Wednesday, September 4, 2013

book review: Suffering Well by Paul Grimmond

Some books grow inside you after you've read them. The little book Suffering Well, by Paul Grimmond, is like that.

I finished it a few weeks ago. It's prodded and poked me ever since, getting under my guard, helping me respond to suffering the way God wants me to. It's a bit like the Bible - not always easy, but encouraging in the old sense of "giving courage" - and that's a huge compliment.

Most books on suffering fit one of two categories:
  • they're theodicies - they try to answer our questions about why a good God allows suffering
  • they're experiential - they share stories of suffering and help us know how to respond.
This book explores new territory:
  • it starts with the Bible rather than with our questions and experiences.
God's interests are different to ours. The Bible doesn't answer all our questions, and when it does, it doesn't see things the way we expect. Even the author was surprised by what ended up in his book! He says,
As I began, I thought I knew pretty much what I was going to say. But the more I read the Bible, trying to find the right passages to make the points I thought I needed to make, the more uneasy I felt.
Like a bracing wind, this book blows away our assumptions and invites us to see things from God's perspective.

Suffering Well points out that even the questions we ask are shaped by our culture. Our worldview is influenced by athiests, the story-tellers of our age. If God is dead, we're free to decide what's right and wrong. We reduce morality to "goodness = whatever reduces suffering". So a God who allows suffering must be evil.

But God has an uncomfortable habit of turning our questions back on ourselves. God is God, and we are not. He is in control. When we see suffering, we see the sovereign hand of the God who will one day judge us.* He doesn't need to explain himself to us: we need to explain ourselves to him.

This sounds pretty unsatisfying: shut up and let God be God. But that's not all the Bible tells us. It shows us that God's character is consistent. He will judge justly, which is hugely comforting in a world where people do so much evil. He isn't capricious and cruel, but merciful and good.

Our experiences aren't a reliable guide to God's character: we have to look to Jesus. If God made the world knowing his own Son would suffer and die for us, we can be sure that he is good. When I doubt his goodness, there's one certain place I can look: the cross. This brought me great reassurance.

So much for the Bible's answers to our questions. What about how we respond to suffering?

Once again, Paul Grimmond puts the focus where the Bible does: he begins with two chapters on persecution. I resented this a bit. To be told that I should be willing to suffer more for Christ... well, that's not what someone in pain wants to hear. Yet it's the Bible's message, and I need it, just like every other Christian.

I appreciated the reminder that persecution isn't just physical: it's also rejection, silence, disapproval, and the feeling of being "out of step" with those around us. There's also a great little chapter about some of the more subtle forms of suffering that come with being a Christian, like watching those you love reject the truth.

But what about general suffering? The answer of the New Testament is that God uses suffering us to make us more like Jesus for the sake of his own glory. We're forced to ask ourselves, What will our attitude to suffering be? Will we grow weary and give up? Or will we keep on trusting in God? How will we bring him glory?

God calls us to do three things through our tears:
  • praise God (Job 2:9-10) - tell others of God's goodness, even as we mourn
  • do good (1 Pet 4:19) - respond with grace, even when it's painful
  • wait patiently (1 Thess 1:6-10) – rely on God's timing as we hold on to the hope of heaven.
I found it helpful to have clear, solid, biblical guidelines for how to respond to suffering.

This isn't a perfect book. It's short, and while I'm sure this was part of the brief, since it's part of the Guidebooks for Life series, sometimes I would have liked greater depth. You probably wouldn't give it to someone who was suffering unless they were at the point of being able to think clearly and dispassionately.

Yet it would be a great book to give to a young person to help prepare them for suffering. This is an essential and often overlooked part of teaching and training; as one missionary said, 'We need to teach people to suffer' (153). I also found it personally helpful, old and jaded as I am.

Suffering Well is simple enough to be easily absorbed and remembered, yet profound enough to help us live for God when we suffer. It's not a comfortable book, but it's full of true comfort. It challenged me to dare to suffer for Christ, and when suffering comes, to "trust in God and continue to do good". To suffer well.

*As Paul Grimmond points out, this doesn't mean that we can trace a person's suffering back to their sin, but that general suffering is a result of human sinfulness.


Unknown said...

If "general suffering is a result of human sinfulness" how does one explain the suffering of a 3 year old girl raped and left bleeding to die? What sins could she have committed?
A tiger tears apart a deer. Did the deer commit some sin? Or is it that animal suffering is fine because I don't feel it?

Jean said...

I agree (and this is what I meant by the phrase you quote): we can't assume that suffering is the result of an individual's sin (Jesus was pretty strongly against that idea! - John 9). The general suffering in the world, according to Genesis 1-3 and Romans 8, is because of humanity's sin. Still not a comfortable idea, but it does mean that when someone suffers, you can't point the finger and say "it's because you've sinned" - that's where Job's (non-)comforters got it wrong. It also means that God didn't create the world this way: he made it good, and we stuffed it up. Then Jesus died so that we can be brought back into relationship with God and creation will, one day, be restored to what it's supposed to be.