James Bryan Smith believes that our idea of God shapes everything about how we view and engage our world. He also believes that we cannot change our view of God by mere human effort, nor the way we live in light of this. Rather, he believes, having been influenced by Dallas Willard, that transformation comes from God and that we put ourselves in the place where we may experience this through spiritual practices, or soul-training exercises, where God can break in and change us from the inside out.
This is the first in three books in what Smith calls “The Apprentice Series” which is designed to help readers grow in Christ-likeness as their view of God, life, and Christian community are transformed as they encounter Christ. This first book focuses on the God revealed to us in Christ–his goodness, trustworthiness, generosity, love, holiness, self-sacrificing character, and transforming work. The book concludes in reflecting on the slow but certain process by which God transforms us as we continue to follow Christ–likened to the making of pickles!
Each chapter is accompanied by a “Soul Training” exercise. I studied this with a group and we attempted to practice each of these: sleep (everyone loved this one!), silence, counting blessings, praying Psalm 23, lectio divina, margin, reading John’s gospel, solitude, and slowing down. Good, practical direction is giving for each of these. The book also includes a discussion guide for small groups studying it together, which I again found helpful–although this works best in a 90 minute setting which we had to abridge because we were on a 60 minute schedule.
While this book can be read profitably individually, I would recommend getting a group together to work through it together. Not only does this help with actually doing the exercises, but also, the varying experiences of group members make sense of the chapter content, which might not reflect every individual’s experience (we had the experience of some not being able to relate to chapter material, particularly illustrations, until we were together as a group and someone shared how it connected to them).
In this, the book reveals something of a slant to experience and negative experiences of God and church at that. Sadly, there is enough of this to make this approach appealing and helpful to many and perhaps people with such experiences could not read on into the biblical treatment of Christ and God otherwise. For many in the student circles I work in, this approach, coupled with the soul training exercises has been very helpful in breaking through to an understanding of the grace and love of God for them, an experience of forgiveness, and a growing intimacy with God.