Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free is Tullian Tchividjian’s latest salvo of pastoral encouragement to Christians who languish beneath the burden of suffering and grief they feel they can’t be honest about. Which means just about about all of us.
Glorious Ruin is nakedly candid and deeply empathetic about the realities of hurting. There are no stiff upper lips to be found here, and it never scolds its readers by telling them that their suffering and sadness stems from a lack of faith. Instead, it shows no mercy to faulty theologies of suffering, coming at them with all the gladiator ferocity of the good news, in the process lifting the drooping hearts of those who have suffered mistreatment at the cruel hands of worthless physicians like Job’s friends (Job 13:4). Tchividjian bursts with a full steam ahead passion to comfort believers with the assurance that God meets us uniquely in suffering by reminding us again and again that God wants to be who He is to who we really are. We often act like the Bible commands us to silence our hurts and soldier on. Nothing could be further from the truth, Tchividjian promises us: Jesus gives us the freedom to hurt and to be frank about our hurting- he “even wants to liberate us from our need to find a silver lining in suffering” (page 24).
Why do we bother looking for ways to disguise our hurts, though? Why is it we’re so afraid to own up to our suffering? It’s because we’ve bought the lie that Christians aren’t supposed to get discouraged, that setbacks and suffering aren’t supposed to be part of the equation of the life of faith. We’re afraid that we’ve done something wrong, afraid of somehow incriminating God in the tragedy of human existence and feel like we have to get God off the hook when hurt bares its fangs because… Isn’t that all supposed to end once we place our trust in Jesus? It doesn’t, of course, but we want to pretend that it’s that simple because most of our ideas of sanctification relate to “victory over sin.” We fetishize victory (whatever that actually is) and usually tend towards letting the culture of our church define it rather than Scripture. This reinforces our distaste for suffering and compels us to hype up (or flat out concoct) the least bit of progress we make and to rationalize all of the sad, painful parts of our lives.
News flash for my readers: we (human beings) suck. We tend to either moralize or minimize suffering because we 1. believe that God does good to good people and bad to bad people, 2. believe that suffering is mostly an attitude issue and that things can’t really be that bad, or (most likely) 3. a combination of both. None of us is dense enough to flat out state our presuppositions this openly (we all have theological and psychological categories to help our legalism sound more sophisticated than that), but most of our thinking is structured around this basic set of beliefs, none of which are biblical. They poison our conceptions of what the Christian walk is like and contaminate our evangelism, giving both the church and the wider world the most damnably wrong idea of what following Jesus is like.
How has the church been duped into such a hopelessly bad news way of thinking and living? We’ve all been sold on a theology of glory, a theology that appeals to our old, natural (read: fallen) ways of thinking that cannot handle tragedy. “Theologies of glory acknowledge the cross, but view it primarily as a means to an end- an unpleasant but necessary step on the way to personal improvement, the transformation of human potential… As Luther put it, the theologian of glory ‘does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil'” (page 41). A theology of glory doesn’t have room for the underdog or the outcast- it only sees God at work within displays of power triumph, and glamour (which rules out most of us and most of our experiences, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you). Very Hollywood, this theology of glory, yet it is what we cling to most of the time, even as it tramples us. What’s the alternative? “A theology of the cross, in contrast, understands the cross to be the ultimate statement of God’s involvement in the world on this side of heaven. A theology of the cross accepts the difficult thing rather than immediately trying to change it or use it” (page 42). Make no mistake: a theology of the cross is hard! Our natural default setting is to only accept suffering if we can turn it into a stepping stone to something better than what we have at present. Most of the time this isn’t even possible, so rather than owning up to reality, we sugarcoat all the rottenness of our lives in order to restore the illusion of being happy, healthy, and godlike.
