Be Still

Caught up in an emotional discussion of theology just the other day, trying as best we could to make heads or tails out of the “senseless” suffering in both of our lives, a friend of mine – very obviously angry at God – began to recite for my benefit a list of all the changes he had recently made in his life. The list was in fact impressive, though hobbled greatly by the fact that it was spoken in the context of wondering why God “had not come through” for him, i.e God had not immediately brought about the relational healings that he had hoped for.

We’ve all heard these lists before, so it may not surprise anyone to hear that my friend played back a list of activities that included a tremendous amount of Bible study, prayer, submission to church authority, listening to sermons while he worked, etc. And of course, I endorsed all of those activities as both good and God-honoring.

Perhaps I was more “caught up in the Spirit” than usual – or perhaps I was just a bit more alert – because my response to hearing yet another List of Things That Good Christians Do was simply to ask, “Okay, but what are you like when you stub your toe on a piece of furniture?” And with that deceptively-simple question, two things happened immediately: 1) I had regained his attention – no small task considering the amount of pain this friend was in – and 2) I had very effectively condemned myself.

Seemingly not content to humiliate both of us just a little, I followed up with, “Sure, who we are in Christ might be seen in some measure by how we give of our time to hearing His Word, but I actually think God shows us exactly who we are by allowing suffering in our lives.”

Yes, I want to know who you are when you are singing songs of praise and taking communion on Sunday mornings, but I won’t ever know “the totality of the real you” until I happen to be present when you stub your toe badly (or experience some other form of real suffering, big or small). It bothers me – as it should – to think about the words and emotions that immediately rise to the surface whenever I experience even a mild form of unexpected suffering. Ignoring the inspired words of the Apostle James, I have yet to “count it all joy” when suffering rears its ugly head. I am grateful that God continues to be so patient with me, continually showing me my desperate need of forgiveness and cleansing and “providing opportunities,” as it were, to repent.

So I was again reminded what a poor showing I tend to make in the face of suffering just this past week, when I “coincidentally” had occasion to once again pick up Nancy Guthrie’s amazing little book entitled, “Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God’s Purpose and Provision in Suffering.” Since my wife and I work almost exclusively within the context of pain and suffering as DivorceCare facilitators, we are quick to recommend this book to anyone and everyone who is experiencing unexpected sorrow of any kind.

Here are three solid reasons why you might consider picking this book up for yourself or for a loved one experiencing unanticipated loss and/or suffering (there are more, but let’s limit it to three for today):

  1. The book clocks in at well under 200 pages. You could, if you were so inclined, get through all of it in an afternoon. I would advise against this approach, though, and instead suggest that the reader soak in every one of the 25 chapters, perhaps reading one chapter per day, or at most two. Taking a more devotional approach to the chapters will, I think, provide more “room” in one’s heart and soul to take in a more biblical view on how and why we suffer, even (or perhaps even “especially”) after we have given our lives to the Lord.
  2. Though highly accessible to the average reader, the list of authors who have made their individual contributions to the topic of grief and what righteous suffering should look like reads like a “Who’s Who” in the history of world Christendom. If you had to play a theological baseball game against Satan’s Top Tempters, then these are definitely the people you would want on your Dream Team. In chapter order, then, the folks who have contributed to this thin volume are Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, Joni Eareckson Tada, Os Guinness, R.C. Sproul, John Calvin, Wilson Benton Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Newton, Abraham Kuyper, Helen Roseveare, A.W. Tozer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, St. Augustine, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Jerry Bridges, D.A. Carson, Corrie ten Boom, Sinclair Ferguson, J.I. Packer, Thomas Manton, John Piper, Martin Luther, Jeremiah Burroughs and Jonathan Edwards.
  3. Nancy Guthrie, the woman who edited this collection together, also knows a great deal about what personal suffering looks like, having lost two children to a rare chromosomal condition. It is no stretch of the imagination to guess that she edited this collection together as just one way of dealing with what can only have been unimaginable grief in her own life. In simple terms, she brings a great deal of credibility to this topic. She is not simply tossing out a treatise as her contribution to the seminary libraries of the world; readers can immediately sense the deep concern, tears and gut-wrenching emotion that must have accompanied assembling these essays. (See “About Nancy Guthrie” for more information.)

My interest in God’s good plan for human suffering isn’t at all an academic one, either. Like Guthrie, I also have lost two children in the space of three years. Unlike Guthrie, my losses have not been to physical death, but they are nonetheless extremely painful. “Relational brokenness” carries with it the extra pain of knowing that “all it would take” is a change of heart for the healing to begin. As day after day has gone by, then, I have been confronted many, many times with a temptation to doubt God’s goodness, and to carry with me the very same heart attitude that questions His authority and is prone to reciting the Look At Everything I Have Done For You list as accusation (rather than as praise for His enabling). It saddens me greatly to consider the number of days that I have given myself over to grumbling and murmuring against God.

Thankfully, I am surrounded by other faithful believers who are likely to help me in any number of ways, from putting Guthrie’s book in my hands, to reminding me Who God really is (and who I really am), and not making the classic Christian mistake of minimizing the very real and ever-present pain that undergirds so much of the theology that I am privileged to share with others.

The Christian is not somehow exempt from suffering. Why we allow ourselves to imagine that God has abandoned us in our suffering really defies explanation, as if somehow our life of faith will lift us above what every other person on the planet will experience. God’s Word certainly doesn’t indicate that belief in Christ comes with a life absent of pain – quite the opposite (John 15:20-21; 1 Peter 1:6-7). Guthrie’s book is a much-needed inoculation against this sort of thinking, and one I recommend find a place on every believer’s bookshelf. The day will come when you will need it, believe me.

John 15:20-21 (Jesus speaking to his disciples)
“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

John 16:33 (Jesus speaking to his disciples)
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

James 1:2-3
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

1 Peter 4:12
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

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