A Review of
Encouragements for Living, Working, and Being
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2019
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Reviewed by Ryan Johnson
We live in a world where we are constantly told to leave our mark, to leave a legacy for future generations. The message is so loud and clear that many determine their worth by the strength of that legacy. We read books that tell us how to be successful. Book shelves are glutted with leadership and self-help books. We read these in the hopes to become better than we are, to somehow be more. Samuel Wells in his small book Walk Humbly comes alongside us like a wise mentor and begins to calmly yet powerfully put those chasings into perspective and encourages us to be people of humility.
The book can be divided into two separate halves. The first part of the book reads much like Ecclesiastes. Wells takes some time to assess who we are as people and how long our legacy can really last. In the first four chapters, Wells tears down our own idols of self-importance and independence. He demonstrates the fact that our constant pursuits are vain attempts at moving existence to essence, that is to move our lives from being subject to decay to something that will endure. Yet, this is vanity because we are subject to decay and will inevitably pass away. In words reminiscent of Nouwen, Samuel Wells offers us a glimpse at our dependency on others, how small we actually are, and how much we really don’t know. By demonstrating our finiteness, our smallness, our dependence, and our ignorance, Wells prepares us for the final four chapters of the book which open to us a world of beauty.
BE NOT AFRAID by Samuel Wells
In his Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis made the point that humanity was forever marked as distinct and special because God chose to enter creation as a human. This is the point that Wells makes in the second half of the book. He invites us to see how in spite of our humble place in the universe, God chose to lift us up by identifying with humanity. Not only that, but it was God’s love that gave birth to existence and it was always his intention of joining with his creation. Wells points out that this requires a reasoned response from us, namely to be disciplined, to hold up one another, and to be a blessing to others.
The book’s size can lull the reader into thinking that this is a quick read. It can certainly be a quick read, yet to get the most impact out of this book you need to wrestle with it. The first chapter alone reads like a philosophical argument that is thought-provoking and deep. Wells speaks frankly throughout the book and at times feels invasive, yet perhaps that is the mark of a wise counselor. His “wonderings” at the end of the book are again helpful in truly engaging with the book and when done diligently creates more space for personal reflection and transformation.
I began the book struggling with Wells. His opening chapter and his distinction between essence and existence kept me saying, “Yes, but…” As I read it I kept waiting for the punch line in that God does invite us into the essence and that that was his purpose all along. Having finished the book, I see now that Wells was building his argument so that when we get to the relationship between God and humankind we are more prepared for the remarkable nature of it. It takes the first four chapters of the book to remind us fully of our place in this universe and the last four chapters to begin to grasp the magnanimous nature of God.
Personally, I wrestle each day with the kind of legacy that I will leave to my friends and family. As I raise my son, I wonder how I can make this world a better place for him. Wells reminds me to walk humbly in the midst of that. Furthermore, when we accept our smallness, and accept our own size, we become more equipped to appreciate the greatness of God and be the blessing that he wants us to be. This was my first experience with Samuel Wells and his wise counsel, it will not be my last.
Ryan Johnson lives and works in Nottingham, MD with his wife, Lauren, and 9 month old son, Judah. Ryan’s passion is for raising up disciples in the church and for leading people into a deeper faith.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com