Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Book Review: Surprised by Suffering

Surprised by Suffering. R.C. Sproul. 1994/2010. 214 pages. [Source: Bought]

First sentence: Christians are those who have faith in Christ. We all aspire to possess a faith that is strong and enduring. The reality, however, is that faith is not a constant thing. Our faith wavers between moments of supreme exultation and trying times that push us to the rim of despair. Doubt flashes danger lights at us and threatens our peace. Rare is the saint who has a tranquil spirit in all seasons. Suffering is one of the most significant challenges to any believer's faith. When pain, grief, persecution, or other forms of suffering strike, we find ourselves caught off guard, confused, and full of questions. Suffering can strain faith to the limits.

Premise/plot: R.C. Sproul argues that Christians should not be surprised by suffering (pain, suffering, sorrow, death) in this life. Instead, we should expect it. For not only is it following the path of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. It is a sign that we listened to his message, his words. The Word never promised a comfortable, easy life for his followers, his disciples. He never once hinted that his followers would be healthy or wealthy. He never once assured any believers that they'd be happy--happy as the world defines happy. If preachers are adding--or subtracting--to or from the Word of God to promise their listeners, their congregations health, wealth, and prosperity--they are essentially false teachers.

Roughly half of the book focuses on pain and suffering. The other half focuses on dying, death, and the afterlife. Sproul addresses the issue of heaven and hell, and how you can know where you'll spend eternity.

Table of contents:

  • Suffering, Perplexity and Despair,
  • Walking the Via Dolorosa
  • A Case Study in Suffering
  • Purpose in Suffering
  • The Final Calling
  • Dying in Faith
  • Speculations on Life After Death
  • Jesus and the Afterlife
  • To Die Is Gain
  • A Vision of Things to Come
  • Conclusion

My thoughts: I really LOVED this one. The older I get, the more I embrace books on the subject of pain and suffering….especially well-written ones that treasure the doctrine of God's Sovereignty. Nothing is more frustrating that coming across a book on pain and suffering and hearing that it is all your fault for not having enough faith. That there is power in your words--have faith in the power of your words, have faith in the power of your faith. Or even so gross an error that if Christians had enough faith they would not die.

This book is first and foremost biblical. It does not promise readers anything outside what the Scripture promises. It is not thinking: what do people want to hear, what do people want to believe--instead it is thinking: what does the Word of God actually SAY. And of course, while false teachers also lean against the Word of God saying, "the Bible says…" the key is always, always, always in the CONTEXT. As my mom's grandma used to say, You can prove absolutely ANYTHING with enough dot, dot, dots. (Sproul never uses dot, dot, dots to make his points.)

