Elisabeth Elliot coined the most memorable definition of human suffering that I have ever heard: “Suffering is wanting what you don’t have — or having what you don’t want.” These words came to mind often as I read Between Pain and Grace, because Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer have initiated a fresh conversation which does not claim to be the last word on suffering, but is characterized by the scope, depth, and fidelity one would expect from two of Moody Bible Institute’s theology professors.
My attention was arrested immediately by the authors’ careful distinction between pain and suffering. Consider this:
Pain — “primarily objective, external, and typically social or physical as opposed to personal and mental.”
Suffering — “primarily subjective, internal, and typically mental or emotional.”
This distinction is important because not all pain is received as suffering — just ask an Olympic gymnast or a brand-new mum. Conversely, those with leprosy or diabetic neuropathy would welcome pain as a means to alleviate the suffering that occurs when they injure their insensitive extremities. Dr. Eric Cassell chimes in with the succinct conclusion that “the only way to learn whether suffering is present is to ask the sufferer.”
A biblical theology of suffering must include the truth that Scripture provides a voice for those who suffer; it acknowledges the reality of innocent suffering; and, without moralizing, it affirms the presence of God in the midst of pain. I never tire of hearing the truth that God is fluent in the language of lament. He has graciously appointed “script writers” in the psalms and prophets, and throughout Scripture, honest expressions of grief are portrayed as a “natural exhale of worship.”
Because a lively faith is open to the uncomfortable questions and painful stories of those who suffer, the church gathered must be clear in its identity as a safe place for the expression of grief and disappointment. Counselors, individuals dealing with dysfunctional families, and those who have experienced sexual abuse or who are dealing in some way with mental illness will appreciate the authors’ frank discussion of these topics as they relate to what the Scripture says about pain and suffering.
The term “relational ecosystem” runs as a theme throughout Between Pain and Grace, affirming the fact that there is no such thing as a private or contained sin. The relational ecosystem of God’s creation has been shaken to its roots by sin, and this is seen at every level:
God with mankind;
man with woman;
humanity with animals;
and humanity with the ground.
Brokenness abounds and the outcome is alienation. Anger sends out generational shock waves that are amply illustrated in Old Testament family dysfunction. Peterman and Schmutzer refer to David’s family life as a “relational debris field,” acknowledging that we all are part of “interlocking relationships” that surround us “like the rings of a tree.”
Our relational ecosystem, tangled as it is in personal weakness and sin (another fascinating distinction that the authors delineate), demonstrates the efficacy of the redemption that comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. Because God Himself chose a path of vulnerability for His Son, the record of Scripture is that God experiences pain and “a theology of a suffering God is evident throughout the testimony of Scripture.” God’s transcendence is balanced by His immanence, as evidenced in His compassionate love, His relatedness with His creation, and His willingness to risk relationally.
Looking at The Lord’s Prayer through the lens of pain gives it a fresh application, for in Matthew 6, Jesus provides a model for prayer in a suffering world, a challenge to transcend our worries and pain by focusing first on “God’s honor, God’s good, and God’s moral requirements.”
Opening one’s life to spiritual leadership roles also opens the door to some unique forms of suffering — rejection, hopelessness, and discontentment. We follow a Savior who entered into suffering voluntarily. Peterman and Schmutzer assert that leaders have likewise made that choice, but then offer the encouragement that tears shed are part of the leader’s path to Christ-likeness.
Since suffering is unavoidable on a fallen planet, this question is also unavoidable for the thinking believer: What needs to happen in the space between pain and grace? For most people (including the Apostle Paul!), it holds a journey of acceptance, a yielding of expectations, and most important of all, a commitment to receive the gift of suffering from the hand of an all-wise and sovereign God.
This book was provided by Moody Publishers in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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