Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: Suffering Well by Paul Grimmond

Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering by Paul Grimmond
Publisher: Matthias Media (2011); 166 pp.

I was glad for the opportunity to review Paul Grimmond's book Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering, part of the Guidebooks for Life series published by Matthias Media. This book challenged me, and not in the way I was expecting.

The author makes it clear from the beginning that this book isn't a study of theodicy (an attempt to explain why suffering exists in light of God's goodness), but an exploration of how the Bible calls Christians to suffer well. In other words, as he puts it, the book is "more of an inoculation than a remedy."

Grimmond sketches the increasingly dominant cultural myths which have begun to color our reading of the Bible instead of vice versa. This "modern anti-suffering grid" inhibits us from thinking biblically about the nature of suffering and skews the questions we ask about it. We demand that God explain Himself to us, instead of remembering His sovereignty over us, His creatures.

The hinge-point of the book is chapter 5, "The Surprisingly Predictable Surprise." Here Grimmond makes the argument that, unlike the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, the New Testament is not primarily concerned about the suffering which is the result of the fallenness of our world (terminal disease, natural disaster).  Rather, it repeatedly makes the claim that suffering at the hands of an unbelieving world is guaranteed for those who follow a suffering Lord. Belonging to Christ is a death sentence for every believer, because it's only through the suffering that comes of living for Jesus that we will also be glorified with Him.

Most Western Christians don't think in these terms anymore. In this respect, there is a tremendous distance between us and our earliest counterparts. Grimmond argues that, while we tend to think of this form of suffering in terms of physical persecution, the New Testament actually uses much broader language to describe it. We've forgotten how strongly Scripture exhorts believers to be ready to be reviled, spoken against, and maligned for their obedience to Christ.

Grimmond sums it up this way on p. 97:
The great danger for Christians living in the West is not physical death at the hands of persecutors, but the slow, spiritual death of a thousand tiny compromises crouched at our door, waiting to devour our hearts. And one of the saddest predicaments of our age is that at the moment we need it most, we have let go of a robust theology of belonging to Christ and suffering for him.
He goes on to say that, while it is right for relatively privileged Christians to remember their brothers and sisters who are subject to physical persecution in other parts of the world, we don't serve each other by denying that we suffer at all. When we downplay other forms of suffering, "we fail to teach each other to live without shame in the face of the more subtle pressures in our culture." Or, we become preoccupied with defending a God who lets cancer and tsunamis happen, forgetting that the Bible's focus is to call us to live such godly lives that the world will hate us for it.

In summary, I think what Grimmond's arguing is that we will make any excuse for our disobedience, hiding from the fact that our Christian lives should be marked by discomfort in this world. We will even use the distant reality of persecuted Christians, and our sophisticated arguments about theodicy, as screens for our unwillingness to live in a way that marks us as belonging to Jesus, not to the world. This wasn't quite the direction I'd been expecting the book to go, and I have certainly been convicted by it.

The book doesn't ignore the issue of "general" suffering. In fact, it is linked to the suffering caused by outward persecution in that every earthly struggle is used by God to conform us to the image of His Son. This teaching on the Father's discipline of His children is deeply comforting to me. Honestly, I don't know how I would begin to cope with pain in my life if I didn't believe that the Lord was using it in some way (though I may not understand how or why) for my good and His glory.

Suffering Well has a lot more excellent content. It includes advice on how to praise God with integrity and to do good in the midst of suffering, and, most importantly, it closes with the precious reminder of believers' union with Christ. The latter truth is what affords us genuine hope in suffering: "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." (Rom. 6:5) Only as we learn to savor this truth will we be free to suffer well.

This book is meant to equip believers with biblical nuts and bolts, not to be theologically exhaustive. I'm sure that someone with greater exegetical skills than mine could critique Grimmond's claims in this area. But I can say that this book led me to repentance and made me want to spend more time in God's Word, dwelling on His promises. I'm so glad I read it, and I hope it will prompt both new and seasoned Christians to a renewed discussion of suffering in Christ.

To listen to an interview with the author, check out this link.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Odds & ends in January

Traditionally, January has been one of my least favorite times of year. The transition from rest and family to the prospect of unbroken weeks of stressful obligations is wrenching. At least that's how it has usually felt. But even though coming back to St. Louis after Christmas was pretty painful, this January hasn't been quite so bad. I wouldn't say it's categorically wonderful, either. It's just been odd.

For one thing, it has continued to feel as if God's been gently shaking loose my attachments to some expectations and daydreams of how I think my short-term future would best unfold. As if, just when I imagined myself comfortable, God started shaking up some of the lesser things as if to steel me for bigger ones.

