SFGKW – Chapter 1: Fine Wine (The Failure of Formulas)

In the first chapter of Searching for God Knows What, author Donald Miller recounts a humorous event from his past. He, wanting desperately to write Christian fiction, and not fully understanding the difference between fiction and nonfiction, flew in to Memphis for a two-day writing workshop titled “Capturing Literature for the Glory of God”.

He was halfway through the first session when he realized he was at a conference for writing Christian self-help books, and that the three-step formulas for literary success the speaker was touting wouldn’t really mesh with his ideas for Sister Democracy, Show Some Leg! (a story and possibly musical about a nun who travels the world causing dictators to fall in love with her and leaving newly-constructed democracies in her wake).

At that point Miller turns more introspective, and the rest of the chapter is devoted to his musings on the pointlessness of self-help books and why most formulas for life will fail. His main premise is that life is too messy and complex to simply be fixed by a neat formula or three step process. In fact, simple formulas offer false hope, and so one needs to look past them to begin appreciating life for what it is.

That’s not to say that people can’t achieve their desired results and such self-help books can’t be a vehicle for moving in the right direction; but rather it is rarely the case that people get what they want or where they want in life just because of a formula. There are numerous other factors at play, some conscious and some unknown, that have a role in the trajectory of one’s life.

A Christian self-help book can be even more problematic, due in part to the magnificent and infinitely complex nature of God. People prefer formulas because they sell control and a clear path forward, but knowing God is a relational experience. In fact, the Bible teaches that if we really want to draw near to the heart of God then we must give up control in our lives and surrender fully to him. Giving up control is basically the antithesis of most self-help books.

Of course the personality and character of God have consistencies we can rely on, but those can still be nebulous at times. He promises to provide for our needs, but he doesn’t layout a twelve step plan for how he will do that (and worse, we often feel like our needs are not being met because we’re pining for things we want instead of what we need).

Miller concludes the chapter with a sobering thought: self-help formulas are all about wish fulfillment, and if we obsess over wish fulfillment do we really want God or just the wishes?

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