book reviews

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books.  A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured.  The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between!  Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

New Growth Press (February 1, 2012)

***Special thanks to Rick Roberson, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***


William P. Smith, M.Div., Ph.D., is the director of counseling at Chelten Baptist Church, Dresher, Pa., the author of the book Caught Off Guard: Encounters with the Unexpected God; and the minibooks How Do I Stop Losing It with My Children?; How to Love Difficult People?; Should We Get Married?; Starting Over; When Bad Things Happen; and Who Should I Date?.  Bill is regularly invited to speak at other churches and lead weekend retreats. He and his wife, Sally, are the parents of three very active children.

Visit the author’s website.


Distance. Resentment. Avoidance. You want to love your family, your neighbors, and your coworkers well. But something goes wrong when you reach out to them, and you find yourself tearing down the relationships you wanted to build. Are you doomed to repeat this cycle forever?

For most of us, certain unhealthy reactions feel natural and even inevitable. Unconsciously, we cling to what 1 Peter 1:18 calls the “empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers.”

But you are not doomed to repeat this cycle, according to William P. Smith, since Jesus came to redeem his people from such things. The destructive relationship patterns you learned before you met Christ no longer need to control how you live and interact with others. Instead, you can exchange the empty ways for new ones that promote deep unity and peacefulness—patterns that create satisfying and God-honoring relationships. A rich, practical relationship with Jesus enables you to develop rich, practical relationships with others in spite of your brokenness and theirs. Through Christ, you no longer have to do what you have always done. In short, you can learn to love well.

Product Details:

List Price: $15.99

Paperback: 304 pages

Publisher: New Growth Press (February 1, 2012)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1936768291

ISBN-13: 978-1936768295


I n t r o d u c t i o n

Escaping an Empty Way of Life

I stood outside, shivering in the cold, “talking” to God.  Venting would be the more honest description. I had  just thrown down  the papers  I was working on and stalked out of the room  after unloading on  one  of my children, who  had  been  repeatedly interrupting me every few minutes. My parting words were, “I am so frustrated right now.  It doesn’t  matter what  I say or  do,  you  don’t  get it. It doesn’t matter if I speak gently to you. It doesn’t matter if I ignore you.  It doesn’t matter if I explode!  You just keep coming.  I don’t know what to do with you.”

I hate those times. I have no interest in verbally bashing my kids, making them feel like I’m never satisfied with them.  And yet, I also don’t  want  them  to  grow  up  believing  that  the  world  is all about them.  What  I’d just  done  wasn’t  terribly  loving  (I get that),  but  in that  moment I didn’t  have any idea what  else to do,  so I ended  up doing something that  broke  down  the relationship instead of building it.

Ever been there?  That  place  where,  despite  the  fact  that  you really do want  to love the people  around you,  somehow it all goes south?  Either you do something to shred the friendship or you face something you don’t know how to handle. You’ve tried everything you do know, and nothing seems to help. As a pastoral counselor, I have lots of friends who share those feelings.

Friends like Tasha and Maurice. Tasha  is unhappy with  her job and  would  really  rather stay  home  with  the  baby,  only  they  can’t afford  to have her do that. So every time she comes home, she com- plains to Maurice about how bad work was.

Maurice, however, doesn’t know what to do with her complaints. His preferred role of being the funny, lighthearted guy just doesn’t seem to work like it used to with her. So he prefers  to switch on the TV during  dinner  and  watch  it into  the night,  or play  card  games with her, or do some other  activity that safely insulates  him from an intimidating conversation.

She likes him, but feels alone and abandoned. So guess what she does about her loneliness?  She complains about it, adding it to the complaints about her job.  And when  she complains, he feels more helpless  and  confused, so  he  finds  new  ways  to  ignore  her.  And ’round and ’round they go. You wouldn’t say he’s a bad man or she’s a miserable woman, but they don’t know how to engage each other in a helpful way.

