I’ve been trying to get up to speed on contemporary Christian leaders in terms of influence and insight, and came upon Jennie Allen’s ministry. I recently read Nothing to Prove: Why We Can Stop Trying So Hard. It’s an accessible book in terms of theology and meaningful in terms of its message.
Nothing to Prove by Jennie Allen encourages Christians to embrace that we’re not enough but God surely is. The book is filled with stories from Jennie’s life, including struggles and insights from leading IF:Gathering, a discipleship ministry. A unique feature of the book is a section with experience guides. These chapters contain a contemporary retelling of Bible stories, questions for reflection, and activities that reinforce lessons and create opportunities to experience God’s grace in community.
The book is insightful for any generation and gender but the main audience is women in their 30s, particularly those who have children. Jennie received a vision to “disciple a generation” and her references, such as using Netflix binging to become numb to real life, most likely resonate with women in Generation X. (Note: I watch Netflix and am guilty of using television to escape but feel that binge-watching episodes of Gilmore Girls is not a boomer thing).
A Few Lessons from Nothing to Prove
The book reminded me of lessons I’ve learned and offered new perspectives — all with the focus on enjoying my relationship with Jesus rather than trying to do things to earn God’s favor, validate myself in the world, and avoid dealing with blind spots in my life.
God works in spite of us
Jennie’s epiphany comes when she is overwhelmed with responsibility associated with IF:Gathering. She realizes that God accomplishes his plans “in spite of us.” She says:
We walk around desperately afraid we don’t measure up. We slap on self-esteem strategies that feel a little like playing pretend dress up when we were seven. We think that we are someone grown up and lovely and accomplished, and we want to be someone grown up and lovely and accomplished. But deep in our marrow, we know it is pretend. We are not enough. So we spend our lives trying to shift that reality. God has a different story line for us, one in which our souls are content and epic stories unfold through our lives here — but not because of us. In spite of us.
Throughout the book, Jennie shows us how to apply this lesson to our lives.
I’ll mention that my take is slightly different than Jennie’s. I think God accomplishes his means both because of us, the gifts he’s given to us and our willingness to use them, and in spite of us, the fact that we mess up just as often as we do things right. What I’ve learned is that whatever project or program or ministry in which I’m being called to get involved (or think I am) is God’s gig, not mine. I’m just along for the ride, to get a glimpse of how God works and how his character is revealed.
Realizing the “in spite of us” for me was one of my most freeing life lessons. It’s allowed me to view setbacks as part of an intriguing story I’ll tell one day. The obstacles also prompt me to consider what God wants me to learn and how I might be changed through a new perspective in understanding an otherwise frustrating situation.
Good things can’t replace Jesus
Most of us know that good things, even really good things like meaningful work, a great family life, and Christian friends, aren’t a substitute for a real relationship with Jesus. Jennie explains and refines this idea:
So, in our pursuit of deep connection, we have to recognize that we can often look to good things like community, authenticity, confession to take the place of connecting with Jesus … When we begin to find our deepest, most fundamental needs met in God, then we will go from using people to meet our needs to enjoying people despite the ways they disappoint us. Community is meant to point us to Jesus, not replace Him.
I’ll admit that much of my work here is focused on community. What I’ve seen is that many in my generation have lost that sense of belonging, the love of neighbor, the advocacy for the marginalized in our community as we’ve pursued our individual freedoms, defended our individual rights, and sought to protect our individual futures. I’m not going to argue that social change is more critical than managing our retirement portfolios. But I’ll contend Jesus realizes that we come to understand who he is, how he loves, and who he wants us to become through our dealings with real people in the real world.
If you’re the sort of person who believes that God speaks to us clearly, perhaps not audibly but clearly, then you might appreciate what a friend told me that God told her as she pondered her role in the lives of difficult people. He said: “If you want to know me more, love them more.” We are tied together in ways that we can’t imagine or understand.
Still, one thing that I learned as a young Christian is that even the best people are flawed — there’s something wrong with her theology or dark about his past. In my young yet clear-thinking mind, I reckoned that these imperfections served to remind me to trust not people but God fully.
Displaying humility is humiliating, and freeing
I encourage people as I encourage myself to share stories, both ones that flatter us and ones that put our insecurities, irrational fears, prejudices, and misplaced desire for status on display. What I’ve learned is that – in a safe environment – there is often a brief moment of embarrassment or humiliation, which is followed by a release of the insecurity, fear, etc. that previously held us (me) captive.
Sadly, our churches are often not the place where we can share our stories, even though they should be. Jennie affirms what I’ve noticed when she says: “It terrified me that we have accidentally built an institution in direct opposition to the call of Christ for the church. We should be the safest place on earth to bring our sin.”
Jennie and her husband planted a church, a Christian community, that encouraged people to confront their sin. This confrontation involved confessing sin to fellow members and facing fears of rejection, shame, and disconnection. As a result, “People experienced the grace and forgiveness of Christ like never before. People grew closer and more connected than they had ever been before.”
This lesson is one that I’ve been slow to grasp. Perhaps I’ve been afraid of being judged or I’ve adopted what I perceive to be a cultural attitude that I need to act like everything’s fine to earn respect. I’ve known that confession is redemptive for the soul but I’m experiencing how authenticity is allowing me to connect to people in ways I hadn’t before.
Closing Thoughts on Nothing to Prove
There’s much more to Nothing to Prove than I’ve mentioned but I hope I’ve given you insight about who might most benefit from a reading. Read this book to gain understanding of how God works through people in with an emphasis on showing us “why we can stop trying so hard” and start accepting God’s grace in all areas of our lives. Use the experience-guide sections provoke not only reflection but also action, which can move faith from the conceptual to practical.
What did you think about Nothing to Prove? How did the book change you?