Resources on Suffering

13 11 2010

This Sunday I have the privilege (and immense challenge) of speaking on the subject of God and Suffering. It’s always daunting entering into a talk in the knowledge that you will barely scratch the surface of what needs to be said. There will, no doubt, be plenty of opportunity for questions, and I will recommend a few resources for people who want to go further. There are dozens of articles, books and talks I’ve devoured on this subject, but here are the five I will recommend this Sunday:

Tim Keller – The Reason for God

I find your lack of faith – disturbing.” The moment you open a book on apologetics and find the initial quote to be from none other than Darth Vader, you know you’re in for something a little different… As many have said, The Reason for God, is one of the most significant books on apologetics to have emerged in decades. Far from providing us with a pocket-guide to apologetics, crammed with pre-packaged, cold and heartless answers, Keller presents a well-thought out, well-articulated case for Christianity that goes far beyond an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. It is an engaging read full of examples and quotes from many areas of popular culture. Never have I read a book that can so seamlessly quote Foucault, C.S. Lewis and Neitzsche alongside Bono, hobbits and Darth Vader. But Keller does it. His wide repertoire of illustrations provides an incredibly fresh and modern way of looking at age-old questions. His chapter on suffering is just one great chapter amongst many.

D.A. Carson – How Long, O Lord?

Carson’s book on suffering is one the best ‘full-book’ treatments I’ve come across. In places it says some things that are so obvious, yet I’d never really considered them – The sections on poverty and the suffering people of God for example. At times it feels a little cold (any book that describes the ‘epistemic dilemma’ using a logic model that goes S = Set of beliefs. R = Rider. S + R = SΘ… etc puts up an immediate barrier for the suffering reader. Who wants to see their emotional pain depicted in cold, hard equations!?) but the further into the book you get, the more profound some of the pastoral insights get. There are, as always with Carson, some moments where I think he has strayed into being a little pedantic, and a couple of sideswipes that I don’t think add much to the book (like his rant at Wimber for example), but those aside, I think this is a robust treatment of the subject.

If you were going to buy one book on suffering, and wanted something quite meaty, I would highly recommend this.

Pete Greig – God on Mute

I just read this book last week. It’s a great book on prayer, and in particular prayer that seems to be unanswered. Peppered with real life examples – modern, ancient, and personal – Pete Greig lays out some helpful guidelines for identifying why prayer may not be answered, or whether it might in fact be answered in unexpected ways. It’s a very pastoral, helpful book. He takes as his model, Jesus’ own experience of Gethsemane and the cross. But lest that sound too lofty – for who really can understand going through the same level of suffering as Jesus did? – he grounds it in his own story of learning to live with a wife who suffered from fits and epilepsy. If you are not after a philosophical book, but are in the midst of suffering yourself, I would recommend this book over Carson.

N.T. Wright – Evil and the Justice of God

I very much like Tom Wright, and his books occupy a large portion of my shelves. This little book is slightly deceptive in appearance. It is small, but note, he still names himself N.T. rather than Tom – a sure sign that it will be on the meatier end of his authorial spectrum!

In this book, Wright addresses the problem of evil, and in particular, the question of what God is doing, and will do about it. He focusses on what it means for God to be ‘just’ and how that will play out as God brings his justice to bear over all creation. He majors on the Christus Victor model of the atonement, showing how Jesus is victorious over evil at the cross. He doesn’t deny the penal elements of the atonement, but some will perhaps find his portrayal of the cross a little jarring if they are not familiar with his other writings. All in all, a great little book, well worth a read. And as he says, “Evil may still be a four letter word. But so, thank God, is Love.”

Liam Thatcher – How Could a God of Love Allow Earthquakes?

Shameless self promotion. This is a talk I gave at Newday this year, focussing in on the area of natural disasters, taking Haiti as a model. This is, to my mind, the most difficult angle on suffering to answer, and one Christians are tempted to duck. Knowing that in the talk this Sunday I won’t have anywhere near enough time to deal with all aspects of suffering, it’s helpful to have this talk online to direct people to.

I shall say no more…

We have met the enemy, and he is us

26 08 2010

I recently came across the following quote from actor Lee Marvin, about a moment of realisation he experienced, as he rewatched one of his films:

‘I found it very unpleasant recently when I saw a film of mine called Point Blank, which was a violent film. I remember; we made it for the violence. I was shocked at how violent it was. Of course, that was ten, fifteen, eighteen years ago. When i saw the film I literally almost could not stand up, I was so weak. I did that? I am capable of that kind of violence? See, there is the fright; and this is why I think guys back off eventually. They say, “No, I’m not going to put myself to those demons again.” The demon being the self.’ (Lee Marvin, quoted in Carson, How Long, O Lord?, p41)

It is a powerful statement of that moment of stomach wrenching revelation, when one realises, perhaps for the first time, the depth of their depravity. I am worse than I ever imagined. Or as the oft-quoted aphorism puts it: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.

