Book Review: “Forgotten God” by Francis Chan

forgotten God          Confusing. Mysterious. Controversial. Rational. Emotional.  All of these are words that can be applied to how Christians from different faith-traditions approach or describe the Holy Spirit. 

            In his new book, pastor, speaker and author Francis Chan wants to add another word: forgotten.  For all the confessions, faith-statements, studies and claims, Chan asserts that in practice, the Holy Spirit is largely left out of the everyday lives and churches of Christ-followers in the United States –with disastrous consequences for our mission. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (David C. Cook, 2009) is his plea for Jesus’ people to embrace the adventure of living the real promise and power of the Holy Spirit.

            This is not a thoroughgoing theology of the Holy Spirit, though one early chapter briefly surveys the basic Biblical teachings on the Holy Spirit from a balanced evangelical viewpoint.  The observations, principles and assertions arise from solid Biblical grounding and authority.  Chan is clearly not writing for theologians, but for the average Christ-follower and evangelical church member. The material is accessible and the tone conversational, which means that Forgotten God may prove to be very helpful for small groups or as the basis for discussion within a church family.   

Across its seven chapters, Forgotten God weaves together three strands of thought as Chan interacts with common questions or issues about the Holy Spirit.  First, there is Chan’s observation or diagnosis of life and ministry undertaken apart from the Spirit.  He is clearly burdened by the fact that so many claim Christ, but can share little experience of His power nor give compelling evidence of the difference He makes to those who do not yet know Him.  At times incredulous, but always kind, there is clearly a prophetic edge to these passages.

  “I’m willing to bet there are millions of churchgoers across America who cannot confidently say they have experienced His presence or action in their lives over the past year.  And many of them do not believe they can.  The benchmark of success in church services has become more about attendance than the movement of the Holy Spirit.  The “entertainment” model of church was largely adopted in the 1980’s and ‘90’s and while it alleviated some of our boredom for a couple of hours a week, it filled our churches with self-focused consumers rather than self-sacrificing servants attuned to the Holy Spirit….The light of the American church is flickering and nearly extinguished, having largely sold out to the kingdoms and values of this world….We are not all we were made to be when everything in our lives and churches can be explained apart from the work and presence of the Spirit of God….shouldn’t there be a huge difference between the person who has the Spirit of God living inside of him or her and the person who does not?”

That expectation –of clearly and radically different churches and Christians– raises a conflict of the heart that needs resolution.

The second strand of thought begins to move towards that resolution. Chan regularly pleads for believers to avoid becoming “stuck” in their previous understandings of, or traditions they have been taught about, the Holy Spirit.  The life of the Spirit is a dynamic one, involving hearts tender to His whispers, flexible to His promptings and open to His possibilities.  People on all sides of the evangelical spectrum may miss the Spirit’s moving or even grieve Him because of a mindset that blinds them to His present work.  Some will miss because they expect too little; others because they expect too much.  “No matter what tradition you come from, you likely carry baggage and harbor stereotypes when it comes to the Holy Spirit….There are a lot of stereotypes (some of which are true) and a lot of abuses, and they don’t come from just one side of the issue.” Chan does an excellent (even pastoral) job of gently pointing out areas where Christians can get stuck (ie, fear over what the Holy Spirit might do; wanting to see miracles) and gently leading them to consider the fullness of what the Bible teaches (ie, the Spirit is the Father’s good gift to His children; He also comes to shape character and display Jesus’ glory more fully).  

The final strand of Forgotten God (and the most important) is the  encouragement towards constant, practical living in the presence, and under the power and direction, of the Holy Spirit.  Chan shows his hand early in the book:  “My hunch is that most of you reading this book have basic knowledge about the Holy Spirit, but when it comes to experiencing the Holy Spirit in your life, it’s a different story…the goal of this book is not to completely understand the Spirit or to go back to the apostolic age.  The goal is to live faithfully today.”  Towards the end, he confesses, “I want nothing more than to live in total surrender and abandonment to the Spirit every moment I have left on this earth….I don’t want my life to be explainable apart from the Spirit”

That is not an easy or simple goal—especially in a Christian world so saturated with busy, check-off /checklist spirituality. Chan is very helpful in demonstrating the practical and indispensable role of the Spirit in areas like becoming more like Jesus in character and action, dealing with sin, following God’s will in our everyday lives, and serving God in the world.  One thing I really appreciated was his refusal to allow Spirit-filling and living to remain in an individual shrink-wrapped cocoon.  Spirit-filling is intended to press us into the world—and sometimes that is not safe:

“The truth is that the Spirit of the living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn’t normally want or choose to do.  The Spirit will lead you into the way of the cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be. The Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be…”

There’s power in living by the Spirit.  And of course, in the end, Christians who live by the Holy Spirit will form churches that are desperate for the Holy Spirit, live by the Holy Spirit and are themselves powerful– “ an unstoppable force spreading the fame of Jesus and advancing the border of His Kingdom.

            With Forgotten God, Francis Chan has given us an important reminder.  We need the Holy Spirit for every moment of life and ministry.  He is not an option or an afterthought. He is a necessity, for He is our life.

Check out this brief clip of Francis Chan discussing the book:

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