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.


Rachach said...

Jean, through your trial I have seen you drawing upon the many books you have read on this topic, giving you words and thoughts to help you cling to God. It has made me realise I don't have as many weapons in my arsenal against doubt, fear and despair as you have and am reminded (by you) to prepare for suffering ahead of time. So I am going to read this book on your recommendation. Love Rach

Simon Finch said...

Thanks for your honest opinion on this book....I wondered if you have the time to answer a question of mine which I would like your opinion on. Do you think that there is a difference between suffering for the Gospel and suffering because of ill health? If Jesus has called us to have life and life in abundance then why would being ill be the type of suffering he is talking about be something that he would want us to endure? Surely he would be wanting for us to be seeking his answer on our deliverance from ill health and that when we find it, it would bring him glory and confirm that he surely is the one who heals my dieases? Thank you

Jean said...

Hi Simon,

Thank you for your thoughtful question.

It's certainly true that God can heal, that he healed often and miraculously through Jesus and the apostles, that he still heals today, and that this brings him glory.

But it's also true that there are examples in the New Testament where Christians, including apostles and their companions, are not healed (e.g. Galatians 4:13-15). Paul says, "I left Trophimus sick in Miletus" (2 Timothy 4:20). He tells Timothy to "use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses" (1 Timothy 5:23). And he prays for God three times to take away his "thorn in the flesh", but God says no, to prevent him from becoming conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). There's no suggestion that any of this happened because of a lack of faith or prayer or power on the apostle's part.

So yes, God can heal, and does heal, but we can't assume that he will always heal.

In fact, we should expect suffering in this life (I know you're not denying this, but it's helpful context for thinking about sickness). Jesus made it clear that we will face many tribulations (John 16:33). The pattern of the New Testament is suffering now and glory when Jesus returns; we groan with the rest of creation for our bodies to be renewed (Romans 8:17-25). God disciplines those he loves so we may share in his holiness (Hebrews 12:7-13). We experience suffering in "all kinds of trials" - not just persecution, I assume - to test and refine our faith, grow us in perseverance, and make us more like Jesus (1 Peter 1:6; Romans 5:3-5, 8:28-30; James 1:3-5). God's concern is less with our health, wealth and pleasure (which are things our society values) and more that our character become like Christ's, "a man of suffering, familiar with pain" (Isaiah 53:3).

And there's also the fact that we all die, which means that one day, even someone who is healed will experience their body succumbing to illness, the breakdown of their body, and death.

When Jesus talks about life in abundance he probably has in mind different kinds of blessings to the ones we usually value (e.g. the list of spiritual blessings in Ephesians 1:3-9). How much greater these things are than physical health! We have eternal life, life beyond death, in him. Our spirits are renewed while our bodies waste away (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Sometimes Christians are told that they should expect healing. Or that they don't have it because they don't pray or have enough faith. I think this is hurtful and misleading. The Bible makes it clear that God's will isn't always for our healing. But we have something much better: the promise that, whatever happens, he will never leave us or forsake us. He understands suffering. He will be with us. Nothing that happens to us is outside his loving soveriegnty. And he uses everything that happens to us to make us more like Jesus.

So I do pray for healing, but I also pray, like Jesus, that God's will, not mine, would be done (Mark 14:36). I think that's the real prayer of faith.

Sorry for the long ramble; I hope some of it was helpful! I write in humility with the desire that we can test each others' words and learn from God's Word as we read and reflect on it.

In Christ,