To give an innocuous example, we will likely need to search for a new apartment in the next few months. Wasn't expecting that. I had pictured us staying put for as long as we could, perhaps even for the duration of our time in St. Louis. But now I'm not sure where we're going to be living. The odd thing is how comparatively little I've been stressing over that. It hasn't been sitting heavily on my chest like these things often do. I can't say I'm excited by the possibility of moving further into the city, if indeed that turns out to be necessary. But whatever we end up needing to do, I feel mostly at peace about least for now.

For another thing, my husband is starting to pursue the process toward ordination in earnest, which is actually a wonderful development and an answer to prayer. I'm very proud of his perseverance in the process, and as I think about him beginning to work on internship requirements, I feel confident that God is going to be bringing about great things for His purposes. But that's the thing...I hadn't pictured myself being included in those purposes. Ministry has always been something that other people do; that category of "other people" has expanded enough in my mind to include my husband, but I have only the blurriest concept of how it would include me. I have enjoyed picturing myself as the wife of a professor and myself a professor, and all that would mean for our life together. I just can't picture myself in the role of a pastor's wife. This is not to say I'm resistant, exactly; it's simply beyond my imagining. I was telling a friend today that I still feel puzzled sometimes by my personality and what God could be doing with it; I suppose I tend to think of it in terms of limitation rather than gift. But I know that God didn't haphazardly assign me to a family and church I would be unable to serve; and my temperament, the things I love and the ways I encounter the world are not accidents either. This is another area where I have to walk by faith on a daily basis.

In summary, a lot of things feel open-ended right now. There's this waiting feeling. Even more than before, I'm being asked to trust without being able to see far ahead. (Or while my imagined scenarios are being lovingly papered over with something real.) Surrounded by the love of Christ's people, I certainly don't feel alone or without hope. It's unsettling, though. And just odd.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

It's no secret that I'm fond of the writings of Carl Trueman. Admittedly his sardonic wit is one of the things I enjoy about him; but what I appreciate even more is that he is a clear-eyed historian and brings strongly pastoral sensibilities into all of his work. While his latest book, The Creedal Imperative, ummistakably bears Trueman's voice, and his careful contextual work makes my historian's heart happy, it's the pastoral aspect that is most in evidence.

Dr. Trueman doesn't hide the fact that he is out to persuade those whose churches adhere to "no creed but Christ." While it's clear that he holds the latter to be an untenable position, he doesn't spend the book ruthlessly tearing into it. Instead, he invites such Christians to embark on a thought-experiment. In chapter 1, he lays out several cultural forces which militate against historic, creedal faith and have influenced parts of modern evangelicalism -- such as devaluation of the past, anti-authoritarianism, and pragmatism ("the notion that truth is to be found in usefulness"). Trueman invites readers to "reflect critically on the cultural forces that are certainly consonant with holding such a position [anti-creedalism] and ask yourself whether they have perhaps reinforced your antipathy to creeds and confessions in a way that is not directly related to the Bible's own teaching. . .[S]etting aside for just a moment your sincere convictions on this matter, read the rest of this book and see whether creeds and confessions might not actually provide you with a better way" of adhering to and communicating biblical faith. (p. 49) I really appreciate this approach.

Dr. Trueman goes on to present a positive case for creeds and confessions. He begins by arguing for, among other things, the adequacy of language to convey theological truths, the importance of the institutional church, and the Pauline precedent for holding to "form[s] of sound words." Next he launches into two quite delightful chapters on the creeds and councils of the early church and the Protestant confessions of the early modern period (including the Anglican Articles, Lutheran Book of Concord, Three Forms of Unity, Westminster Standards, and London Baptist Confession). What I enjoyed about these chapters is that Trueman takes care to describe the historical circumstances that gave rise to the councils, the theological questions the church sought to answer through the creeds, and the further questions prompted by this linguistic and conceptual fine-tuning. Even though I've studied historical theology for several years, I found Trueman's discussion of theology as a "cumulative and traditionary exercise" so informative. The only quibble I had was on p. 99, when he mentions the Coptic Church's rejection of the Chalcedonian definition -- shouldn't other "monophysite" communions be mentioned here as well, such as the Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox churches? (It might be that other non-Chalcedonians get grouped under the "Coptic" label, and I'm just unfamiliar with that terminology.)

The book wraps up with excellent chapters on "Confession as Praise" and "The Usefulness of Creeds and Confessions." The latter includes some of the more hard-hitting conclusions of the book: "The standard evangelical objection to creeds and confessions is simply not sustainable in light of. . .the Bible's own teaching and the history of the church. [Creeds] actually fulfill a vital role in a function that Paul makes an imperative for the church and her leadership, that of the stable transmission of the gospel from one generation to another. Thus, if you take the Bible seriously, you will either have a creed or a confession or something that fulfills the same basic role." (p. 161) Trueman suggests that all churches have a creed, whether they put it into writing or not. If churches don't put their creeds into words available to public scrutiny, then, ironically, it becomes harder to test the church's teachings against the ultimate authority of Scripture.

