Engaging emotions and mind in painting God’s portrait

Book review

Ramsey, Adam, Truth on Fire: Gazing at God Until Your Heart Sings, The Good Book Company, 2021. RRP: $19.99, 172pp, PB.

Reviewed by Rod Kirkpatrick*

GOD IS. It’s a powerful statement, and the title of each of the 12 chapters in Adam Ramsey’s Truth on Fire begins with a “God is” statement. They range from “God is Sovereign” and “God is Never Far Away” to “God is Merciful” and “God is Happy”. Inspired by A.W. Tozer’s statement, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” Ramsey sets out to give his readers the basis for clear theological thinking. And so each chapter of Ramsey’s book focuses on a specific attribute or quality of God.

Ramsey wants to fill his readers’ minds with “true knowledge about God” in the hope that this knowledge will “reshape our hearts and experience of God in our daily lives”. He says the first half of his Christian life engaged his emotions but not his mind. The second half has engaged his mind but not his emotions. He has grown tired of the divide. “I wanted both,” he says. “I wanted truth on fire.”

Ramsey’s first chapter focuses on “wonder”, a good starting point because, in effect, each succeeding chapter deals with the wonder of God’s different attributes and qualities. Ramsey suggests Christian growth should be “a gradual downward movement toward the maturity of childlikeness”. The daily life of maturing Christians should reflect “a childlike curiosity and wonder and openness” rather than “a settled sense of self-assurance”. He asks whether we have become “too grown up” for our own good. “Nobody who catches even the faintest glimpse of this God,” he writes, “walks up to him with a swagger or away from him with a yawn.”

When he needs to, Ramsey provides appropriate biblical references in brackets, without slowing the pace of his argument. For instance, in Chapter 8 (“God is never late”), Ramsey says:

God’s faithfulness is described in scripture as reaching to the skies (Psalm 36:5); as an all-surrounding reality unique to him (Psalm 89:8); and as a shield we can take refuge under (Psalm 91:4). Both the shortest and longest chapters of the Bible remind us that God’s faithfulness endures forever, to all generations (Psalm 117:2; Psalm 119.90).

On sovereignty, Ramsey says that what will give us peace in the most difficult situations is not the promise that everything will go our way but the promise that whatever does come our way, God is sovereign over that, too. “The reality of God’s sovereignty is the fear-incinerating, boldness-making, perseverance-producing antidote to everything that would ever trouble us.”

One chapter focuses on our need to embrace weakness—because of God’s unrivalled divinity. When we try to elevate ourselves above one another we are grabbing for glory and sooner or later we’ll bring back a fist full of misery, argues Ramsey. “But when we embrace our weakness; when we make peace with what we are in light of who God is; when we stoop low with John the Baptist, convinced in our hearts that ‘[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30), there in the low place we become most fully alive and most fully ourselves. For the low place is where the path of Jesus leads us, if we are willing to follow him there.”

Each of Ramsey’s chapters deals in detail, and delight, with a particular quality or attribute of God. Some of his statements encapsulate powerfully the wonder of God and his relationship with us:

“The love that Jesus gives to us is the energising power for the love he commands from us. Love is what his people are to be known by.”

“The presence of biblical non-negotiables like humility and gentleness and patience and love among God’s people validates our gospel message. And the absence of such relational beauty in a local church vandalises our truth with an anti-gospel ugliness. In our age of perpetual outrage and theological tribalism, never has this been more important.”

“If God is never late, then I can wait. … The one who invented time is never behind schedule. And in that glorious truth is the power to face anything. Even waiting.”

“Of all the possible qualities we might expect to find sitting in the driver’s seat of Christ’s heart—the centre of his entire being; the life-directing essence of who he is and what he came to do—Jesus says that at the core of who he is, is gentleness. The eternal Word, who in the beginning spoke the universe into being and who at the end will return with ‘eyes … like a flame of fire’ as King of kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19: 12, 16), tells us that he, and he alone, is the gentle rest that our own restless hearts most long to come to.”

“The justified are to live justly and love justice. Don’t be overwhelmed by the size of the problem or discouraged that you cannot fix everything. Instead, prayerfully begin with one area of brokenness in your community. And there, give yourself to making right what is wrong with the strength that only God can provide.”

In Truth on Fire, Ramsey provides a dual-purpose study of who God is and what that means to a world that often does not think about God. The two purposes are: (1) to refresh and enlarge the faith of Christians; and (2) to provide a rich character portrait of God for those who are not yet believers but are searchers.


* Rod Kirkpatrick is an author and retired journalism lecturer and newspaper editor. He has written nine books, mainly on newspaper history. He has worshipped for significant periods in Anglican, Baptist, Uniting Church, Salvation Army and Pentecostal churches.


Book is silver lining in the COVID cloud

Book review

Alexander, Irene, and Brown, Christopher (eds.), To Whom Shall We Go: Faith Responses in a Time of Crisis, Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2021, 176pp. PB.

