it's a popular book, not a scholarly tome), and the list of "battles" could be seen as a bit arbitrary; nevertheless if a particular sin of yours such as 'sloth', or 'gossip' isn't given  chapter here, there are plenty of principles which can be applied.

This is a down-to-earth, practical guide to living out the Christian faith in the face of many of the pressures which the modern world hurls against it. I was freshly challenged by it, but actually wish that books with this kind of disarming humility had been around when I was a young adult.

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