I just finished reading “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” by John Mark Comer, a pastor from Portland. The book was both refreshing and concerning – it reminded me of some much-needed truth, and yet left something lacking.
Knowing Comer to be a young mega-church pastor, I expected a this book to be an entry-level engagement with this topic. And, while that was true for the first two sections, the third section surprised me with a pretty unique contribution to this important topic.
The first section introduces readers to the problem of hurry in our culture. Full of statistics and anecdotes, Comer grabs the reader’s attention by shedding light on the fact that we, as a society, are unwell. Rushing at our frenetic pace of work, consumption and even recreation, we are in danger of crashing and burning. To illustrate, Comer shares his own story of pastoral burnout – and his decision to step down from his role, making big changes to his life. He has me engaged – like any good gospel presentation, Comer has established the need for what comes next.
All along, Comer has been quoting and name-dropping various wise, Christian sages who agree with his prognosis. Many well-known authors have identified this same problem of hurry; in fact, Comer lifted the title of this book directly from a quote by Dallas Willard. So, as this section carries on, I have a growing desire to hear the solution – when are we going to hear from Jesus on this topic?
For Comer, the solution is found in a well-known invitation by Jesus found in Matthew 11:28-30:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”Jesus
This is a wonderful quote – it’s been the basis for much freedom and fruit in my life, and it forms the basis for the rest of Comer’s book. However, from here, rather than diving into the Gospel accounts to exploring the ways of Jesus in greater detail, Comer pivots back to his favourite authors, and enters the stream of spiritual formation. Eugene Peterson persistently reminded people that Jesus is not only the Truth, but also the Way. Dallas Willard pointed out that Christ’s gospel message was an invitation to enter life in His kingdom. And Richard Foster famously laid out various spiritual disciplines as a pathway to open ourselves to God’s work in our lives. These authors, among others and those who have popularized their work, have formed an entire stream of Christian literature and thought – known as spiritual formation.
This is good – I like these authors, and I agree with the need for disciples of Jesus to adopt His lifestyle, and not just parrot certain beliefs about him. There are practical things that we can and should do, to open ourselves up to God’s work in our lives. I’ve read fairly widely on this topic, and Comer’s work here serves as a primer. He even freely admits that his readers should go and read the authors he quotes! I’d agree, if you’re willing and have the time. But, upon further reflection, I believe something is missing here – which I’ll explain after describing his third and final section (which was a surprise and pleasure)!
After spending the first two sections of his book identifying the problem and proposing a solution, Comer comes back down to the ground in the third section, planting his feet and offering some practical steps for his readers to try. For me, these chapters were a delight. Though they were by no means a complete and thorough treatment of spiritual disciplines, they present four particular disciplines in a fresh and winsome way. With practical examples and personal candor, Comer casts a vision for the practice of Silence/Solitude, Sabbath, Simplicity and Slowness in a uniquely relevant way. Above all else, this is why I enjoyed the book so much, and finished it so quickly – drawing from deep Christian traditions, the author really puts flesh on the call to live differently, and more contentedly, in our society today.
However, here’s what I found to be missing – or, at least in need of strengthening. While it could be argued that Silence/Solitude, Sabbath, Simplicity and Slowness are disciplines that characterized Jesus’s life, the call to follow Jesus is only part of the Christian message. It may be the part that many believing Christians need to hear – a call to live out their faith, and arrange their lives for maximum fruitfulness. But should we assume that readers truly believe in Christ and have a relationship with God?
Without the gospel’s call to repentance and faith, without an invitation to enter into a living relationship with God, then a book on spiritual disciplines remains only self-help. If we merely extract useful Christian principles and an apply them wherever they seem relevant to our current needs, then we’re trying to follow Jesus on our own steam. Jesus calls people to be born again – to surrender their lives to Him and receive new ones. Before the call to follow is the call to repent and believe in Him as Savior and Lord. Perhaps this is why various other books on Spiritual formation explicitly mention disciplines such as prayer, Scripture and worship. In this day and age of self-help, an active relationship with God does not go without saying.
Time alone in silence. Time to rest. Simplifying our consumption. Slowing our life pace. These can certainly be helpful practices for anyone – God’s truth is true, no matter where you are. These practices are ultimately based on Christ’s lifestyle and principles, and He is worth following. But trying to emulate these practices of Jesus without knowing Him personally seems like picking fruit from the Vine, rather than abiding in the Vine and letting it produce fruit through us.
I love how Comer calls Sabbath an “anchor discipline” (163). It creates time & space for good things to happen. And so do the other disciplines that he mentions. Point taken! But, based on my own experience, I don’t think it’s helpful to assume that an audience is Christian, and that they will use that time and space to truly seek Jesus. Perhaps Comer is simply targeting people in his church – Christians who need a deeper spiritual life? Fair enough. But an opportunity is lost if we skip to Jesus’s invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 before first heeding His call in Matthew 4:17. People certainly come to faith in different ways – this is my area of study! But I would argue that they need to come to faith to fully benefit from the Spiritual Practices mentioned in this book. We must move beyond therapeutic self-help, to a call to transformation – the death and new life so clearly symbolized in baptism.
So, after this primer on spiritual formation, I’d recommend digging a little deeper. Many of the authors that Comer quotes deal thoroughly with the call to discipleship and its implications – perhaps Dallas Willard being the chief of them all. In addition, Ronald Rolheiser has an interesting way of describing the process of death & rebirth in a Christian’s life. Or, to mention a favourite of my own, Andrew Murray has a wonderful way of calling people to surrender, abide, and experience the best of life in Christ. But, if I could recommend one book as a prerequisite and supplement to Comer’s, it’d be Surrender to Love by David Benner. In it, he gets to the heart of the Christian life – the basis for all of its practices and lifestyle: Before any genuine transformation can take place, we must first truly encounter the God of love, and respond with surrender.
We can’t just use God’s ideas for our own benefit. While I don’t think that this was Comer’s intent, I’d just point out the need to state the “obvious” which, to my mind, is no longer obvious to many.