Ever since the revolt in Eden, suffering has been inescapable. All of us live and move and have our being amid the wreckage of the Fall. Pain—universal as it is real—haunts us, stalks us, plagues us.
In his new book, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free (David C. Cook), Tullian Tchividjian offers a unique angle on this perennially vexing subject. Rather than focusing on the why or the how of suffering, Tchividjian zooms in on the who, demonstrating that the answer to our pain isn’t finally found in a syllogism but in a Savior—a suffering Savior. If your faith is stirred by this interview and the book, come to Orlando next April to hear Tchividjian lead a workshop at The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference on “How Suffering Sets You Free.”
I corresponded with Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, about why we need another suffering book, the importance of pressing past why, how the gospel informs our pain, and more.
There are a lot of books on suffering. Why write another one?
When I set out to write this book, I researched suffering books—both Christian and non-Christian. And what I discovered was a lot of books written on the why of suffering and a lot written on the how of suffering, but very few written on the who of suffering.
The why books attempt to explain why a good and sovereign God allows pain. And while much smarter people than me have constructed elaborate systems in pursuit of this answer, they are all finally exercises in speculation. To know the why would be to grasp the mind of God—something none of us can do.
We also have many books tackling the how—how suffering can and will transform our lives, or how we can leverage pain and tragedy to make us better people. Results, results, results! Underneath this hopeful veneer, however, such philosophies tend to fall flat when things don’t go according to plan—when we discover our power, especially in the face of suffering, is a lot more limited than we thought.
This isn’t to say how and why aren’t honest questions, only that they can be a prison. They can leave us cold and confused, just as they left Job when his friends formulated their own tedious answers.
The question I emphasize instead—and the only one that will ultimately point us toward the truth—is the who amid our suffering. And this is the only question God has seen fit to answer, concretely, in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This isn’t a book on suffering in the way that we typically think about suffering. When most of us think about suffering we think of death, disease, depression—the “big” stuff, crises. But I wanted to broaden the scope and talk about suffering in terms of living life in a broken world as a broken person with other broken people. It’s really a book about how the gospel intersects with real life—not only the big problems we face but also the seemingly mundane, everyday stuff like frustration, disappointment, anxiety, stress, and sadness.
My goal was to describe suffering in such a way that every single reader—healthy or unhealthy, rich or poor—could say, “You just described my reality.” In my experience, the most direct route to the gospel is down the avenue of pain and brokenness.
Pain is an inevitable reality of life, yet Christians never tire of asking, “Why?” How do you respond to that question?
It’s totally natural to ask “why?” when we are going through the crucible of ache. Why me? Why now? Why him? Why her? Why this? But I’ve discovered that asking “why?” assumes information has the power to heal. If I just knew why the suffering is happening, we conclude, the pain would be easier to endure. I’ve learned, however, that information can’t mend a wounded heart. We see this in the story of Job. Even if God had told Job why he was suffering, Job still would’ve had to deal with the loss of his health, family, and wealth.
The truth is we may never fully understand why God allows the suffering that devastates our lives. We may never find the right answers to how we’ll dig ourselves out. There may not be any silver lining—especially not in the ways we’d like. But we don’t need answers as much as we need God’s presence in and through the suffering itself. Explanations, I’ve learned, are often a substitute for trust.
For a believer, God’s chief concern in your suffering is to be with you and be himself for you. And, in the end, we discover this really is enough.
How does Martin Luther’s distinction between a “Theologian of Glory” and a “Theologian of the Cross” affect contemporary suffering?
These two divergent views are as old as the hills; Luther simply gave them names.
“Theologies of glory” are approaches to Christianity (and to life) that try in various ways to minimize difficult things, or to move past them rather than looking them square in the face and accepting them. Theologies of (human) glory acknowledge the cross, but view it primarily as a means to an end—an unpleasant but necessary step on the way to personal improvement or the transformation of human potential. A theology of glory has a very hard time, then, knowing what to do with real brokenness that plagues real people in a real fallen world. Theologians of glory try to make something bad sound like it’s good. They (we) put pressure on themselves and others to be “overcomers”—to be “victorious.” To the theologian of glory, life is a ladder we climb. Each little victory or improvement brings us one rung closer to the top—which is always just out of sight. A sign you’re operating with a theology of glory is when your faith feels like a fight against the realities of suffering instead of a resource for accepting them.
