Book Review: Healing Grace, by David Seamands
Friends, I wrote this review as part of my requirements for my latest seminary class. The paper was meant to be 1200-1500 words and I ended up with over 3000. So before I could turn in the review I had to pare it down by 1200 words. The final count was 2023 or so. Anyhow, you are reading the short version here. I highly recommend this book if you can get it. It is a great book about how grace is meant to invade all areas of our lives. Grace will help us avoid the ‘performance trap’ and ‘perfectionism’ that pervades the church and causes the ruin of many Christians. Enjoy! jerry
I was fully prepared to hate this book. I have very little use for psychology as a cure-all for what ails sinners. A quick perusal of the book had convinced me, prematurely, that the book was yet another one of those attempts by a ‘Christian psychologist’ to manufacture a purely psychological well-roundedness without really dealing with the heart of the matter (sin).
It was after reading the first four and a half pages (10-14), however, that I also changed my mind about the book. On page 13, I read the author’s sole complaint addressed in the book: “Just as there are different degrees of any disease, so there are different levels of intensity in performance orientation….Performance-oriented Christians represent a wide range of despairing humanity” (13). This is a horrifying charge considering that Christians should, in fact, represent the widest range of joyful humanity. Seamands contends that we are joyless because we have missed grace: “…at this point it is important to see that the roots of performance orientation are theological. If the ultimate cure is grace, then the ultimate cause of the behavior is the failure to understand, experience, and live out grace at every level of our lives.” (67, emphasis mine).
Seamands believes that the answer for Christians trapped in a “prison which was at least partially of their own making,” trapped in mind set of “I ought to do more,” and perpetually racing around in a life of “performance” is, unequivocally, grace. Grace as a way of life, not only as the way of salvation, is the point Seamands is trying to get across to his readers. “To restrict God’s grace only to saving or sanctifying grace would be to miss the all-encompassing nature of God’s love in action” (186; see also 181-182.)
Part of the problem, at least from where Seamands writes, is in fact the very church that should be the vehicle and conduit of God’s grace to the world. If the church or the preacher plays a role in Seamands’ book, it is, in my opinion, largely a negative one. “We must always remember that those who make up the visible church are products of a particular culture. So it shouldn’t surprise us to discover within the church certain impediments to receiving and living out grace” (35, my emphasis).
The three major impediments he speaks of are: 1) The Gospel of success. “American activism has clearly infected the church’s idea of success” (35). Again the blame is laid at the feet of the preacher and rightly so. “I believe the church’s distorted gospel of activism and self-effort contributes greatly to the self-belittling and low sense of self-worth so many people feel” (37). 2) The Gospel of self-reliant individualism. “Another aspect of the church’s life which conflicts with biblical grace is an overemphasis on the individual Christian life apart from open grace-filled relationships with other people” (37). 3) The Gospel of legalism. “Evangelical churches and pastors believe in and proclaim a doctrine of salvation by grace through faith…[B]ut the Sunday School lessons and sermons are sometimes not heard as messages of grace” (38). In my judgment, the preacher bears a majority of the responsibility for all three problems.
If this is to be rectified, then changes must begin to take place in the lives and preaching of the preachers and teachers in the church and others that Seamands calls ‘people in Christian service.’ Yet, for as much as Seamands criticizes the church in general, and preachers in particular e.g., 128-131), for their poor understanding and practice of grace, he rightly recognizes that pastors are usually well suited conduits for healing grace to flow (67). However, it is highly unlikely that the congregation in general will have a great grasp of grace if the preachers and teachers have a faulty or weak grasp of it themselves.
Seamands writes, “Doctrinal belief in a theology of grace, as important as that is, does not change the way performance-grounded Christians live. This is not understood by a large number of persons involved in Christian service—pastors, evangelists, teachers, and counselors, and so they sincerely but mistakenly deal with problems brought to them by parishioners only on a cognitive level—preaching/teaching/admonishing” (120). His solution is ‘the all-encompassing way of grace’ which is fine as far is it goes, but how else can preachers, evangelists, and others, ‘reconstruct,’ ‘reprogram,’ and ‘recycle’ apart from changing damaged and destructive cognitive patterns? “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” wrote the apostle (Romans 12:2a, NIV, cf. Colossians 1:9). It seems to me that it will be rather difficult to practically apply such grace if we do not have a cognitive grasp of what it is in the first place. Furthermore, it seems to me that the very purpose in writing Healing Grace is to change the way we think about grace in order that we might change the way we practice grace.
