It’s probably the best overall book on suffering because it shrewdly addresses the issue from three angles:
As with Keller’s other books, this brims with wisdom from decades of fruitful pastoral ministry.
Trailer (1:43 min.):
Word to Pastors and Caregivers (2:05 min.):
A Review and Interview
- Life for our ancestors was filled with far more suffering than ours is. And yet we have innumerable diaries, journals, and historical documents that reveal how they took that hardship and grief in far better stride than do we. (p. 15)
- [S]ecularization thins out traditional beliefs . . . . And this secularized belief in God, or this residue of Christianity, may be the worst possible preexisting condition in which to encounter suffering. (p. 58)
- If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about. (p. 101)
- If there is no Judgment Day, then there are only two things to do—lose all hope or turn to vengeance. (p. 116)
- [I]t is even more likely that this kind of betrayal [one of four types of suffering that Keller presents] happens simply through a personal relationship going sour. When someone perceives that they have been wronged by you, they may embark on a program of trying to hurt you or damage your reputation. Often someone you thought you knew well can turn on you and attack you because it furthers their career or interests. Personal betrayals are particularly horrific, and this sort of trial can tempt you to give in to debilitating anger and bitterness. While the first kind of suffering requires that you learn repentance, this kind of suffering will entail that you wrestle with the issues of forgiveness. The temptation will be to become bitter and to hide your growing hardness and cruelty under the self-image of being a noble victim. (p. 210)
Epilogue: 10 Things We Should Do
Keller’s epilogue summarizes the book (pp. 320–22, formatting added):
Let’s summarize what we have learned. If we know the biblical theology of suffering and have our hearts and minds engaged by it, then when grief, pain, and loss come, we will not be surprised, and can respond in the various ways laid out in Scripture. Here they are organized into ten things we should do.
- First, we must recognize the varieties of suffering. Some trials are largely brought on by wrong behavior. Some are largely due to betrayals and attacks by others. Then there are the more universal forms of loss that occur to all regardless of how they live, such as the death of a loved one, illnesses, financial reversals, or your own imminent death. A final kind of suffering could be called the horrendous—such as mass shootings in elementary schools. Of course, many actual cases of suffering combine several of these four types. Each kind of suffering brings somewhat different kinds of feelings—the first brings guilt and shame; the second, anger and resentment; the third, grief and fear; the fourth, confusion and perhaps anger at God. While all these forms of suffering share common themes—and are addressed in common ways—each also requires its own specific responses.
- Second, you must recognize distinctions in temperament between yourself and other sufferers. You must be careful not to think that the way God helped some other sufferer through the fire will be exactly the way he will lead you. Simone Weil outlines the experience of affliction as consisting of isolation, self-absorption, condemnation, anger, and “complicity” with pain. A quick look at this list reveals that these factors will be stronger or weaker depending on a person’s emotional temperament and spiritual maturity, and also depending on the causes behind the adversity. Make adjustments.
- Third, there is weeping. It is crucial to be brutally honest with yourself and God about your pain and sorrow. Do not deny or try too much to control your feelings in the name of being faithful. Read the Psalms of lament or Job. God is very patient with us when we are desperate. Pour out your soul to him.
- Fourth, there is trusting. Despite the invitation to pour out our hearts to God with emotional reality, we are also summoned to trust God’s wisdom (since he is sovereign) and also to trust his love (since he has been through what you’ve been through). Despite your grief, you must eventually come to say, as Jesus did (after first honestly entreating, “Let this cup pass from me”), “Thy will be done.” Wrestle until you can say that.
- Fifth, we must be praying. Though Job did a lot of complaining and cursed the day he was born—he did it all in prayer. It was to God he complained; it was before God that he struggled. In suffering, you must read the Bible and pray and attend worship even though it is dry or painful. Simone Weil said, if you can’t love God, you must want to love God, or at least ask him to help you love him.
- Sixth, we must be disciplined in our thinking. You must meditate on the truth and gain the perspective that comes from remembering all God has done for you and is going to do. You should also do “self-communion.” This is both listening to your heart and also reasoning and talking to your heart. It means saying, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? Forget not his benefits, his salvation” (Ps 42; Ps 103). This is not forcing yourself to feel in a certain way but rather directing your thoughts until your heart, sooner or later, is engaged. Much of the thinking and self-communing that we must do has to do with Christian hope. Heaven and the resurrection and the future-perfect world are particularly important to meditate on if you are dealing with death—your own or someone else’s. But it is crucial in all suffering.
- Seventh, we should be willing to do some self-examining. The biblical image of suffering as a “gymnasium” suggests this. We must exercise care here. This does not mean we should always be looking within ourselves for the cause of our suffering. Job’s friends tried to do that, though Job’s suffering did not occur because God was trying to correct him for something. Nevertheless, Job grew in grace and maturity, and every time of adversity is an opportunity to look at ourselves and ask—how do I need to grow? What weaknesses is this time of trouble revealing?
- Eighth, we must be about reordering our loves. Suffering reveals that there are things we love too much, or we love God too little in proportion to them. Our suffering is often aggravated and doubled because we turned good things into ultimate things. Suffering will only make us better (rather than worse) if, during it, we teach ourselves to love God better than before. This happens by recognizing God’s suffering for us in Jesus Christ, and by praying, thinking, and trusting that love into our souls.
- Ninth, we should not shirk community. Simone Weil speaks about how isolating suffering can be. But the early Christian communities were famously good places to be a person in suffering. Christians “died well,” the early church authors claimed, not because they were rugged individuals but because the church was a place of unparalleled sympathy and support. Gospel doctrine should make it impossible to grow many “miserable comforters” like Job’s moralistic friends. And the Christian gospel accounts for and assigns meaning to the experience of suffering as secular society cannot. Find a Christian church where sufferers are loved and supported.
- Tenth, some forms of suffering—particularly the first two among the four types listed above—require skill at receiving grace and forgiveness from God, and giving grace and forgiveness to others. When adversity reveals moral failures or sinful character flaws, it means we will have to learn how to repent and seek reconciliation with God and others. When our suffering is caused by betrayal and injustice, it is crucial to learn forgiveness. We must forgive the wrongdoers from the heart, laying aside vengefulness, if we will ever be able to pursue justice effectively.
Doing all these things, as George Herbert writes, will first bring your “joys to weep” but then your “griefs to sing.”