Book Review: Stop Trying by Cary Schmidt
BY MAX FERNANDEZ
Stop Trying: How to Receive—Not Achieve—Your Real Identity, by Cary Schmidt. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2021.
Cary Schmidt presently serves as the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Newington, Connecticut. Prior to moving to Connecticut, Schmidt served in a fruitful ministry for twenty years in Lancaster, California. Schmidt’s extensive ministry experience, along with his battle with cancer and subsequent move to Connecticut, all serve to make him a credible and valuable source in this study relating to identity. Through each of the stages of his life, Schmidt is able to navigate the particular topic that he tackles in this book: receiving, rather than achieving, identity.
The primary audience for Stop Trying seems to be primarily Christians who have attached their identities to cultural forms, but the truths presented are also helpful for anyone who has been brought up in the West with traditional and modern identities. Schmidt’s purpose is to show how the gospel provides a true, lasting identity; and his thesis can be heard in the subtitle How to Receive—Not Achieve—Your Real Identity. Schmidt breaks the book up into three sections as follows: Part 1—Losing, Part 2—Finding, and Part 3—Flourishing. Through these three parts, Schmidt effectively accomplishes his purpose and urges all of his readers to see how to receive, rather than achieve, their real identity in the gospel.
Schmidt effectively accomplishes his purpose and urges all of his readers to see how to receive, rather than achieve, their real identity in the gospel.
In Part 1—Losing, Schmidt exposes the weak identity structures of the world. He does this by identifying and defining two historical identity structures: traditional and modern identities. Schmidt also exposes the irony of the modern identity, which is that it is really a masked traditional identity.
Part 2—Finding is a transitional part of the book. Once Schmidt exposes the weakness of worldly identity structures, he proceeds to a key verse for this transition: “For whosoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). It is here where he begins to define what kind of an identity Jesus offers and how this takes place.
In Part 3—Flourishing, Schmidt writes about what it means to live with this new gospel identity. One quote that encapsulates this truth is the following: “A gospel identity doesn’t merely demand that we make ourselves new and then live up to it. It declares us new and empowers us to live from newness in authentic ways. Jesus gives us a new psyche that doesn’t try to be new; it simply is” (151). The flow of Schmidt’s material from Losing to Flourishing is well articulated in each part.
Stop Trying has many strengths including, but not limited to, gospel-centeredness, practicality, and readability. Weaknesses are difficult to identify, but I will try to present at least two that should be considered.
By gospel-centeredness, I mean that Jesus Christ is at the center of Schmidt’s hermeneutic. No, he does not spend extensive time exegeting any passages, with the exception of Mark 8:35; but the way he speaks of scripture and of theology shows that he is gospel-centered. Early in the book Schmidt says, “Although I am a pastor, my theology was flawed, and my expectations of God were faulty” (17). When discussing the fragility of our identities he says, “We even shape His word to mean what we want it to mean.” These two statements, one about theology and the other about His Word, are merely two of a few that show humility about his approach to God and His Word. The corrective thought is obvious in how he applies the scriptures throughout the book–an application which is both Christ-centered and redemptive. Summarily, his gospel-centered approach is refreshing and a tremendous strength.
Schmidt’s hermeneutic becomes clearer in the second part of his book. He says:
“The story of the Bible is a single plotline that points to Jesus and the gospel story. From the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation, the Bible is God’s story of redemptive history—what God has done and is doing in history to redeem us, bring us back to Himself, and remake us.” (104-105).
This quote is exemplary of gospel-centeredness. It is not merely a catchphrase, but rather it is a way in which the scriptures are approached and interpreted. Again, this is a tremendous strength. The theology which admittedly was wrong, and the wrangling of the Word noted earlier can all be traced to a lack of this kind of gospel-centered, redemptive hermeneutic. Fortunately, Schmidt includes this redemptive form of interpretation, which is fundamental to the gospel identity.
The practical nature of Stop Trying can be seen in two areas: structure and illustrations. As noted earlier, the structure of the book includes three parts, which organically flow from one to the next. From Losing to Finding to Flourishing, there is a natural flow relating to identity. After Schmidt deconstructs the weak identities, one cannot help but ask, “If not traditional or modern identities, what then?” How to fill the void with the gospel identity is the natural progression of thought.
