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.

God’s Struggler

I have little time to write these days, so I am repeating one of my favorites, something I think about often. I hope it encourages you wherever you find yourself right now.


I am everyone in Scripture. In reading through the Bible I often take the perspective that each character and incident reflects something about me as a human being. A previous post described me as Barabbas. I am also the woman who worshiped Jesus with her tears. I am Joseph, the one who experiences affliction which God intends for good. It is easy to see that I am Peter, denying Jesus and being restored. You get the idea. With those new eyes I want to meditate on Jacob, who wrestled with an angel. Sure, I see that he struggled with God in prayer, and I certainly do that. But there is more to the story which I have found confusing. So this post is one woman’s attempt to find herself in Jacob who was renamed Israel.

 

You will find the story in Genesis 32 and 33. Jacob was on his way to meet with his estranged and powerful brother, and he had his family and all his possessions in tow. The Bible says that he was in “great fear and distress.” In fact, he was so afraid of his brother, Esau, that Jacob sent him numerous bribes and then lagged behind the rest of the caravan. That is how he came to be by himself, wrestling with the angel of God at night. The Bible doesn’t say this, but I think that he was going to bolt. He had already done every cowardly thing short of running away, and I think that was why he wrestled God. His name, Deceiver (Jacob, loosely translated from the Hebrew), would bear this out. When morning came, Jacob’s helpless wives and children would find themselves inexplicably alone, in the hands of Jacob’s worst enemy.

 

If you read the story from that perspective, you find that by daybreak, God had still not overcome Jacob’s fear, his craven resolution to flee. Jacob’s flesh was stronger than Jacob’s faith. And so God crippled him. In this hindered state, Jacob continued to wrestle for God’s blessing. He no longer had the option to run, and so he asked for the thing he should have sought in the beginning, God’s purpose and blessing in the midst of his struggle. Our gracious God who maims then bestowed upon Jacob, the Deceiver, his new name: Israel or Struggler. The rest of the story reveals God’s faithfulness as Jacob assumes his rightful place at the head of his family. I’ll let you read it for yourself.

 

This story is about Israel’s identity as a man and as a people. It’s about my identity. It’s about the many ways I deceive myself and others, the many ways I run from the hard things, the many ways I fail even to ask for courage. If you know me, you know that I am crippled. I have an artificial leg which is the result of an amputation which saved my life. It has also kept me from running away when I wanted to and caused me to wrestle with God until He blessed me. It is a visible reminder that my name is Struggler, and that is a good thing.

 


If you’d like to hear a sermon on this passage by Mark Driscoll, click this link: http://marshill.com/media/genesis/jacob-wrestles-god.

Angry Parent

Dear Christian Counselor,

I am a mother of 3, redeemed by Christ nine years ago, but every day I fail to live that promise. I have this temper that comes out and hurts my kids. Am I really saved? Then why do I keep repeating this sin with the littlest things, like spilt water, a loud voice etc.? After snapping I am disgusted by it, and I always repent to God and my kids. How I thank God for not giving me serenity in sin. His mercy is there, but I want to experience His victory. I pray each time that His sovereign power protects my kids from me.

I’ve read so many books about parenting, and I’ve been crying out to God each morning to experience His presence and the hope He has given me. Every day I fail in my greatest mission — to reflect Christ to my kids. How can I shepherd them if I always scare them away? Most times I feel that I don’t deserve to be a mother… Why can’t I take care of his gifts well, and why can’t I always be joyful with these? We are talking about being good stewards of what God has given us. And I’m failing big time. Please remember me in your prayers.

Mad Mama


Dear Mad Mama,

I want to answer your most important question first: I do believe you are saved. The Apostle Paul called himself “the chief of sinners” in one of his last letters (I Tim. 1:15). Conviction and remorse are signs of the Holy Spirit’s work. If God wanted to give you an instant victory, He could do that, but being saved doesn’t usually mean we stop grappling with sin – it means we have help for the struggle and forgiveness when we fail. If you can set this question at rest, and stop beating yourself up, it may help you find a bit more patience.

It seems you have taken some good, practical steps, such as reading parenting books and starting your day with reminders of God’s love. Because these things have not helped you substantially, I believe you need to find the root of your anger (see James 4:1-2a). You may be carrying a burden from the past which explodes at an inappropriate target. Finding peace within does not mean blaming others for your temper; it means leaving bitterness behind and redeeming your story. I would suggest finding a local, Christian counselor to help with that process. You might try calling Focus on the Family which has a phone counseling ministry as well as a counseling referral database:

To reach Focus on the Family’s counseling service by phone, call 1-800-A-Family (232-6459) weekdays 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Mountain Time). Please be prepared to leave your contact information for a counselor or chaplain to return a call to you as soon as possible. The consultation is available at no cost to you. You may also reach our counselors online by filling out our Counseling Request Form.

I want to add a few more hands-on suggestions:

  • First, offer your children an abundance of praise. If you give them plenty of intentional encouragement and loving kindness, it will help counteract your angry outbursts.
  • Second, you might try working through Carter and Minirth’s Anger Workbook noted on our resources page.
  • Finally, I would urge you to take very good care of yourself, finding rest in small ways throughout the day, reducing or eliminating activities which drain your reserves, asking for assistance when you need it. No one else will do this for you, and lowering your overall stress will help you when you encounter parenting challenges. Sometimes I find that Christians have a hard time saying “no” because they feel it would be selfish. You must learn to do this for the sake of your kids, so that you have the capacity to love them well over the long haul.

set of vector icons of religious christianityIn closing, I am asking everyone who reads this letter to say a prayer for you and your children. Perhaps that’s the real gift God has for you here.