You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for our Sinful Behaviour and Negative Emotions by Tim Chester. Nottingham: IVP, 2008 204 pp p/b £9.99 ISBN: 978-1-84474-303-2
Captured by a Better Vision: Living Porn Free by Tim Chester. Nottingham: IVP, 2010 176 pp p/b £8.99 ISBN: 978-1-84474-435-0
These are not good books to read. But they are excellent books to engage with and soak up and use. They are not for light entertainment. As Tim Chester rightly says, “For us, holiness consists not in heroic acts, but in a thousand small decisions,” and these are the sorts of books which help develop habits of good decision making. You Can Change (a brilliant title!) looks at ten basic questions about changing and growing in holiness as a Christian, from “What would you like to change?” to “When do you struggle?” to “How can we support one another in changing?”
The chapters are fairly packed theologically, biblically, and with illustrations and quotes (the Reformed and Evangelical traditions have been well mined for illustrative and doctrinal material). And each one ends with work to do on one’s own “change project”, using the author’s questions and reflective exercises (sometimes as much as five pages worth). These are very good tools, and help consolidate the reading and turn it into real life sanctification, though I think it might have been helpful if the chapters were not so dense and long, so I could have reflected on a smaller amount of material in more depth without feeling rushed. It is tempting to defer the actual engagement aspect until another day, and my sinful nature doesn’t need much of an excuse to avoid spending time with a difficult heart-exposing question.
There are also too many quotes in the book, giving it a rather jagged and derivative feel at times, especially when one wants to know where the reference is and has to go to the endnotes to find out. Jonathan Edwards rubs shoulders with Walter Marshall, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Sinclair Ferguson, C.S. Lewis, John Newton, the Psalmist, and Paul – and that’s just pages 86 and 87 (keeping a digit in page 199 for the endnotes). It’s all good stuff, however, so worth spending time chewing on. I found Chester’s approach especially helpful when he was talking about idolatry, a fashionable category for us to work in these days when discussing sanctification. While there is some very useful diagnostic material here for us to examine our hearts, Chester is also careful to add that, “It’s not necessarily wise to go on an idol hunt all the time, or explore every motive. That might lead to unhealthy introspection. Our focus should be on God’s liberating truth.” He links deep and endless introspection to Sigmund Freud’s idea that everything lies hidden in our subconscious, and counters it by saying “Introspection assumes I’m what matters in sanctification. But it’s God who changes us.” This is a helpful corrective for when a useful theological tool is in danger of being taken too far.
When I first picked up Captured by a Better Vision: Living Porn Free, also by Tim Chester, I was expecting a repeat performance, just with a more narrowly defined target. But it is much more than that, a completely fresh work tackling the issue of the struggle with pornography specifically and head on. This has become an increasingly urgent pastoral issue in churches, as any minister in touch with the pews can testify. It could well be the most significant moral issue facing churches in our generation, undermining countless marriages and holding back thousands of Christians from growing spiritually and being bold in evangelism. A survey in 2006 found that 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women are addicted to pornography. That’s every third person in our congregations, and things are probably far worse than such statistics suggest (after all, not every Christian would admit such an addiction to a survey, and the increasing roll-out of broadband has made access to explicit material online even easier in the last 6 years).
Chester’s approach to dealing with this exceptionally serious issue is fivefold. He aims to create an abhorrence of porn (not just the shame it brings), an adoration of God, an assurance of grace, avoidance of temptation, and accountability to others. The book is generally well-written, with some startling phrases to arrest the attention, though there is also some explicit language intended to shock, which means it should come with a health warning and possibly not be given to teenagers. Used wisely, however, I think this book could help to achieve all the things it sets out to do, and help protect people from the dangers of porn and the lust which creates the desire for it.
This review was first published in Churchman 1126/4 (2012).