Review: Caught Off Guard

William P. Smith, Caught Off Guard: Encounters with the Unexpected God, New Growth Press, 2007 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

This book is from the CCEF stable and very much fits the pastoral approach to the Bible and the biblical approach to pastoral issue we have come to expect from CCEF.

Smith’s premise is that too often people can have a knowledge of God that is orthodox, but which fails to connects with real life. ‘Many people … know what is true, but for some reason the truths they know and love don’t find their way into their daily life. Instead, their faith exists in a separate sphere from their daily grind of daipers and deadlines … Sometimes people know things about God more than they actually know him. They have correct information, but they know them in a Trivial Pursuit kind of way, as interesting factoids with little relevance to daily life … Whenever knowledge outstrips experience, it is useless in the face of life’s difficulties.’ (xii-xiii)

This is an excellent ambition, one that resonates very strongly with my own sense of calling. I’m conscious that I’m not a great or original theologian and neither am I a great practitioner of anything in particular! If I have any contribution to the wider church it is in bridging the gap between theology and life. But enough about me.

Smith tells us some facts about a friend called Ron. It’s all quite interesting. But would you call Ron for help if you have a flat tyre in the middle of the night? Probably not. Then Smith tells the story of how Ron came to his aid in just such a situation. Would you now call Ron? Still, probably not. But if you heard several more stories, including stories of how Ron had happily helped strangers, than maybe you might.

That’s one of the things the Bible is up to. It tells us information about God, but it does more than that: it is full of stories of God helping people, forgiving people, accepting people, providing for people.

This provides the basis for Caught Off Guard. ‘I want to tell you stories about God that show you his heart for people in distress. I want you to see his concern for people in trouble – including those who have brought their problems on themselves … My goal in this book is to flesh out our knowledge of God in the midst of daily struggles … As you see how God responds to difficult people, I hope you will understand how he will connect with you when you’re in trouble.’ (xiv-xv)

So what we get is a series of Bible stories as pastoral case studies. We get to see how we can apply the stories in the Bible to our lives and to the lives of others in pastoral situations. This is well done  – successfully avoiding the danger of moralism into which applied expositions of Bible stories can so easily descend. It’s a good model – genuinely helpful. Another way of looking at Caught Off Guard is that it is an applied exposition of the doctrines of God’s grace and sovereignty.

I was, however, somewhat disappointed with the book. There are few ‘aha’ moments when you realise something you’d not seen before or see something in a new light. I think this is because the book assumes you understand your problem. The chapters titles give it away. ‘Do you think God is out to get you?’ ‘Do you doubt that Jesus would ever want to be your friend?’ If these kind of questions describe you then the book will provide answers. The problem is that the tricky bit in pastoral care or personal growth is recognising that you think God is out to get you or that you doubt Jesus would ever want to be your friend. People rarely articulate their problems in these terms.  Finding biblical truth that offers good news when you think God is out to get you is fairly easy. The difficult thing is to recognise that this is the thinking that underlies your behaviour.

But don’t be too put off. This is a good book and a good model of the use of Scripture in pastoral care and personal growth. My disappointment may well have been a product of my high expectations.

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