Most  of the time,  my friends  and  I don’t  set out  trying  to hurt anyone, especially those we really care about. We’re relational creatures, made in the image of the great communal, three-in-one God. We long for relationships. Intentionally undermining our closest relationships would be counterproductive to our whole nature and desire.  And yet we do just that.  We watch them slip through our fingers—or worse, we see ourselves actively poisoning them simply by doing what feels right in the moment.

Because  you’ve picked  up  this  book,  you  probably know  what broken  relationships feel  like.  You see yourself   damaging your closest  friendships  or  not  knowing  how  to  bring  healing   when someone  else harms  them.  Sometimes these unhealthy patterns and reactions can feel so natural that you don’t even think about how they came about. You  might  not  even  realize  how  many  of them you’ve adopted from  other  people.  You may only be aware that, in the moment, the strategy seems to get you what you want.

Patrice pulls away from situations she doesn’t like by withdrawing from people and refusing to talk to them.  Her reaction makes complete sense when you learn that for her whole life she witnessed her father controlling her mother with the silent treatment. You probably wouldn’t be too surprised to discover that  this was the example  he  had  while  growing  up  in  his  home.  Each generation learned how to relate to others from the generation before, even if those ways soured the closest relationships they had.

We are all fully responsible for the ways we mistreat each other, and we have all learned from the bad examples we’ve had.  Nature (your  own  sinful inclinations) and  nurture (the things  you’ve experienced  from  others)  join  forces  to  undermine your  relationships. They produce what the apostle Peter refers to as “the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18, NIV).

Some people  have more  “empty way of life” quotient than  others, but every person  has embraced a legacy of emptiness—patterns of relating  that  seem right  in the moment, but  that  ultimately tear friendships apart. These patterns are truly insane.  What else can you call it when you repeatedly engage your children, spouse, parents, or friends in the same destructive ways even though you realize you’re driving them away?

For someone like Patrice, the empty ways she deals with are primarily identified by the ongoing presence of evil. People in those positions experienced an aggressive negative relational style and had to react to it.  Some become comfortable adopting the model as their own by taking the junkyard dog approach. They relate to others with the belief that, “If what wins arguments and protects me in this family is being loud, sarcastic, or insulting, then I will be the loudest, meanest, most caustic person in the room!” Others who have no interest in competing at that level develop self-protective strategies that keep everyone else at arm’s length.

Empty ways of life, however, are not always defined by the active presence of evil. Just as often they are characterized by the absence of positive elements that would foster healthy relationships.

Nick’s wife noted that his parents essentially ignored him after providing for his physical needs. Robert’s family was more extreme. He didn’t know what a hug felt like growing up.  No one touched in his family nor wanted to.  They didn’t own a couch, only a collection of individual chairs.  Walking through his living room daily reinforced the relational message “you are on your own in this life.” That lack of physical connection mirrored the lack of intimacy at all other levels. Little wonder that these men struggled to know how to connect with their wives and kids.

Other families are not as dramatic in their dysfunction but still leave out many crucial relational elements.  Some people never heard a parent say “I’m sorry; please forgive me.” Others don’t know what it is to hear “I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m so glad to see you!” Still others didn’t experience someone pursuing them, inviting them back to relationship when they’d strayed, or simply affirming their feeling that life isn’t very nice sometimes.

Without experiencing a healthy  way of relating  in your  life, it’s really  hard  to know  it’s even missing,  much  less that  it’s an essential element  to give someone  else. The absence of positive relational interactions gets passed on just as surely as the presence of negative patterns.

Spend just a little bit of time with God’s people and you’ll quickly learn that empty ways of life abound even in the middle of the redeemed community. Small home fellowship groups don’t know how to  embrace  the  quirky  single guy who  comes  for  a few weeks,  so he quietly  drops  off the  radar. Warring factions break out in the congregation over what style of music we sing or how we decorate the building. Elders approach their congregation with a heavy hand or back way off with no hand.  Leaders fail, like they have all the way back to Noah, and no one knows how to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

People  are  lured  into  church  by  hearing  the  language  of  intimacy, authenticity, and genuineness, but when they experience their absence,  they are left feeling even more hurt  than  before.  They had hoped finally to find a safe place where they could experience being loved, only to realize that Christians are not really all that good at it. Instead of being welcomed and embraced, often they can end up isolated and alone.

