Book Review – Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

Tim Keller is oimgres-2.pngne of those particularly gifted and effective evangelical Christian thought leaders.  He continually serves the church with his writing, his church planting efforts, his work with the Gospel Coalition, and perhaps most importantly – his pastoring.

Indeed, it would be near impossible to write a credible book about walking through pain and suffering if (a) you hadn’t walked through it yourself and/or (b) you walked closely with others during their time of trials.   Suffering is a universal topic, and one that – short of Christ’s return – will never go away.   It effects us all deeply, profoundly, and personally and our theology of suffering will go a long way in preparing us for when it inevitably comes for us, or someone close to us.  Particularly for pastors – we need to know how to help those in suffering well.  Keller, in his brilliance, succeeds in writing a challenging, informative, honest, and helpful book that everyone should read.

This book is not for the faint of heart – not only for it’s subject matter (the classic “no one wants to learn about this until we absolutely have to…”) but it’s a long book and sometimes deep sledding, but well worth it.  So…let’s mush on…

Keller divides the book into three parts, and what he says unites them is the central image of suffering as a fiery furnace.  Part 1: Understanding the Furnace; Part 2: Facing the Furnace; Part 3: Walking with God in the Furnace. Fire, can destroy – but if used properly does not.  Things put into the furnace can be reshaped, refined, purified, and even beautified.   Going thru suffering well is not a matter of technique.  Suffering can refine us rather than destroy us because God himself walks with us in the fire. Ours is to orient ourselves towards God and this purpose in suffering, instead of away from him.

Keller sets a philosophical foundation by examining various cultures and how we as Americans have one of the worst and weakest views of pain and suffering of them all. the older Christian idea that we exist for God’s glory receded and was replaced by the belief that God exists to nurture and sustain us. [54] This is the weakness of modern secularism – if this world (and possibly the God who created it) is designed for our comfort then how can the undeniable reality of pain and suffering fit into that worldview. It can’t.

Even the professional mental, psychological, social, civlil, health experts are only there to not help us deal with the big questions (because they can’t) of “Why is suffering here? How do I deal with it?” their job is the alleviation of the pain by the removal of as many stressors as possible. [24] This is a major premise to understand and I was delighted to see Keller include it early on in the book.  Christianity comes out as the only worldview that answers the big questions of pain and suffering – and empowers it’s people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy. [31]

At the end of each chapter is a story detailing, sometimes in quite painful detail, the sufferings encountered by “everyday” people.  These are powerful, emotional, life-applicational evidence of how a biblical worldview can give strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

One of the things the I found most helpful in the book’s first part was how Keller pointed out that sorrow is not to be denied, but rather Christians do not see grief as a useless thing to be suppressed at all costs. Not all weeping proceed from unbelief or weakness. [44] Pain and suffering is hard – let it be so.  So many times we do so much damage by trying to cliche away the pain, or remove it as fast as possible – God is at work in the pain.  It hurts…but there is purpose in the pain.

Keller masterfully tackles the age old conundrum of the problem of evil, surveying several theodicies, but the teeth of the argument again goes back to our Western cultural perception of suffering – the problem of evil was not widely perceived to be an objection to God until modern times. [99]  To think that we would demand an explanation (that we couldn’t ever understand anyway) from the almighty sovereign God as to his defense for allowing pain and suffering is more than a little arrogant.  Quoting Anderson – he writes “To bring God under obligation to human morality is a threat to his sovereignty.” [277], and again “There is a rebuke for person who, by complaining about particular events in his life, implies that he could propose to God better ways of running the universe.”  Elisabeth Elliot furthers this point “God is God.  If He is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.” [287]

As Keller points out repeatedly – just because we cannot see a logical reason why pain and suffering are allowed, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have any.  [97]  A better question might be why in light of our human race, does God allow so much happiness? [115]

