American Christians don’t know how to suffer well. On the one hand, we think the life of faith should be victorious and joyful, so suffering seems like a defeat and a downer. On the other hand, because suffering seems like a defeat and a downer, it must be caused by insufficient faith or obedience on our part.
Neither hand is biblical, of course. Instead, both reflect the chirpy optimism and can-do individualism of modern culture. “If it’s going to be,” we often hear, “it’s up to me.” The corollary of this sentiment is obvious but ignored: “If it doesn’t happen, it’s my fault.”
What American Christians need is a biblical theology of suffering—one that recognizes life’s hardness without blaming the victims. Between Pain and Grace by Gerald Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer does just that. It situates Christian experience smack dab in the middle of the now-but-not-yet of the gospel:
In our current metanarrative—the overarching narrative of human life for those of Christian faith—we find two opposing qualities existing side by side; indeed, they are sometimes mixed together. First, there is death and those things that go along with it, such as suffering, sin, frustration, betrayal, violence, corruption, and groaning. Second, there are blessings of the gospel: new life, redemption, the indwelling Spirit, adoption, hope, life in God’s community, and ongoing transformation.
Truly, the Christian life means to exist between two worlds: the old world of sin, alienation, and death and the new world of righteousness, holiness, and life.
Until Christ returns, this both-and quality cannot be resolved. God alone can “wipe every tear from their eyes” with finality (Revelation 21:4). That doesn’t mean there are no actions the Christian community can take to ameliorate existing suffering or to prevent future suffering. We can and must do both. Indeed, “God always uses human agents to carry his plan forward” (emphasis in original).
Still, suffering is an intrinsic part of life in the present age, so it is a duty of Christians to understand it better so they can minister to its victims with greater compassion and healing. The authors contribute to a better understanding of suffering by outlining the “basics of affliction in Scripture” in chapter 1. Chapter 2 turns to “the relational ecosystem of sin and suffering,” that is, the relationship of God to humanity, of humans to one another, to animals, and to the inanimate created order.
Chapters 3 and 4 are theological. They describe the suffering of God and of Jesus. Against classical philosophical theism, which teaches that God does not suffer, and against panentheism, which teaches that God is not sovereign over suffering, the authors describe God as a “caring King,” the One characterized by “willing vulnerability” (emphasis in original).
Chapter 5 argues that the Church needs to recover the practice of lamentation, that is, “the language of lament.” The lament—whether individual or corporate—is the most common form of prayer in the Psalms. Contemporary Christians are often uncomfortable with laments’ frank complaining to God—e.g., “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1). Without lament, however, sufferers can’t make sense of what’s happening to or in themselves. “The very structure of lament brings shape to the formlessness of suffering.” For me personally, this was the best chapter in the book.
The remaining chapters discuss a variety of topics: “redemptive anger” (chapter 6); “suffering, prayer, and worldview” (chapter 7); “leadership and tears” (chapter 8); “family toxins” (chapter 9); sexual abuse (chapter 10); mental illness (chapter 11); and the role of the Christian community in ameliorating and preventing suffering (chapter 12). Each of these chapters mines Scripture for wisdom on the topics, as well as draws on the best of the social sciences. The discussion of “family toxins” in chapter 9, for example, puts the story of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) into fruitful dialogue with family systems therapy. It is a tour de force. Chapter 13 brings the book to a conclusion by reflecting on the “metanarrative” of Scripture, which progressives in the arc of “Creation è Devastation è Restoration.” In Christ, God’s devastated creation is being restored—at the individual, social, and cosmic levels.
Between Pain and Grace is not always easy reading, and like most books on hard topics, readers will find all sorts of nits to pick. Nonetheless, Gerald Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer have written a valuable treatment of a difficult subject. I highly recommend it.
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