Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: Free To Love by Jamal Jivanjee

Let me start out by saying that I have nothing against Jamal Jivanjee personally. I don't know him, although we have corresponded online a few times, and we do have a few mutual friends. I say this because my review of his book is critical of many of his ideas, but I do not want to question the sincerity of his faith in the process. I do love Jamal, my brother in Christ. I want nothing but the best for him. I hope that you, as you read this review, can maintain an open heart for him, and for me, as we discuss the issues brought up in the book. My hope is that those who are curious about his new book can understand how it came across to me and, if nothing else, think critically about the concepts Jamal presents within it.

Before I get into the parts I disagree with, however, I will say that there is much that I do agree with in this book.

I do agree with Jamal that Christians need to be better at loving others as Jesus commanded. I agree that we need one another to more fully receive this love and to express the love of Christ. I also agree that marriage isn’t the only way to express the love of Christ, or to experience the love of Christ. I agree that being single is a viable choice for Christians and is even encouraged in the New Testament.

But that’s where Jamal and I part ways.

In general, the book seems to place an inappropriate amount of attention upon the idea of the “oneness” that Christians should have with one another. By that I don’t mean that I believe this oneness isn’t worth emphasizing. Not at all. But what Jamal seems mostly concerned with in this book is connection with other people, not so he can more fully connect with the love of Christ, but simply for the thrill of connection with people.

In other words, the focus here seems to be about chasing after other humans we can connect with, and not about drawing nearer to Christ. This alone is worth a strong warning to those who might pick up this book seeking to enrich their walk with Jesus.

One Christian brother once wisely noted that if we make community our main focus then we might achieve our goal without ever finding Christ. The same can be said of other positive aspirations like service to the poor, or missions, or many other things. However, if we make Christ our main focus, then the more we draw near to Him the more we will discover community, and mission, and love, etc. Even if we don’t find those other things in perfection, we will have at least drawn nearer to Jesus, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What is very wrong in this book is that Jamal seems to have a fixation with one-to-one personal connections. He doesn’t write about how the Body of Christ [the Ekklesia] can come together as a family and experience the presence of Christ in community. He writes almost exclusively about how he connects with this woman, or that sister, and is brought to tears realizing the intensity of their spiritual connection to one another, but it never goes beyond this. He never writes about finding such intense spiritual connections with other men, or even with other Christian couples, but always with other women. This is especially troublesome knowing that it was this very same practice that led to the dissolution of his own marriage last year – a fact he openly admits in this very book:

"What I will share with you in this book has cost me dearly. It has cost me everything from some of my closest relationships, down to even my very own marriage." [pg.15]

Keep this in mind as you read the rest of this review. By following his own advice, Jamal's marriage was forfeited. He claims that it was worth it, but I remain unconvinced of that.

It’s also impossible to review this book without mentioning Jamal’s view of marriage. He sees it as “an idol” that obscures our ability to truly understand or receive the love of God:

“God is love, and love gave birth to the cosmos. In order for love to be fully known, however, something called oneness must be illuminated and put on display to the cosmos through humanity. The problem is, oneness has been hidden behind an idol that was never meant to be an idol. That idol is marriage.” [pgs. 12-13]

So, “oneness” is the key to fully realizing the love of God? Jamal seems to think so, but I am not so sure. Honestly, I’m not really sure why he seems so unnaturally preoccupied with oneness. Nor do I understand why he feels that this oneness can only find its fulfillment in another person rather than in Christ.

I also cannot understand why he would see marriage as a hindrance to realizing the love of Christ, but I believe there are clues about that throughout his book, which I will get to in a moment.

Throughout the book, Jamal inserts several first-person narratives from Jesus’ perspective. These are intended to illustrate how Jesus overstepped cultural boundaries to connect deeply to Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. While I don’t object to those creatively, I do wonder why a book about the extravagant love of Christ never once mentions John [the disciple Jesus loved], and it never touches on the loving relationship Jesus had with other people around him, [when we are told Jesus looked at the Rich Young Ruler and “loved him”, or that he had compassion on the crowds, etc.], and he never refers to the love Jesus had for Peter, or emphasizes his love for the other disciples.


