This is a hard review for me to write. On the one hand, I disagreed with a lot of this book and would not recommend it to others. On the other hand, if I were to meet Bob Goff in person, I know for a fact I would love him.
There are almost 2,000 reviews for this book on Amazon. Eighty-six percent of these reviewers have given it a 5/5 rating. That’s a ton of people who have loved and seemingly benefitted from it. This fact, combined with Bob Goff’s laudable character as well as my dissent, are what make this a very difficult review. I’m writing it out of sincere respect for Bob and everyone else who loved it, but also out of honesty.
Bob Goff is a lawyer and the founder of Restore International, a non-profit helping children in other countries. This book is divided into 31 chapters that share little snippets of lessons Bob’s learned about life and love through stories from his own. Each of these stories point to a bigger picture: that love is not just something you say or feel, but something you do. As a Christian, Bob incorporates a lot of lessons he’s learned about God and the love that Christians are called to enact.
What I Liked
I liked that Bob actually does and doesn’t just talk. He lives out his philosophies. He doesn’t like hypocrisy, especially religious hypocrisy, and you can tell he does a darned good job of combatting it in his own life.
Don Miller, in his introduction, writes, “I don’t know how to explain Bob’s love except to say it is utterly and delightfully devastating. You simply cannot live the same once you know him.” Bob has it right: Jesus said people would know his disciples by their love for others. Bob’s love for God is glaringly visible through his extravagant, generous, and unrestrained love for others. I imagine it’d be really difficult to like a person who is so uninhibited in displaying love.
What I Didn’t Like
- EMPHASIS ON DOING, NOT BEING
Although this is a book about love, Christian love, there is no gospel; there is no good news. Yes, there is mention of God loving people and Jesus calling us to a better life. Yes, there is mention of faith and hope. But there is nothing that tells me why I need Jesus. There is nothing that makes me see my sin or my need for a savior. There is nothing that tells me, “you’re rubbish at doing love on your own – heck, you’re rubbish at even feeling love on your own, but there is a savior who can change your heart, and a spirit who can produce love within you, and a father who made all of this possible because of his love.”
The enemy to faith is works-righteousness. Do, and be approved! Do, and be valued! Do, and be saved! Do, and find meaning and purpose in life! Yes, faith without works is dead. But “faith” and “works” are not synonymous – works are a product of faith. If I am only ever told what I should be doing, and never how my heart should be changing, I will try to modify my behavior and fail, and fail, and fail. I will be left as a dead Christian at worst, and a hypocritical one at best.
My contention with this point is summed up in chapter 29, where Bob writes,
“What I like about Jesus’ message is that we don’t need to study Him anymore to know Him. Jesus said that unless you know Him like a child you’ll never really know Him at all. Kids don’t care about facts, and they certainly don’t study each other. They’re just with each other; they do stuff together. That’s what Jesus had in mind” (p. 202).
First of all, kids do care about facts, and adults should be answering their questions with them. Second of all, God doesn’t just want us to be and do things with him – he wants us to be like him. And there is no way to become like Jesus without consistently studying him. Being transformed into the image of Christ does not mean doing the same deeds he did; it means undergoing a heart transformation which then manifests itself in deeds.
- COMPARISONS TO GOD
Imagine yourself sitting and listening to your friend Joe tell you how amazing Arnold Schwarzenneger is. To illustrate it better for you, every few minutes Joe stops and tells you a story about himself. At the end of each story, Joe says, “I learned a lot about Arnold through this experience. I learned he functions the way he does because of the way I function.” Would that make you want you to know Arnold more?
Throughout this book, Bob tells us that God pursues us just as Bob pursued his wife Maria, and Ugandan juveniles in jail (chs. 7, 26). He teaches us to say yes to God the way he said yes to a Ugandan consul position (ch. 8). He illustrates how God forgives us based on how Bob forgave others (ch. 19). God takes us on adventures similar to the way Bob takes his kids on adventures (ch. 20). God loves us as his masterpieces, though tainted, just like Bob loves his ruined painting (ch. 22).
Illustrations and comparisons are an excellent way to teach things. But when they are persistently glory stories from personal experiences, I’m not sure they are as effective.
As mentioned above, there are numerous insistences to “stop studying God” and just do what he does. In Bob’s words, “Jesus doesn’t want stalkers” (p. 197).
“What’s up with equating ‘Bible study’ with knowing God anyway? I’d never want to get married to a girl no matter how much I studied her. I’d rather take her sailing or fishing or eat cotton candy with her on a Ferris wheel. I don’t think knowing what her name means in Greek is going to help me love her more” (p. 199).
This seems directly opposed to the Bible’s many exhortations to be transformed in the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2), to set our minds and hearts to seek the Lord (1 Chron. 22:19).
Even if we did stop studying God and just did the works he did, what use would that be? Isaiah tells us that all of our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isa. 64:6); David tells us that it is only those with clean hands and pure hearts [through Christ] who will be given righteousness from God (Ps. 24:3-6); Paul tells us repeatedly that a person is not counted righteous by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16, Rom. 3:21-26, Phil. 3:7-11). Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). What good are our deeds without faith? And how can we have faith if we don’t know his word?
As far as the person of Jesus goes, Bob describes him as “an ordinary guy who was utterly amazing. He helped people. He figured out what they really needed and tried to point them toward that” (p. 12). Jesus cannot just be an ordinary guy. This is far too deficient of a description of him! Bob also thinks that “Jesus came to say, among other things, that a relationship with Him isn’t supposed to make complete sense or provide security” (p. 101). Very confusing. If Jesus is just an ordinary guy doing amazing things and provides no security for his followers, why are we following him?
God is also depicted as a very passive pursuer: “If people don’t want to come to the banquet, He’s not bitter or anything. He loves them all the same. Instead, He just keeps looking” (p. 81). This doesn’t sound at all like “the hound of heaven,” the very aggressive, relentless, unceasing, sovereign pursuer of his people.
- DESCRIPTIONS OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
If you read this book without reading the Bible, you will think the Christian life should be one that is bursting with whimsy, adventure, creativity, excitement, and incredible experiences. It’s a “big life Jesus invites us to” (p. 205), and it should feel like one big party (p. 83). What about suffering? What about pain and sorrow? What about the sacrifices we endure because of our love for God – being outcasted, being hated by the world, fighting against sin, and for some people, death?
- DEFAMING “THE RELIGIOUS”
There were several mentions of how “the religious” have turned Bob off from Christianity. Nobody likes the religious; this is a shared sentiment. But this persistent calling out felt more like spite towards them, more like an appeal to those who had been turned off by them: “these people are terrible, I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with them.” There is a definite need to address the hypocrisy of others, but there is an appropriate way to do so (see: Jesus’ direct interactions and words to them). Indirect defamation and degradation did not seem like the best method.
Sometimes I fear I have too critical of a spirit. I have to repeatedly ask myself: Are you being too harsh? Are you pessimistically overlooking all the good things here and wrongly choosing to focus on the negatives?
I can’t deny my convictions, though. When I ask myself: “How would Jesus respond to reading this book?” – I can honestly only speculate like this: “It’s lacking.”
I appreciate Bob Goff. I admire him for his alive and active love. I wish I were half the love-doer that he is. But if I didn’t know the grace of Christ that could make me so, I would have finished this book defeated and discouraged, only seeing my shortcomings in the glow of Bob’s light. I don’t need to see Bob’s light, though; I need to see Jesus’ light, and I need this light to illumine my eyes to see his power and his love. I want my love to be an extension and a reproduction of his, because he is in me and I can do nothing without him. Love does, indeed… but only powerfully after it is.