Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, a book review

Why do bad things happen to faithful people? It’s a question which drove me to despair as a young Christian struggling with the devastating effects of stage 4 cancer. It’s a question which has caused my friends and clients great dismay over the course of my counseling ministry. When I needed answers, I was able to find books dealing with either the theological tangles (most notably for me, The Sovereignty of God by AW Pink) or the emotional process of suffering (e.g., A Grief Observed by CS Lewis or Holding On To Hope by Nancy Guthrie). Now there is a book which attempts to include both the intellectual questions and the practical strategies in one volume, Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Random House, 2013).

 

The book is divided into three parts. Simply put, the first part defines the questions inherent in suffering, the second part wrestles with those questions and the third part offers some Scriptural strategies for coping with suffering. That means two thirds of the book is intellectual in nature, a preponderance concealed by the title. And yet, that was the crux of the matter for me. When I was able to discern a little logic, a little purpose in the universe which included suffering, it eased some of the exhaustion, anger and depression I carried with me like a dead weight. Keller also deals with the heavy intellectual emphasis by including personal stories at the end of each chapter in the first two sections, a practice I wish he had continued into the third part, as well.

 

I liked this book – but I like Keller, and I like theology. Before recommending it to someone else, I would want to know whether they are ready for a gentle exercise in philosophy. Part of the reason I enjoyed the book was that it confirmed some of my own beliefs, for example, that God is in control, that the world is a broken place and that suffering is and will be redemptive. Everyone must come to their own conclusions about the meaning of life and the purpose of suffering – I don’t think being handed a mantra on a silver platter solves anything – and this book allows room for that kind of wrestling. It also attempts to provide some practical strategies for dealing with pain, largely from the Psalms, but there is something about those final chapters which falls short, remaining too academic for me. Coping with suffering, like everything else we do, can be worship – should be worship – and at its best, worship is a passionate undertaking. For that you will have to read something else.

Becoming

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations –these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit –immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
– C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

 

Photo by Matt H Wade

I live in Orlando, a city best known for its theme park kingdoms. Most of us who live here take little notice of them, considering them irrelevant (except for occasional matters of traffic) to the struggles of daily life. I’m afraid that’s how we sometimes view God’s Kingdom, too.

 

Everyone who rightly claims the name of “Christian” has been given a free ticket to a supernatural kingdom of epic adventures, but most of us are content to stop just inside the gate and camp permanently in the parking lot. After all, it is clean and safe here. Little effort is required to wander aimlessly in the immediate vicinity. From time to time snatches of captivating music tempt us to press on for points unknown, but daily struggles, unspoken fears or a lack of imagination keep us rooted to the pavement.

 

Christ bought the ticket we carry in our pocket, and it was His song which drew us through the outer gate. Far in the distance stands a blazing throne where God the Father reigns in unimaginable glory, and it is toward this throne that Christ’s footsteps lead us, that gratitude for His love compels us, that the promise of His grace draws us. Between the gate and throne lie diverse pathways lined with heaven’s riches which are ours to discover if we will. Some of you will be saying, “Riches? The route of my life has included far more disasters than miracles.” But I am not referring to the outward condition of life but to the inner process of becoming Christ-like. It is a process of goodness and glory which requires our attention and cooperation and invites our celebration. Having passed through the narrow gate which divides the dead from the living, it is time to leave the anteroom where life is habitual and the world’s songs drown out heaven’s music. Half-hearted devotion is satisfied with half-truths and temporary treasures, but we were not redeemed for such trinkets.

 

God has infinite gifts tailored to meet the particular needs of His children. To move toward God is to become a little better, a little wiser, a little fuller, and a little more beautiful than we were before. One small step in the right direction will bring us that much closer to the Savior who has gone before us. Yes, we may encounter difficulties – battles and wounds, even – but there is no limit to the grace and joy to be found by walking forward in faith. When we finish this earthly sojourn, we will have become something more than we are now, and when we finally arrive at the foot of the throne, “the souls of righteous men made perfect,” (Heb. 12:23) we will have become everything that God dreamed for us. Right now, right here, all of us who dare this quest are in the process of becoming that new and glorious creature.

 

The Apostle Paul prayed for the Ephesians that they might “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge,” and “be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). Can you imagine what that might mean, to be filled up to all the fullness of God? For one thing, it means that no matter how much you know of Him now, how much you are filled with His love, how much you understand His goodness, His sufficiency, His power in your life – there is more! There’s more right now, and there is always more. That is the marvel of God’s kingdom. You can always press a little closer to the throne. The wonderful promise for us is that when we draw near to God, He will also draw near to us (James 4:8).

 

Discuss it: What would it mean for you to step a little deeper into the Kingdom of God? What keeps you from taking that step?

* Would it mean clarifying a belief you have struggled with?

* Taking on a greater challenge in the area of service?

* Might it mean facing that sin you’ve brushed aside?

* Could it mean forgiving the nearly-unforgivable?

* Perhaps making prayer a more constant source of strength?

* Memorizing your favorite passage?

Let me know what is calling you deeper in.

 


 

I am having a happy summer break with the Littles, so this post is a repeat from several years ago.

Can You Love a Narcissist?

Dear Christian Counselor,

 

I’ve read a few blogs and been told by a counselor to cut off the narcissist in my life because it’s too difficult to maintain a relationship with someone who thinks about themself all the time. I admit I’ve been hurt in the past, but I’m not sure I’m ready to take such a big step. What do you think about black-and-white advice like this?

 

Wondering How to Love a Narcissist

 


Dear Wondering,

 

I’d need a lot more information to give you my best advice, but, in general, I think it’s unwise to make black-and-white rules about a whole category of people based on a subjective diagnosis. It would be rather like saying you should never pet large dogs. While that decision might keep you safe, it would also limit your life in a way which might not be necessary and might not be God’s best for you.

 

We all start life as narcissists. We all come into this world seeing ourselves as the center of it, possessing little or no empathy for others, manipulating those around us and believing in our own hyperbolic specialness. Most of us are able to grow past that stage, but for reasons no one understands, a few people never do. Yet even for adults diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, there is a continuum; all personality disorders are variable and subjective in their diagnosis, presentation and degree. Most narcissists are not serial killers, though an extreme few are. Some are quite good at their jobs. Some maintain marriages and families and friendships. A few even manage to improve over time.

 

For the reasons stated above, I don’t think you can lump all narcissists and their loved-ones together and make blanket statements about how to deal with them. Are we talking about a lover, an employer, a sibling, a friend? We have more responsibility toward some than others. And what of the person asking the question – what are they strong enough to do? What are they being called to do? You might need to separate from a narcissist, either temporarily or permanently, because your heart has been so damaged that you can no longer relate to that person at all, in any helpful way. But that is not always how Jesus dealt with difficult, unsafe people (Judas and even Peter, for example). In many cases there is probably some middle ground between being consumed and ending all contact. The mistake generally comes in believing that love means allowing yourself to be consumed.

 

I am not sure we can say God has the exact same ‘no-contact’ plan for every person who is afraid of large dogs – nor for everyone who knows a narcissist.