Evil, suffering and pain must therefore be looked at in light of God’s big story – Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration.  Without the hope of this eternal big picture,  one can easily spend the entirety of suffering in hopeless despair.  Christianity is future focused – Keller pushes on this truth by asking “Buy why could it not be that God allowed evil because it will bring us all to a far greater glory and joy than we would have had otherwise?” [117] One day, by his glorious grace, he will return and permanently “undo” the damage the evil has wreaked on the creation. [156]

A god (intentional lc ‘g’] who simply supports our plans, how we think the world and history should go is a god of our own creation, a counterfeit God. Powerfully quoting missionary Elisabeth Elliot after her husband was murdered “If God was merely my accomplice, he betrayed me. If on the other hand, He was my God, He had freed me.” [172] Am I serving the sovereign God of all creation or the god of my plans?

One of the greatest comforts we have as Christians is the truth that our God identifies and knows our suffering, because he himself suffered – exponentially more than we ever can.  He allowed himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, to be rejected, tortured, and executed – all the while having the crushing load of emotional and spiritual darkness placed upon him, in our place on the cross.

Because of Jesus, there is always hope, even in the darkest moments of your life. [251]

This has powerful application in real life and the realities of pain and suffering must be faced by all believers – particularly before suffering actually hits.  As Keller writes, “the stakes are high. Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse person than you were before…trials will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.” [190]

The truth is that God uses suffering in innumerable ways – to transform our attitude toward ourselves, to profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our live, and to strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else, it is also a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go thru their own trials.  We have to be weary of getting trapped in our suffering mindset, getting accustomed to our pain as our identity – “Suffering can turn the soul into it’s accomplice…we become complicit with the affliction, comfortable with our discomfort, content with our discontentment. This complicity impedes all the efforts to improve…even going as far as to prevent someone from seeking a way of deliverance…sometimes even from wishing for deliverance.” [215] Think of the crippled man by the pool in John 5…

When helping others, we must be leery of real truths applied poorly.  Things expressed at the wrong time or in an unreasonable manner.  Talk to anyone who has suffered and they can give you a catalog of unhelpful things that anxious friends have said to them in an attempt to act as an interpreter and find something to say to make it all better.   Sufferers need to be able to weep and pour out their hearts, and not to immediately be shut down by being told what to do. Nor should we do that to ourselves if we are grieving. [245]

One such biblical truth is “rejoicing in suffering.”  This is much different though than rejoicing “for” suffering.  We need to learn to rejoice more in God and his love, but the evil was evil and would always be painful. [217] Likewise, we should be wary of trying to interpret, understand, and digest the whole trial at once.  God never promised to give you tomorrow’s grace today. He only promised today’s grace for today, and that’s all you need. (Matthew 6:34).  [218]

The final section of the book was extremely helpful – how do we walk thru pain and suffering?  Keller points out that the walking metaphor points to the idea of progress.  Again, us modern Western people view suffering as bad weather that we have to endure.  We cannot lose our footing and just let the suffering have it’s way with us.  We are to meet and move thru suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair. [226]

As hard as it is, we must let the grief and sorrow drive you more into God.  Feel the grief – the joy of the Lord can happen within sorrow.  The weeping drives you into joy, it enhances joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without it sinking you. In other words, you are finally emotionally healthy. [253]  This is a difficult concept for modern Western people, since we think our feelings as almost holy, sovereign things.

Quoting Lloyd-Jones, he makes this point “we are not to expect God will exempt Christians from suffering and inner darkness, nor that he will simply lift the darkness as soon as we pray. Rather than expecting God to remove the sorrow and replace it with happiness, we should look for a ‘glory’ – a taste and conviction and increasing sense of God’s presence – that helps us rise above the darkness.”  It is not an absence of feeling! [253-4]

This usually all boils down to trust.  Evelyn Underhill said “If God were small enough to be understood, he wouldn’t be big enough to be worshipped.”[255]

Continually citing scriptural examples, he points out Joseph – “The Joseph story tells us that very often God does not give us what we ask for.  Instead, he gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything he knows.”[264]

Suffering should then drive us to God in prayer, John Newton said “If we are not getting much out of going to God in prayer, we will certainly get nothing out of staying away.”  All of this means that if we cannot feel God in our darkest and most dry times, he is still there.  Like Job, you must seek him, go to him. Pray even if you are dry.  Read the Scriptures even if you are in agony. Eventually, you will sense him again – the darkness won’t last forever. [288].