This leads to a second complaint that I have against the book which is, there are no long, sustained expositions of Scripture. The book is full of Scripture, on this point there is no complaint and for the most part I believe Seamands handles the Scripture faithfully and justly. This does not change the fact that he quotes Scripture in pieces. Paul the apostle did not write a few verses here and there, David did not write a few disconnected lines of poetry, and the Gospels are not mere collections of ‘stories’ designed to make a moral point about Jesus or us or grace. For example, his use of the so-called childhood narratives of Jesus to build his case for good parenting (chapter 3) was a very troubling to me. Jesus as a merely well-rounded psychological profile is, to me, more than a little disturbing. Not that Jesus is not or was not, but that I hardly believe that was the Holy Spirit’s point in guiding Luke to write those narratives.
I am not a fan of piecemeal verse collections that serve to bolster an author’s foregone conclusion. Although Seamands does not necessarily damage Scripture, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps more attention to Scripture as the revelation of Christ (John 5:39-47, Luke 24:27, 44-49), to Scripture in larger portions, and to Scripture exegetically taught, would serve his ends better and make grace even more alive. Committed as he no doubt is to Scripture (see page 40), I did not appreciate on the whole his ‘use’ of it.
The strongest part of the book was Seamands’ relentless pursuit to identify those things (and people!) which are barriers to grace. It is simply stunning how many barriers to God’s free gift we (the Church, Christians) have erected. One might almost say that Christians actually delight in re-constructing the barriers that Christ himself tore down at Calvary. According to Seamands, our problem begins when we are young and our parents wreck our lives through what he calls dys-grace: “Now let us turn to the greatest hindrance of all—destructive interpersonal relationships within the home and family” (38). Families play a significant role in helping us mis-understand grace in all of its glory. But Seamands doesn’t stop there at all. Chapters 2-6 all deal with barriers to grace in one form or another whether it is the church (2), the family (3), sin (4), man-made alternatives (5), or poor psychological profile (6; 143-148).
All of these barriers form a mighty chasm, a gulf that we simply cannot span. I think Seamands has to do this, though. It is necessary for the reader to understand how completely defunct we are and how no one is going to help us out of our predicament. In short, we are in desperate straits apart from God’s grace. We are hopeless. We are a ‘wide range of despairing humanity.’ These are not just barriers we have to get around; they are downright prohibitive measures: They prevent us from enjoying God and serving others well. Thus he rightly concludes that we need something different, something diametrically opposed the traps of man-made solutions and barriers: “…we have looked at the origin and development of the more extreme variety of performance-based Christians, perfectionists. We have also seen that any attempt to find freedom by our own efforts only leads us deeper into the mire. Let’s turn now to the only solution and our only hope. God’s greatest gift—grace” (106). And with that, Seamands begins to undo all the nastiness he spoke of in chapters 2-6, all the un-grace, and dys-grace, and no-grace that pervades this world and, all too often, the Christian’s life. For Seamands, there is only one solution to bad parenting, sin, perfectionism—any of it—and that is the Grace of God. “The way of grace is not some afterthought on God’s part. It’s the way, the only way God ever planned” (199).
I spoke with a friend while I was writing my review and I expressed my concern over having to review a book that the professor had probably read a hundred times and that the professor has read countless student reviews of in the course of his tenure. I said, “How does one write a paper in this situation?” She responded, “Write it like you think he hasn’t read it. Write it like you just discovered it and you want to share it with the world. Make him care about it again.” Well, whether or not I accomplish that with this paper is beside the point and for someone else to decide. Seamands, however, accomplished it brilliantly with his book. He brings grace to the front and, through anecdotes from his counseling work that nearly any person can fit into at some point, he makes the reader think about why they are hindered from receiving God’s grace and living it. He brings the reader face to face with the problem and then he confronts them with the only answer: The grace of God. He does this time and time again in the book. Always the solution is grace.
Is that not what God does too? Reading through the Scripture are we not continually brought back, time and time again, in the narrative to grace? Here it is in Eden. There it is at Moriah. Still again it makes a grand appearance in Egypt. If we go further on, trudging through the difficult books, we see grace at Jericho (Rahab), Moab (Ruth), Phillistia (Samson), in the Desert of Sin (Israel), at Sinai (Moses), Babylon (Nebudchadnezzar), and Ninevah (Jonah). We see grace in the life of David and his dealings with the Lord time and time again in the Psalms. We see grace in the multitudes of animal sacrifices which never atoned for a single sin. Grace is there in the stories of obscure characters like Jabez and Mephibosheth. Grace is in the Law, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Apocalypse. It opens and closes many of the epistles. It is the last words in the Revelation, and hence our canon. Grace consumed Peter, Paul, James, Mary Magdalene, John, and many other unnamed people whom Jesus touched, such as the woman at the well, the unnamed woman forgiven of adultery, and Ethiopian Eunuch, and not a few lepers. And it was John himself who pointed out that “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14b, 17, NIV).
I appreciate what Seamands has done with this volume to open my mind to what I had always known, but had never understood; always paid lip-service to, but had never believed; always witnessed, but had never seen; always heard, but had never listened to. Surely God’s grace is sufficient for all.
Soli Deo Gloria!