I do remember what it's like to have a visceral discomfort with written creeds. I actually rejected them for about the first half of my life as a believer. Now that I've worshiped in creed-affirming churches for most of the past decade (first Anglican and now Presbyterian), I'm not sure how I would have received this book when I was younger. Because Dr. Trueman's arguments are strong and his approach is charitable, I earnestly hope that believers who reject creeds would give his thought-experiment a fair shot. Even for confessional Christians, I commend this book as an immensely helpful resource. No matter which side you identify with, I think you'll find it a compelling read.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A little more on Secret Thoughts

I've been pleased to discuss the book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, which I blogged about back here, with a few of my friends in recent months, and yesterday I learned of this interview with Dr. Rosaria Butterfield which took place last week at Patrick Henry College. At first I had little intention of watching it (I have a weird aversion to multimedia on the Internet; I like text, if you please), but I decided to watch "just a few minutes" while having coffee this morning, and pretty soon an hour had elapsed. Dr. Butterfield is a wonderfully compelling communicator in every way.

Unsurprisingly, the interview overlaps closely with the book, but it also has a lot of neat moments that I think you'll find insightful whether you've already read the book or not. This week, I was talking with a friend about how intimidating we both found the author to be. She's so grounded and comfortable with who she is in Christ, and that gives a real freedom in the way she communicates and lives out the gospel...all ways in which I've felt constrained of late. But in the interview she reminded me so much of the intelligent, articulate women who've taught and mentored me over the years. That didn't lessen the intimidation factor a great deal, but it did remind me of the loves and struggles (and nerdiness!) we have in common, even where our personalities likely differ. Christ knows exactly how to use all these things in the most beautiful way and in His time.

Anyway, if you can set aside the time, watch it; you'll probably enjoy the additional glimpse of the personality that went into the book.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Muddled Instincts About Home

Yesterday's drive from Pittsburgh to St. Louis might have been my weepiest trip ever. I have a couple of guesses why, but the main reason, I think, is that after more than a decade of living elsewhere and spending only brief stints with my family, I'm beginning to feel stretched thin.

I've had the opportunity to live in several cities while pursuing different levels of education -- four years in Roanoke, Virginia, three years in New Haven, two in the San Francisco Bay area, and now over three years in St. Louis. I rarely thought twice about moving somewhere new. It just came with the territory of my chosen field. Not to mention, it was fun, and an unusual privilege, to get to live in such diverse regions throughout my 20s. I have good memories and have found something to love about each place that I've lived.

In the past couple of years, though, my tolerance for distance seems to have sharply declined. In fact, I am tired of moving, and the adventure of relocation is beginning to feel lost on me. I guess that's fitting, in a sense. It's a good thing to want to put down roots, and for them to grow deep instead of staying shallow. And there's no denying that practically all of my roots, dating back many generations, are in Western Pennsylvania. It makes sense that my longing for a stable home would be directed there, and it accounts for why, each time I leave, I start to feel sadder and sadder as the topography grows flatter and the names less familiar as we head southwest. I feel like there is less of me available to stretch so far, that I won't last very much longer if I have to keep doing it. I'm not so sure I'm built for this.

Of course, as I think about it, it's ridiculous to grumble about 12 years away; many people have sacrificed so much more to spend decades serving in farther-flung locations, seeing the people they love more rarely than I do, and perhaps never getting to return. It's not as if this is an exile! I have so little to complain about.

At the same time, I seem to have absorbed a notion that my status as a Christian disciple is measured by the extremity of the location in which I end up. While I should be willing to gladly go wherever I am called, that surely can't be right. At the very least, it shouldn't be right that I feel guilty for longing to move back home. Is it? It doesn't seem right to feel ashamed of wanting to live near the people who have given the most to me and within the landscape that is most familiar and formative for me. (Note that I am not even necessarily wanting to move back to my hometown. I am thinking in terms of, say, serving a rural church in an adjacent county. I could even be okay with teaching at a small college in the West Virginia panhandle or eastern Ohio. Even an hour's distance would be less wrenching.)

I guess this is an instance where balance is needed; just the thing I so often lack. I do know that blood ties are not the ultimate good. If I cast aside everything in the belief that a move home would supply what feels lacking and make me content, I might very well find it to have been a false and empty hope. I know that I will never feel fully at home anywhere in this life.

Part of me wants very much to pray that a door will open up in the next few years to allow us to move closer to my childhood home. I hope that isn't wrong. I know I need to be willing to go wherever the Lord will send us, trusting that He will provide for us there. He has always done that for me, and for us as a young household; He is our constant. But, if I'm honest, I'm not yet able to pray sincerely that I am willing to go wherever God would have us. A lot of messy work will need to happen in my heart before I can.