I’ve got vague memories of reading this book back in January/February this year. This isn’t a slight on the book, because I’ve only got vague memories of doing anything in that period! The early cancer months are something of a blur. Last week I read Suffering Well: the predictable surprise of Christian suffering by Paul Grimmond (again?). It’s a topic I felt I understood pretty well. The suffering bit anyway. Not so sure about the well. It was natural that I’d gravitate towards a book like this, as I’ve felt the last couple of years have been shaped by suffering of many kinds. A life-threatening car accident, cancer, serious illness in hospital, having our dreams of ministry in Darwin dashed. So what is God doing? What am I to learn?
The title sounds like an oxymoron – predictable surprise. And I think it is. It comes as a surprise only if we don’t grasp God’s word on this topic. If we soak ourselves in the Scriptures then there is something very predictable about suffering. God tells us to expect suffering. We live in a world subjected to futility and frustration. It’s been that way ever since the first man and woman decided to try and live without God.
20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:20-22)
And there’s a specific suffering for those who are following Jesus. We’re warned to expect that we will suffer and be persecuted for our allegiance to Jesus.
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, (Philippians 1:29)
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, (2 Timothy 3:12)
Suffering Well begins by highlighting the prevailing views about suffering and God in Western society. This is the cultural environment in which we experience suffering and it’s the tape that plays in our heads as we grapple with understanding our experiences. It goes something like this:
In our brave new world, suffering means that God is immoral and that Christians are immoral. Our only hope is a world freed from the Christian God, in which humanity invents its own understanding of right and wrong, guided by reason alone. (p28)
Grimmond calls us to think from the Bible’s perspective about human suffering. He shows that the way to handle suffering well is to see through God’s eyes and to follow Jesus, whatever comes our way.
This book isn’t a theodicy, but it does show us God’s character in the face of suffering. We’re reminded that God is God and doesn’t have to give an account to us. However, God is revealed as a God of justice and a God of mercy. He can be trusted even when we have no specific explanation for our difficult circumstances. God’s character is shown most clearly in his willingness to personally embrace the suffering of our world. God became one of us and experienced the problems of injustice, sickness, death, persecution and betrayal. Jesus took on human sinfulness and paid the ultimate price on the cross, that God might offer us free forgiveness. These famous words reveal a God who can be trusted, even with suffering:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
This books focuses on showing that the New Testament has more to say about suffering for Jesus, than it does with discussing cancer, AIDs, warfare and famine. I found this confronting, as I often find myself focusing more on my sickness than on how I’m being treated as a follower of Jesus. Like many modern Christians, I’m tempted to say that I haven’t experienced much specific Christian suffering or persecution. But the big questions are, ‘What might keep me from persevering as a follower of Jesus?’ ‘Where are the threats to my faith?’ It’s worth contemplating carefully these words:
The great danger for Christians living in the West, is not physical death at the hands of persecutors, but the slow, spiritual death of a thousand tiny compromises, crouched at our door waiting to devour us. (p97)
Sickness, suffering and death are the realities of our world. Christians will continue to be reviled because they trust in a persecuted, suffering Saviour. The key to suffering well is to keep our eyes focused upon Jesus. He’s the one who died for our sin and who was raised to life to be the ruler of God’s new creation. In Jesus, there is genuine hope for the future – hope for our futures – a future free from all suffering. For those trusting in Jesus, nothing can separate us from sharing in the fulfilment of this hope.
This book pushed me to refocus my thinking about suffering. It said it would – and it succeeded! There are a couple of issues I’d like to see explored further. The first is the link between general suffering in this world and the impact this can have on continuing to trust Jesus. My experience was that the weakness of my body, being confronted by my own mortality, and the feelings of grief and depression, all contributed to a personal crisis of faith in the early months of this year. The second issue is the question of links between specific sin and suffering. I confess to being unsatisfied with most explanations of James 5 and the links between sin, confession and healing, but these can be explored further on another occasion.
Overall, I found this a helpful book. It is full of Scripture and it models the way we should seek to live – by listening to God’s word. It calls us to look to Jesus, to follow him come what may, and to trust God in life and in death.
Whenever suffering comes along – of whatever kind – the right way to deal with it lies in staying true to Christ. (p112)
You can find this book at Matthias Media.