Dying to Be Right: a book review

Efrem Smith was a sought after voice in the denomination I’ve served as pastor in (Evangelical Covenant Church). He planted Sanctuary, a multicultural/multiethnic church in Minnesota. Later he was a conference superintendent for the Pacific Southwest. These days he’s the teaching pastor at Bayside Midtown Church in Sacramento, California,  and the president of World Impact, an urban-missions program which trains the urban poor in mission and helps them to launch indigenous church plants. He is also the author of several books

efremsoftlySmith’s new book, Killing Us Softly describes what it means to die to ourselves and live for God’s kingdom. How are we killed? God kills us (our egos and selfish desires) softly with his steadfast love and grace. In his introduction Smith opens up about his own experience of this sort of spiritual death, “I am allowing God to do surgery on my soul—to kill me, certainly, but to do it softly, lovingly—so that I might die to the upside-down world we find ourselves in, and be empowered to live as a right-side-up child of God. I am living in the messiness of God removing things in me that are not of him so that I might reflect him more each day” (xiv).

The first chapter of the book describe our upside-down-ness of our bizarro world. Things in our culture are not the way God intended because of the reality of sin. Smith observes that sin is both an individual and systemic reality (8). We live the upside-down life of idolatry—”our hearts and worship turned away from God toward other things” (10) The result is fragmentation. We are broken in our relationships to others (i.e. racism, tribalism, sexism) and our institutions are also broken (government systems, schools, economic systems, corporations, etc).

In the chapters that follow, Smith describes the church as the right-side-up remnant(chapter 2);  Christ as  the ‘right side up way, truth and life'(chapter 3); what in us needs to die to set our hearts right (chapter 4); the paradox of Christian maturity (or what it means to have a child like faith, chapter 5); how we advance God’s kingdom through love (chapter six) and what it means to join in God’s mission to set the world right side up (chapter seven).

In this short book Smith gives us a broad overview of the life of discipleship—what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. He discusses the upside-down-ness of our world, and because he includes a category for systemic sin, he is able to speak directly to fallen institutions and systemic problems (like the incarceration and wrongly death of black people at the hands of police, and deaths of police officers). He challenges Christians to share the love of Jesus with the world, and  to see justice as part of our mission to welcome the kingdom and set the world to rights.

Smith tells stories from ministry, initiatives he’s been a part of to love neighbors and restore communities. He offers an inspiring and pastoral vision of what it means to join our life with Christ and become part of his mission. It is compelling.  I also appreciate that Smith places ‘dying to yourself’ motif under the rubric of God’s gracious work in us. This helps me understand it as something healthier and more fruitful than mere self-loathing. It is about submitting to God’s work in our heart. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Tyndale in exchange for my honest review

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