Book Review: John Ortberg’s Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them

The great news about this book is that it is not at all what I expected.

The title led me to believe this was a book about “quirky” Christians: the differences between us, and how they help us to accomplish God’s purposes.  That’s a good and wonderful thing to write about, of course. But then I started reading and realized that Ortberg is concerned with something entirely different here – although the book was exactly as humorous and wryly amusing as I know Ortberg’s writing to be.

Ortberg’s focus is on Christian community, conflict, and what he calls the “depravity management” of every believer.  In other words, as Christians who are saved but also not free of our human nature and the grasp of sin, we constantly deal with the warping effects of sin and human nature on our lives.  We live daily with this struggle.  And so a lot of our life is spent either working on that, trying to hide it, or suffering from the consequences of it. This is what Ortberg means when he points out that none of God’s children are “normal” by any measure: we all have our own issues, problems, and hurts we’re dealing with–and yet, in the midst of that, are commanded to engage in and develop loving relationship and community.

The question of how to gather struggling believers who hurt and have been hurt together in a community that is unified in the way that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are unified – what Ortberg refers to as “the dance of the porcupines” – is the central theme of the book.  It is one that Ortberg refers to time and again, and it really results in a text that, to my pleasant surprise, is basically a handbook for practical, loving Christian community.

Ortberg talks about some of the greatest problems plaguing believers when they try to connect, including our inability to communicate honestly and our preference for passive aggression.   He identifies something he calls “the last ten percent” problem: what happens when believers tend to share most of the truth…except for the last ten percent that really needs to be shared in order for effective communication to occur. He points out our tendency to talk around things and to dissemble in order to cover up our own struggles. He talks about how to share the truth in love, and how to engage other believers in a way that is truthful and authentic but also respectful and kind.

This book is really interested in how we relate to each other.  Ortberg wants to know why it is that we feel compelled to hide parts of ourselves from others believers, and what might be motivating us.  He wants believers not to scuttle away from disagreements or differences of opinion but to embrace what it means to engage with someone truthfully and lovingly.  What does holding someone to account look like when it’s done lovingly and with care?  What does acceptance look like?  What does Christian unity look like?

One of the more intriguing sections of the book is Ortberg’s dive into “emotional intelligence”: the ability to read and understand people within the context of relationships.  He gives some wonderful advice for believers who…well, might not be so great at reading others.  He points out that a lot of believers don’t recognize, for example, when the person they’re talking to is sad/upset/bored; they literally don’t know how to read body language and nonverbal cues.  He marvels at how out of tune we can sometimes be with each other’s thoughts and feelings, and how careless of them.

I kept wincing as I read bits and pieces of the book, mostly because what he discusses – especially about communication struggles between believers – really hits home.  And the more we struggle with those things and refuse to learn from them, the farther away we get from the joyous community that the Trinity shares and has invited us into as well.  The joy of this book is that it gives very practical steps and processes that individuals can follow in order to authentically connect in more meaningful ways with believers all around them.  It should come as no surprise that in order to do this, we have to work on our own hearts quite a bit.

So if you’re wanting to get a little bit better at being in community with others, if you’ve ever struggled with communicating honestly to other believers (or are in a congregation where this is the case), and if emotions like fear and uncertainty guide your actions with those Christians around you, this book is for you.  According to Ortberg, when we finally get around to admitting that nobody’s normal and we’re all dealing with our own struggles, we can join hands and take a step forward to Christian unity.



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