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