So they walk away discouraged and cynical— with good reason.

Does any of this resonate with your own experience? Over the past twenty-five years of professional and volunteer ministry, I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t struggle at some point in his or her relationships.

Maybe you find yourself undermining the relationships that are most important to you. Or  maybe  someone  else is hurting you and you don’t  know  how  to invite that  person  to something better. Or maybe you just find your relationships stagnate and don’t grow richer.

If that’s you, you’re not alone.  And you don’t have to settle for these empty ways of life. You can exchange those patterns for others that promote deep unity and peacefulness—patterns that offer a satisfying and rich relationship to the people around you.

In short, you can learn to love well.

Jesus Loves us out of Emptiness

Peter draws  our attention to the empty ways of life only in order  to highlight  that  we have  been  redeemed  from  them  by the  precious blood  of Christ  (1 Peter  1:18–19). God  cares  about the hold  these destructive patterns have  on  you,  and  he made  a way  to  free you from  them.  They don’t have to control how you live and react in your relationships.

Now  you  may  expect  me to fill the rest  of this  book  with  lists of helpful  hints  and  biblical  principles for maximizing the positive things  and  minimizing the negatives  in your  relationships. But escaping an empty way of life does not rely on principles—it relies on a person. And not just a person  who  comes and  does things  for you or is an example  outside  of you,  but  a person  who  comes and relates  to you.

I’m afraid  that  too  many  times  we hold  up  Jesus as though he were simply a model  of brilliant living—one  who  would  inspire  us to live a holy life in the same way that we extol the virtues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln,  Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.  The problem with that thinking is that models alone are un- able to make you want to follow their example. They point out the way for you to go, but they don’t empower you to walk down that path.  They might inspire you, but inspiration alone is not enough to actually move you.

Over  the years I have heard  a number of great  stories  of people who have done amazing  things or overcome  incredible obstacles—a father  who  enters  marathons, pushing  his wheelchair-bound son; a married couple  who  adopts 19  children  with  special  needs  over the  course  of their  lifetime;  or  the  concert  musician  who  plays  at Carnegie  Hall  because  of the countless  hours  of practice  she spent with  her instrument. Those examples are stirring. Inwardly I cheer for those people and wish them the best.

Though I am inspired by their stories, however, my own lifestyle has not changed in the least.  It takes far more than inspiration to escape an empty way of life. I’ve not  yet been  driven  by these  examples  to take  up jogging,  adopt even one child,  or pick up an instrument. They truly are praiseworthy examples, but they’re outside of me. Therefore, by themselves, they are insufficient to move me.

Jesus is different. His  examples  of  loving  and  serving  are  not things  that  happen outside  of me–things I dispassionately observe. Far from being an uninvolved spectator to his reconciling work, I’m a recipient of his gracious actions. He is my example, but he is also my experience. In experiencing him,  I not  only develop  a personal sense of what  he calls me to,  but  I also gain  the power  to live out that  calling with others.

God  understands that  you don’t  always  know  how  to love people, so he does not  insist you figure out  how  to bootstrap yourself into  relationships.  Instead, he makes sure you already know exactly what love is before he requires you to love others. As the apostle  John put it, “In this  is  love,  not  that  we  have  loved God,  but  that  he loved  us . . . if God so loved us, we also ought  to love one another” (1  John  4:10 –11,  in  larger context of vv.  7–21). It’s only after having been loved that you respond with love. You love him back, and you reach out to share with others a tiny portion of the love that you yourself have received.

In my relationship with  God,  what’s  always  been  most  important  is the quality  of his love for me, not the quality  of my love for him.  It’s only as the reality  of his love becomes  my present  experience that  I will be more concerned about expressing my love to others than  insisting  they express  theirs for me.

