For people of faith, one of the more exciting aspects of recent cultural shifts in the United States is a renewed awareness of our spiritual existence. For better or worse this new cultural identity has served as the springboard for a multitude of books–from Chicken Soup for the Soul to The Prayer of Jabez–intent on helping us make better spiritual connections with God. It is in this vein that Rich Stevenson brings us his new book Secrets of the Spiritual Life: 10 Lessons from the One Thing Passages.
In Secrets, Stevenson sets out to divulge for the reader 10 lessons from eight passages that, when translated in the New International Version, include the phrase “one thing”. Among these are the Psalmist’s asking for the “one thing” of dwelling in the house of the Lord (27:4) and Jesus’ telling a young man the “one thing” he lacks is selling his possessions (Mk. 10:21). In each of these chapters Stevenson then lays out the spiritual secrets he suggests are in the verses. These come in the form of theological themes like “grace,” “trust,” “generosity” and “devotion”.
Stevenson writes with personality. He is both clever and entertaining, and without pretense. He shares poignant stories from his own life, unwrapping his journey from minister’s son to United Methodist evangelist to pastor of a nondenominational church. These moments of vulnerability are the book’s strengths.
Also among the highlights are the chapters on “Risk” and “Fullness.” In these chapters Stevenson boldly discusses his spiritual transformation as the pastor of a church that emphasizes experience and response to the Holy Spirit and critiques a faux attitude of “openness” to the Holy Spirit among many evangelicals, whom he suggests are really casting a blind eye to it’s work. Agree or disagree with him, these chapters manage to challenge the reader without making us defensive. Stevenson can both admonish his spiritual heritage in Methodism and plead for its spiritual relevance.
What does not work for Stevenson is the book’s format. The back cover reads: “Is your spiritual life lacking something? Eight ‘one thing’ passages from Scripture can help you discover the missing ingredient.” Unfortunately, inside the book, the discussion of the “one thing” passages and their relation to each chapter’s theological theme is lacking.
In Stevenson’s chapter on generosity he uses the verse (Mk. 10:21) in which Jesus tells a young man that the “one thing” he lacks is selling his possessions to the poor as the theme. While the chapter does center on generosity, the discussion of the verse is limited to one short paragraph, while other passages from scripture are used more effectively as the real center of discussion.
In Stevenson’s chapter on “risk” and the Holy Spirit, the “one thing” passage from Galatians 3:2-3 that is supposed to be the chapter’s topic again gets a few lines in the middle of the chapter. The topics discussed are in the same vein of these verses, but the book suggests the “missing ingredient” truths will come from biblical passages that are often ignored.
Instead of these verses, the book seems more focused on Stevenson’s broad discussion of theological terms like “grace” and “eternity.” These are insightful, but it is often unclear what Stevenson suggests we do with his discussion. How do we implement more grace in our lives? How do we find it? This is what the book promises and does not deliver. Even in an appendix to the book that includes discussion questions for the reader, little emphasis is placed on application of the text and is instead aimed at the reader’s emotional response to Stevenson’s writing.
Reading Secrets of the Spiritual Life will likely be a valuable experience. Stevenson is obviously a gifted communicator who has much to say about his experiences with our preconceived notions of God and Church. That is where the book finds its true identity. What it is not is the Spiritual “how to” book it suggests. Maybe we have enough of those anyway.
Johnny Lewis is the pastor of Kendalls Baptist Church in New London, N.C. and a student at the Divinity School at Gardner-Webb University.
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