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  • « Merry Christmas! | Main | John Piper's Christmas Poem »

    Book Review: Singleness of Heart, by Clifford Williams

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    We always have reasons for doing what we do. This is true whether we think consciously about those reasons or not. In fact, most of the time we just feel our reasons, acting intuitively and without deliberation. In other words, our motives often fly under the radar of our minds while moving us to action.

    Now, if our motives were always and only good, maybe this wouldn't be a problem. After all, allies flying under our radar pose no threat. But what if our enemies were flying under our radar? What if those enemies were our own sinful motives, like self-advancement or self-justification? What if those motives were really good at concealing themselves from our awareness? What if those motives effectively took out our radar, enabling a whole host of evil motives to operate in stealth? Or, worse still, what if those motives scrambled our signals, convincing us that they were our allies to be welcomed instead of our enemies to be repelled?

    That could be bad.

    "This book is an invitation to explore the dividedness that infects the Christian heart. Singleness of Heart investigates the ways in which this dividedness is exhibited and probes behind it to concealed and unacknowledged motives… If the exploration is not made, the reward may never be obtained. Healing requires that the condition needing healing be brought to light" (p. xi).

    Clifford Williams writes to Christians who sense that they lack singleness of heart "to possess eternity" (p. 3). His readers have a longing for God, but do not pursue him wholeheartedly. Our dividedness, Williams asserts, is not because of some external force compelling us to ignore our dominant passion. Rather, we are divided because we distract ourselves, we suppress the longing for grace, we evade eternity intentionally. We love God and we resent God. We want grace and we reject grace. We love others selflessly and we use them to build our self-esteem. This kind of dividedness Williams labels ambivalence, of the sort displayed in the supplication, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24; p. 8).

    There is a more frightening kind of dividedness, however, which Williams calls illusion:

    "In it, our real motives for acting are different from the motives we think we act from. If we engage in volunteer activities, thinking that we do so in order to help needy people, but really do so in order to be noticed by those whose esteem we value, we are in a state of illusion. We are also in a state of illusion if our submerged motive for greeting acquaintances with large and friendly smiles is to be known as outgoing, or if we join a prayer group merely to demonstrate to others that our Christianity is not deficient. The dividedness in these cases consists of a public posture that is at variance with an inner reality. We seem to others and to ourselves to be one thing when in reality we are something else" (p. 9).

    The hard part is that we would prefer not to know this about ourselves. We are broken people with mixed motives who cannot bear the thought that our motives are mixed, so we conceal those motives from ourselves. It is exceedingly difficult to examine ourselves honestly, but this is what the author helps us to do, for our good.

    Williams provides many examples of ambivalent or illusory motives at work to show how deep the problem runs, teaching us to recognize the kinds of things going on unnoticed inside us. His description of the divided heart is so stinging that in reading I found myself often literally clutching at my chest, wishing I could cast my heart away from me. My dividedness is just the kind of thing I never wanted to know about myself! Yet I desperately need to know it in order to have a truer acceptance of God's grace, a more single-hearted pursuit of eternity.

    That's the ultimate goal of the book. Williams doesn't want to expose you to yourself just for the sake of honesty, which can actually lead to despair if you don't like what you find. He wants to help restore you to singleness of heart. He shows what it means to be open to grace, commending true contrition and acceptance of God's love (ch. 6). He describes life in a community of grace, all of us being in need of grace and able to give grace to one another (ch. 7). He holds up self-forgetful praise to God and awareness of moral beauty in others as sealing the rift in our souls (ch. 8). He offers the joyful hope that "from the perspective of eternity, our true nature consists of desires that are unmixed with impulses of self-justification and self-admiration" (p. 135), and that one day we will be freed forever from the dividedness that now burdens us.

    Williams has done us a great service in wrestling a difficult topic into accessibility. When I say the topic is difficult, I do not mean too intellectual or complex to understand (though if it were, one would not notice for the clarity of his writing). I mean that we all have a strong natural aversion to understanding the topic because of the dividedness of our souls. Normally when our sinful motives are brought to light, we shut our eyes, cover our ears, and sing something distractingly loud in order to avoid being confronted with the truth. But Williams writes in a disarming way. He is humble. With the content and tone of his writing, he constantly places himself alongside the reader under his own scrutiny. "Singleness of Heart is as much confession as it is description of the interior life" (p. xii). The topic becomes accessible because the reader does not have to overcome a sense of cold judgment by Williams as a further impediment to self-examination. Rather, the reader feels he has an empathetic companion along for the journey. (There is certainly a lesson to be learned from him here.)

    Some might complain that Williams largely waits until the very end of the book to sum up his concepts with an explicitly biblical worldview; "major motifs in Christianity - creation, fall, and redemption - may also be thought of in terms of desires" (p. 135). Why didn't he start from there, unfolding his ideas with more biblical terminology and citations? Speculation isn't necessarily helpful here. Rather, I offer my judgment that the content of Singleness of Heart is in fact tremendously biblical, whether or not Williams used the language of Scripture at a level satisfactory to all. His insights into our motives are consistent with this biblical truth: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). And his prescription for healing amounts to none other than this biblical command: "Keep yourselves in the love of God" (Jude 1:21). My only substantial complaint is with the regular use of general phrases like "the love of God" or "the grace of God," where a description of the Gospel of Jesus Christ might be more profound.

    This is a book to which I will return many times in my life for personal renewal and ministry. I probably would have underlined every sentence, if that didn't defeat the purpose of underlining. I'm going to require it for leadership training in our church, and would love to give a copy to every Christian I know. I recommend it very highly to those who are called to help people know themselves and accept the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Of course, like all good books about the Christian life, it will never work if you only treat it as a ministry tool to be used on others. You must read it with an eye to applying it to yourself first. It might hurt, but it will be worth it.

    Posted by Eric Costa on December 25, 2009 01:24 AM


    This is a wonderful review. Thank you.

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