The house of religious cards “that glory built” collapses, however, when we encounter unforeseen pain and suffering—when the waters rise and the levee breaks. Suddenly the mask comes off, and the glory road dead ends. We come to our ruin, to our knees, to the place where, if we’re to find any comfort or help, it must come from someplace outside us. And this is precisely where the good news of the gospel—that God did for you what you couldn’t do for yourself—finally makes sense. It finally sounds good!
A theology of the cross, in contrast, understands Calvary to be the ultimate statement of God’s involvement in the world this side of heaven. It accepts the difficult thing rather than immediately trying to change it or use it. Indeed, those willing to struggle and despair may be those among us who best understand the realities of the Christian life.
A theology of the cross defines life in terms of giving rather than taking, self-sacrifice rather than self-protection, dying rather than killing. It reorients us away from our natural inclination toward a theology of glory by showing that we win by losing, we triumph through defeat, and we become rich by giving ourselves away. For the suffering person, this is a word of profound hope.
The idea that the Holy Spirit comforts us in our grief isn’t uncommon, but what does the gospel itself have to do with our suffering?
Through many throbbing trials I’ve discovered that painful circumstances themselves cannot rob us of joy. Only idolatry can. Joylessness in the crucible of ache happens when we lose (or are losing) something we think we need to be truly happy—something that “makes us.”
When I was going through a painful transition during a church merger, I thought the source of my joylessness was my circumstances. Fear, anxiety, anger, frustration—all of these things, I assumed, would go away if my circumstances were different. If those out to get me would simply start being nice or leave the church, then my pain would vanish. But the truth was that God was breaking down my idols. I never realized how dependent I’d become on human approval and acceptance to “justify” me until God took it away. I never realized just how much I was relying on the validation of others to make me feel like I mattered until it was gone. God reminded me that when we’re united to Christ, we don’t need to spend our lives trying to earn the approval, acceptance, or affection of those around us because Jesus has already earned God’s approval, acceptance, and affection for us.
Interestingly, even though my circumstances worsened in the ensuing months, knowing that everything I needed was already mine in Jesus set me free. I wasn’t immediately set free from my pain, but the good news of the gospel set me free in my pain—free from bitterness, anxiety, fear, anger, and so on.
Or maybe you’re suffering through a less-than-satisfying marriage, and you’re ready to throw in the towel. While your marriage may indeed be racked with difficulty, it’s not so much the painful circumstances that ultimately cause your joylessness. It’s the fact that you’re depending on your spouse to be for you what only Jesus can be.
The gospel comes in and announces that, because Jesus has done everything for me, I can do everything for you without needing you to do anything for me. So, for example, I enjoy receiving love from my wife. Something in me comes alive when Kim expresses affection toward me. But I’ve learned that I don’t need that love, because in Jesus I receive all the love I need. This then liberates me to love Kim without apprehension or condition. I get to revel in her enjoyment of my love without needing anything from her in return. I get love from Jesus so I can give love to her. The gospel frees me from the pressure to extract from her (and others) what I think I need in order to be secure, significant, and happy—since my identity is locked in what Christ has already given me, not in what I can get from others.
What are the purpose of suffering and the ultimate hope in Job’s story?
There’s nothing like suffering to remind us how much we need God. As John Zahl has said, “God’s office is at the end of our rope.”
This was Job’s experience. After suffering tragically—never receiving an answer to his why questions, but only getting a glimpse of who God is—he says, “Before my ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). It was pain that opened Job’s eyes to see God.
The good news of suffering is that it brings us to the end of ourselves. It brings us to the place of honesty, which is the place of desperation, which is the place of faith, which is the place of freedom. Suffering leaves our idols in pieces on the ground, and positions us to see that God sent his Son not only to suffer for us but also to suffer with us. Our merciful Friend has been through it all. And while he may not deliver us from pain and loss in this life, he’ll walk with us through it. That’s simply who he is.