Review: Messy Spirituality

Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People
by Michael Yaconelli

Is your life messier than it seems like a Christian’s should be? In Messy Spirituality, Michael Yaconelli shows that Christians lives are meant to be messy, because we’re messy people. Rather than pretending we have it all put together, it’s good to live in the messes and praise God for forgiveness. Through several short chapters and a number of emotional examples, Yaconelli demonstrates that Christianity really is messy.

I picked this book up because of the subtitle. I love that phrasing and may well steal it. Unfortunately, the book focuses less on God’s love and more on how we’re messy and that’s ok. The author waffles a lot when it comes to sin and any theological distinctions, leaving a marshmallowy mess that could have been so, so much more comforting.

I appreciated that Yaconelli is honest with his own struggles: “Even though I am a minister, even though I think about Jesus every day, my following is… uh… meandering” (11). He encourages that kind of transparency from both ministers and laypeople, and that’s an encouragement I can agree with.

But being real is a synonym for messy spirituality, because when we are real, our messiness is there for everyone to see. … The essence of messy spirituality is the refusal to pretend, to lie, or to allow others to believe we are something we are not. Unfortunately, people can handle the most difficult issues more easily than they can handle the lack of pretending. When you and I stop pretending, we expose the pretending of everyone else. (27)

People who pretend to be sinners can only pretend to be forgiven. When I’m honest about my mess, my filth, my sin, I can point to Jesus more and say, “And there is my hope. Not that my mess isn’t that bad, but that Jesus knows my mess, knows my filth, knows my sin, and forgives me.” Unfortunately, I didn’t see much forgiveness in this book. A lot of “love,” but not a lot of forgiveness.

And what results in the book is an encouragement to honesty, but that boldness doesn’t result in anything unless we realize how evil we are – so that instead of pretending we’re sinners, we see the depth of our wickedness. That only increases our trust in Jesus, in our joy in the freedom he has given, and our ability to love one another because we see how far his love for us goes.

Yaconelli is, at the least, consistent. He encourages us to be honest, no matter where that takes us, and that includes to worship: “We want our services filled with mistakes and surprises, because life is full of mistakes and surprises” (77-8). While it’s true that we want to be authentic and real in our worship, we don’t “want” mistakes in worship. We’ll see them when they come and thank Jesus that he loves us even in our mistakes, but they aren’t things we look for!

I do have to admit that the author is a skilled storyteller, and I will be using some of his illustrations because they are very, very strong. While his retellings of biblical narratives can be… a little off, his other pictures are often well thought-out and appropriately emotional.

So while the book does have some good uses as well as a few good points, the lack of real Law and Gospel means it’s a misfire. Yaconelli is absolutely right that we shouldn’t hide our sin, and he’s right that God’s love is what frees us to admit those sins, but he doesn’t connect those Gospel truths well. It’s too bad, as he’s obviously a very skilled writer!


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