I want to recommend the book, "Walking with God through Pain and Suffering" by my favorite author Tim Keller. Actually I want to recommend any book or sermon he's ever written. But this is the book of his that I just finished. I chose to read it recently because I have friends going through great suffering, and my parents are having one of the toughest years of their lives as my dad is going through long arduous cancer treatments. So it was a timely read.
This book is very well written, though a bit long for some of us perhaps. It is both philosophical and personal, it is biblical, and it doesn't patronize us with simple answers and cliches. I would guess that 90% of what he says is not really new. You can tell by his many references to other authors. But that is why this book is so good. I feel like Keller read dozens of the best books on suffering throughout history and is giving us all the best points in just one book. That's a good deal for me.
Keller writes honestly and winsomely, so much so that I could easily recommend this book to both Christians and non-Christians. He looks at the problem of evil from many different angles and discusses traditional Christian answers to it. He notes the strengths and weaknesses of each answer/argument, and doesn't pretend that the answers take away all of our struggles with evil. He also addresses how other worldviews and religions tackle the problem of evil and suffering. He discusses their strengths and weaknesses as well. In the end he argues that the Christian worldview is the best answer to the problem of evil. He is one of the best authors I know at being objective and framing his opponent's arguments in the most powerful and attractive way that he can.
Here are two choice quotes about his conclusions: “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”
“While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”
I've read others who criticize Keller for quoting and referencing so many non-Christians. But I actually appreciate that he does this. It's a way to dialogue with those who are not Christians who are reading this book, a good way to connect to them. Even the apostle Paul quoted pagan philosophers (Acts 17). And of course, non-Christians have very many good ideas to share. They are people created in God's image, working in God's world, so they have have good insights to offer.
Keller describes many different types and reasons for suffering, which might seem like an easy and obvious thing to do, but I found it incredibly helpful and insightful. Different types of suffering should illicit different types of responses in us. Keller describes the feelings we go through during suffering, very diverse complicated feelings. I kept saying to myself: "yes! yes! that is exactly how I felt during that time of suffering in my life." He put into words what I would have had difficulty putting into words.
I would recommend this book to those in the midst of suffering, but I would heartily recommend that you read it right now even if life is easy for you. Suffering always comes. It's inevitable in this broken world. Read this book now so that you will be prepared theologically and practically when that suffering comes. This book is not just intellectual. It will give you practical steps and ideas to apply what you learn to your heart, so that when suffering comes, you can make it through. The book is well balanced, covering the full spectrum of honest lament, trusting in God, allowing for mystery, being sure of God's providence, recognizing that suffering is part of the broken world we live in, and recognizing that suffering has been worked into God's good plan for this whole world.
I found the summary at the end of the book very helpful for those who have finished reading the book (not to read instead of the whole book). It has a nice list of things we have to remember and meditate on when we suffer. The next time I go through great suffering, I'll be looking up that summary at the end, or even reading the whole book again.
The book also gives us at least some insight in how to comfort others who are in the midst of suffering. We learn not to be miserable comforters like Job's friends who said some true things but in the form of cliches and at the wrong moments.
Last, I appreciated how Christ-centered this book was. This comes out in most of Keller's books and sermons. Keller is one of the best preachers I know at preaching Christ in the Old Testament, and as he talked about Old Testament stories of suffering in this book, such as the life of Job and Joseph, he always brought it back to Christ. No matter what part of the Bible Keller is talking about, he shows us how it connects to Christ, our Lord, King, and Savior.
Here are some more quotes to get you interested in reading this book:
“Some suffering is given in order to chastise and correct a person for wrongful patterns of life (as in the case of Jonah imperiled by the storm), some suffering is given not to correct past wrongs but to prevent future ones (as in the case of Joseph sold into slavery), and some suffering has no purpose other than to lead a person to love God more ardently for himself alone and so discover the ultimate peace and freedom.”
"But look at Jesus. He was perfect, right? And yet he goes around crying all the time. He is always weeping, a man of sorrows. Do you know why? Because he is perfect. Because when you are not all absorbed in yourself, you can feel the sadness of the world. And therefore, what you actually have is that the joy of the Lord happens inside the sorrow. It doesn't come after the sorrow. It doesn't come after the uncontrollable weeping. The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you. In other words, you are finally emotionally healthy."