Dr. Paul Tripp, pastor, counselor, conference speaker and author of at least 21 books, kept up his hectic schedule because he was disciplined about diet, exercise and health. So it was a bolt from the blue when a mysterious illness put him in the hospital with spasms so intense he screamed in pain and fear for thirty-six hours straight. That wasn’t the end of his suffering, either, but you will have to read his latest book to find out more.
A New Book
You may know Tripp for his parenting videos aimed at the heart or his books on human relationships, such as How People Change. Or perhaps you get his weekly devotional in your email inbox. If so, then you are familiar with his casual style, mixing Scriptural truths with clarifying anecdotes in a way that generally hits a bulls-eye but occasionally seems too formulaic. Well, Dr. Tripp has been prolific of late, publishing three new volumes in 2018 despite his major health issues. Because of those health issues I wanted to include a review of his latest book, Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense in this blog series on pain.
I’ve read virtually every book on suffering and theodicy in the popular, conservative, Christian market (and a few that aren’t), so I didn’t expect to be surprised by Tripp’s entry in the genre. But I was surprised by two things: the transparency of his story and the fact that he brought one excellent new idea to the theology of suffering.
Paul Tripp often includes his family problems as illustrations in his work, so it wouldn’t be fair to say he has concealed his mistakes. But he has seemed to maintain a certain distance. I had the privilege of lunching with him at a small, post-conference gathering, and I have to say, he did not leave me with warm fuzzies there, either. (Now that I’ve read about his recent illness, I wonder what he might have been going through at the time.) His descriptions in Suffering are not vastly different from his self-disclosure in other works, but I was able to empathize with his struggles in a deeper way. Tripp speaks of his new-found dependence, saying, “Honestly, I didn’t suffer just physical pain, but also the even more profound pain of the death of my delusion of invincibility and the pride of productivity.”
His descriptions of physical pain are heart-rending, too. Now he knows; now we are connected. I want to say, “Welcome to the fellowship of His sufferings,” (Phil. 3:10), because I think there is a promise in that verse. When you enter into suffering, you enter into a hidden room where Christ has lived and died; you enter into His fellowship in a new way, and the Gospel becomes so much dearer.
Suffering as a Canvas
That said, I’m not sure feeling closer to Paul Tripp is enough reason to spend $17 on another book about suffering. What I will really take away with me is the idea that our lives are shaped not just by what we suffer but by what we bring to our suffering (p. 27). If we bring doubt or fear or pride or resentment or self-hatred into our suffering, then we will suffer that way. Our suffering is like a canvas upon which each one of us paints his own picture. For some, the experience is colored with envy or depression, while for others, suffering is a place of focus and reflection. I would add that each bout and each type of suffering is going to be a little different, too. God is at work in different ways in all our lives at all times, and if we will seek Him within our suffering we will find out what has been hiding in our hearts all along. That is a good thing.
The first two-thirds of the book exposes some of the common problems that we bring into our experience of suffering, while the last third enumerates some of the sources of comfort God offers for our suffering. These later chapters offer practical steps, applicable Scripture and the power of telling yourself the truths you have trouble believing. I found them a good reminder in a time of my own suffering. There are questions at the back of each chapter, so the book could easily be used for a group study.
In all, I would say that the profundity of this book can be summed up in just one sentence: you never just suffer the thing that you’re suffering, but you always also suffer the way that you’re suffering that thing (p. 27). Other books which try to put all suffering into one basket miss the deep truth that everything God makes is unique – unique in its flaws and unique in its gifts – and those unique qualities (good and bad) are often revealed by suffering. Realizing that will help me as I reflect upon my own experiences of suffering. It might help you, too.