This Summer just gone, in our church’s postgraduate group, we read a book together and discussed it each week. It was an excellent book by the former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, called How God Became King and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, you can find it at the link below.
However, this book had been decided upon via a democratic process whereby the group voted on a number of different books that were nominated by the members in order to decide on which one to read through together for the Summer. I nominated two other books, neither of which won the vote. Naturally, I was extremely annoyed and embittered that neither of my two nominations were ultimately selected (well, maybe a little bit…). So I secretly resolved that I would post online a short review of each one along with some quotations in the hope of showing people what they had missed out on by not voting for one of my chosen books and enticing people to read them for themselves.
In all seriousness, I am posting a review of this particular book (first) and some quotations from it because I honestly think it is important and people need to read it. I’ve mentioned it before in my testimony about my Christian faith and it’s had a huge influence both on me generally and the way that I approach Theology. This book is the most inspiring (non-fiction) book I have ever yet come across apart from the Bible.
If you a person of Christian faith, you may have heard of another book by the same authors called The Heavenly Man
The Heavenly Man is basically the story of a Chinese church leader known as Brother Yun, still alive today, who claims to have experienced numerous supernatural acts of God in his life and has been a part of the massive underground growth of the Christian church in China that has been taking place in recent times. In The Heavenly Man he testifies to having seen such things as, to choose one example, the instantaneous healing of his two broken legs by God, precipitating his miraculous escape from a high-security prison where he had been put by the Chinese government for being a church leader.
Crazy, right? If you are a person of faith, you might believe that such things are possible. Even if you are, you might still struggle to believe them. If you do struggle, or if you aren’t a person of faith, I would encourage you to read that book first and at least make up your own mind as to whether Yun and his editor Paul Hattaway are telling the truth. Just another band of con-artists, or something more? These are contemporary, first-hand witness accounts of multiple miracles in line with the New Testament historical witness. To my mind, if their reports are veridical they are extremely exciting. Should they be ruled out a priori or are they worth investigating, if only for curiosity’s sake?
Anyway, I am not talking here about that book. The book I am talking about is not the biography aboutYun, but the collection of his own sermons and teachings composed by him, known Living Water, published by Zondervan and available from all good bookshops as well as on kindle.
Obnoxious eye-catching, attention-grabbing, in-your-face blog-title aside, if you are a person of Christian faith, I would say to you, you should really read this book! And if you are not a person of Christian faith, I would say to you, you should still read it, and what do you think?
Before I talk about the specific content of the book, a couple of disclaimers. First of all, I should say that, though I admire Brother Yun and his teachings, I do not claim at all to be like him or to be someone who lives strongly in step with what he says. One of the reasons that I like the book so much is because it excites me and challenges me more than any other non-fiction book I have read apart from the Bible. This is the kind of book that, when I read it, makes me put it down and start praying, makes me read the Bible more carefully and excitedly, and makes me go out and do things about my faith, rather than just sitting around talking about it.
Second disclaimer. In the frontmatter Zondervan say that they are happy to permit “brief quotations in printed reviews” from the book without their permission. I suppose that’s kind of subjective and I don’t know if what I will replicate here counts as “brief”, but seeing as I’m basically replicating it with a view to encouraging people to read the book for themselves, I hope they won’t mind too much. If anyone from Zondervan does come across this then just let me know.
So enough waffle, what’s so inspiring about this book, why do I think it’s so great and that you need to read it?
I think the main reason the book is so inspiring to me as a person of Christian faith in the West is because, being written by a church leader from the far East who has experienced much more dynamic church growth and ‘revival’, it comes as a breath of fresh air or a gulp of clear water. In particular it’s hard-hitting, down-the-line and cuts out all the crap. Yun is not afraid to pull his punches.
This is probably most evident in his critique of the Christian church in the West, or much of the Christian church in the West. Perhaps the most controversial but also compelling of his messages is his severe critique of much of the Western church, which is offensive but which also resonates with me. Perhaps most central to this is his diagnosis of what he sees as the major problem with the struggling Christian church in the West today, which also happens to tie in with the title of the book. Yun writes
“I want to share with you the key secret for how Christians can experience a continual flow of living water in their lives. In my opinion, this key is the one major thing missing in the Western church and among sections of the body of Christ in other parts of the world.
The answer to experiencing God’s living water is not to seek more and more Bible teaching.
The answer is not to attend more Christian conferences or to seek new ministers and new messages.
Please listen carefully. The key for experiencing the flow of God’s living water in your life is…
Most Christians I have met in the Western world have plenty of Bible knowledge, but they do not experience the living water flowing from their lives because of their disobedience.
God doesn’t want you to know everything and to do nothing.
He would you rather you know a little and act on that little in obedience, and then He will give you more.”
He immediately clarifies that he does not mean by obedience signing up for more church programs or performing more ‘Christian activities’, but rather a complete surrender to Christ that entails a willingness to do anything and everything for him, an everyday, personal, grace-enabled obedience to the scriptural commands of Christ.
A part of what Yun believes this involves is, rather than just sitting around inside church buildings learning how to be a ‘better Christians’, getting out into the streets, serving people in their own context and taking Christ’s message and love to them instead of just waiting for them to come to us, just like he did. I find these passages absolutely riveting and convicting:
“Centuries ago Christians built remote monasteries in the mountains to help them get away from people and supposedly avoid the ‘contamination’ of the world. Today in Protestant circles the same thinking prevails in a different guise. It results in a stream of believers only equipped to play spiritual games inside the safety of their church walls, but totally ill prepared when they have to leave their Christian environment and interact with real people in the outside world. This is tragic.”
