Book Review: Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, by Jim Cymbala
I first read Jim Cymbala’s book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire as a last-year undergraduate. I enjoyed it. I recently read the book again, two and a half years later, and for the most part, I enjoyed it again. Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire is Cymbala’s story of God’s work in his own life and in the life of his church, the Brooklyn Tabernacle. His burden in the book is to convince the reader that God desires to answer the fervent prayers of His church. Many of the stories that Cymbala tells are wonderfully encouraging. It is good to be reminded of God’s ability and even desire to work powerfully and visibly in the lives of His people. I was moved nearly to tears several times as Cymbala told of how God powerfully answered prayers and changed lives through the gospel. One of those stories (page 40 and following) contains a letter from a woman who tells of her terrible battle with drugs and depression. When she “finally hit bottom,” she drove to the Brooklyn Tabernacle and cried to God to save her. Now she sings in the Tabernacle choir and is a faithful member of the church. Cymbala tells of the time that this woman was asked to give her testimony before the church. Her father was present that night. The story that this young woman had to share, Cymbala says, was not a pretty one, and certainly not one that a father would smile in pride to hear coming from his daughter’s lips. As she came to the most disturbing parts of her story, she stopped, looked at her father, and said with tears in her eyes, “Daddy, I know this is hard for you to hear. But I have to say it, because it shows how Jesus can forgive the worst in a person’s life.” Cymbala tells also of his own daughter Chrissy (pp.60-65), who rebelled against God and her family and disappeared into the streets of New York City. He writes passionately about that experience, and several times I found myself feeling the same pit in my stomach that he himself must have felt during those days. One Tuesday night, Cymbala went to his church’s Tuesday night prayer meeting and asked the church to pray for Chrissy. They did. A few nights later, she showed up on the doorstep and collapsed into her father’s arms. “Daddy—Daddy—I’ve sinned against God. I’ve sinned against myself. I’ve sinned against you and Mommy. Please forgive me.” A few seconds later, Cymbala writes, she pulled back startled and said, “Daddy, who was praying for me? On Tuesday night, who was praying for me?” It had been the church.
I don’t know all the circumstances of those events, but I do know that those stories resonate with me. I love to hear stories like those of God’s love and forgiveness through Christ, maybe because they are so familiar to me. I have experienced that forgiveness myself, and I have watched other people in my life dissolve into those same tears that these women cried as they realized the forgiveness that was bought by Christ on the cross. Maybe that’s why Cymbala’s stories so affect me. I recognize them.
I was glad to see that in all his stories of God’s faithfulness in growing the Brooklyn Tabernacle, Cymbala is determined to make sure that glory is given where it is due—to Christ. The emphasis is refreshingly not on pragmatic ways to bring people into the church or effective strategies for developing a management structure. Cymbala again and again points to Christ as the source of all good and blessing in a church, and he calls on the church to pray to God rather than revamp their worship band. It is a welcome emphasis.
Cymbala writes as the pastor of an inner-city church in Brooklyn, New York. He is under no illusion that things always work out right, and he does not teach his readers to expect that. Cymbala calls on the church to pray and to believe that God will answer, but he also understands that God does not always will to give us what we most want. Sometimes things do not work out. The lives don’t change; the AIDS patient he prays for does not finally live. Yet faith remains, even when God doesn’t do our bidding. In a time when Christians are eager to do anything they are promised will obligate God to bless them, Cymbala’s sobriety in that area is commendable.
All of that makes me even more disappointed to have to say that I cannot recommend the book. For all the good and useful things Cymbala says about God’s willingness to answer prayer, he sees a need for some reason to pit prayer against the preached Word of God. It really is a strange position to take, since the Scriptures constantly link the two together. Prayer is a vital part of the Christian life, and any preacher would tell you that it is indispensable to affecting and God-honoring preaching. Yet Cymbala seems bent on exhorting the church to pray at the expense of hearing the Word of God. He writes on page 71, “Does the Bible ever say anywhere from Genesis to Revelation, ‘My house shall be called a house of preaching?’. . . Of course not. . . . Preaching, music, the reading of the Word—these things are fine; I believe in and practice all of them. But they must never override prayer as the defining mark of God’s dwelling.” His most definitive statement on the matter is on page 84: “[The Bible] doesn’t say, ‘Let us come to the sermon.’ We in America have made the sermon the centerpiece of the church, something God never intended.” I appreciate Cymbala’s emphasis on prayer. Prayer is a wonderful thing talk about and exhort our churches to do. But I think he has profoundly misunderstood the Bible’s teaching on how God works in the world. Certainly God works through prayer. That is not in debate. Contrary to Cymbala’s belief, though, God did make His Word the centerpiece of the church, and in fact the centerpiece of His work throughout all history. God’s purpose in the world, no matter what part of the Bible one studies, is always accomplished by His Word. Read the Old Testament, and you will find the Word of God—the Law and the Prophets—at the center of the story. Read the Gospels, and you will find the Word of God—incarnate—at the center of the story. Read Acts, and you will find that the gospel is spread without fail through the preaching of the Word. Read the epistles, and you will find Paul asking for prayer that he might boldly preach the Word of God. Nowhere in the entire Bible will any serious reader ever find that it agrees with Cymbala in de-prioritizing the preaching of the Word. Preaching always stands at the vanguard of any move of God in the world.
Not only that, but Cymbala’s own use of the Scriptures to back this de-prioritizing of preaching is questionable. We have already quoted his argument on page 71 to the effect that Jesus never said, “My house shall be called a house of preaching.” But what kind of exegesis is it to take a passage like that of Jesus in the temple and say that because He calls it a “house of prayer,” therefore we have done too much preaching? Quite simply, it is unconvincing. Cymbala also cites Acts 1-2 on pages 71-72 to argue, “Have you ever noticed that Jesus launched the Christian church, not while someone was preaching, but while the people were praying?” Of course the apostles were praying; no one would argue against that. But when I read the first two chapters of Acts, what I see is a chapter-long sermon by Peter and the statement in Acts 2:37, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart.” It lines up well, doesn’t it, with Romans 10? “Faith comes by hearing!” How Cymbala can appeal to the Day of Pentecost as evidence that we should de-prioritize the preaching of the Word, I do not understand.
So tightly are prayer and the preaching of the Word interlocked in Scripture that it is just, well, a little weird that Cymbala tries to pit them against one another. Preaching and prayer are both essential to the Christian life, and to each other. Prayer itself is informed by preaching, and it is through prayer, in turn, that we ask God to bless the preaching of His Word. The relationship between God and His church, like any relationship, involves communication in two directions. We talk to God through prayer, He speaks to us through the preaching of the Word. Why would Cymbala ever call the church to minimize God’s part in that conversation? Even if we were somehow forced to choose, I suggest that it would be far more important for us to hear from God than for Him to hear from us. But thank God we don’t have to make that choice! We are to pray, and we are to preach. Neither should be minimized.
In Acts 4, which Cymbala often cites, the believers don’t just pray generically for the power of the Spirit. Most essentially, they pray that God will enable His servants “to speak Your work with great boldness.” Paul asks the same in Ephesians 6:19, “Pray for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel . . . Pray that that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”
As I said earlier, I appreciate and rejoice with Cymbala that God has done wonderful things in his life and church through prayer. The lesson to be gained from that, though, is not that we have over-emphasized preaching. The lesson to be gained is that we should pray and preach. We should pray, like the apostles, that God will use the preaching of His Word to draw many to Christ.