Book Review: Big God, by Orlando Saer
Orlando Saer, Big God: How to approach suffering, spread the Gospel, make decisions and pray in light of a God who is really in the driving seat of the world. Christian Focus Publications, 2014. 141 pages.
As soon as I finished reading Big God I did two things. First, I prayed, and thanked the Lord for his perfect and powerful control over all time and existence. Second, I hopped on Amazon and planning to buy every other book by Orlando Saer that I could get my hands on. (As it turns out, my shopping spree didn’t cost too much, because he only has one other book in print right now). Big God was that good.
Stepping into one of the most complex and potentially confusing areas on the Christian life, Saer, the senior pastor of Christ Church Southampton, wrote Big God to help others think better (read: more biblically) about “the way God works in the world, and particularly the way his work co-exists with ours” (11). Seemingly undaunted by the enormity of such a task, and armed with wit, wisdom, engaging stories, and practical proposals, Saer sets forth a three-fold path for this process.
HUMANS, WE SHRUNK OUR GOD
To begin, he pulls the curtain back on a serious problem: we’ve shrunk God. Saer argues, “There’s no doubt about it: that God is getting smaller—and has been for a long time” (14). And before the reader can claim innocence from this crime of divine diminishment, Saer lays out different ways even the most sincere Christians inadvertently shrink God down from the devastating deity he truly is to various manifestations of a smaller God.
Whatever forms our personal God-shrinking tendencies takes, Saer sticks chapter one’s landing on a timeless truth: “The really, really big factor that tends to lie behind God-shrinkage is the question of where we fit in the scheme of things. . . . God gets smaller because we get bigger (28, 30).”
HE MUST BECOME GREATER, WE MUST BECOME LESS
When we get bigger and God gets smaller, it’s because we’re allowing more than the Word of God to inform our view of God. Biblical binoculars are what we need, but too often we trade those for me-shaped microscopes. So this is Saer’s second task: to help us “reverse the shrinkage process . . . and rescale the god of hearts upwards, without just saying ‘I don’t know’ to all the questions and challenges of those who’ve opted for a more diminished God” (33).
This is by no means an easy undertaking; rather, it requires both a “humble heart and malleable mind” as well as a “heroic dose of humility” (35). Thankfully these are available to us through God’s Word (36). We need humble minds and hearts so that we can begin to think about God’s will, human will, and how they interact in an “un-flattened” fashion (37). Put simply, this means that both God and humans make choices, take action, and exert their wills, and these realities are neither contradicting nor mutually exclusive.
Saer’s delineation between God’s “ideal-will” (what should be, what will be, but not what necessarily is right now) and His “plan-will” (what God decides will ultimately come to pass) is one of the most helpful bits of the book (38-42). My guess is that any Christian who finds it daunting to contemplate God’s working in both the world and our lives, which is all of us at some point, will find it useful as well.
Saer makes a strong case that Christians are not stuck inside the false dilemma of fatalism or unfettered free-will. When we serve a Big God, his ideal-will and his plan-will can and do work together, both for our good and his glory. Or, as Saer succinctly states: “God works out his good and wise plans in and through normal human thought processes and behavior. The fact that God plans and works doesn’t mean we don’t have to. It means quite the opposite (54-55).”
After laying this framework, Saer uses chapters 3 to 6 as the third leg in his Big God stool. It’s here that he practically considers the personal and daily relevance of an awe-inspiring, totally good, in-complete-control God, applying it to four areas of life: suffering, evangelism, decision-making, and prayer.
He introduces us to a God who is not shy about taking responsibility for suffering experienced by his children. Yet at the same time, we see a God who reveals that he is actively using suffering as a platform for the gospel and a means by which his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, receives glory (75).
Saer also describes evangelism as a stewardship of a message determined by God, delivered by his commissioned messengers, and advanced by the simple strategy of living, loving, and speaking (86-93). Coupled with the reminder that God is the only one who can give life, the section on evangelism does much good for any wearied souls beginning to doubt their need or ability to play an active role in evangelism.
Does the idea of a God who is in complete control, yet chooses to act through our free actions, paralyze or empower you to make decisions? If you find yourself frozen in the former, then chapter five is just what the doctor ordered. It contains some of Saer’s best derailing of popular ideas which seem to dominate the Christian lingo about decision-making, including my personal favorite (and rather humorous) undressing of the phrase “I feel a real peace about . . . ” (104).
Finally, in chapter six, Saer’s persuasive case for the power of prayer, alongside his explanation of its purpose, is by itself worth the price of the book. He folds his earlier discussion of God’s will and ours into exhortations to prayer because, as he reminds us, “When God wants to bring blessing to someone, he doesn’t just press buttons on some divine remote control. No, he involves people like you and me in bringing his blessings to the world.” Or later: “The key lesson is that God turns his plans into reality by listening to—and responding to—our prayers” (132-133).
My main critique is this: Saer seems to claim in the introduction that careful thinking will help us to find the end of those questions about God which keep us up at night. For me, those questions center on the existence of evil (as separate from suffering) and the idea of double-predestination, which he doesn’t tackle. Of course I don’t expect him to exhaustively cover every nagging concern any Christian could have (and Deuteronomy 29:29 teaches us that we certainly don’t need all our questions answered to faithfully serve God), but I do think his literary ability caused him to oversell the true scope of the book. That being said, everything he does in fact tackle is accomplished with thorough, thoughtful, and biblically-based excellence.
A GOD WHO IS THERE, AND CARES, AND IS IN CONTROL
Chock-full of references and clarifying connections to God’s Word, Saer demonstrates he is a pastor who is both knowledgeable of what’s in the Bible and what the Bible means for our lives. Furthermore, his creativity and obvious knack for story-telling makes this 141 page book a breeze to read. I highly recommend it for anyone—and I mean literally anyone. Give Big God to a non-Christian. Give it to a new Christian. Give it to your pastor. Give it to your grandmother.
In his conclusion, Saer reveals a hidden aim of his work in a way that is winsome and, at least for me, brought one of those good “Ahhh, now I see what you were doing” moments. Consider this a teaser trailer, not a spoiler alert; I’m not going to tell you what the secret is, but I encourage you to pick up this book and find out for yourself. If you do, you’ll be helped to think more clearly and biblically about your God as a big God. And as you do, I hope you find comfort knowing that the “God who holds the furthest reaches of the universe in his hands is interested in the most minute details of your life and mine (134).” I know I did.