I’m often asked if there are any resources I would suggest for people who are walking through a trial or suffering of some sort. Since Amanda passed I’ve read a number of books that have helped frame in me a theology of suffering. These resources have offered me handholds for discovering purpose in my pain. I know many people don’t have time to read as much as I do—or maybe don’t carve out the time. For that reason I want to begin offering you helpful insights from the books I’m reading. My hope is to release to you one of these a month.
One book that has been particularly profound for me is Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller. So, similar to the Cliff’s Notes, these are the Davey’s notes. I compiled my top underlines and highlights from each chapter of this helpful resource. Scan it. Skim it. Meditate on it. If you want to dive deeper into this book you can get it here. Hope this is helpful for you!
- I want to help readers live life well and even joyfully against the background of these terrible realities.
- The definition of ministry success is that “the afflicted hear and be glad.”
- Little did we understand how crucial it would be to help people understand and face affliction, and to face it well ourselves.
- You don’t really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.
- A fiery furnace, if used properly, dos not destroy. Things put into the furnace properly can be shaped, refined, purified, and even beautiful.
CHAPTER 1 - THE CULTURES OF SUFFERING
- Dr. Paul Brand wrote, “In the United States . . . I encounter a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it.” Why?
- In every one of these worldviews, suffering can, despite its painfulness, be an important means of actually achieving your purpose in life. It can play a pivotal role in propelling you toward all the most important goals.
- When interviewed twenty-five years after writing Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders when interviewed by BBC, Dr. Robert Spitzer admitted that, in hindsight, he believed they had wrongly labeled many normal human experiences of grief, sorrow, and anxiety as mental disorders . . . by 20-30%
- Christians believe that suffering is often unjust and disproportionate. We see this most of all in Jesus. If anyone ever deserved a good life on the basis of character and behavior, Jesus did, but he did not get it. In the light of the cross, suffering becomes “purification, not punishment.”
- While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of the world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.
CHAPTER 2 - THE VICTORY OF CHRISTIANITY
- Early Christian speakers and writers not only argued vigorously that Christianity’s teaching made more sense of suffering, they insisted that the actual lives of Christians proved it.
- While Christianity was able to agree with pagan writers that inordinate attachment to earthly goods can lead to unnecessary pain and grief, it also taught that the answer to this was not to love things less but to love God more than anything else. Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace
- Some suffering is given in order to chastise and correct a person for wrongful patterns of life (as in the case of Jonah imperiled by the storm), some suffering is given “not to correct past wrongs but to prevent future ones” (as in the case of Joseph sold into slavery), and some suffering has no purpose other than to lead a person to love God more ardently for himself alone and so discover the ultimate peace and freedom (as in the case of Job).
- But resurrection is not just consolation—it is restoration. We get it all back—the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life—but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength. It is a reversal of the seeming irreversibility of loss that Luc Ferry speaks of.
- God gives us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that He knows
CHAPTER 3 - THE CHALLENGE TO THE SECULAR
- It would be difficult historically to make the case that atheism has inspired more movements for social justice than religion has, so it is not clear how atheism provides a better resource for responding to suffering
- Philosopher John Gray writes “Drug use [and addiction] is tacit admission of a forbidden truth [in Western culture.]” What is that truth? It is that “for most people happiness is beyond reach.” In the secular worldview, all happiness and meaning must be found in this lifetime and world.
- Expressive Individualism is a “turn toward the self” and contributes more than anything to a decaying social fabric and “the hell of loneliness.”
- When we have no meaning beyond personal happiness, suffering can lead very quickly to suicide.
- No matter what we do, human suffering and evil can’t be eradicated. Even when you put all your force into stopping it—it just takes another form and grows in some new way. If we are going to face it, it takes more than earthly resources.
CHAPTER 4 - THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
- It is hard to imagine the development of virtues such as courage, humility, self-control, and faithfulness if every good deed was immediately rewarded and every bad deed was immediately punished.
- Alvin Plantinga wrote: “I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil—theodicies, as we may call them—strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.” And we can add to these warnings the book of Job itself. Surely one of the messages, as we will see, is that it is both futile and inappropriate to assume that any human mind could comprehend all the reasons God might have for any instance of pain and sorrow, let alone for evil.
- Now, if even the effects of a butterfly’s flight or the roll of a ball down a hill are too complex to calculate, how much less could any human being look at the tragic seemingly “senseless” death of a young person and have any idea what the effects in history will be?
- C.S. Lewis eventually came to realize that evil and suffering were a bigger problem for him as an atheist than as a believer in God. He concluded that the awareness of moral evil in the world was actually an argument for the existence of God, not against it.
- If there is no God or higher divine law, then violence is perfectly natural. So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all and, as we will see, it removes many resources for facing it.
CHAPTER 5 - THE CHALLENGE TO FAITH
- The resurrection of the body means that we do not merely receive a consolation for the life we have lost but a restoration of it. We not only get the bodies and lives we had but the bodies and lives we wished for but we never before received. We get a glorious, perfect, unimaginably rich life in a renewed material world.
