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.

Beads on a String

It was an incongruous place to be stringing pearls. Her hair was a memory, and her face was puffy with swelling, but those beautiful, shapely fingers were quick and steady. One by one she picked out the beads, setting them aside to become an integral part of her latest creation. The others sitting nearby looked on curiously as a slow drip ran varicolored fluids into her chest beneath the collar bone. They, too, had bare metal trees flowing toxic sap, infusing hope. But they did not have the beads, the flashing silver spacers, the diamond-cut glass spheres, and the pearls that ran from her fingertips onto tiger-tail circlets.

 

Her smile was out-of-place, too, in the clinic. Most people tried to sleep the hours away while burning liquid invaded their tissues. But if a cocky beret and an inviting countenance were not enough to induce a conversation from her neighbors, there were always the beads. If you wanted to try, she would let you choose your colors from her box of surprises, show you how to handle the pliers, how to close the crimp beads to just the right tension. So that when you left you would have something to remember: a bracelet, a keepsake, a connection.

 

She gave them to all her friends in those days, a little bit of herself that sprang from the dark hours. A little bit of herself that glittered with life. She let me make my own one day, but I’ve never been very inventive, and she had to help me choose the colors. We picked a handful of blue beads in turquoise, powder and midnight, pearls in white and silver-gray. Some of them looked nearly black to me, dull and uninviting. Others were unusual, with bits of contrasting glass stuck on at odd angles. And several of them were my favorites. I would have made the whole circle of just those beautiful beads: creamy white with soft blue accents and elegant gold trim.

 

She knew better than I, however. Because when I had inexpertly strung all of them together and she had helped me finish off my bracelet, it was a little work of art. I stare at it now, examining each bead and the way they all meld into one eclectic whole. That was her wisdom. Each bead is unique, some dull, others wild, a few lovely. But when the artist has finished, they blend into a satisfying creation that can never be duplicated, a song from the heart of its maker.

 

As day upon day is strung on the cord that becomes a life, it is a gift to hold each one in our hands and notice without rancor whether they are troubling or luminous or ordinary, dull or wild or lovely. The uniqueness and delight of God’s work comes not from a bland sameness of beauty, but from His blending of the light and the dark in a pattern which can only be fully appreciated from afar. And thus the Creator is glorified, taking pleasure in each story which reflects His sovereign artistry. Year upon year, life upon life, like pearls on a string, our days are meant to reflect the heart of God – just as surely as my sparkling bracelet still reflects her love in a world she has long transcended.

 


I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Thy doings; I muse on the work of Thy hands.  Ps. 143:5

Thorns

Rose thorns

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”  (Gen. 3:17b-19)

 

Thorns are thick on the ground this week. People close to me have been wounded, and the garden seems foreign and menacing. This dimming of the world’s beauty has taken me by surprise, and I am tempted to raise my fist in anger. I’d forgotten about the thorns. Oh, I’ve pricked my finger on a hybrid rose and pitied myself for a moment, but I’d forgotten about the real thorns, the wild thorns, the brutish kind they used for Jesus’s crown.

 

Dangerous barbs grow side by side with luscious fruit and lovely flowers in God’s kingdom. I used to think they wouldn’t grow here, shouldn’t grow here, and in those days I did raise my fist in anger. But now, in my head at least, I know that the world doesn’t magically change its character when the Gardener King adopts me. We live in the now-and-not-yet that theologians talk about, that space between realizing we are royalty and taking up all the privileges of royalty. And in that space the thorns continue to thrive.

 

So what advantage prayer? What advantage faith? If I was in control, I would arrange things for my children with partiality. But in God’s garden the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. So, too, the thorns. What difference, then, between our lives before belief and after? Two things, at least, two things I’ve been holding onto this week.

 

First, the thorns are no longer futile. They are good for something. That’s not what I want to hear when a thorn has been driven deep and the blood is flowing, but later, when my heart is still, it helps to know that there is purpose even in disaster, that in some mysterious, future way, the pain will reap a harvest of beauty – a glory that will be specific to us and our story (Rom. 8:18). We don’t have a choice about the thorns. Our only choice is whether our wounds have value or not. It helps me to believe they do.

 

Second, we don’t suffer the thorns alone. I want someone to go with me to the hospital when I’m in pain. God promises to go where even humans cannot go, to comfort, strengthen and watch over us in our need. We don’t have a choice about the thorns. Our only choice is to suffer them alone or never to be alone again.

 

pruning shearsNo, the world doesn’t magically change into a verdant, fairy tale meadow. It is and stays a fallen place filled with entangling vines, muddy pits, biting insects and giant thorns. God’s kingdom comes first in our hearts (Luke 17:21). Our job is to create beauty in the midst of the mess, and that’s what God is doing, too. He has planned this fallen abode to weed out the thorns in us, to produce the most beauty in and through us (and sometimes despite us). Does He answer prayers and bring sudden good from certain disaster? I believe He does – but rarely. In general, His good grace walks us through the suffocating mire and the slashing briers so that we become more than we are and prove our faith to ourselves. But this week I remembered that it hurts like hell.