This book is my top nomination for the highest “bad title to excellent content” ratio. For what it is worth, I think the book cover is terrible too. I mean, did we really need a bird to replace the “t” in “wanted”? I could go on, but I really don’t like the health-and-wealth sound of the title or the cheesy cover.
Nevertheless, I want to highly recommend The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg. Why?
Because his writing style oozes graciousness, his subject matter is profound, and his insights are “sticky.” A year after I first read it, I’m still remembering points he made and seeing the benefit they’ve had on my life. Ortberg is vulnerable about his flaws and failures. There are laugh out loud jokes. And he tells amazing, memorable stories.
One of my favorite stories of the book is of Mabel, an eighty-nine year old woman in a convalescent hospital that smelled like stale urine, who was blind, nearly deaf, had cancer, a huge sore on her face, a constant drool, and few if any friends to visit her. Ortberg’s friend went to see her regularly, and one day, they had this exchange:
I asked, ‘What do you think about Jesus?’
She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote…:
I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know…. I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied…. Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.
And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:
Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day,
Without him I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go,
No other one can cheer me so.
When I am sad He makes me glad.
He’s my friend (p. 24).
It is one of many powerful stories about the transformation that Jesus can make in our lives, whatever our circumstances.
The Life You’ve Always Wanted is about the gospel, or the good news. What is the effect of the gospel? As Ortberg wisely put sit, “The good news as Jesus preached it is not about the minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven when you die. It is about the glorious redemption of human life—your life ” (26). What I absolutely love about Ortberg’s understanding of the spiritual disciplines, of discipleship, of the process of sanctification, is how he presents a vision that is very human and life-giving.
In the opening chapters Ortberg warns us against becoming inauthentic, weird, judgmental, worn out, superficial, and foolish. I’m guilty as charged. I find it remarkably easy to drift off-center in my pursuit of Jesus; Ortberg gently and warmly draws us to reconsider how we’ve been pursuing spiritual growth.
After explaining the purpose and practicality of “the spiritual disciplines,” he suggests a variety of spiritual disciplines, starting with a few that are a bit unexpected:
- The discipline of celebration
- The discipline of “slowing”
- The discipline of prayer
- The practice of servanthood
- The practice of confession
- Receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit
- The practice of secrecy
- Reflecting on Scripture
- Developing Your Own “Rule of Life”
- The experience of suffering
You can see from the table of contents that the book is serious about holiness: servanthood, Scripture reading, and suffering all make the list. (And by the way, if you want to go ahead and work on a Rule of Life, there’s a series at Reasons for God on the subject). But the book is also wisely tailored to common discipleship issues where people feel an intense pressure to be “busy” and to perform. We need to celebrate life and slow down if we are to enter fully into the kingdom of God. There isn’t any guilt-tripping or spiritual manipulation in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, but gentle invitations into something better.
The book is not primarily informational; it also focuses on application. Each chapter has little ‘stop and reflect’ sections that have sound direction for what to do. Go on a spiritual retreat: here’s a guide. What’s your prayer life like: here are some questions for you to journal about. Want to serve? Here are some ideas to get you started.
If you want to change, Ortberg has made the path as clear as possible. If you don’t, he offers real encouragement to consider the good path Jesus has modeled for us and calls us to participate in. This isn’t “do-it-yourself” spirituality either, but involves a humble reliance of the power of the Holy Spirit.
I also really appreciated that the book comes with a study guide. This made it very easy to organize discussions around the book in a small group format (I initially read this book with a student group). If you are reading the book by yourself, this provides a nice check-in to see what you took away from each chapter.
My critiques of the book are relatively limited to some mild stylistic concerns. For instance, though Ortberg is often on the mark with his cultural references, some of them have already become rather dated. So, to illustrate our hope of spiritual transformation into Christlikeness, he suggests “morphing,” a term from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Not only is this dated, but it is misleading. We don’t really become superheroes in the journey to Christlikeness. Though you’ll get his point, and I guess the metaphor can be defended, the book would be better off without it.
Perhaps more broadly, the book could have discussed at greater length, or in a more focused way, some subjects which are often neglected in talk of spiritual disciplines: the importance of the church and community, of our daily work, caring for the environment, and involvement in social justice. At the same time, every book doesn’t have a responsibility to cover every topic.
Here’s the final word: please, don’t judge this book based on its cover, or because of its title. But do read it and put it into practice – preferably in the context of a small group at your church home.
You can pick up a copy of The Life You’ve Always Wanted at Amazon.com.