- Reformed theologians, such as Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Kuyper, who believed that because of our fall and redemption, we will acheive a level of intimacy with God that cannot be received any other way. And therefore the angels are envious of it.
- And why could it not be that our future glory will actually so “swallow” the evil of the past that in some unimaginable way even the memory of the evil won’t darken our hearts but only make us happier?
- Three-year-olds cannot understand most of why their parents allow and disallow what they do. But though they aren’t capable of comprehending their parents’ reasons they are capable of knowing their parents’ love and therefore are capable of trusting and living securely. That is what they really need. Now, the difference between God and human beings is infinitely greater than the difference between a thirty-year-old parent and a three-year-old child.
- Martin Luther taught that human nature is in curvatus in se, curved in on itself. We are so instinctively and profoundly self-centered that we don’t believe we are. And this curved-in-ness is a source of a vast amount of the suffering and evil we experience.
CHAPTER 6 - THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
- However, while the Bible tells us that suffering in the world is in the result of human sin in general, it is just as emphatic that individual instances of suffering may not be the result of a particular sin.
- People have a deep desire to believe “people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.” They tend to assign blame to victims of tragedy especially if it is not possible to punish a perpetrator. This comes from a normal human impulse to make sense of things, but it also likely stems from the deep human need to believe we are in control of our own lives. People want to believe “that couldn’t happen to me—because I’m wiser, I’m better, I know what I’m doing.”
- But the Bible depicts history as 100 percent under God’s purposeful direction, and yet filled with human beings who are 100 percent responsible for their behavior—at once.
- God’s plan works through our choices, not around or despite them. Our choices have consequences, and we are never forced by God to do anything—we always do what we most want to do. God works out his will perfectly through our willing actions.
- Jesus’ suffering and death was a great act of injustice, but it was also part of the set plan of God.
CHAPTER 7 - THE SUFFERING OF GOD
- Amazingly we are told that Jesus “learned” from what he suffered (Heb 5:8). Don Carson concludes, “The God on whom we rely knows what suffering is all about, not merely in the way that God knows everything, but by experience.”
- Christ learned humanhood from his suffering (Heb 5:8). And therefore we learn Christhood from our suffering.
- God makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. He entraps the deceiver in his own wiles. Evil, like a judoist, tries to take advantage of the power of the good, which it perverts; the Lord, like the supreme champion, relies by using the very rip of the opponent.
- Evil is defeated because God uses it to bring about its very opposite—courage, faithfulness, selfless sacrifice, forgiveness
- So, while Christianity never claims to be able to offer a full explanation of all God’s reasons behind every instance of evil and suffering—it does have a final answer to it—Jesus.
CHAPTER 8 - THE REASON FOR SUFFERING
- It is not only the way Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like him and experience his redemption.
- Suffering produces resilience . . . once people have suffered and learned to cope, they know they can do it again and life life with less anxiety
- Suffering strengthens relationships, usually bonding the sufferer permanently into a set of deeper friendships for family ties that serve to nurture and strengthen for years
- Suffering “changes priorities and philosophies.”
- Perhaps nothing else can reveal God to people in quite the same way. “It is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering out of a conscious commitment to God.”
CHAPTER 9 - LEARNING TO WALK
- “Happy is the one who seeks not happiness, but righteousness.” Happiness is a by-product of wanting something more than happiness.
- Two strategies for trauma and depression: “active coping and reappraisal” and “avoidance coping and denial.” The latter leads to disaster, addictions, and stunts you emotionally. The former leads to real gains.
- To lift too much or run too much would cause your body to break down. But if, on the other hand, you exercise too little—if you put no pressure on your body and simply go through life doing ordinary life tasks—your body will also break down and age faster. What you need is exactly the right amount of pressure and just the right amount of comfort and pain.
- Everything that happens to us has both limit and a purpose
- Suffering is not just an intellectual issue—“Why is there so much evil and suffering in life?”—but a personal problem—“How will I get through this?”
CHAPTER 10 - THE VARIETIES OF SUFFERING
- "The same sun that melts wax hardens clay," and so the same traumatic experience can ruin one person and make another person stronger and even happier. How can we be prepared to handle suffering in such a way that it leads to growth?
- Job was being led to the place where he would obey God simply for the sake of who God is, not in order to receive something or to get something done.
- But Job-type suffering requires a process of honest prayer and crying, the hard work of deliberate trust in God, and what St. Augustine called a re-ordering of our loves.
- Other stay away because, like Job’s friends, we need to believe that the afflicted person somehow brought this on or wasn’t wise enough to avoid it. That way we can assure ourselves that it could never happen to us. The afflicted person challenges us to admit what we would rather deny—that such severe difficulty can come upon anyone, anytime.
