A Review of “The World is Not Ours to Save” by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson

twinots_front1You know that there’s a “but” coming. I believe in the importance of Christian activism and cultural engagement. I actually do believe that “social justice” is part of the mission of the church. I believe Christians ought to engage the world around them fully, but there is a huge qualifier to all of that conviction. I’ve written before about this reality that Christians cannot “change the world,” so to speak. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has done a better job of communicating that truth. In his 2013 book The World Is Not Ours to Save, Wigg-Stevenson articulates a call to humble activism that younger Evangelicals desperately need to hear.

Wigg-Stevenson states the purpose of his book quite simply: This is a story about not saving the world. Part autobiographical, part corrective this book aims to interact with the following question: how can we seek the particular shape of faithfulness in the time and place that God has called us into being and over which God has given us the privilege of stewardship? In many ways it’s a book that examines comprehensive discipleship. Wigg-Stevenson is himself an activist. His story includes being on the front lines of the battle for nuclear disarmament. His activism, beginning long before his encounter with Christ, is a major part of his own personal story. It was as he came into relationship with the living God that he began to wonder what it meant to be an activist. The volume, then, is written from personal reflection as much as from Biblical interaction. He writes as one who both affirms the importance of activism, and yet realizes its limitations. Speaking of this realization in his own life he writes:

It hit me as I walked briskly down a hallway on the mezzanine level at the south side of the Fairmont Hotel: I was willing to do anything. But there was nothing I could do. This realization dropped me midstride. I saw a service stairwell to the right, slipped inside and crumpled onto the rough concrete stair. And I wept in despair for the world I so desperately wanted to save from itself. Then for the first – and, to date, the clearest – time in my life, I heard the voice of God. God said, The world is not yours, not to save or to damn. Only serve the one whose it is. I walked out of the stairwell with a wet face and a peaceful heart.

The world is not ours to save, Wigg-Stevenson tells us, and yet we must serve God in it.

The book is broken down into two parts. Part one details the limits of activism. He points out that our efforts to be the hero actually miss “three things that will undermine us at every step.” Namely, he has in mind, the ways in which we celebrate the brokenness of our world – because after all it gives us value, meaning, and purpose. He also has in mind the diminishing interest in personal discipleship over our “making a bigger impact for our causes.” Finally, he points to a self-centeredness that develops as we put ourselves and our “concerns at the center of history.” The truth is, as he says:

We all want to save the world. To change it. To make an impact for Jesus. To be a hero. But we are not the center of God’s story. We are not God’s heroes.

He also tells us that our activism can actually “fail to account for the shape of the world’s brokenness.” The world is far worse than we realize. We overestimate our abilities, the hearts of the human race, and the complexity of our problems. He also warns us that “the way we understand the relationship between God and our earthly work matters a great deal.” If we don’t have a right view of God, and a right view of his relation to the world our activism will be completely misguided and unbalanced.

The second part of the book is about “A Deeper Calling.” Building off of Micah 4:1-5 Wigg-Stevenson “maps out what it means to pursue the kingdom of peace.” He has in mind here a two-fold approach to activism. First, he says, our activism should be informed by a “future memory.” He writes:

First, it is that the contours of the coming kingdom call to us from the future, like the memory of a reality that doesn’t yet exist. When we respond to this call, the present is shaped as an echo or shadow or trace of what will be.

The scriptural depiction of the coming kingdom shapes what we are seeking and how we are living in the present. It is not an amorphous ideal we pursue, nor a kingdom of our own fancy. There are biblical guides and boundaries to what we are pursuing. Wigg-Stevenson does a tremendous job of exegeting Micah in these chapters.

The other half of his approach focuses on Christian activism as a “calling.” I am not super comfortable with the use of this word, but the idea of being motivated by the Biblical model of service to God is incredibly helpful. He contrasts what activism apart from this “calling” looks like with the preferred model, saying:

I have walked in activist circles long enough to recognize the common sense of anxiety and freneticism that permeates the discipline, as if the fate of the world hangs in the balance of our efforts. In contrast, the Christian calling is grounded in the peace that comes with accepting our limitations and finitudes – an acceptance that allows us to pour ourselves out in divine service.

Even if “calling” is not the best word, the author is right to distinguish between activism motivated by service to God’s Kingdom and activism motivated by something else. One grants peace, the other generates anxiety. I have witnessed this difference in various young people I have pastored, it is an important distinction.

Overall this is was a delightfully surprising book. It was surprising not simply because it forced me to interact with ideas – like nuclear disarmament – which I rarely, if ever, think about, but also because it speaks so clearly to an Evangelical trend. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson speaks and writes as much as a pastor as an activist. He recognizes the need for modifying the grounds and motivation for this growing trend among younger evangelicals towards activism. He has seen and experienced the shift in cultural engagement among many in the church, but he is also conscious of its dangers. He writes to warn, correct, and encourage as a good pastor should. This book offers the kind of nuance and Biblical balance that the church today needs. If you have not already read it, add The World Is Not Ours to Save to your reading list. It is the call to humble Christian activism that all in the church need.

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