Our theology needs an overhaul if we’re ever going to honestly deal with the reality of pain. We need to believe that in the end, “nothing rides on our ability to cope with or fend off suffering. Before we can even begin to grapple with the frustrations and tragedies of life in this world, we must do away with our faithless morality of payback and reward” (page 68). God isn’t paying you back for the billion times you’ve screwed up, nor is He trying to make you a better you- He wants to save you. The cross has put you forever to rights with God and He is now redeeming every last inch of your life. Isn’t that infinitely better than any self-improvement program? God is interested in liberating captives; it’s us who are interested in “progress.” There’s something about the life of faith that we need to get straight if our perspective on suffering is to be corrected: “Christianity is not about good people getting better. If anything, it is about bad people coping with their failure to be good” (page 78). That is good news!
This should overturn a ton of the cliches we rely on in ministering to others, such as downplaying the severity of their pain (“At least you don’t have it as bad as those orphans in Russia…”) or Oprah-fying their trials (“Just you wait, God’s going to teach you a lot about singleness through this break-up…”). We regularly do not display the same capacity for empathy that our Lord does; we don’t allow our friends to simply hurt and then weep with them. Ought we not instead to reflect him more? “Whether suffering is approached through the eyes of faith or not, the God of the Bible never reduces or compartmentalizes suffering- ever. The problems of life are large and complex; pat answers are not only inaccurate but also unkind” (page 120). Whenever we moralize suffering or try to minimize it, we end up amplifying the trauma of real life for our hurting brothers and sisters, and we sin by both misrepresenting God and by failing to mediate grace into their life situation to soothe their aching hearts.
So, the gospel frees us to be honest about suffering, but how is it that suffering sets us free? Suffering is meant to unravel and deconstruct all of our illusions of what satisfies us- it exposes the cracks in their foundations and shows us that they can’t bear the weight we place upon them. This means that it is a function of God’s mercy that He allows suffering to take place: “Christians serve an unrelenting God who graciously disallows full, lasting satisfaction in anything but Him… Our point of pain reveals to us our greatest need- our need to be set free from false hopes and to cling to the only hope of the gospel. But we often settle for the counterfeit of nonpain” (page 159). So part of the good news is that I’ve got everything backwards: “The truth is, suffering does not rob us of joy; idolatry does” (page 162). When our faith is informed by these truths, we can cling to the savior in the face of turmoil and heartache and be freed from the burden of finding a solution. At the cross we find the comfort our souls hunger for the most and we see that the only real hope to be found is in a god who identifies with the miserable and the afflicted and becomes miserable and afflicted in turn.
Glorious Ruin is sensitive in its tone and soothing in its application of gospel truth, but it does have one weakness: in his eagerness to point us towards the Who dimension of suffering, Tchividjian seems to downplay the question of Why. We need to hear the person of Jesus emphasized within this issue, but the background of Why needn’t be excluded. He acknowledges that smarter people than him have tackled the Why question but identifies those projects as “by definition exercises in speculation.” “To know the Why would be to grasp the mind of God, which is something none of us can do” (page 25). He seems to think that most of us want to understand “Why?” because we are interested in results and not so much interested in trusting God. In describing his confusion over a great personal trial, he says, “But what I didn’t realize at the time is that explanations are ultimately a substitute for trust” (page 150). He affirms the central importance of a close friend’s advice: “If you don’t go to your grave confused, you don’t go to your grave trusting” (page 157). There are elements of truth in all of these statements that need to be heard, especially to counterbalance the strong pull of the theology of glory evangelicalism has largely sold out to, but leaving them sounding as absolute as they do may be unhelpful. The Bible doesn’t discourage all “Why?” questions. Even Job, the hero of Glorious Ruin, asks them numerous times. He goes a little overboard by the end, sure, but wanting to understand isn’t inherently bad; to demand answers and demand ways out of suffering would demonstrate a faithlessness the Bible would censure, but not the humble plea for some measure of understanding. Surely this is a part of knowing God as Father and relating to Him as a beloved child? I have no doubt Tchividjian would affirm everything I’ve just said were I to put the question to him in person, but including these ideas would have made Glorious Ruin an even stronger book. For the reader curious to learn more, D. A. Carson’s How Long, O Lord? maps out the contours of a gigantic biblical framework that helps unpack both the mystery and the comfort of God’s sovereignty. Carson takes on many of the Why questions but emphasizes time and time again that theology of this sort is only useful when it is applied as medicine for hurting believers. Do yourself a favor and read both.