- Don’t expect God’s grace and strength now for the whole ordeal ahead. God never promised to give you tomorrow’s grace for today. He only promised today’s grace for today, and that’s al you need.” (Matt. 6:34)
CHAPTER 11 - WALKING
- Many ancients saw adversity as merely something to withstand and endure without flinching, or even feeling, until it goes away. Modern Western people see suffering as something like adverse weather, something you avoid or insulate yourself from until it passes by. The unusual balance of the Christian faith is seen in the metaphor of walking—through darkness, swirling waters, or fire.
- That seems to mean that while they will be in the heat, the heat will not be in them. That is, it won’t enter and poison their souls, harden their hearts, or bring them to despair.
- In a sense, the fire “tries” to destroy the metal put into the fire but only succeeds in making it more pure and beautiful.
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego said, “[God] will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But if not . . . we will not serve your gods.” Did they doubt? No, their confidence was actually in God, not in their limited understanding of what they though he would do. Their confidence was in God himself, not in some agenda that they wanted God to promote
- They knew God would either deliver them from death or through death
CHAPTER 12 - WEEPING
- In 1 Kings 19:9-7 God asks Elijah questions, gets him talking, and challenges his interpretation of things, showing him it is not as hopeless as he thinks.
- If we believe that God through the Holy Spirit inspired and assembled the Scriptures for us, then we see that God has not “censored” out prayers like this. God does not say, “Oh! Real believers don’t talk like that! I don’t want anything like that in my Bible.”
- Jesus could have said, “Why should I go literally to hell for these disciples of mine who don’t understand me, won’t stand by me, and can’t even stay awake with me in my hour of greatest need?” But he didn’t.
- Suffering creates inner sorrow, it does make you week. To deny your hurt—to tell yourself you are just fine, thank you—means you will likely pay a price later. You may find yourself blowing up, or breaking down, or falling apart suddenly. Then you will realize you were kidding yourself. You hurt more than you thought you did.
- Look at Jesus. He was perfect, right? A yet he goes around crying all the time. He is always weeping, a man of sorrows. Do you know why? Because he is perfect. Because when you are not all absorbed in yourself, you can feel the sadness of the world. And therefore, what you actually have is that the joy of the Lord happens inside the sorrow.
CHAPTER 13 - TRUSTING
- Ephesians 1:10-11 reminds us that “all things work according to the counsel of His will.”
- Now think of these two divine acts of deliverance at Dothan. In the first incident, Joseph cries out to God for deliverance and resue. But instead, God appears to do nothing at all. In the second incident at Dotahn, God answers Elisha’s prayer for deliverance with an immediate massive miracle. On the surface, it appears that God ignores Joseph and responds to Elisha. but that is not so. “It would turn out that God had been as watchful in his hiddenness as in any miracle.
- Everything is needful that [God] sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.
- And yet you are standing there looking at the greatest, most brilliant thing God could ever do for the human race. On the cross, both justice and love are being satisfied—evil, sin, and death are being defeated. You are looking at an absolute beauty, but because you cannot fit it into your own limited understanding, you are in danger of walking away from God.
CHAPTER 14 - PRAYING
- God allowed Job to be tested because he knew Job already loved him. And yet there was still a need for Job’s love to be refined—in a way that would do enormous good down through the ages. The suffering was allowed to bring Job to a level of greatness.
- C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters . . . A conversation between a demon and his apprentice: “If once [Christians] get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.”
- It is one of the many excellences of the book that Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts of his case . . . The test would work only if Job did not know what it was for . . . He does not say in the end, “Now I see it all.” He never sees it all. He sees God.
- But the crucial thing to notice is this: Through it all, Job never stopped praying. Yes, he complained, but he complained to God. He doubted, but he doubted to God. He screamed and yelled, but he did it in God’s presence. No matter how much in agony he was, he continued to address God. he kept seeking him. And in the end, God said Job triumphed.
- We must talk to ourselves instead of allowing “ourselves” to talk to us. In spiritual depression we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Have you realized that so much of the unhappiness in your life is due to the fact you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?
CHAPTER 15 - THINKING, THANKING, LOVING
- Paul says in Philippians 4 “I have learned the secret to being content in any and every situation” . . . He says he has learned it, meaning it doesn’t come naturally to him. And that particular kind of inner peace of which he speaks is not natural to any of the rest of us either.
- The peace of God is not the absence of negative thoughts, rather it is the presence of God himself in the midst of the anxiety.
- If you want peace, think long and hard about the core doctrines of the Bible (Philippians 4:8-9)
- Evil will, in the end, only accomplish the opposite of its designs.
- We should look around our lives to see if our suffering has not been unnecessarily intensified because there are some things that we have set our hearts and hopes upon too much. We must relocate our glory and reorder our loves. Suffering almost alway shows you that some things you thought you couldn’t live without, you can live without if you lean on God.
CHAPTER 16 - HOPING
- Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future.
- “Come on, crosses, the lower you lay me, the higher you will raise me! Come on, grave, kill me and all you will do is make me better than before!”
- C.S. Lewis: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see."