Reviewed by Rod Kirkpatrick

Christians with their feet on the ground know that, out in the Monday-to-Friday world, they are not “magically spared from life’s calamities”, such as COVID-19. And so it’s interesting that a book about how those with a Christian faith should respond to COVID-19 acknowledges that there is no such thing as a common Christian response to crises. Charles Ringma, one of the chapter authors in To Whom Shall We Go, says this specifically. Indeed, the book’s nine contributors offer responses to crises in general rather than COVID-19 in particular.

Irene Alexander and Chris Brown have asked how we should respond to the COVID pandemic and in seeking answers they have gathered together a bunch of authors of significant academic and life experience, including internationally. They are friends who call themselves the “holy scribblers”. They come from spheres such as general-practice medicine, psychology, social work, science, economics, physics, missions and law. They are from Brisbane, Melbourne, Canada and the Philippines and are Christians who demonstrate a deep understanding and experience of their faith.

The book is not a glib response to COVID; it is not a ten-point how-to-fix-it summary for those in the midst of weeks of lockdown. It is a deep book for those who believe in a God who stands by people in their time of need, a God who offers hope. You should not find this book on the shelves categorised as “Self-help and Motivation”. From the chapters, “service” and “suffering” as expected parts of the Christian life are common themes that emerge. The authors use the Beatitudes as “scaffolding” to shape the issues they see as having been raised by COVID. The chapters are of such depth that they provide the basis for excellent Bible studies for connect groups. Most chapters are enriched by meditations, liturgies or prayers at their conclusion. Appendices assist in this regard. There is so much to reflect on and discuss.

In Chapter 1, Christopher Brown identifies the Beatitudes as gifts of the Holy Spirit. Brown and Charles Ringma discuss in Chapter 2 how a time of crisis is a time of loss. Scientist Ross McKenzie argues in Chapter 3 that science begins with humility, an awareness of ignorance and a search for knowledge. He reflects on what humility and meekness look like in science and daily life, humility before God, before others, and before nature. Irene Alexander suggests following Jesus is the way of vulnerability. Other chapter focal points are intercessory prayer for persons and events in our world; how to live in purity of heart; supporting one another in times of crisis; the fact that the church has always had times of crisis; economic realities in a time of crisis; biblical responses to crises; and a contemplation of God and the kingdom is likened to Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe to Narnia to meet Aslan.

The book is rich in the depth of the reflections as extracts from a few chapters will demonstrate:

Irene Alexander (who explored Jesus’ invitation to vulnerability) writes: “Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is proclaiming an upside-down kingdom—or rather a call to live in the right-way-up kingdom, the way of Jesus. The Beatitudes—the characteristics of kingdom living that can flourish in our lives through the indwelling of Christ’s Spirit—point us to what will bring satisfaction, enrichment, delight, and contentment, unveiling a way of living that inverts much of our enculturation.”

Tim McCowan (on “stay with me, watch, and pray”) asked what he is called to do in mercifully supporting and interceding for others in crises. He gives various examples of crises, one being the pandemic as it is affecting the Philippines. And he offers an answer: “I ask for grace to be ‘with them’ spiritually if not physically, and to be guided in what I pray. I want my intercession to foster the conditions for healing the fabric of their society and to support those most vulnerable. I pray they would be attentive to both the virus and the sources of God’s life within their culture, and watchfully resist reactions that can infect the healing taking place. And I partner with others to share financial support towards those who have lost their livelihoods, as an expression of being merciful.”

Paul Mercer (on “the painful maturity of love”) writes: “Arguably the story of the pandemic surrounds Dr Le Wenliang, an ophthalmologist from the Chinese city of Wuhan, who had the eyes to see the inherent danger in the new cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology resulting in death. As a member of the Christian community in this epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Li sought to warn the world by raising concerns with local officials. His life was taken by the illness he recognised.  Soon other Christians, dubbed the ‘yellow angels’, also became active in Wuhan. Dressed in yellow PPE, they moved onto the streets to hand out masks and gospel tracts. What will your productive response look like in times of crisis? As those who follow the crucified, resurrected Jesus, who teaches and lives the way of the pure in heart, are we ready for the cold dark nights to come? We see God as we are.”

Charles Ringma (on being in the world and not afraid) writes: “Times of crisis are times of loss. People lose their jobs and their health. They also lose their routines, sense of equilibrium, and emotional well-being. They may well lose more. And some may lose their faith because they are disappointed that God did not prevent the troubles that have come their way. St Augustine notes that loss is a form of suffering that brings ‘pangs that tear the heart’. And St Basil, in describing his difficult circumstances, speaks of being ‘bereft of the solace that I [once] possessed’. In embracing loss and acknowledging all that comes in loss’s wake, there is the call to come with our emptiness to God and to seek God’s protection. A prayer from the Carmina Gadelica reads: ‘I set the keeping of Christ about you, I set the guarding of God with you, To possess you, to protect you, From drowning, from danger, from loss.’”

To Whom Shall We Go is much more than a book on how a Christian might respond in a time of crisis. It takes the reader on a journey deep into the heart and soul of what following Jesus means. The book is a silver lining in the cloud that is COVID-19.

* Rod Kirkpatrick is an author and retired journalism lecturer and newspaper editor. He has written nine books, mainly on newspaper history. He has worshipped for significant periods in Anglican, Baptist, Uniting Church, Salvation Army and Pentecostal churches.