Review: Letters to a Devastated Christian

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Gene Edwards is a pastor and spiritual writer who primarily addresses issues related to church life and humility. Many of his other writings are allegorical; his 1980 book A Tale of Three Kings is considered a classic on Christian authority and humility.

Edwards has also worked to put Christian mystics—namely, Brother Lawrence, Madame Guyon, and Fenelon—back into print by creating and managing his own publishing house, SeedSowers.

Overview: This book of nine brief letters de-allegorizes Edwards’ earlier thoughts on humility and authority depicted in his bestseller A Tale of Three Kings. Both books deal with life under unjust authority—an experience that almost everyone goes through at some point in time. The “devastated Christian” of the title is someone that has been “sold a bill of goods” by becoming overcommitted to an unhealthy Christian movement, one where the leader demands more than he gives, and seeks to make overreaching decisions about believers’ personal lives. Sadly, this is not uncommon, since, Edwards points out, no one has unlocked the key to instantaneous sanctification (though a few have tried).

Meat: Many Christians go through this experience of disillusionment coming out of their youth. After spending a few years serving a thriving church movement, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we ripen enough to spot the weaknesses in our leaders. What do you do when you see weakness in your leaders? When should the weakness be a red flag that you are in a truly unhealthy church?

Edwards’ counsel is to look for a few keys which I believe are quite telling:

  • “Specialism”: Beware anyone who says, “We are the move of God in this generation.”
  • “Unity”: This is the idea that, “If anyone doesn’t choose to meet with us, they are damaging Christian unity.”
  • “Covering”: All decisions have to be approved by the elders. After all, every believer needs “covering.” This can easily lead to leaders overreaching in believers’ personal lives—not just issues of holiness, but issues of personality that should be left to Christian liberty.

Later in the book, he also mentions leaders with defensive attitudestreatment of women, and the longevity of a movement.

In the course of the book, Edwards also tackles the idea of following a “New Testament pattern”—an idea fraught with danger when divorced from its cultural context and taken to extremes.

In the last chapter (p. 41-45), Edwards gives concrete counsel to his “devastated Christian,” most of which resonates with his advice in A Tale of Three Kings:

  1. Broadcasting bitter experiences with everyone you meet is an unhealthy way of seeking release. It would be better to seek not to dishonor Christ by bashing those who have served him in an unhealthy way.
    Edwards has right motives here in advising discretion; however, as other reviewers have pointed out, survivors of significant abuse need to find significant outlets to better understand their pain. He only lightly touches on this—
  2. Christian counseling is healthy for those who have undergone significant or long-lasting psychological abuse.
  3. Don’t give up on structured Christianity. For all the weaknesses, there is a lot of good to be found.
  4. Don’t surround yourself with bitter people. Try to find some positivity.
  5. Finally, “You are going to have to start believing. You are going to have to believe that there are movements born of God. You are going to have to trust Christians and [Christian] workers again.” (p. 44)

Bones:

There doesn’t seem to be space, in such a short book, to offer an alternative vision of Christian gathering. As F. W. Boreham says, “The hunger of the human heart can never be satisfied with denials.”¹ So, given Edwards’ repeated advice against authoritarianism doesn’t really give a sense for where to go instead. (In point of fact, Edwards is a supporter of house churches.)

Another criticism pointed out by other reviewers is the grave possibility of victim-blaming. He advises almost total discretion, which is often great advice for walking out forgiveness, but is not always advisable. Edwards also writes, “I believe the Christian who has joined the worst possible group, if he gets out of it, should take what he learned and treat the lessons he learned as gold.” (p. 32) But this would come across as awfully fatalistic to someone who was sexually abused under a pseudo-Christian cult. I would repeat as a caveat that Edwards’ advice in this book, in general, pertains to unhealthy Christian movements, and not to abusive religious communities or heretical cults.

Quotes:

“Head for the door when a man or a people declare: ‘We are the work of God for this generation.'” (p. 4)

“If a movement is ten years old, you can tell a lot more about it than when it is two years old.” (p. 23)

“Every Christian worker has certain weaknesses, failures, and inabilities, so you can’t hang a man for that. But here is a good yardstick of a man’s internal spiritual strength: When his work is under attack, when pressure has mounted, when a split threatens his work, how does he react?” (p. 24)

“If you cannot totally get healed, I do not think that it is healthy for you to sit around forever, licking your wounds. . . . You are going to have to start believing there are decent and honest workers out there. You are going to have to believe that there are movements born of God.” (p. 44)


¹ F. W. Boreham, “All Fools’ Day.” The Crystal Pointers. 1925. p. 142.

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