Keller gives practical instruction in how to find God’s peace in the midst of pain and suffering – thinking, thanking, and loving – per Philippians 4:6-9.

Think hard and long about the core doctrines of the Bible. Reckon these things. [Romans 8:18; Phil 4:7-8]  You will see Jesus coming to earth, suffering, dying, rising again – think primarily on the gospel.  If you are a Christian today and you have little or no peace it may be because you are not thinking. Peace comes from a disciplined thinking out of the implications of what you believe. [300] Phil 4:6 encourages us to be thankful, for everything he sends, even if we don’t understand it.  Phil 4:8 challenges us to love differently – to love not indiscriminately, but to love the right things.   The final way to get the calm, the tranquility, the peace is to love him supremely.

This comes down to the heart – you will never understand your heart when things are going well.  It is only when things go badly that you can see it truly. [308]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Things that Cannot Be Shaken

Japan-Earthquake_2155758bI spent some time in Hebrews 12-13 this morning.  So much good stuff in there, but what particularly grabbed me was Hebrews 12:18-28.   In the Old Testament, God spoke to Israel at Mt. Sinai and everything shook, they were terrified. That same God is speaking to us today, there is not two different Gods – and Old Testament God with an anger problem, and a kinder, gentler,  80’s feathered-back-hair “Jesus God” in the New Testament.  There is one God, in three persons, who is forever the same.   One day, God will shake the heavens and the earth,  and return to make all things new, to restore forever what sin has broken, to judge,  and to usher those who are his into our new “city of the living God.” (12:22)

The parallel is that in our lives, we can experience times when everything around us seems shaken.  I have a few close friends who are going thru such times now, and I’m certain I will be there someday as well.  No one is immune to such times – when everything we have known as stable for many years is upside down.  In these times, it is important to remember the message of this passage – there are things that cannot be shaken.  The shaking of our worlds can actually cause us to see more clearly those things.  In speaking of this passage, author Michael Horton in “The Gospel Driven Life” writes “Everything that can be shaken will be shaken, the Scriptures remind us, and only the kingdom that God is building will remain.”  Hebrews 12:27b says that they are shaken “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain”  – there is a purpose to the times in our lives when everything is upside down – so that we may see more clearly that it is only God’s kingdom that will remain.  Sometimes, it takes everything falling down around us in order for us to see what is truly permanent.

So, what do we do in response to this?  Heb 12:25 says “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.”  God is still speaking today, right now.  God is speaking to you in these times, make a decision to turn from controlling your life, and turn over your life to live for God’s kingdom which cannot be shaken.  Our lives are meant to be lived in worship of God.  That doesn’t mean walking around singing worship music 24/7, that means turning from sin and toward God’s way in purity and truth and faith, in a healthy respect of who God is.

Hebrews 12:28-29 sums it up well –

“Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Perspective in Trials | Dress like a man.

So…finally…38 Chapters into the story of Job – the LORD answers him.

We’ve seen the unbelievable tragedy and suffering that Job is enduring, we’ve seen his 3 dopey friends try and sell him bad theology – that if you do what is right (and don’t go see R-Rated movies, and go to church a lot, and don’t drink/curse/chew or hang out with girls that do) that your life will be happy and prosperous and everything will be peachy.  If not if you are a “bad” person and do those “bad” things then you will have a hard life…so by simple math – Job must be a “bad” person otherwise all this suffering wouldn’t be upon him…God clearly is punishing him.

NOT.

Job’s friends have some skewed theology.  [Side note:  see how vital it is to have solid Biblical theology?!  We need to spot bad counsel by comparing it to the Word of God!]

