Three Books on Suffering

Today, I finished reading a book called It’s not Supposed to be This Way. It’s my fifty-second book of 2019, and quite coincidentally, my third book on suffering in the Christian life this year. I’m going to share just a little bit on Terkeurst’s book, and along the way the other two as well, sharing which one was my favorite, and hopefully, giving you enough information that you can make a decision about which one you might read if you’re looking for a book on this topic.

It's Not Supposed to be This Way It’s Not Supposed to be This Way by Lisa Terkeurst. This is a book about disappointments in life and about our response to those disappointments. Terkeurst weaves and bobs throughout the chapters, sharing some of her life’s disappointments, her realization that we are living “between two gardens,” and some encouragement for living a life where our disappointments turn us toward God instead of away from him. She shares openly, but discretely about marital problems, a medical emergency and cancer in a way that makes the reader quickly realize that, if not for God, she’d be completely knocked flat by life. She shares not just her suffering, but the lessons that she feels like she’s drawn from that suffering.

everything happens for a reason Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved is a cancer memoir. It’s not really chronologically based, but Bowler is detailed in her emotional response and her struggles with the realization that stage four cancer, even for a young mother, is a terminal illness. She is very emotional, and does not attempt to make sense of her diagnosis. She simply trusts that God is and that, even a world that does not make sense, God loves her and that’s enough.

Terkeurst, on the other hand, is writing about both marital issues and about her own struggles with her health. She is not facing a terminal diagnosis, but is under the weight of multiple crises. Any one thing that she’s gone through under the past few years would be enough to make us buckle. She sometimes writes a little emotionally, but mostly writes in an upbeat and encouraging manner. She is definitely attempting to make sense of her struggles, even calling some of it satanic attack. She’s giving verses to cling to, affirmations, and really wanting to use her suffering as a way to encourage others. I think that’s how she’s finding meaning in her suffering.

hope in the darkCraig Groeschel’s Hope in the Dark was not born of his own personal struggle. He wrote a first draft of this book specifically for a secretary that was going through some intense personal suffering. He picked up the manuscript again and decided to revise it and to share it in book format because of his own sorrow over his daughter’s medical suffering.

Groeschel’s primary aim is to encourage others to continue in their belief in God even when the world does not make sense. In so doing, he hops through Habakkuk, sharing some of Habakkuk’s story and how that is an example for our faith in times of suffering. He is not attempting to give advice or affirmations, and he does not clearly have lessons spelled out that we can learn from suffering. However, his book is invaluable for those who feel that faith may not be worth it in their times of suffering. He explains why we should not give up on God.

Terkeurst, on the other hand is full of advice beyond holding on to your faith. She does not stick with a biblical character or book of the Bible, but instead cherrypicks through the verses that she finds most helpful or meaningful for those who are looking for promises from God and for comfort in the midst of their sorrow.

As a theologian, I do find that, at times, Terkeurst’s pushy and cheery exegesis is like nails on a chalkboard. I struggle with it, but I also realize that her primary audience probably appreciates the immediate sense of meaning-making and scriptural affirmations. It gives them something to do and something to cling to when life just does not make sense.

Groeschel and Bowler, on the other hand, are perhaps a bit of a tougher read emotionally because neither one of them is worried about satanic attack, punishment for sin or what we might have done to bring our sorrows on ourselves. There are places in Terkeurst’s book where she, quite frankly, is in danger of making the reader feel like their sorrow is their fault. Terkeurst gives the person in pain something to do, something to occupy themselves with when they feel that God is distant or has turned his face from them.

In the final summation, I must admit that Terkeurst is not really for me. There are places that I just love her writing, like where she says that we cannot trust our emotions. We have to run our emotions through the prism of biblical truth to see if they are actually true. I deeply admire and respect the way that she and her husband have used their story to encourage others to keep going in their faith, even when the times are tough. She’s not sensationalist, and I believe, after seeing her live, that she’s truly here to help and encourage. Still, I did not like the feel of this book, and there are times when I struggled to continue to read it.

I tend to prefer Groeschel and Bowler. Groeschel is the middle of the road writing in this set of three books. He is reflective, and he is not encouraging anyone to do anything more than to remember that faith is a mystery and that our suffering has meaning and that it will make us into the people that God would have us to be. His exegesis is a little flat, and at times he meanders around and is a bit repetitive.  This book would have been better had there been more of Habakkuk and less of Groeschel. I still believe that it was helpful.

Bowler’s book is more of a memoir style book than a self-help book. Groeschel and Terkeurst are both undeniably self-help. Bowler, on the other hand, is more reflective and seems to have less of a need to convince any one of any thing. Perhaps that’s one of the ways a terminal diagnosis can change you. She also, quite honestly, reacts with scorn to the idea of analyzing her suffering to see why God might have allowed it in her life. I find myself drawn back again and again to her thoughts and to her words.

I just don’t think that we should place the burden of positivity on ourselves, and I don’t think you should have to make sense of your suffering. I do not believe that other people have a right to tell you what your suffering should mean either or what is even suffering. Even if God has a reason for everything that happens, I do not believe that it’s our job to make sense of it or to do anything more than cling to our faith that God loves us and that sometimes healing in our health, our relationships and our circumstances does not look like how we pictured.

Now, I’m going to see if I can read some books on other topics and stay clear of this topic for a while.

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