Wednesday, July 30, 2014

what I'm reading: walking through suffering

We are facing a very hard time at the moment. I will tell you more about it another time, but please keep us in your prayers.

This morning I read these words in Tim Keller's Walking with God through pain and suffering. They were just what I needed to hear:
Suffering is something that must be walked through. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.

Adversity is like a fire that, rather than destroying you, can refine, strengthen, and beautify you, as a forge does with metal ore. The fire "tries" to destroy the metal put into the fire but only succeeds in making it more pure and beautiful. Like fire working on gold, suffering can destroy some things within us and can purify and strengthen other things.

Or not. It depends on our response. The fiery furnace does not automatically make us better. We must recognize, depend on, speak with, and believe in God while in the fire. God himself says that he will be with us, walking beside us in the fire. Knowing him personally while in our affection is the key to becoming stronger rather than weaker in it.

Tim Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 226-9

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

book review: Invest your suffering

Every writing pastor seems to put out a book on two themes. One is marriage. Another is suffering. Judging from the prologues, the process goes something like this: they give a sermon series. It's popular (who isn't interested in these topics?). They turn the series into a book.

It can be hard to know which book on suffering to read, since there are so many. If you were to look over the recently published books on the topic, which one would you choose? I've read a fair few,* and my top pick would definitely be Paul Mallard's unassuming little book Invest Your Suffering. This book is ideal both for those preparing for suffering, and (a harder audience!) for those who are suffering.

I'd never heard of Invest Your Suffering, or of Paul Mallard, when I was asked to review it. I wasn't sure if I had time. I read one chapter in the dentist's waiting room (for me) and others between ongoing doctors' visits (for my chronically ill son). I didn't regret it. It came at a time when I needed it, and it met me in my need.

One of the things I love about Invest Your Suffering is that it doesn't aim for great things. You won't find some clever new theological perspective on suffering (thank goodness!). It's not long and exhaustive (for that, turn to Don Carson or, more recently, Tim Keller). It's readable, honest, and heart-felt. It's really just an exploration of some of the ways God's word meets us when we suffer, from the pen of a pastor long experienced in suffering.

In some ways, this book is a love story. It's about Paul Mallard's wife Edrie, who suffers from a painful and debilitating neurological condition, and the difficult stages of their journey. But it is less about their love - although that shines through the pages - than it is about God's love. Mallard states his goal here:
In the course of this book, we will engage with some of the great Bible passages that have brought light into Edrie's and my darkest moments. (p. 22)
Each chapter opens with a scene from their story and the hard questions it raised for them, then unpacks a truth about God that helped them at this time. This is not a systematic book, but a pastoral and exegetical one. As I read, I felt like I was sitting in Mallard's congregation, listening to him speak; or in his living room, talking with him and his wife.

Invest your suffering opens by inviting us to choose how we will respond to suffering. Will it make us better or bitter? Mallard says, "The right response is a deliberate and reasoned decision to trust" (p. 22), and the rest of his book is an invitation to this "reasoned trust".

The second chapter addresses how we think about our trials. Mallard shows how damaging false views of suffering can be, and how much more deeply a true understanding can help us. If you're looking for a clear, brief, biblical summary of God's sovereignty in suffering - the idea that he is the "first cause", and what that means - you'll find it here. 

Then it's into the body of the book, and the Bible passages and truths that helped Mallard and his wife. Open my copy of the book and you'll find six chapters circled on the contents page. These are the that spoke most deeply to me:
  • trusting God when we can't understand his purposes
  • learning to number our days
  • turning to God when we run out of answers
  • suffering prepares us to minister to others
  • only the cross of Christ helps when we are in emotional or physical pain
  • suffering moves us to long for heaven. 
I hope I've whetted your appetite for more!

When I read books, I hunt for the "gold": quotes that may help me or others. In this book, it was the sentences that made the book sparkle. Here are a few I collected along the way:
Praise God and keep taking the tablets. (p. 32)

We walk by faith, not by explanations. We don't have to understand everything God is doing in order to trust him. (p. 38)

We come to God with our broken hearts, and, without pausing, he continues to conduct the symphony of the stars while sweeping us into his arms and whispering that he loves us and that all is well. (p. 44)

God loves us and is too wise to make mistakes and too kind to cause us unnecessary pain. (p. 48)

Please don't tell me that Christians shouldn't grieve. (p. 56)

God has crushed us so that we can minister out of our pain. (p. 87)