Favorite quotes:
Every camel's back has a breaking point. The difference between a tolerable burden and one that crushes may be a single piece of straw. We all have a tendency, however, to suppose that we can carry far less than we actually can.
The promise of God is not that He will never give us more weight than we want to carry. The promise of God is that He will never put more on us than we can bear.
What is difficult to bear without Christ is made far more bearable with Christ. What is a heavy burden to carry alone becomes a far lighter burden to carry with His help.
To suffer without Christ is to risk being totally and completely crushed. I've often wondered how people cope with the trials of life without the strength found in Him. His presence and comfort are so vital that I'm not surprised when unbelievers accuse Christians of using religion as a crutch.
To suffer without the comfort of God is no virtue. To lean upon His comfort is no vice, contrary to Marx.
The zealous person who promises us a life free from suffering has found his message from a source other than Scripture.
If we err, it is better to err in favor of life rather than to cheapen it in any way.
Our Savior was a suffering Savior. He went before us into the uncharted land of agony and death. He went where no man is called to go. His Father gave Him a cup to drink that will never touch our lips. God will not ask us to endure anything comparable to the distress Christ took on Himself. 'Wherever God calls us to go, whatever He summons us to endure, will fall far short of what Jesus experienced. From the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was conscious of His mission. He knew He was under a death sentence. His "disease" was terminal. On the cross, the Father afflicted Him not with one terminal disease but with every terminal disease. Of course, this does not mean that Jesus received a positive biopsy report or that a physician diagnosed Him with advanced leprosy. He went to His death with no outward evidence of any known disease. But the cumulative pain of every disease was laid on Him. He bore in His body the ravages of every evil, every sickness, and every pain known to the human race.
Jesus suffered so deeply because the extent of evil in the world is so vast. Every consequence of every sin of each one of His people was placed on Him. To carry this dreadful burden was His vocation. To bear this pain and disease was His mission. The magnitude of this horror is beyond our understanding. But He understood it because it was His to bear. Jesus endured His suffering in order to redeem His people. But those He redeemed are not thereby delivered from all pain and misery. Indeed, as we shall see, we His people are called to participate in His suffering.
We must accept the fact that God sometimes says no. Sometimes He calls us to suffer and die.
The gospel is not a fairy tale.
We are given both the duty and the privilege to participate in the suffering of Christ.
God calls people of every generation to suffer. Again, this suffering is not to fulfill any deficiency in the merit of Christ, but to fulfill our destinies as witnesses to the perfect Suffering Servant of God.
We are followers of Christ. We follow Him to the Garden of Gethsemane. We follow Him into the hall of judgment. We follow Him along the Via Dolorosa. We follow Him unto death. But the gospel declares that we also follow Him through the gates of heaven. Because we suffer with Him, we also shall be raised with Him. If we are humiliated with Him, we also shall be exalted with Him. Because of Christ, our suffering is not useless. It is part of the total plan of God, who has chosen to redeem the world through the pathway of suffering.
Death is unnatural. It may be natural to fallen man, but it was not natural to man as he was created. Man was not created to die. He was created with the possibility of death, but not with the necessity of death. Death was introduced as a consequence of sin. If there had been no sin, there would be no death. But when sin entered, the curse of the fall was added. All suffering and death flow out of the complex of sin.
There are times when we suffer innocently at other people's hands. When that occurs, we are victims of injustice. But that injustice happens on a horizontal plane. No one ever suffers injustice on the vertical plane. That is, no one ever suffers unjustly in terms of his or her relationship with God. As long as we bear the guilt of sin, we cannot protest that God is unjust in allowing us to suffer. If someone wrongfully causes me to suffer, I have every right to plead with God for vindication, even as job did. Yet at the same time, I must not complain to God that He is at fault in allowing this suffering to befall me. In terms of my relationship to other people, I may be innocent, but in terms of my relationship to God, I am not an innocent victim. It is one thing for me to ask God for justice in my dealings with men. It is another thing for me to demand justice in my relationship with God.
God deserves to be trusted. He merits our trust in Him. The more we understand of His perfections, the more we understand how trustworthy He is. That is why the Christian pilgrimage moves from faith to faith, from strength to strength, and from grace to grace.
It is impossible for God not to be sovereign, and any conception of a god that is less than sovereign is an idol and no god at all. So it is easy for believers to say, "I believe in the sovereignty of God," and we all affirm it on the surface.
The fact that God has a plan is indicative that He has a purpose. The fact that He is sovereign is indicative that He is fulfilling that purpose even when He allows suffering to come upon us.
It is in weeping that we learn to contemplate the goodness of God. It is in mourning that we discover the peace of God that passes understanding.
The idea of a "senseless tragedy" represents a worldview that is completely incompatible with Christian thought, because it assumes that something happens without a purpose or a meaning. But if God is God and if God is a God of providence and if God is sovereign, then nothing ever happens that is senseless in the final analysis. The question that troubles us in reference to the September 11 attacks is, "Why did this happen?" Believers ask the question slightly differently: "Why did God allow this to happen?" Christians phrase the question this way because they do not allow for meaningless events, because at the heart of the Christian worldview is the assurance that everything in history has a purpose in the mind of almighty God. God is not chaotic or random. For everything there is a purpose-including those events we define as tragedies.
The bottom-line assumption for anyone who believes in the God of providence is that ultimately there are no tragedies. God has promised that all things that happen-all pain, all suffering, all tragedies-are but for a moment, and that He works in and through these events for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). That's why the apostle Paul said that the pain, the suffering, the affliction that we bear in this world isn't worthy to be compared, isn't worthy to be mentioned in the same breath, with the glory and the blessedness that God has stored up for His people (Rom. 8:18).
Death is a divine appointment. It is part of God's purpose for our lives. God calls each person to die. He is sovereign over all of life, including the final experience of life.
When God issues a call to us, it is always a holy call. The vocation of dying is a sacred vocation. To understand that is one of the most important lessons a Christian can ever learn. When the summons comes, we can respond in many ways. We can become angry, bitter, or terrified. But if we see it as a call from God and not a threat from Satan, we are far more prepared to cope with its difficulties.
When God gives us a vocation to die, He sends us on a mission. The course may be frightening. It is an obstacle course with pitfalls along the way. We wonder if we will have the courage to make our way to the finish line, for the trail takes us through the valley of the shadow. The valley of the shadow of death is a valley where the sun's rays often seem to be blotted out. To approach it is to tremble. We would prefer to walk around it, to seek a safe bypass. But men and women of faith can enter that valley without fear. David told us how: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me" (Ps. 23:4).
God is our refuge and our strength in times of trouble. His promise is not only that He will go with us into the valley. Even more important is His promise of what lies on the other side of the valley. God promises to go with us for the entire journey in order to guide us to what lies beyond. The valley of the shadow of death is not a box canyon. It is a passageway to a better country. The valley leads to life-life far more abundant than anything we can imagine. The goal of the vocation of death is heaven itself. But there is no route to heaven except through this valley.
We sometimes think that the worst thing that can befall a person is to die. That is not the message of Jesus. According to Christ, the worst possible thing that can befall us is to die in our sins.
The only possible way for an unjust person to stand in the presence of a just and holy God is to be justified. If we remain unjustified, we die in our sins.
To believe in Christ is to gain eternal life. Few people in the history of the world have dared to make such a claim. Only one backed up the claim with action. Far beyond the words of Jesus stands the record of His deeds.
The reason why God is invisible to mortal men is because no mortal is pure in heart. The problem is not with our eyes; it is with our hearts.
God is surely honored and pleased when His children keep the faith in the midst of suffering. In this we follow the example of Christ.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible


Barbara H. said...

This sounds very good - very deep.

Michele Morin said...

Thanks for sharing so many amazing quotes. Sproul is so wise and writes so clearly. Like you, I also find myself drawn to this topic the older I get.