I had a rough engagement with the church early on. It set me on a path of trying to find God without having “anything to do with his followers,” between the age of 18 and 29. When I did come eventually to understand the meaning of Christianity on a personal level for the first time, it was through the relationship I had with a friend with whom I used to party in college.He had become a Christian, then a missionary to Afghanistan, became sick in the field, and was reassigned to a field office that was in the same city I had recently moved to. Only because my friend asked me to come “look for churches with me” was I in the room when the pastor of the church we were visiting got up and asked the congregation to forgive him for something he had said the week before, for which he was feeling conviction.
I was stunned. The last time I had any close contact with my pastor, he had made me make a public confession of sin to my youth group. Now here I was, 11 years later, about to fall out of my pew.
Up to that point, I thought pastors only forced other people to say “I am sorry.” Having a pastor as forgiveness of his congregation was a reset for me. It messed with me on a profound level! I couldn’t stay where I was, spiritually. My ideas about Christianity and what I believed was reasonable to expect from the church were both right and wrong in ways I needed much more growth and learning to understand.
In his book Renovated, Jim Wilder cites talks by Dallas Willard given at a conference just before Dallas passed away. Dallas felt that a book reconceptualizing Gospel-grounded salvation as “attachment love” was necessary, but he did not live to write it with Jim Wilder.
Jim Wilder uses the concept of “hesed” which is a transliteration of a Hebrew word often translated as “steadfast love” as a grounding point for re-configuring the understanding of what love should look like in the Church. In other words, Jim is making the argument that when one comes to understand our relationship to God as an attachment relationship, everything we thought we knew about a relationship with both God and others will change.
Jim quotes Dallas Willard early in the book as having said “Psychology is the care of souls. The care of souls was once the province of the church, but the church no longer provides that care…the most important thing about the care of souls is that you must love them.” (3)
One of the main Scripture passage foundations of Renovated is Matthew 22:36-40, which reads as follows:
Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
Most of us who are at all familiar with commonly quoted passages from the Gospels have heard this before. But how do we do it? And how do we know we are doing it well? The negative version of this question is also relevant: how can people go to church every Sunday hearing passages about love as profound as this, and treat each other, and others, like they do? How do so many people miss the meaning?
In another passage in Matthew, Jesus pushes the envelope even further. Look at Matthew 5:43-48:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
Now we have opened the can of worms all the way! How is one to ever meet this standard? How are we to ever love to this degree and extent? It is safe to say (for reasons I won’t take the time or space to unpack here) that this is impossible to do so on our own. Without attachment love for, and inspiration from God, we will never get there, nor will we get there outside of relationship.
Jim and Dallas both focus on emotional wounds in this book, and how these early wounds, sustained in childhood sometimes even before we can verbally articulate the damage, affect the formation of both character and identity.
Jim Wilder is articulating Dallas Willard’s position in this book that “reconciling the church’s practices to how the brain works” is “our topic for this book.” (7). Again, I wish I had more space to articulate the underlying nuances that would make more sense of such a statement.
I think it is worth taking the time to talk about what it was like for me to read this book. Let me start by saying, at first, that I struggled with the writing style. I also at times struggled with Jim Wilder trying to articulate a new philosophy of Christian relationship. Even with my Philosophy and Counseling degrees, I sometimes had to re-read passages, concluding more than once early on that the book was “not very well written.”
I wonder now if this is true. As I read the book, I started noticing subtle but profound changes in the way I was perceiving myself and others. I started seeing my reactions of annoyance and occasional emotional distancing that surface during one of “those conversations” with my wife as not necessarily coming from her, but from the way that I viewed myself in relationship to her.
One afternoon about a third of the way through the book, I saw how Jim Wilder’s articulation of the importance of community in the process of emotional healing rooted in Gospel reorientation applied to my own heart and struggles.
I often generate and run with the thought that “I am on my own, and no one will understand me or come to help me.” I was able to progressively see that this thought and the accompanying emotions of sadness, anger, shame, and fear did not begin with what my wife had just said.
I had been carrying the belief of not having “a people” around since before I can remember. Seeing this makes offering it to the Father possible, and that brings release, healing, and the beginning of growing a new concept of God, self, and others.
Most importantly, it gave a renewed understanding of dependence and the goodness of inability to do it on our own. Maybe I should rephrase that and say the goodness of knowing that I cannot do it on my own.
It’s good to see thinkers like Jim Wilder prayerfully trying to find a common ground between the best of what neuroscience and biblical exegesis have to offer. I was trained as a counselor in a similar setting (at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis) where I had the benefit of learning how to counsel in an environment that carefully integrated brain science and solid theological grounding.
I sense the same care in Renovated, and for that I am grateful. I recommend this book to both practitioners and clients. Come to it with a prayerful and open mind, and I am sure you will walk away with something that makes you glad you spent your time reading this book.
If at any point you think you could benefit from talking to someone, or from walking through the insights gained from this material with someone empathic and well-trained, I or any of the other counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling would love to meet with and serve you.
“Love Your Neighbor”, Courtesy of Nina Strehl, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Climb”, Courtesy of Fons Heijnsbroek, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of Jack Sharp, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Victory”, Courtesy of Jude Beck, Unsplash.com, CC0 License