Tullian Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2012. 208 pp. $17.99.
Suffering is one of those subjects we—especially Christians in North America—have a hard time dealing with honestly.
Sometimes our view of suffering better lines up with notions of karma—if bad things happen, obviously we’ve done something to deserve them. We moralize suffering, pile guilt and shame on those experiencing it, and view God more like a cosmic tyrant than a loving Father.
Other times, we see suffering as a means to an end, something to get through as quickly as possible so we can get to the big lesson and character change God has in store for us. We minimize suffering, centralize personal development, and treat God as our life coach.
But the problem with both of these attitudes is that neither really captures the biblical essence of the purpose of suffering.
Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, argues that we’re often asking the wrong question when it comes to suffering. Rather than asking why suffering happens or how God will use it, Tchividjian suggests it may be better to ask who is with us amid our trials. Glorious Ruin unpacks this fundamental question—“the only [one] God has seen fit to answer, concretely, in the person and work of Jesus Christ” (25).
Sign of a Fallen World
While not downplaying the kind of suffering caused by personal sin or of the actions of others, Tchividjian primarily focuses on the suffering that takes us by surprise:
I could list dozens of other examples, but you get the idea. Tchividjian is talking about events we have no control over and no action of ours has caused. In all these situations, the pain we feel is “a reminder that things are not as they should be” (51). The suffering we experience, the pain we feel—these are signs that all isn’t right in the world, that we indeed live in a world under a curse.
What’s astounding to me is how little thought we seem to give the curse in the context of suffering. We know the world isn’t as it should be. We know it’s under a curse, and we know suffering is inevitable because of it. Yet why do so many professing Christians appear to spend so much time attempting to explain away suffering? Is it that we’re seeking to exonerate God, as if we secretly fear he’s at fault?
I would argue it’s because we’ve failed to embrace God’s all-encompassing sovereignty and goodness. We take a small view of love—an all-too-human view—and apply that to God, functionally recreating him in our image. The result is an impotent god, one who might love you very much but can’t really do anything to help you because he’s just as surprised and hurt as you are. Imagine trying to comfort the rape victim or the grieving parent with that sort of deity. Ironically, an explanation intended to help suffering people actually minimizes their pain.
Tchividjian offers a great encouragement and corrective on this point. He reminds those suffering that God isn’t punishing them, and is present to comfort them. Yet God doesn’t stop there. He’s present to comfort, this is true, but he’s also our Redeemer. As Tchividjian puts it, “We live amid devastating brokenness, and the cure for this is no less than Jesus’ dying on the cross for sinners like you and me” (90).
Glory or Cross?
A theology of the cross accepts the difficult thing rather than immediately trying to change it or instrumentalize it. It looks directly into pain, and “calls a thing what it is” instead of calling evil good and good evil. It identifies God as “hidden in [the] suffering” (42).
This distinction is arguably the central theme of Glorious Ruin. How we view suffering reveals our dispositions. The theologian of glory minimizes and moralizes it—whether subtly, by consistently showcasing the testimony with a victory rather than a cliffhanger, or overtly, as in prosperity theology’s certainty that God wants us to have our best lives now.
While victory is certainly worth celebrating, it’s not the point of our suffering. “Suffering reveals to us the things that ultimately matter,” Tchividjian writes, “which also happen to be the warp and woof of Christianity: who we are and who God is” (143). If our view of suffering centers on our victories rather than on the victorious one, we’ve missed the point.
From a personal perspective, this is what I most needed to read in this book if for no other reason than because I’ve experienced it. I’ve been on both sides of the glory/cross divide and have seen the fruit of both, most apparently during a rather painful event in 2009 when my wife experienced severe complications following a miscarriage that nearly resulted in her death. Yet that time is also among those when I was most profoundly aware of God’s presence. He wasn’t using it as a teaching moment that I’m aware of; he just was. And that was enough.
What Is God Doing?
Readers looking for the answer to why suffering happens may be disappointed by Glorious Ruin. While that question is important, Tchividjian poses a more fundamental one: What is God doing in the midst of suffering? The answer he provides is simple, practical, and helpful for every reader: “For the life of the believer, one thing is beautifully and abundantly true: God’s chief concern in your suffering is to be with you and be himself for you” (26).
God is who he is; he will be who he will be. And for those who suffer, this is gloriously good news indeed.
Aaron Armstrong is the author of Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World and Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty. He is a writer for an international Christian ministry, serves as an itinerant preacher throughout southern Ontario, and blogs daily at Blogging Theologically.