Too often I get this order backward with my children, like when I blew up at my child earlier. Those are the days when I keep careful track of all the ways it seems they don’t care nearly enough about me. I become  consumed with how they don’t consider  the pressures of my schedule  when  they want  me to chauffeur them  to their  next sports  game  or  to  the  store.  I grumble about how they don’t respect my property as they trample through the garden or slam the doorknob through the drywall. And I fume over how they’re more interested in my money than my friendship. I confess, I have a hard time being greeted at the door after a long, hard day with “Hi, Daddy—can I have my allowance?”

In those  moments, I get caught  believing  that  what  most  needs to change  in my family is them.  They need to be more considerate, more respectful, and more grateful. In other words, I wrongly believe that our relationship is dependent on the quality of their love for me.

That’s backward from the way I experience Jesus.  The way he treats me, both historically and in the present, gives me the experience of being loved.  And  it is that  experience that  allows  me to respond to him and  extend  myself to others, which  is the real need of the people  I live with.  My family needs me to pursue them like Jesus pursues me. They need me to forgive them like Jesus forgives me. They need me to like them, engage with them, and share myself with them just as Jesus likes me, engages with me, and shares himself with me.

And that’s where there is a disconnect for many people.  They don’t have a sense of the risen Christ relating to them in real time in a helpful, positive way. Whether I’m serving in my home  church  or traveling  to others, I regularly  interact with people who can explain historically what  Jesus has done  for them  and  who  genuinely  look forward to what  he will do in eternity. But his present activities in their lives remain a cloudy mystery.

In turn, they struggle to communicate love to others in any tangible, recognizable form.  This recognition forms the working thesis of this book:  only through a present, rich, practical relationship with Jesus will you be able to develop rich, practical relationships with each other.

Your Human relationships Flow from the god You Worship

The way I live out my relationships with people is one of the clearest indicators of how healthy my relationship with the Lord is. If I live knowing that God moves toward me all day long and invites me to move toward him, then I will engage people positively in their lives. But if I wait for others   to give themselves   to me first, then I show that I really don’t believe or regularly experience this God who is reconciling people to himself. Either way, I live out the truth that you become whatever you worship.

Sadly, there are so many bad gods waiting to take Jesus’ place. There’s the false notion of God as a deity who sits in heaven, vaguely interested in your life, but who keeps himself pretty detached and aloof.  Or there’s the god who is only disengaged until you do something wrong. Then  he springs  into  action, pulling  out  a long list of your  failures  and  threatening you if you don’t  shape  up. Or  worse, maybe  you’ve  found  the  god  who  smiles  at  you  a  lot,  but  is too weak  to challenge  you or help you when  you need it. The hard reality is that if your god is distant, critical, scary, or impotent then you will mimic that quality about him in the ways you treat those around you.

Thank God he doesn’t leave you to those gods.  Jesus came to redeem you from living out those empty ways of life handed down to you by your forefathers.

Throughout Scripture you see one overarching storyline:  a good Father welcomes homeless orphans into his family by searching for them, rescuing them, embracing them, providing for them, and nurturing them.  With that experience of life, you now have reason to hope for something different in the way you live with others. And hope is exactly what I need every day of my life.

My kids and I had a really rough  week that  felt like every inter- action  turned into  a half-hour argument that  I didn’t  handle  very well. As the week wore on I became increasingly out of control, and I responded more harshly and critically each time. It was not a good week.  Ironically, a few days  later  I was  scheduled  to  give a radio interview for a booklet I had  written entitled  How Do  I Stop  Losing It with  My Kids? I felt like such a hypocrite. I reread the booklet and kept thinking, Hmm, that’s a good idea. I wonder who wrote that? Or, Oh! Wish I had remembered to try that.

At the end of the program, the interviewer asked one final question. He said, “Okay, this has been helpful, but what about the person who has been losing it—maybe for years? Who has been failing over and over again?  What hope does that person have?”

I replied, “Well, honestly, that’s me this morning. And my hope is that  not  only am I a parent in my family,  but  I’m also a child in a better  family with  a much  better  Father. And my Father is absolutely committed to being involved in my life, parenting me so that I can be the parent that he always meant me to be.”