Related to this is Yun’s criticism of the West’s endless construction of church buildings!
“I have also bluntly told the leaders of [many Western] churches, ‘For centuries you have been busy constructing expensive church buildings, but now there are fewer and fewer people coming to them. Something must have gone totally wrong.’ What has gone wrong is that…over time Christianity became something to be practised inside a building instead of being a pulsating, life-transforming encounter with the living God that spills over and impacts the unsaved world. Christians have stopped having true faith in Jesus and have learned to rely on their pastors or priests. Unless the Western church returns to its biblical roots, it will continue its downward slide to irrelevance and oblivion.”
Another of his views that stems from this conviction that the Western church is missing direct, daily obedience to Christ is his opinion of academia. As an academic theologian, first as an undergraduate and Master’s student and now as a DPhil candidate, I find his take on academic theology absolutely refreshing and very helpful for framing a healthy perspective on my own work:
“Every time I am asked to speak at a Bible school or seminary,” says Yun, “I tell the students that they need to get out of their chairs and go to the needy people in the streets outside. I always plead with the faculty of these institutions to go into the society and interact with people. Alas, almost all of these schools only seem interested in educating believers in how to exist inside of their church buildings.”
Elsewhere he says, I find very pertinently,
“In the West, especially, the gospel has been intellectualised to such an extent that there is almost no mention of true faith and trust in Jesus anymore. Academic qualifications and speaking ability are held in high regard, while spiritual maturity, character and the call of the Holy Spirit have been relegated in importance and largely consigned to being irrelevant when it comes to God’s work…A university degree has never been a prerequisite for missionary activity. Certainly secular qualifications may help a Christian who has been led by the Holy Spirit to obtain them, but what counts most is a call from God and a heart of passion for the Lord Jesus.”
Boom! If I or anyone else accumulate degrees, they can only ever be tools for the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than ends-in-themselves or qualifications on which to found artificial self-esteem and identity –at the end of time before the throne of God they will be worth absolutely squat diddly and the relevant question will be useful they were for making known Christ and his love.
This outlook on academic qualifications in turn feeds in to Yun’s take on many of the leaders of the Western church, who he believes
“feed their flocks not from the reservoir of God’s living water, but from the dark cisterns of dead theological training and human reasoning. No wonder so many Christians are spiritually sick and constipated! Christians who have received visions and dreams to serve God soon lose their focus in such a cruel environment.”
But Yun’s rebuke to many Western church leaders cuts far deeper than that. In passages which are severe but heartfelt, he points out what he feels to be the key problem with many of the church’s leaders in the West, which is that instead of seeking to serve and sacrifice themselves for those in their care, they instead seek to command, control and rule over them.
As a result, Yun thinks,
“One of the most poisonous influences on many of God’s people today is that they are not allowed to participate actively in the body of Christ. Millions of sheep are told to sit in pews each Sunday and listen to speeches made by professional clergy. As each week passes, the listeners become more and more entrenched in their pews, and the pastors end up performing Old Testament roles that are no longer valid…Perhaps the most dangerous dynamic in churches today is the division between the ‘clergy’ and the ‘laity’. This can lead to two separate classes amongst God’s people –something that grieves the heart of the father. Although most pastors and ministers I know are simply people who love God and seek to serve Him, a church dynamic may exist whereby leaders are elevated above other believers. This is a terrible path to tread. It results in the current proliferation of weak, spoon-fed believers who never or rarely lead anyone to faith in Christ.”
As a final category of passages, which also bear relevance for my thinking as a theologian, there is what he has to say about the miraculous i.e. the supernatural work of God in the present day, something which he has (or claims to have, if you’re not with me yet on this) experienced much of himself:
“When you present the gospel to somebody, it needs to come with a demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit. This may occur in a variety of different ways, such as through a healing, or a word of knowledge about a person’s life, or the working of another gift. The demonstration of God’s power convinces unbelievers that the message is true and that Jesus is alive today! When the power of the gospel is truly demonstrated, only the most hard-hearted of people are unwilling to respond to the claims of Christ upon their lives.”
“Miracles and signs and wonders are not just for within the walls of your church building. No! They are to be demonstrated among the people, in the marketplace, on the bustling city streets, and in the homes of those who are trapped in darkness. This is where Jesus and the disciples did most of their miracles.”
“No wonder so many churches today are spiritually bound! No wonder you don’t see miracles like in the New Testament. Realising the true presence of Jesus Christ is absent from their meetings, many churches try to artificially manufacture the life of the Holy Spirit through the use of loud and emotional music or a myriad of other techniques.”
I could go on, and end up quoting the whole book. Suffice to say, there is lots more that Yun has to say and if you find the above as stirring and challenging as I do then I highly recommend you read the whole book –and if you don’t then I still recommend that you read it and that you give him a chance!
I’ll end with two final quotations that smack me square between the eyes, as food for thought.
“This is the problem with many believers today. They are trying to follow the Lord, but they have never truly repented and surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ. The result of the false gospel so prevalent today can be seen in churches full of halfhearted Christians whose lives are still centred on selfishness and the principles of the world.”
“Today much Christian activity seems to originate with human plans, and it is then carried out in human strength, with human results. It has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. The world does not need any more religion! It needs Jesus Christ. Religion is people’s attempts to do God’s work in their own strength. Jesus wants us to live and walk in God’s strength.”