As I read through this book I kept writing in the margins questions like, “Is the goal of the Christian life really just about relating to one another? Why such a desire for more intense relationships with other people rather than a deeper desire to know Christ more fully?”

This, to me, is one of the fatal flaws of this book. It aims too low and achieves too little. Yes, Jesus did tell us to “love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength” and that we should “love our neighbor as ourselves.” But does this mean that we should focus all of our energy feasting on one individual after another? Is that what Jesus meant by that?

Maybe what Jesus meant was that we needed to learn how to receive love from God, and to be filled with His love, and then we could learn how to share that love from Him with those around us.

Notice in this scenario that we are not fixated on any one person in particular. We are not fascinated by their unique personalities. We are not desperate for them to know us in some deeply intimate way. Not at all. Instead, our focus is on God, and on His abounding love for us. As that unconditional love is poured into us, we pour it out on others – everyone around us – not just those we find intriguing and attractive, but on those we hardly know; on the poor, the outcast, the broken – those who are most desperate for His love.

In this pattern we are not picking and choosing who we love. We are allowing the love of Christ to flow into, and out of us, to the world so that the love of God is expressed far and wide.

Jamal’s book ignores this completely.

Over and over again, Jamal continually seeks to call us to his brand of “oneness”:

“Oneness is the deepest longing of our being,” he says. [pg.39]

Is that true? Maybe. But what should the Christian’s deepest longing be? Isn’t it to know Christ?

What’s most frustrating to me is how often Jamal comes so close to the truth but misses it by a mile:

“This might sound shocking, but I’m convinced it would do us well to stop trying to figure out how to find and create church, and instead to learn what it means to see, delight, know, serve, and deeply love one another through relationship. This is where oneness will be found.” [pgs. 31-32]

Amen! I could not agree more. However, Jamal neglects to mention that we are only “one in Christ Jesus”, not in our relationships with one another. He stops at oneness with other individuals and fails to continue onward to oneness in Christ Jesus.

Are we called to find oneness in better quality human relationships? Or are we called to oneness in Christ?

I agree when Jamal says we are not called to “create church," because that’s what Jesus does. He promises us that “I will build my church”.

But isn't the Body the very place where we experience the presence and the love of Christ in a unique way? For Jamal, this only brought him frustration. I suspect because he was still seeking to find oneness with other people, as if what he needed was to be found in them rather than in the Christ in them.

Our goal as members of the Body of Christ is to draw nearer to Him, not merely to other people around us.

If we see the beauty of Christ reflected in the faces of one another, let us not become distracted by those reflections and miss the person of Christ himself who longs to draw us nearer to Himself.

Again Jamal claims that:

“In actuality, the oneness of God is only fully manifested here on the earth through what I call horizontal oneness.” [pg. 47]

Really? Is our ability to experience oneness with God limited exclusively to our oneness with other people? What about the indwelling Holy Spirit? What about meditation? What about dreams or visions? What about the spiritual disciplines? Prayer? Fasting? Service? Simplicity?

And even if “horizontal oneness” is essential to fully manifesting the oneness of God, as Jamal suggests, why isn’t the manifestation of the love of God in the Body of Christ our primary source for that connection? [That is probably the biggest red flag for me, really].

Understand: Jamal's idea of "horizontal oneness"isn't about seeing Christ in the Body, it's about finding "oneness" through intense, one-on-one relationships with individuals, usually male to female, and not within the marriage relationship but in spite of it.

On the subject of marriage, Jamal seems to miss an important aspect of this relationship: the opportunity to put the needs of others above my own.

Love, as Jesus reveals, is not about us. It’s about serving and honoring others.

When Paul tells men to “love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for Her” he wants them to understand that marriage is where we get to put this love into practice. When Paul tells women to “submit to your husbands as unto the Lord," he wants them to know that marriage is where we get to practice humility and laying down our pride. This is true for both men and women. 

I know that for some this picture seems offensive, but only if you fail to realize your own need to die to yourself. If you understand your own need to die so that Christ can live and breathe in you, then suddenly this aspect of marriage becomes a wonderful gift where you can daily practice obedience to Christ and joyfully embrace your opportunity to love as Christ loved.