I need that hope. And I need even more than hope. It’s easy to say we need to love others  well, but that  statement can feel pretty  vague when  I face a particular challenge  with caring  for a real, flesh-and- blood  person  in the smaller,  practical moments of life. For instance, what  does  loving  others  well  look  like  when  I need  to  restore  a relationship that  I just damaged? At times like that, I need to know specifically what love looks like.

Dazzling Love

I find it helpful to think of love as a large jewel with many facets. Each facet gives you a glimpse into the jewel’s essence because each is part of the same jewel.  But every viewpoint has a sparkle and radiance all its own.

Throughout this  book  we’re going  to investigate fifteen facets of the  love  we  experience from  God  because  it is in these  ways that  he invites  you  to  mature as you  relate  to  other  people  with love. While  there  are many  more  that  we could  explore—and we will as eternity  unwinds—these fifteen form  a solid  toolkit that, as you  grow  in them,  will affect  the  quality  of relationships you currently have.

You can love other people only out of your own experience of being loved.  Or, to say it in reverse, you cannot pass along what you yourself have not received.  Does that sound limiting to you or maybe even completely demoralizing? Like you’re fated never to rise above the inadequacies other people have passed down to you?

That’s where a relationship with Jesus is intensely practical. Because you are his, you are not beyond hope—nor are your relationships.  Missing  out  on  being  loved  well by other  humans does  not doom  your present  relationships. In your present, ongoing relationship with Jesus, you can receive from him all the love you need to give to others.

He can give you what you never received, and then you can pass it to those around you who need it.

We’ll approach our topic in three parts.  In Part  I, “Love That Responds to  a Broken  World,” we’ll look  at  those  aspects  of love that  help you move toward your friend as she experiences sin or suffering so that  she knows  she is not alone.

Part  II, “Love That  Reaches  Out  to Build Others Up,” focuses on  aspects  of love that  show  someone  else you’re  more  interested in helping  him be all God  ever meant  him to be, than  using him to make yourself  feel good.

And in Part  III, “Love That  Enjoys Heaven  Now,”  we’ll look  at the kinds  of love that  allow  people  to see and  trust  your  heart  for them so that  you can enjoy being together now.

Let me offer one caveat  before  we dive in: please be careful  not to fall into  a mindset  that  looks  for quick,  immediate results  when you  reach  out  to love well. Learning these fifteen aspects will improve the overall tone of your relationships, but they are not part of a guaranteed formula that works like this:  if you do ________, then everyone else will respond to you with ________. Rather, you can expect to receive these elements from Jesus, and as you practice them you will find yourself moving in harmony with the way he runs his world rather than against it. In that sense your life will be better, you will be more satisfied, and your relationships will change for the better.

As a friend,  lay  leader,  counselor, seminary  professor, conference speaker, and  pastor I have seen many  people  turn  away  from destructive patterns and enter  into the freedom  of healthy  relationships.  That’s been quite a privilege.  Beyond  all those  instances  of seeing  people  love well,  however, I’m most  encouraged to  believe you really can escape your empty ways of living because  of the way relationships in my own home have grown  healthier over the years.

Remember that  I told  you how  hard  my child  and  I worked to ruin our relationship? Sadly, there are still plenty of times when we collectively rip at the fabric of our relationship. That’s the product of real people in a really fallen world. But even more significant is what we do with those destructive moments. By God’s kindness, we continue to learn how to repair the rips we create and celebrate the greater number of times when we move closer without damaging our friendship.

That’s the product of being loved by a gracious God in a grace- infused world. If Jesus can help free me and  my family from  being stuck  in bad  patterns, and  teach  us to create  beneficial  ones, then  I know  he can help you too.

As you  are  introduced to  each  way  he loves  us,  I think  you’ll be surprised by how  intimately involved  God  is with  you. I know I have been surprised. After  seeing and  re-experiencing him  in new ways, I suspect  you’ll hardly  be able to wait  to give that  experience to someone  else!

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