Monday, May 27, 2013

When God Weeps - part 3 - the "how" of suffering

I have a friend who suffers from chronic pain. She's had it most of her life, since an accident as a teenager. Of all the books she's read on suffering, the one she loves most is Joni Eareckson Tada and Stephen Estes' When God Weeps.

There's no higher recommendation than that!

Now that I've finished, what do I think of When God Weeps? I can't imagine a better book to give those who are in the middle of suffering, once they have reached a point where they are able to reflect on things again.

My friend and I agree that the best thing about When God Weeps is the way it moves between the theological and the experiential. It helps that it's written by Joni, deeply experienced in long-term suffering; and Stephen Estes, a capable theologian. Both write with great sympathy and with a colourful, lively style, and Estes writes with clear logic.

I don't agree with every sentence. I'm a bit hesitant about statements like this - "God may not initiate all our trials - but by the time they reach us, they are his will for us" (does this really express God's absolute sovereignty in all things?) - but I appreciate the tension between God's sovereignty and human responsibility that Estes is trying to uphold. And he does say, "No trial reaches us apart from God's explicit decree". So my hesitations are slight.

It was an absolute treat reading the third and final section. It's called "How can I hang on?", and it's about how to suffer well. There are four chapters, sometimes surprising in their content:
  • Cry of the soul - Wise words about anger at God, how it can lead to bitterness, and where it really belongs: in honest expression to God, so that it moves us, not away from him, but towards him. Here we may not find answers, but we will find his comforting arms.
  • Gaining contentment - I like Joni's "arithmetic of contentment": when we suffer, we subtract our wants so our desires equal our circumstances, and gain what is of far greater value: Christ's sufficiency in our need, the joy of knowing God, and the advancement of his kingdom.
  • Suffering gone malignant - I wasn't expecting a chapter on hell in a book on suffering, yet it really does belong here. Estes reminds us why hell is necessary, because it's God's answer to both terrible injustice and the evil at the heart of "good" people. It also explains why Christians suffer, because "hell's splashover" prepares us for eternity and moves us to reach out to others.
  • Suffering Gone - This was perhaps the highlight of the book for me. Every word spoke to my need. In suffering we need a future perspective (so hard when pain is present!). We need to remember that heaven is a Person, not just a place, that it is so much more than we can imagine, and that the way we bear suffering now will win us a rich reward in eternity. 
By the end of When God Weeps I was in tears. A bit embarrassing since I was in public at the time!

We will all suffer, so we all need books like When God Weeps. I recommend it highly, both for those who haven't suffered greatly yet and for those who are suffering.

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