This is, in fact, the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus came and died to proclaim. It was Jesus who told us that to follow Him – to become a Christian – meant denying ourselves daily and taking up our cross.

For many Christians, this is an unknown truth. They think the Gospel is about praying a prayer so you can go to heaven when you die. I used to believe the same thing, so it’s not surprising to hear others deny the Gospel as Jesus preached it. Disheartening, yes. Surprising, no.

Jamal appears unaware of the centrality of the Gospel of Christ. He says that when his church began to emphasize death to self it created frustration for him and became a huge distraction:

“A preoccupation with dying to self and denying the desires of self became the focus in the name of embracing the cross. Although this seemed noble on the surface, it was simply a fear-based preoccupation with self in reality. The effect on relationships was chilling, as love is 'others focused' by nature.” [pg. 27]

So, while he does understand that love is “others focused by nature”, he misses the fact that we cannot share love that we do not have, and we do not receive the love of Christ apart from obedience to His commands to lay down our lives and submit ourselves to Him daily. If we skip this part, we miss the entire point of the Gospel and of Christianity itself.

It’s also more than a bit disappointing that, in a book about love, Jamal leaves out references to 1 Corinthians 13 [the love chapter], and fails to mention Ephesians 3:16-19:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Here, Paul holds the answer that Jamal and others are longing for: A connection to the love of God that is beyond human understanding and that is only grasped as we receive power through His Spirit in our inner being and as Christ dwells in our hearts more and more.

How does it happen? It’s a supernatural event. It comes when we gather together as members of His Body, as we continually focus on Him, as we pray for the Holy Spirit to empower us and enable us to receive something that transcends knowledge and transforms us from within.

Pursuing the love of Christ outside of His Body is to lose “connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” [Col. 2:19]

Finally, Jamal’s book argues that those who are married [as he once was] have freedom to walk away from their spouses in order to pursue “oneness” with other people, as he has done, citing a verse out of context where Paul says, in 1 Cor. 7:29:

“From now on those who have spouses should live as if they do not.”

Is this what Paul means to communicate here? Is his desire that men and women should abandon their marriages so that they can pursue deeper emotional “oneness” with other people? Not at all.

In context, Paul is providing instruction to the Church in Corinth regarding how they should view the times in which they were living. He says “the time is short” [v. 29a] because he knows that in a few short years, their ability to preach the Gospel will grow more difficult. He was right! As persecution intensified, and as AD 70 grew nearer, the time left to focus on the preaching of the Gospel was drawing to a close for many of them.

What Paul was urging them to do was to focus on proclaiming the Gospel over and above focusing on their marriages and their families. Does that mean we shouldn’t focus on our marriage or our family today? Of course not. We shouldn’t be preoccupied with ourselves, or our own personal comforts, but we also shouldn’t abandon our marriages to chase new relationships that are more exciting for us.

If Jamal was sharing that verse to urge Christians to devote themselves to the mission field, or to preach the Gospel of Christ that would be one thing. But instead he uses this verse to encourage people to disengage from their marriages to seek out “oneness” in others, and this is dangerous and un-Christlike.

Do you think I’m overstating Jamal’s intentions? Read for yourself:

“You are free to be undistracted in this new world of love. If you are married, you are free to pursue this new world of love with an undistracted devotion. If you’re in a divided marriage, you are free to love your spouse from the fullness of love you possess. You are free to resist the pull to enter back into the world of lack your spouse may be operating from.” [pg. 168]

I can’t help but wonder, why can’t Jamal, or anyone else, “pursue this new world of love” with their actual spouse, or in the context of their own church family?

He makes a big deal out of “divided marriages” where one spouse is “awakened to the new world of love” and the other is not. For those situations he gives this advice:

“If you are in a divided marriage you have options. You could give in to this fear. You could try to focus on strictly pleasing your spouse in the name of loving your spouse. You could try to put your spouse “first” in a hierarchy of sorts, thinking your performance in your marriage qualifies you, or disqualifies you, from being devoted to the work of the new kingdom. If you chose this route you have not sinned, but you will have lots of trouble as Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians. It never leads to real peace. It’s an illusion…In the end, the spouse awakened to a vision of the new world will grow tired trying to reconcile the world of illusion with the world of reality. The two cannot mix.” [pg.118]

So, where does that leave us? If focusing on pleasing our spouse is ultimately a fruitless illusion, what is our other option? Jamal doesn’t come out and say it, but we’re left with the notion that we can [and probably should] give up trying to do this. Either we continue to try – knowing it’s an illusion that cannot be reconciled – or we stop trying to focus on pleasing our spouse because we recognize the truth – that our love is better focused elsewhere [apparently].

