If John Ortberg’s books from the first quarter of the 21st century are still being read—as I suspect they will be—in the century’s second quarter, this achievement will no doubt turn on his remarkable capacity for interweaving careful and disciplined reflection on the biblical text with an uncanny accessibility to the popular reader. What may well distinguish Ortberg from similarly high-achieving peers is his hilariously self-deprecating humor.
Put simply, Ortberg is a very fine thinker and a remarkably intelligent writer.
Borrowing his title not from an obscure theologian but rather from Dr. Seuss, Ortberg in this work explores what one can make of an enduring mystery: the relationship of determinism to human freedom. Christians will make up the majority of his readers. Whether or not they realize it, Christian readers most frequently frame this same philosophical conundrum in terms of God’s sovereignty and free will.
Without falling needlessly into the facile and reductive traps, Ortberg navigates these waters with a particular eye not so much to the philosophical dilemma itself, but rather to what the Christian believer is to make of his or her life’s decisions in the context of this mystery. In this sense—though not in the cheaper sense with which the word is so often deployed these days—Ortberg has given us a profoundly practical book.
With pastoral purpose, Ortberg steers us away from the notion that God has a single, half-hidden purpose for each decisive moment of our lives, with the destructive corollary that we will lurch hopelessly and irremediably off track if we somehow miss this divine intention. Rather, facing opportunities (open doors) requires discernment and courage. It does not demand a functioning crystal ball or some preternatural ability to decipher the divine design for my life.
For many of us, Ortberg’s book will come as a great relief, and an empowering one at that.
The world is not so much our tormenting mystery as our oyster. When certain foundational commitments are in place, all sorts of things become possible. We can explore them with the confidence that God is for us, generously blessing our explorations rather than slamming doors in our face as we endlessly attempt to decipher his will.
Throughout the book, Ortberg’s musings are inspired by his late mentor, Dr. Jerry Hawthorne. This reviewer has been similarly shaped by this fine teacher—the word seems too small for the man—and Ortberg’s manifestly tenacious appreciation for ‘Dr. Hawthorne’ adds a certain accessibility to his prose. He has clearly learned some things at the feet of his mentor and then run with the baton that has come into his hands. Ortberg, in consequence, never lectures us. We are instead his fellow travelers.
A month or so ago, I finished Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak with the confidence that I had just read the best thing ever written on discernment and vocational choice. Now I am not so sure. Ortberg and Palmer are, as has been observed in a different and more artistic confidence, like twin sons of different mothers. Happily, we need not choose. We can read them both.
But you will not go wrong with Ortberg’s uproariously funny and deeply sober All the Places to Go: How Will You Know?