Review of Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion, by Richard Foster & Gayle D. Beebe. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009. 364 pages, including index and three appendices. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8308-3514-0.

Maybe it’s because I don’t get it the first couple of times. I think Longing for God might become one of those favorite books that I enjoy re-reading, like James Broomhall’s biography of J. Hudson Taylor, the two-volume life of him by Taylor’s son and daughter-in-law, and Carl Henry’s God, Revelation, & Authority. It certainly calls for repeated, prayerful readings. Why? First, it speaks to my situation, which I am guessing is not unique. Amidst a busy life, with much activity, I increasingly feel the need to slow down and get to know God better. I mean, really know him, not just know about him. Longing for God tells me how I might do that, by presenting “seven paths of Christian devotion” that have been employed by spiritual giants in times past. Foster and Beebe guide the reader through a rich variety of ways in which people have tried to draw close to God and stay there, even when they have a lot to do. Second, it is meaty. Not a lot of cute, feel-good stories here, but real substance. Each chapter first summarizes the principal teachings of a writer on the spiritual life (by Gayle Beebe), and then makes it more practical in a section called “Reflecting and Responding,” by Richard Foster. You get enough from Beebe’s clear exposition to know what the spiritual guide has to offer, and then Foster provides hints about how to apply these teachings to our daily life. The two authors, who co-taught the material several times, make a good team. Third, the saints (in the broad sense of the term) whom they introduce to us knew what they were talking about. They not only described a life of devotion to God; they lived it. Their writings are classics, in the sense that they have stood the test of time, having been commended by people far more advanced in knowledge and experience than I am. You have probably heard of many of them, but some were new to me, and others were merely names. Now I know enough to pursue further what they have to teach us. So, what are the seven paths”? And who are these spiritual guides? The paths are: 1. The Right ordering of our love for God. 2. The spiritual life as journey. 3. The recovery of knowledge of God lost in the Fall. 4. Intimacy with Jesus Christ. 5. The right ordering of our experiences of God. 6. Action and contemplation. 7. Divine ascent. The authors present the thoughts of twenty-six writers in all, including early church fathers and saints; medieval theologians and mystics; Reformers; Counter-Reformation Roman Catholics; and Protestants and Romans Catholics of the past three hundred years. As a Protestant, I found some of the Roman Catholic material a bit hard to access, but not as difficult as I had imagined. There is some great stuff there, and I am willing to go over it again to learn more. I admit that my favorites were Augustine, Luther, Calvin, George Herbert, John Bunyan, and Thomas a Kempis. But I was surprised at how much benefit I gained from others, like St. Bonaventure, Ignatius of Loyola, Benedict of Nursia, and even Evagrius of Ponticus (not exactly a household name). Of course, the “paths” overlap and intersect with each other, and the authors studied have built upon, and been in dialogue with, the thoughts of others. After all, the longing for God haunts all of us; the human soul’s complexity defies neat analysis; our life with God constantly progresses (or declines); God himself cannot be fully understood by anyone, not even the most “advanced” believer. It all adds up to an almost bewildering array of ideas, images, and feelings. That is where this volume plays a remarkable role: Foster and Beebe somehow make sense of it all, without claiming to have distilled the “secret” of the Christian life into a simple formula. Not that anyone is going to agree with everything that is recorded here. Even Beebe and Foster feel free to express their questions and even occasional disagreement. Their great contribution, however, is to have given us the meat while, by and large, dispensing with the bones. Perhaps if I quote from the conclusion, you will get a taste of why this book ought to have a wide reading. It’s a bit long, so please bear with me: All the men and women we have written about in this book have entered into this deep, character-forming life with God in profound ways. Some were more fully formed than others, perhaps, but all were substantially changed in the interiority of the soul. Each and every one experienced a life flowing with [the fruit of the Spirit] … Only one thing is essential for us to move forward in this life with God. This one thing is purely and simply a 'longing' for this life with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. .. Oh (sic), friend, so you long for this kind of life? Do you? Do you have a burning craving for utter heart purity?... Oh, to have a flaming vision of a God-saturated life! Oh, to experience the searching, persuading, compelling reality of the Hound of Heaven?... Like the deer longing for flowing streams so our soul longs for God, for the living God. Is this what you long for? Is this what I long for? If so, the invitation is open wide to one and all to come home, home to where we belong, home to that for which we were created. “Come to me,” says the living Christ. “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls, for My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-30 NKJV). G. Wright Doyle July, 2010