Is this the best that we can hope for in a Christian marriage? Paul would hardly agree with such a pessimistic idea. In fact, Paul is quite optimistic, even when it comes to marriages where Christians are married to unbelievers!

“If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” [1 Cor. 7:13-18]

If Paul is optimistic about the possibility of transforming our unbelieving spouses with the love of Christ, why is Jamal so pessimistic about the possibility of seeing our believing spouses come to realize the "new world of love", as he supposes it has been revealed to himself?

Sadly, I cannot recommend this book. There are too many bones to choke on here, and not nearly enough meat to satisfy those who truly long to find Christ in spirit and in truth.

If you’re really hungry for a great book about love, I’d recommend reading 1 John, or 1 Corinthians 13, or Ephesians 3, or even the Gospels. These are all wonderful reminders to us about what love really looks like, and how love is really expressed, and where love really should point us – to Christ!

As I said at the beginning of my review, I am not "against" Jamal. I do not wish to harm him, and I do not want to create any negative feelings towards him as a person. He is my brother in Christ and I sincerely hope and pray that he does indeed find the "oneness" he seeks so desperately. I just believe that it is found in Christ alone, not in others.



Jamal said...

Keith Giles, I appreciate you reading the book. And for the publicity. Obviously I don't agree with the assessments you have made about the book. My hope is that your readers will give the book a fair hearing on their own if they would like when it is released this Sunday. Thanks for agreeing to have me on your blog for a Skype conversation later this month. I hope to address some of the misconceptions about my book that you have written in this review when we talk then. Much love to you, your family, and your readers.

Jamal Jivanjee

Nischelle said...

Awesome that you read the pre released copy!
Hopefully other folks will read the book as well.

Reviews will never trump reality.

Keith Giles said...

Are reviews unreal?

Unknown said...

Let me start by saying that I have nothing against you Keith. Seems to me you missed the point of this book. Seems more about what Jamal didn't have in the book than did. You sound very distracted by the bible , verse plucking,Christ in the sky and a lot of Christian verbiage you miss him in front of you as humans who are fully Christ , not a reflection. Just my opinion. Peace.

Jeremy Myers said...


Thanks for the honest review. I read a pre-release copy of the book as well and came away with the opposite perspective on the book. Jamal certainly rocked the boat with his book, but I don't think he fell out.

After reading the book, I came away understanding that real relationships with other people is one primary way we experience our relationship with Jesus. And I also feel that there is a lot of fear in Christian circles about relationships with people of the opposite sex.

Anyway, it's interesting how two people with similar approaches to life and mission can read the same book and come away with opposite impressions...

Keith Giles said...

I'm not sure how we both read the same book and came away with such different perspectives either. But since publishing my review I've been hearing from [so far] about 9 different people who have very negative experiences with Jamal's teaching in this regard and have experienced the destructive nature of these ideas in practice. Marriages ruined, relationships destroyed, etc.

FYI- Dan Brennan, the author of Sacred Unions, was asked by Jamal to write the foreword to his new book. After reading it he had the same concerns that I did, even quoted the same troubling passages, and then declined the offer.

Here is his review:

Nischelle said...

Well said Jeremy. I left my review on Amazon. There are many others who have read this book and came away with the opposite conclusions that Dan and Keith have made. Many of their reviews are on the Amazon book page as well. Hopefully folks will take those into consideration as well.

Rissa said...

Thank you, Keith, for this review. The Holy Spirit put me on alert before Jamal's book was ever mentioned. I wasn't sure what the alert was about but when the Spirit gives warning one does well to heed it.

The very first question that I asked a couple people was, "How is his marriage working out?" If God chose to use the Marriage relationship to typify union with Christ, who are we to come up with a 'higher plan'

My heart says 'amen' to every word of this review.