A Special Spiritual Memoir


Ever since Augustine’s Confessions people have recognised the value of spiritual memoirs –that is, the value of personal accounts of a life lived with or in search of God. Recently I re-read Lew Smedes’ little spiritual memoir, My God and I (Eerdmans, 2003, 178pp) and found it as engaging and heart-warming as I did the first time.

Lew Smedes was a much loved teacher, preacher and author who taught for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary primarily in the area of ethics. This book, completed shortly before he died in 2002, is not written for academic theologians, but for ordinary people who wrestle with the idea or the experience of God. It is warmly personal, wonderfully honest and very readable. 51085POa8iL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Smedes was born to Dutch immigrant parents and grew up on struggle street in Muskegon,  Michigan, his father having died when he was two months old, leaving his mother, who had no job skills and very little English, to bring up five young children on her own. He writes of her: “She never asked why she should have been stuck in a strange land with no husband, no money, and with five unreasonable kids; the question of “Why me?” never seemed to enter her head. She seemed convinced that whatever her lot, it was what had to be and that her job was simply to do as well as she could with what little she was given, never doubting that God has a tender spot in his heart for widows.”

Having grown up in a rather austere Calvinist setting where “God seldom wore a happy face”, he found God unexpectedly – in an English class at Calvin College. There his lecturer introduced him to a God the likes of whom he had never even heard about – “a God who liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers.”  He writes:

Once you believe this, where can you stop? If the Maker of the Universe admired     words well put together, think of how he must love sound thought well put together; and if he loved sound thinking, how he must love a Bach concerto; and if he loved a Bach concerto, think of how he prized any human effort to bring a foretaste, be it ever so small, of his Kingdom of justice and peace and happiness to the victimised people of the world. In short, I met the Maker of the Universe, who loved the world he had made and was dedicated to its redemption. I found the joy of the Lord, not at a prayer meeting, but in English Composition 101.

The book is not a detailed autobiography; it is a pared-down memoir which could be read in a couple of evenings. It highlights key episodes in his life and his on-going wrestling with faith. Some of the things that intrigued or fascinated me:

  • Common Grace or Selective Grace?

One of the most intriguing things is seeing a Dutch Calvinist wrestling with Calvinism. Despite all that is good in the theology of John Calvin, at its heart is the dark doctrine of double predestination – i.e. the belief that God, before the creation of the world, choose some people to be saved and rejected the rest. Smedes asks the obvious question: “How can [some] Christians believe that God would do such a horrible thing as damn people before they had a chance to earn their damnation?” The Calvinist answer is that God created the world primarily for his glory, and that his power and glory are displayed in the fate of both the elect and the reprobate. To which Smedes responds: “It seems to me that we make God out to be a complete narcissist – someone who loves only himself – when we say that his main motive for creating the world was to get honour and glory for himself. It simply must be that he created us in order to love us, all of us, and all of us with the same love.”

This leads to the question – will everyone, then, be saved? As a young man doing his doctoral research, Lew Smedes was privileged to meet the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Conservative evangelicals were concerned that Barth inclined to the belief that all people would be saved, so he pushed him on this question. Here is what happened:

The folksy theologian fairly sizzled, put his face a few inches from mine, and crackled, Ich bin kein universalist (“I am no universalist”)! But he was not finished with me. He poked his finger into my chest and said to me: “You believe the Bible? Fine, then believe this verse too,” and he quoted St Paul, who said that Christ had died “not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.” “If you are so worried about universalism,” Barth continued, “you had better begin worrying about the Bible.”

Although he is not prepared to be dogmatic, Smedes does admit to what is a bold hope given his background. He knows that none of us is “good enough to buy a seat in heaven with the small coins of our virtue” and that, while God is merciful, he is also the judge. Yet he holds the hope that all people will be saved. “In fact,” he writes, “I cannot not hope for it. My hope is a spirit’s wish, a mind’s dream, and a heart’s faith that it never pays to underestimate the mercy of God.”

  • Learning from Great Novelists

While a post-graduate student at Oxford Smedes did a lot of his research at the Bodleian library. No books could be taken from the library and it closed at five, so he used his evenings to read the novels of Dostoyevsky which, he says, “were to be more important to my life with God than any single theological work that I have since read; no theological system could expose the complications and contradictions of the human spirit so vividly or demonstrate the mercy of God so powerfully as did the greatest of all Russian novelists.”

  • Knowing God in Tragedy

After a decade of visiting fertility clinics, Lew Smedes and his wife finally conceived – only to have their baby die within twenty four hours of birth. Smedes had been “intellectually excited” by what he calls “John Calvin’s tough-minded belief” that all things – the good and the horrible – happen just as God decreed them to happen and that they happen for his glory. After the death of their child, he could no longer believe “such hard-boiled theology” and his understanding of God changed. Yet in the midst of their suffering, he experienced the reality of God with them:

Doris and I cried a lot and we knew in our tears that God was with us, paying attention to us, shedding ten thousand tears for every one of ours. Neither of us had a moment’s inclination to give up on God, to quit believing in him or to quit trusting him. In fact, he never seemed more real to either of us.

Lew Smedes memoir could be read as one man’s wrestling with and humanising of hard-line Calvinism. But it’s wider and richer than that. It’s full of lively anecdotes and diverse experience as a humble, lovable, gifted man journeys through life, always seeking to live his life in relationship with the God he has met in Jesus:

I put all my eggs in God’s basket for one reason: Jesus died and came back to life again. Then he became the life-giving Spirit to give us, be it in driblets, a sampling of the good world we are waiting for. This is where the trolley stops. If it could be proved beyond doubt that Jesus did not come alive after he was murdered, we have lost our one and only reason for hoping that there can be a good future for the world. Without Jesus we are stuck with two options: utopian illusion or deadly despair. I scorn illusion. I dread despair. So I put all my money on Jesus.

In 1999 I had the privilege of attending a Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Church in Chicago. The best part of the conference for me was a preaching seminar led by John Ortberg. In one session he played a number of clips from well-known preachers. I’ll never forget the short clip of 80 year-old Lew Smedes preaching with great gusto on the incarnation. He mentioned the TV drama “Upstairs and Downstairs” and recounted his experience of that when a post-grad student at Oxford. His wife and he lived upstairs and their landlady, Mrs Harris, lived in the basement below – and she got upset if he broke the distinction of being the “gentleman” and tried to do chores for her. Then, building on this analogy, he declared in ringing tones, “God was in the Penthouse on the 1000th floor and we were in the basement. But Jesus came all the way down, he came down and he brought his toothbrush and his pyjamas, and he came to stay. He came to stay!”