What in the World Does God's Grace Have to Do with Your Suffering?
Facing a trial right now? Check. Had someone share with you a Christian cliché such as “God never gives you more than you can handle”? Check. Feeling completely overwhelmed and wishing you could connect with a Christian counselor who knows his Bible and has wisdom and life experience from which to draw, all the while giving you solid answers and real hope? Check. Well, now you can with David Powlison’s new book, God’s Grace in Your Suffering.
Powlison, executive director of the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation and senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, is certainly highly qualified to address this difficult topic. As a bereaved mother, however, I must admit that I began reading God’s Grace in Your Suffering with a bit of skepticism—what was Powlison going to tell me about God’s grace that I hadn’t already wrestled with and experienced after twelve years of grieving? Actually, quite a lot.
Powlison’s goal in God’s Grace is to help people recognize God’s goodness in their painful circumstances and better understand that “suffering is both the acid test and the catalyst. It reveals and forms faith” (p. 14). The author actually describes his book as a workshop, and this is a pretty accurate description. Yet, Powlison doesn’t approach this tremendously difficult subject with a plethora of random Bible verses and feel-good anecdotes.
As I explored each chapter, I realized that Powlison was gently guiding me to examine painful times in my life—even those I thought I had already “dealt with.” Using a multistrand approach, he helped peel back the layers of my circumstances to enable me to better appreciate the transformative work God was doing in my suffering. Powlison deftly employs one of the most beloved hymns of the church, “How Firm a Foundation,” as a structure for weaving Scripture in with our experiences as well as his own. He employs this hymn in particular because it specifically addresses the needs of sufferers and God’s loving response.
God’s Grace first directs readers to listen well so that our “sufferings and losses become a context in which true hopes awaken and strengthen” (p. 36). Powlison outlines five questions for us to consider in our suffering, using his own personal experiences for context and then asking readers to do the same:
1. What hardship are you facing?
2. What life-giving word from God speaks to you?
3. What input do wise friends give you?
4. How can you honestly wrestle your way toward trusting God?
5. What should you do next? (p. 43)
Powlison reminds us of Scripture’s emphasis on facing suffering with honesty—and we find clear examples of this in the life of Jesus and the psalms. By facing our suffering and thoughtfully examining its purpose, we engage with God instead of trying to shut him out. According to Powlison, “The problem is that God slides into irrelevance when we obsess over suffering or compulsively avoid it” (p. 49).
The author rightly points out there is “doubled pain” in our suffering. First, there is the actual suffering itself, and then there is often pain in how people treat those who are suffering:
In the first place there is “the problem” itself—perhaps sickness or poverty, betrayal or bereavement. That is hard enough. But it is often compounded by a second problem. Other people, even well-meaning, often respond poorly to sufferers. Sufferers are often misunderstood, or meddled with, or ignored. These reactions add relational and psychological isolation to the original problem. (p. 52)
Sadly, Powlison is spot-on here. Most Christians are familiar with Job’s “friends” in the Bible. As if Job hadn’t suffered enough with the loss of his children and possessions, he also had to deal with an unsupportive wife and finger-pointing friends who were “trying to help.” Powlison also reminds us that when Jesus suffered the most on this earth, he also was the most alone, having been abandoned by those who knew him best—his own disciples.
I myself remember feeling very uncomfortable around most people after my son died, because I knew my circumstances made them feel uncomfortable. It can be easier to avoid suffering people than to get in the mud with them and deal with all the messiness of life, especially over the long haul when friends and extended family members have to get back to their normal routines. What do you do when everyone around you has moved on with life, and you are still lying on the ground, not sure if you can ever live well again? Powlison asks,
But whether or not a problem is fixable, you are facing spiritual challenges. How are you doing? What are you learning? Where are you failing? Where do you need encouragement? Will you learn to live well and wisely within pain, limitation, weakness, and loss? Will suffering define you? Will faith and love grow, or will you shrivel up? These are life-and-death issues—more important than “the problem” in the final analysis. (p. 54)
This is what drives Powlison throughout God’s Grace in Your Suffering. He doesn’t want you to shrivel up, give up, or run away from the opportunity God is giving you to grow and thrive—even in the midst of great pain. In turn, you can help others with what you have learned about God’s grace. Powlison directs us to 2 Corinthians 1:4, which reminds us that the comforts we receive from God in our afflictions enable us to comfort others—even in afflictions that are different from those we have experienced (p. 84). Even with strong and constant support from others, we must not avoid addressing the “why” of God’s sovereign purposes in allowing such pain in our lives and end up wasting the good God intends for us—and others—in it.
Through his own varied experiences of suffering throughout life, some of which he shares in God’s Grace, Powlison learned that “the living faith that embraces Christ is formed in the crucible of weakness” (p. 91)—and over time. We live in an age of instant access to the Internet, news, shopping, social media, and millions of answers to questions we haven’t even thought to ask. Yet, the growth we need to do in our suffering can’t be rushed, no matter how much we want fast explanations. For it is in the process that we mature in our faith and are conformed to the image of Christ.
Powlison wants you to take time to ask, think, listen, and respond in your suffering, knowing that God is with you, and he is with you for a purpose—your transformation of dying to your flesh and living unto God. And this transformation involves turning away from looking inward, and instead looking outward to God in faith and love. The author wants us to remember that while death is the final enemy and “every form of significant suffering, every evil, leaves something of the bitter taste of death in your mouth,” we can rest in the knowledge and hope that “life and joy will defeat death and despair” because of Jesus Christ (p. 98).
We can’t prevent all suffering in this life. Yet, as Powlison encourages us, we don’t have to fear it either. Whether you are facing a particularly painful time in your life now or hoping to heal some tender wounds to your heart that you have worked hard to avoid feeling, reading and applying God’s Grace in Your Suffering will provide solid comfort in God’s loving care for you in all trials and make you a more mature Christian—two things every believer needs until Christ’s return.