Truth is – you can do all the things you are “supposed to do” and be a “good person,” and still get cancer.  You’ve girlfriend can dump you.  You can have massive problems with your kids or be unable to find a job.  One of the underlying themes of Job is that hard times are not necessarily a punishment from God.

But…how do we react during hard times?  Do we feel as though we should not be having them at all?  Wish for them to be over as quickly as possible so that life can return to “normal?”  Job spends nearly 3 chapters whining about all the reasons why this shouldn’t be happening to him. (Job 29-31).  He is not reacting very well.  His perspective is definitely starting to be skewed here.

What is your perspective?  The Bible warns us that suffering and hardship are in fact “normal”  for this life.  (see 2 Tim 3:12; John 16:33).  It is infinitely more difficult to deal with hardship when you start from the perspective that it should NOT be happening to you.  We need to gain the Biblical perspective here.  It SHOULD be happening.  Life is hard.  Sin is here.  Evil is around.  We have an enemy and we need to battle him daily with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ!

We also need to understand that God is completely sovereign. There is absolutely nothing that escapes his notice and he subjugates everything for the main purpose of everything:  for HIS glory.  So it is always about God, not us primarily. We would do well to remember this:  everything God does is for His glory.  When we are in trials, it is a chance for God to work in us more intensely and we need to handle the hard time correctly and wisely in order to grow and bring glory to God.  Hard times produce in us a Godliness that we just don’t get when life is just “peachy.”

One of the most abused verses in the Bible is Romans 8:28.  Christians tend to be in the midst of hard times, find that verse, read it and say “Oh. Cool.  This is going to work for MY good.” Then close the Bible, define the good themselves, and then experience crushing disappointment and loss of faith when their idea of good is not fulfilled.  You cannot understand Romans 8:28 without verse 29.  There the “good” is defined.   “For those he foreknew (again…God’s sovereignty here), he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”   That’s the good!  That we look more like Jesus.  Not that the trial is over and we return to ‘normal happy life.’

Our BBW is “Sanctification” – my friend Wayne Grudem defines it as “a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”  (Systematic Theology, pg 746)

I have found that Christians spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out the exact lesson that God is trying to teach them in any given trial.  There is an element of truth to that, but we can go too far with that too.  We generally spend far too much time trying to determine the thoughts of God, and we cannot do that – the Bible tells us that his ways are above our ways, and his thoughts are above our thoughts. (Is. 55:8-9).

Driscoll nailed it this week.  He said “God doesn’t give us answers to all of our questions. He gives us Jesus.”

Love it.

Don’t focus on the why, focus on the WHO.  God.  God gives us Jesus so that we can be reconciled with  him – all of our selfish pride and 9 million other sins were paid for by the perfect one who never sinned, who took the punishment for sin that I deserved so that now by faith and the gift of grace I am right before God.   My job now is to look, act, smell, be more like Jesus in my life every day.  That’s hard work and bad stuff happens.  But in it we need to rest that God is sovereign and he is working all things for HIS glory and my sanctification – which is ultimately a good thing for me.

Stop trying to figure things out and start yielding yourself to Jesus.  Search your heart with an open Bible, a steaming hot cup of coffee, and eyes wet with tears that God would strengthen you in this trial to bear it for his glory.   Pray that he will reveal your heart to you and give him all of it.  He promises that he will be found if we seek him with ALL our heart.  (Jer 29:13).

It is impossible to have the perspective that God has.  He is GOD, that is his job, not ours.  God kinda tears into Job right from the start of Chapter 38 – “Who is this that darkens my counsel without knowledge? Dress for action like a man.”  He is saying in a sense “OK, Job.  I’ve heard enough.  You have really no idea what you are talking about because you are not me, never will be me, and don’t know everything I do.  Get ready, put your big boy pants on because I’m going to school you.”

He spends 4 chapters reminding Job of who he is.

Then…well…let’s just wait and see what happens in the last chapter, shall we?

Sorry, this turned out to be kind of a longish rant – but having gone through quite a season in 2010 – this is on my heart.