Many of the books assigned the labels “Christian Life” or “Christian Growth” are doctrinally shallow and hermeneutically suspect. Frequently, these books are long on human interest stories—many of which can be encouraging—but fail to root spiritual maturity in a robustly theological vision grounded in the Scriptures. The result, though often genuinely pious, amounts to little more than a “baptized” version of the same sort of material one might find in the “Self Help” section of the local bookstore.
But this is not that sort of book about the Christian life. In Beloved Dust: Drawing Close to God by Discovering the Truth about Yourself, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel offer a theologically rich understanding of spiritual growth. The authors bring appropriate expertise to the task: Goggin is pastor of spiritual formation at Saddleback Church, and Strobel is a theologian who teaches spiritual formation at Talbot School of Theology. Like any good book in this genre, Beloved Dust is full of personal anecdotes, many of which are honest and sometimes painful reflections on past spiritual struggles. Unlike many books in the field, Beloved Dust understands that a proper understanding of spiritual formation must be rooted in a biblical understanding of God, humanity, sin, and salvation.
Not That Sort of Book About Prayer
Goggin and Strobel argue that Beloved Dust is really a book about prayer—but not the kind you normally read. This is not a “how to” book about prayer, nor is it a guilt-inducing summary of the epic prayer lives of the great saints of old, nor is it even a biblical study of prayer. Rather, for the authors, prayer is the “ground of the Christian life” (xviii) and the primary expression of an authentic relationship with God. In other words, the Christian life is in large measure a praying life. Beloved Dust is meant to provide readers with a particular understanding of the Christian life that helps, in turn, to form in them a particular understanding of the life of prayer.
Humility and brokenness are key elements of Goggin and Strobel’s vision for the Christian life. These are best understood in light of the book’s title: beloved dust. Recognizing that we are created, fallen, yet beloved by the Creator reminds us of our brokenness and should help us to remain humble. These priorities in turn inform our prayer life, which is central to our relationship with God. Goggin and Strobel are in many ways commending a more overtly evangelical version of Brother Lawrence’s (1614–1691) strategy to “practice the presence of God.”
The authors make their case through nine chapters and a brief afterword. We were created to be in a relationship with the Creator who loves us—beloved dust. Unfortunately, sin has severed that relationship. We now have bought into the illusion that we control our own destiny, so we seek futilely after idols to fill the spiritual void in our lives. In recognizing our own frailty, our own limitations, and our own sinfulness we are free to receive God’s grace in Christ and then rest in an authentic relationship with him. This is the beginning our spiritual transformation. As we embark on this Christian journey, prayer reminds us that we are beloved dust who rely upon the grace of the Creator for every step of our spiritual maturity.
Our newfound, rightly ordered relationship with God is made possible through the incarnation, wherein Jesus identified with us in all our “dustiness” (a recurring metaphor in the book), and through the atonement and resurrection, wherein Jesus took our sins upon himself. Jesus is also the model for us as we consider what it means to abide with God through a life of prayer. We draw near to God and experience spiritual rest and real peace as a foretaste of the new creation to come. This rest is often best articulated through ongoing silent prayer, where we meditate on God’s goodness to us and fight the temptation to justify ourselves before him with our words.
Welcome Book with a Single Caveat
Beloved Dust is a welcome book about spiritual maturity and the life of prayer. It is a nearly perfect balance of theological depth and popularly written width. Though Strobel has a PhD in theology and Goggin is working toward one, they do not write above the level of their intended audience. Theological concepts are clearly explained and applied to the Christian life. I was especially pleased that biblical-theological themes that have inspired academic monographs, including a whole-Bible interpretation of temple and garden imagery, are communicated in ways that should resonate with everyday Christians. Not all readers will resonate with the authors’ strong endorsement of silent prayer, but this should be a minor concern at most.
My only caveat is that Beloved Dust does not say as much about sin as it could. Specifically, while the alienating effects of sin are expounded in helpful ways throughout the book, the final fruit of sin—God’s just wrath being poured out on unrepentant sinners for all eternity—is largely absent. Including a more fully orbed discussion of sin would have strengthened the book by noting the urgency to recognize who we really are as beloved dust, to repent of our sin, and to rest in God through faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Beloved Dust is a great resource to put in the hands of those who already have a relationship with God through faith in Christ—including pastors. Readers will find much to help them draw more closely to God in personal prayer and find fuel for their ongoing pursuit of holiness.