“You haven’t heard what has happened?”
This is a response that causes the hairs on my nape to rise. I received it in March, after the plane carrying my uncle from a business trip in Italy went down in Ethiopia, leaving no survivors. It is a response I received less than a year ago through another fatal airplane crash of a close friend. And I became acquainted with it in a personal sense during my brother’s demise four years ago. In the wake of the attacks in Sri Lanka as is the case of violent extremism elsewhere, these present to us the reality of pain and suffering, which is a global and human phenomenon.
Suffering is real. And it affects all of us. The question is how we can come out of it resilient. Paul Tripp, an American pastor is helpful in the practical application of God’s Word to suffering in his book Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense published by Crossway in 2018 (I received a free copy for review through Crossway). Tripp reminds us that we do not process suffering from a neutral perspective but that;
What you think about yourself, life, God, and others will profoundly affect the way you think about, interact with, and respond to the difficulty that comes your way. (p. 27)
This has been a helpful reminder during the times of processing my own losses. Our view of the world determines whether we come out of painful experiences with clenched feasts or open arms, whether we come out with bile or brokenness. In this statement, Tripp shows us that our view of the gospel changes our misconceptions about life in general in the areas of poor theology, pride, materialism, and unrealistic expectations by looking at texts such as Romans 8:1-4, James 1:2-4 and 2 Corinthians 5:15. In essence, these four misconceptions, are faulty ways of looking at the world because we realize God has made us for so much more. They reveal to us the distortion that has marred God’s good world.
When thinking about suffering though, it isn’t only an intellectual concern. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland in their book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview have been critical in analyzing suffering as something that presents an intellectual as well as an emotional problem. They remind us of the charge given by non-Christians that if God is good, powerful and caring, then suffering cannot exist. Since suffering exists, then God doesn’t! However, as we have seen, Tripp offers a grace-laden and theologically robust response to this claim, and I think that what is so helpful is his pastoral sensitivity in combining both aspects of suffering in his book, through lifting up real case scenarios of suffering from his long-standing pastoral ministry.
As such, he helps us to investigate suffering not only intellectually but also emotionally, cognizant that suffering affects the entire human person. For instance, Tripp in his chapter “The Comfort of God’s Grace” goes beyond the truisms and cliches offered to those suffering with depression by noting the underlying issues “If we don’t fight to remember our true identity as the children of God, an identity that nothing or no one can steal from us, our suffering begins to define us.” (p. 132) Here, as in other places of the book, the reader is helped to go beneath the outward circumstances and deeper into the root issues that stem from the heart (Prov 4:23). The rest of the chapters are spent out unpacking what it means to have our identity rooted in being God’s adopted children, which is firmly embedded in God’s grace, in his own words:
As we suffer our way through this groaning world, we will never stop needing his uncomfortable, intervening, unstoppable, providing, and inseparable grace. And the good news is that the supply of that grace will never, ever wear out. (p. 142)
I could summarize several helpful truths that have assisted me in my own journey of suffering and which I think Paul Tripp tackles sufficiently in this 226 page-book:
- God’s sovereignty is a comforting anchor – I have seen that we wrestle with suffering because it shatters our dreams and expectations. Suffering reminds us that we are not in control. And when we come to that crossroad, there is an invitation to something deeper: “It’s only when we give up the delusion that we’ve been or can be in greater control that we can find rest in the One who is in control in our place.” (p. 162)
- Suffering should not define us – the point is that life’s circumstances should not define me. This goes another way too: Successes should not define me. This is a timely reminder in our selfie age. For the one who believes in Christ, her life gains eternal value that is not hinged on the circumstances that we go through. Sin, death, loss, cars, plots, celebrations are momentary realities. Christ is eternal.
- Suffering serves a purpose – Tim Keller has wonderfully compared suffering within the Christian worldview and other worldviews when he has said “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine” (p. 30)
Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine (Tim Keller – Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 30)
All said and done, the gospel presents for us the picture of a God who is not detached but suffers for us, for our ultimate joy. The gospel shining in its various facets presents to us great hope through the suffering of our lives, and Paul Tripp helps us to soak this in with clarity, sensitivity, and coherency. Any believer seeking to grapple with this perennial question of suffering has a great guide in Tripp. Pastors and ministry leaders have in this book a resource to shepherd their people through the suffering of our lives.