Suffering is the best commentary on God's character, and pain is the finest exposition of his excellencies. We discover more about God's grace when we come to the end of ourselves. You will never know that God is all you need, until God is all you have. (p. 136)

When Edrie wept in the darkness and I wept with her, the Saviour was near, carrying us both on his heart and presenting us to his Father. (p. 152)

The main question we needed to ask was not 'why?' but 'how?'. How can we bring glory to God in the midst of 'attacks' which have all but robbed us of the day? (p. 156)
The book has few faults. I was a little alienated by some of the language (that we can "choose to overcome" and "triumph in the midst" of our pain - although Mallard, if anyone, has a right to say this) and by a couple of the chapters (on giving thanks, and on the benefits of suffering - they felt a little glib to me). Yet the vast majority of the book was sympathetic, sensitive, and open about the agonising questions aroused by suffering.

Here's a typical passage that is worth the price of the book alone:
There was one truth that, for me, stood head and shoulders above the others. It was the fact of the love of God demonstrated in the sacrifice of his Son at Calvary. I lived in the Gospels, and particularly John's Gospel. I read it on my knees. I prayed it. I preached it. As I did these things, Jesus became more and more precious for me. Looking at his love and the suffering he experienced for me helped me to look beyond the apparent meaninglessness of our suffering to see that, at the heart of the Godhead, is a Saviour who knows and feels and sympathizes with our suffering. (p. 149)
Would I recommend this book to those who suffer? Definitely. Not many books are helpful and readable when you're in the furnace. But Mallard's honesty about his pain and doubt, his clarity of thought, and his pastor's heart, make this a good choice for someone who is suffering. By the end you will feel like you have traveled with this godly man and his wife on their hard journey, and drunk deeply with them of the life-giving water of God's word.

* I recently began, and am thoroughly enjoying, Tim Keller's new book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 21, 2014

online meanderings

When God seems silent

Whole house reveal - How to truly makeover a house. Love it!

10 things missionaries won't tell you

4 questions to keep close to your wallet

The perfect family - An honest, haunting story about a family full of needs.

6 ways your phone is changing you

How to understand Revelation - Brilliant!
If you only choose to praise the Lord when you’re healthy, comfortable and enjoying life, you’re going to spend a lot of your existence grumbling and questioning God's love and goodness. Paul Tripp

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to scripture, faith and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated. - Don Carson

To see more links and quotes, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).        

Thursday, July 17, 2014

thoughts on an imperfect holiday

Hi, friends! We're back from 2 weeks' holiday. We spent the first week at a conference for our uni Christian group, and last week at the beach at Apollo Bay.

There were many lovely moments:

- a wild wind blowing spray backwards from the waves
- the golden lights of evening on the harbour
- seeing the world "like a bird does" (as Thomas said) from the lookout
- sampling the best coconut ice cream ever
- jogging and walking along the beach.

Steve was sick throughout our holiday (he's had a rough year). In the end, he had to take anti-nausea medication. He's still sick - he's now on medication for gastritis - but he made it down to the beach a couple of times. I did my best to look after him, and help the kids to have a good holiday.

I used to think holidays had to be perfect. I'd try to capture that mood where body and mind are at peace, and there's nothing to disturb the feeling. It's not something you can get just by wanting, so I spent every holiday in a state of nagging disappointment.

There were also holidays of teary exhaustion because none of my babies ever slept away from home. And the time I fractured a bone in my foot (I was trying to put a piece of tomato down my brother's back at the time, so at least it was in a good cause). And the plague year when I discovered an allergy to midge bites. Yup, holidays aren't perfect.

I have learned to be thankful for imperfect holidays. Watching the kids splash in the freezing water in their wetsuits. Sitting with my daughter in a cafe, both sipping on spiced chai. A family game of Cluedo. I don't care if I'm sitting on a lump of hard sand, or the kids are bickering; I love moments like those.

We're taught to idolise holidays. We post photos of beaches on Facebook - #it'sahardlife - and wait for the "likes!" that hide our friends' envy. We work and save all year for a week at a resort. We're always in search of the perfect experience - the perfect location - the perfect rest. Like all idols, this one is empty and unsatisfying.

Holidays are good. They're a gift of God for our refreshment. They renew us so we can serve him. They give us meaningful time with family and friends. But they're not yet heaven. In this world, they will often be marred by illness and injury and dissatisfaction. They will always, in some way, disappoint.

There's a better holiday coming - a perfect rest - one where there will be no midge bites or arguments or illness. A holiday only hinted at by those rare, perfect holiday moments. A holiday that will never come to an end.

I, for one, can't wait.