While he could have stopped with Finding, it is truly wise that he did not. Flourishing shows how to continue in the gospel identity. The progression to Flourishing seems to appeal to those whom I believe to be his primary audience–Christians who know the gospel for salvation but who may not know the gospel for sanctification. Schmidt says, “When basking in Jesus’ gospel provision, I am free to soar and feast in his abundant love. Distracted by false identity narratives, I am drawn back into a pretzel fight. Every day presents the same choice, and every day offers the same freedom” (144). This quote confirms the temptation to resort back to a traditional or modern identity, even though the gospel has been received salvifically; and it is this with which conservative, evangelical Christians struggle. [See Galatians 3:3] Thus, the flow of Schmidt’s argument is natural, organic, and complete.
Not only is the structure practical, but there are quite a few personal illustrations that Schmidt weaves throughout the book. Many, if not all, of the chapters open with an illustration, and they serve his points well. From illustrations about his son’s concussion to his grandson’s fear of swimming, Schmidt makes this to be an easy read.
In addition to personal illustrations, Schmidt effectively points to biblical accounts and characters who illustrate the identity structures of which he is speaking. Peter is a recurring individual, but the most vivid example used by the author is that of the Prodigal Son (125). After telling the story in vivid, modern terms, Schmidt says, “Imagine a love that is willing to kiss filth” (129). This statement is captivating and powerful, and is how he punctuates the exhortation to “Run Home!” Love it! These illustrations, both personal and biblical, all serve the readability of the book.
While Stop Trying has tremendous strengths, there are a few possible weaknesses with which the reader may have to reckon. Experience is subjective, but scripture is objective; and sometimes the material seems to lean towards experience as fundamental. Let me prove my assertions positively and negatively. (Let me argue against me!)
Positively, I support my assertion with a few quotes that may need a little more clarification. Schmidt says, “Confidence is the solid ground of the gospel, and joy is the unrestrainable result of standing in it” (156). Confidence here seems to be objectified, but isn’t confidence a response to the objective reality of God (i.e., object of confidence)? I think there needs to be a little more clarity here as the argument tends toward experience as fundamental.
Another example in support of my assertion is when Schmidt speaks of the Ethiopian Eunuch. There are two quotes to note, and then I will add some comments. Quote #1 is: “Then God gave Philip his next instructions. That’s how He often does it” (171). Quote #2 is: “The gospel always reaches for the person religion rejects. Gospel-shaped believers are the arms He uses to do His reaching” (171). These two quotes leave me with questions. For example, should we take the first quote as a normative practice for Christianity today? If so, why or why not? My concern with the second quote is more substantive in that I wonder if the point is not that Philip was a gospel-shaped believer as much as the gospel lens through which the Eunuch needed to see Isaiah 53. If the latter option is the case, then the story is more about a proper Christocentric hermeneutic rather than Philip’s identity. [See Luke 24:44-49] This hermeneutical consideration is especially important, as the multiplication of the word of God is a key theme in the book of Acts where the narrative about the Eunuch and Philip is found.
A negative mark against my assertion is found later in the book. Schmidt dives into what some would call spiritual disciplines or habits of grace. He says,
“Every spiritual practice is designed to bring us into His presence and immerse our hearts in the gospel to be shaped by His grace. This is why gathering and worshiping with believers in a biblical local church is vital. It’s why consistent personal time with Jesus in His Word is powerful. It’s why commemorating the Lord’s Table and personal prayer is so significant as our hearts return to the cross and experience the resetting realities of the gospel.” (204)
Here, the author does address the importance of the scripture, which tones down my assertion of the lack of scriptural foundation as a weakness. Though Schmidt does mention the scriptures, it should be noted that how the scriptures are read and understood is important–a fact that Schmidt does not mention here but models well throughout the book. Thus, weaknesses are difficult to come by, so these have been a few feeble attempts to encourage further consideration in some areas.
Overall, Stop Trying was tremendously helpful. Cary Schmidt is a personal friend, and these truths have been spiritually, mentally, and emotionally transformative. He effectively accomplishes the goal he set out to do – to encourage Christians to receive, and not attempt to achieve, their identity. Consequently, I recommend this book to those who are wondering what true Christianity is about but especially to those who have been raised within a Christian subculture in the West. The book is well done and receives high marks from me personally for our entire church family at Grace Baptist Church in Middletown, Ohio.
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