This review, which I wrote in 2012, originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition’s site.
William P. Smith. Loving Well (Even if You Haven’t Been). Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2012. 288 pp. $15.99.
William Smith and I have a lot in common. We are both biblical counselors. We both write about God’s grace. And we both go bananas when our kids slam the doorknob into the drywall.
In Loving Well (Even if You Haven’t Been), Smith, director of counseling at Chelten Baptist Church in Dresher, Pennsylvania, explores the believer’s need to internalize God’s love for us as individuals in order to build strong, edifying relationships with others. In this well-written and easy-to-identify-with book, Smith explores 15 aspects of divine love and how, through grasping them, we grow more intentional about extending grace.
The timing of this book coincided with a personal rediscovery of the God who, as he puts it, “moves toward me, inviting me to know him” (xxi). In a dry spiritual season, I admitted to a fellow Christian my struggle to believe God really loves me and my tendency to see the cross as an historical event with little bearing on my life. “Don’t you believe [the Word] has the power to change you?” my friend admonished. His advice was so simple as to be common sense: read the Gospels. Again. Double-read the parts about Jesus’ crucifixion, which he went through “willingly, because he loved you.”
My young friend was on to something: experiencing the love of God is foundational to transformation. Smith observes that how we perceive God will inevitably affect how we treat others; therefore, we need an accurate view of God. Seeing him as the initiating, pursuing God of all comfort (rather than a dictator or detached deity) enables us to reach out to others. Moving toward suffering friends, building others up to reach their full potential in Christ, and enjoying genuine fellowship are three categories Smith examines.
Part I deals with comforting love, confessing struggles, and forgiveness. Moving sympathetically toward those in pain is the model of how God approaches us. In his humanity, Jesus invited the presence of others in his own deepest trials (e.g., Gethsemane). The suggestion that we may actually help a hurting person by our mere presence is refreshing to those of us trained not to let a counselee “vent” or just talk about the problem. Is “just listening” beneficial? Doesn’t compassion move us to action? Yes, when appropriate. In later chapters, Smith explores the outworking of serving and giving, but when a friend suffers, often the most loving thing to do is simply be there.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
True intimacy demands letting friends see the depths of our hearts. Drawing on Christ’s transparency with his followers, Smith gives helpful ways to respond to a friend who opens up her life. However, two realities coexist: we sin, and we’re sinned against. Smith demonstrates that a truly forgiving friend must see the lengths to which God will go to forgive and restore relationships—beginning in Eden and culminating at Calvary. Smith asks the rhetorical question, “Did God set himself up to be sinned against?” (52) and explains that God allowing sin in no way undermines his sovereign plan to reveal his mercy and goodness. Relieved that Smith upholds a high view of God, I agreed that incidents of sin, unavoidable between friends, lead to opportunities to extend forgiveness and thus chances for others to behold the goodness of God through us (Rom. 6:1).
While Smith promotes reconciliation, a discussion of repentance was largely absent (though he later touches on the subject of gentle confrontation). Likewise, we read of Smith seeking forgiveness from his child after “losing it,” but how did he then deal with the child’s defiance that preceded the angry confrontation?
Love That Reaches Out
In Part II, Smith examines the importance of edification and service. Understanding we’re served by Jesus marks the difference between believing we’re “here to be served” and joyfully extending service to others. Drawing on Paul’s example with diverse individuals, Smith demonstrates true friendship is based far less on commonalities than on a mutual friendship with Christ. The “pursuing love” he unpacks depicts “lost sheep diligently pursuing each other” (101), since that’s what they’ve experienced themselves from the Good Shepherd. Accountability, then, is simply an element of transparent friendship.
Smith provides an apt metaphor for counseling: “Do you see God’s gracious attitude toward those who are in trouble? He wants shepherds who will give themselves to the work of building up and pursuing people who are damaged and lost . . . who actively pursue the hurting sheep in order to nurse them back to health” (105). Encouragement lies at the heart of “one-anothering” in healthy churches. God deals with straying children by pleading, warning, and instructing—expressions of his love, and the foundation upon which all counsel, exhortation, and edification must be based.
Love That Enjoys Heaven on Earth
Though “fellowship” is a somewhat overused term in evangelicalism, it is the true sense of Christian fellowship to which Smith devotes the final section of the book. The image of Christ emptying himself and the Father welcoming unfaithful sinners shapes how we greet and interact with one another. “Reshaping our world for the sake of someone else” grows out of reverence for Christ. Smith also discusses unbiblical submission by denouncing the error of domineering, one-sided relationships. Verbal and emotional abuse are too rarely addressed in biblical counseling literature, but Smith encourages change motivated by concern for both persons’ spiritual health.
All of God’s commands regarding love reveal his relational heart. The warmth Christ has for his “friends” (John 15:15) comes through the pages of Loving Well. Enjoying true friendship with a personal God doesn’t diminish his majesty; it enables his children to display his likeness in their own relationships. Tying Scripture to real-life situations, Smith takes a relational approach to the process of biblical change—change that cannot help but occur once we’ve tasted God’s goodness personally.