I’ve been intending to write a follow up post to a talk I heard almost two weeks ago now. The event was the Glorious Ruin book tour with Tullian Tchividjian, hosted by Austin Stone. This post is on the talk, not the book (which I haven’t read).
Incidentally, I’ve been making my way through Hans Küng’s On Being a Christian (477/602 pages) and just finished a section entitled “God and Suffering”. This section contains some great quotes that I want to weave into this post.
The event was on a Tuesday night in Austin and drew a surprisingly moderate crowd. I was actually expecting something larger, given the publicity and the Gospel Coalition and Austin Stone connections. But Tuesdays are Tuesdays, I guess. Except for the music, the night was low-key and included two sessions, rounding off at around three hours total.
Acquainted with Grief
As the name suggests, Glorious Ruin is about suffering. Suffering is nearly tantamount to being alive. Everyone deals with it. And the world religions attempt various solutions to this very human condition.
The degree of suffering we experience is constantly in flux, but at all times, at some level, something is not ok. This can range from major life upheavals to the simple frustration of not getting our way.
In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust notes that if we were to walk by a row of houses and peer into the windows, we would quickly realize that, “Quite half of the human race is in tears.”
Of course, this comes as no surprise.
Tullian began his talk by saying that many books have been written about why God allows us to suffer, how we should approach suffering, and what should we learn from suffering. Tullian, however, says he is interested in the Who of suffering.
The Who of suffering is Himself a sufferer and He encounters man today through suffering.
He is “a man of sorrows, aquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Keil and Delitzsch take this to mean that He was a “man whose chief distinction was, that His life was one of constant painful endurance.” Even today He sympathizes with our weaknesses and groans for us. He is not a lifeless force, a universal reason, or a metaphysical reality. He is supremely Personal, and in His economy, He has even become human.
This is strikingly displayed in the Gospels in Gesthemane just before His arrest.
Jesus’ fear and horror are explicitly described, in a way quite unlike Jewish and Christian stories of martyrdom. The sufferer here is not an aloof Stoic, still less a superman. He is a man in the fullest sense, tempted and tried, but not understood at all by his closest friends, who even went to sleep during His agony.
For us and With us
This has far reaching implications and needs to be communicated to those who rail against God as if He were cruel, unmoved, or temperamental. God is “for us” (Rom. 8:31) and wants to be “with us” (John 14:16). Hans Küng says,
Man can revolt against a God aloof from all suffering, enthroned in undisturbed bliss or apathetic transcendence. But is it possible to revolt against the God who revealed all His com-passion in Jesus’ Passion?
The knee-jerk response in our attempt to help a suffering friend is to try to interpret their suffering or teach them something about suffering. This was exactly what Job’s friends did. It seems the most help they rendered him was when they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights in silence (Job 2:13). But this didn’t last. After 35 chapters of reasonings, God intervenes, as Tullian says, “comes down, flexes His muscles, and yet never answers the why questions.”
The book of Job is heavy with questions. I once tried to count how many questions are asked in Job and ended up with 219. And in the end no answer? That’s a staggering cliff-hanger. Perhaps no other book (maybe Acts) leaves as much unresolved.
Tullian suggests this indicates that what we need in the midst of suffering is not more information, not answers per se, but an encounter with the living God. As Küng says,
To explain all this existential suffering, all that is offered is merely cerebral argumentation or speculation, about as helpful to the sufferer as a lecture on the chemistry of foodstuffs to a starving man.
Tullian says this is a danger with well-intending Christians. They treat others’ sufferings as enigmas needing to be solved and extrapolated. However, clear, cold discernment helps no one in this situation. We are preoccupied with answers because we have a lust for manageability. We think that if we just know what’s going on, then we can fix it or at least endure it.
What we really need though is God, not an answer from God. Küng goes on to say,
Our attitude to suffering is connected at the deepest level with our attitude to God and to reality as a whole. In suffering man reaches his extreme limit, the decisive question of his identity, of the sense and nonsense of his life, of reality as a whole.
According to Tullian there are two ways to approach suffering—law and grace. Law sees suffering as a punishment for not measuring up to God’s standard. Grace sees suffering as an opportunity to experience God. This is the paradox of suffering:
We can receive tribulations as the sweet visitation and incarnation of grace and thereby boast in them.
1. Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, p. 386
2. Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah, p. 314
3. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, p. 330
4. Ibid., p. 435
5. Ibid., p. 429
6. Ibid., p. 431
7. Witness Lee, Recovery Version Footnotes, Romans 5:3, note 1
Real life for sure is well acquainted with tears. Thanks so much for this post Kyle. I love the thought of being focused on and consumed with the Who of suffering, rather than the answers for the why of suffering. When I check my experience as a Christian, though it’s limited, I think you’re really right. More than anything in the difficult times we need an encounter with God.
Why do you think we so easily miss the “man of sorrows” amidst our difficult situations?
If Paul’s indications of precisely this, then John’s should be the overwhelming proof that this is the most Biblical, and the most spiritually accurate view of our suffering.
Paul indicates that in his request for the Lord to remove some source of suffering, that is “thorn,” the Lord responds by saying “My grace is sufficient.” Paul further indicates that in the midst of a situation in suffering, that is imprisonment, that through the petitions of the Body and the bountiful supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, as was Paul’s earnest expectation, Christ would have a revelation, a manifestation, a magnification in and through Paul’s very existence, or even his being out to death. And again, considering Paul’s many trials and sufferings for the sake of the gospel, that were shipwrecks and persecutions and imprisonments ad scourgings and stoning, his entire boast and hope both for himself and all the believers was that we would all come to know in the deepest possible way the very excellent knowledge of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
So for John, from his suffering, which included an exiling and disenfranchising from his own beloved brothers, he writes of the prayer of the Lord Jesus in John chapter 17 specifically and explicitly states that He “does not pray that [the Father] would take [us] out of the world, but that He would keep us from evil.” John is speaking to all the believers, with this prayer of the Lord Jesus, concerning our situation in the world, in our very concrete human existence which whether we like it or not is filled with all kinds of experiences and needs and requirements and trials and sufferings – that we would not be removed from them, but as He prays 6 verses later – “That they all may be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us.”
What I’m hearing from your fellowship, Kyle, along with the discussion you’ve posed is that God’s hope for us is that we would gain a genuine, personal, real, and concrete experience of God Himself, as a person, in the midst of our sufferings. Our hope is often that the suffering be removed, or that if we come out on the other side, we are more prepared to handle, or avoid the next trial that would come our way. When in reality, all we need is to experience and receive something of the dispensing work of God, adding Himself into our very being through and amidst our life of suffering, bringing us into a condition that matches the “man of sorrows” that He may impart Himself and His grace for our strengthening and transformation, which is to His glory. He is using, utilizing these sufferings, not just passing through them with us, to gain something in us, which is us gaining something of Him.
Paul must have seen this when he said “For our momentary lightness of affliction works out for us, more and more surpassingly, an eternal weight of glory” ( 2 Cor 4:17 ). How could this brother refer to His suffering in the continually decaying outer man ( 2 Cor 4:16 ) as “momentary lightness”?
He must have experienced something of God. Philippians 4:11-13.
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