In Acts 2, Peter explains to the crowds how their actions led to the rejection and execution of Jesus (v22-23). There is suddenly a moment of revelation in the listeners – ‘I did that?’ You can well imagine them, like Marvin, weak and barely able to stand as the truth of their wickedness hit home.

The language Peter uses is strong. They were ‘cut to the heart’ (v37). Witherington notes that the verb κατενυγησαν appears only here in the NT, though in the LXX its meaning ranges from ‘remorseful’ (Gen 27:38) to ‘anger’ (Gen 34:7) to ‘stung’ (Sir 12:12) to ‘humbled’ (Ps 108:16) to ‘struck silent’ (Lev 10:3). (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles, p153)

I wonder how many of us became acutely aware of the depth of our depravity in such close proximity to our conversion? I’m not sure I would use many of those terms to describe the moment I responded to the Gospel: humbled, angry, remorseful, stung and struck silent. Cut to the heart. To be honest, I think I would have used far more pedestrian, sanitised, cuddly terminology – I felt curious, up for trying something new, like my life could be marginally improved. I genuinely believed, but only in time did I come to realise the true nature of what I had been rescued from and to.

I do long to see more people have Acts 2, Lee Marvin experiences at the outset of their Christian life. But I’m also comfortable that many will come to Jesus initially not with fear and trembling, but because they are weary, heavy laden and want to swap their heavy yoke for a lighter model (Matthew 11:28-30). All are valid ‘entry points’ to the gospel. But note, even the weary and heavy laden need to have an accurate understanding of their frailty before they can come to Jesus to redeem their impoverished state.

Michael Green comments:

Not everybody comes to Christ through a bad conscience. There are many gateways into Christ. But I do mean that whenever anyone comes face to face with Jesus, he is driven to the conviction that he is unworthy, and that Jesus is supremely worthy. One of the surest signs of an authentic conversion is a conscience that has become sensitised.’ (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p76)

Unless at some point in our early Christian life, preferably sooner rather than later, we come to a stark realisation of our depravity outside of Christ, we will lack both an impetus to pursue holiness and a genuine foundation for a life of constant gratitude. It is only when you realise your complicity in the death of Jesus, on account of your sin that you will truly be able to appreciate that ‘you are weaker and more sinful than you ever before believed, but, through Jesus, you am more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope.’ (Tim Keller)

In his talk at Mobilise last year, Andrew Wilson spoke of this brilliant moment in a sketch by Mitchell and Webb (Particularly up to 00:52). Watch it, chuckle, reflect, and allow yourself to be ‘cut to the heart’…

Related Post: D.A. Carson – Pastoral Pensées


1 07 2010

I don’t know why I always do it. I should have learnt by now that virtually everything on British TV is a disappointment.

But still, I had high hopes as I decided to watch the first episode of the new BBC 2 Show Rev on iplayer yesterday. For some inexplicable reason.

The premise intrigued me:

A sitcom about a vicar who finds himself out of his depth as he takes over an inner-city London church, with all the challenges city church leadership has to offer.

It intrigued me not least because I am a member of an inner-city London Church, and the movement I’m a part of, Newfrontiers, is hot on planting city centre churches. We have received a great deal of counsel from guys like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll about the importance of city based churches, and many in our family of churches are facing the challenges that ought to make up the premise of Rev.

So I was intrigued that the show was making the move from the village to the city. I thought there might be something profound in there. What I found was essentially an urban Vicar of Dibley.

Priest out of his comfort zone. Has an astonishingly dumb sidekick. Placed in a dying Anglican Church. In fact, even the plot of the first episode was remarkably similar/plagiarised: Dibley – a smashed stained glass window costs £11k to repair. Rev – a smashed stained glass window costs £30k to repair. I suppose that just reflects the cost of inner city life. The Rev gets drunk, swears and blasphemes. All in a day’s work…

In fact, it was so obviously Dibley Redux that the only way they could get away with it was a self-deprecating reference as a bunch of builders mock the Rev, labelling him ‘The Vicar of Dibley.’ Well, if nobody had made the link by then, they sure did afterwards…

To be fair, the series may get better. A pilot may not be indicative of the rest of the series. And there were a few good points about it… but not enough to keep me watching. I didn’t find it funny. It was tired. I was only watching for the concept, and that was a let down.

For me the one thing that made it distinctly urban as opposed to rural was that the Rev was terrified riding his bike through the traffic, and nearly got run down by a black cab.

Is this really urban church planting?

I suppose I shouldn’t really have expected the BBC to pull anything profound out of their hat, given that all they keep in there are stock clichés and tired stereotypes. But it did make me wonder:

If they really wanted to do their research and find out what urban church life is like, would they know where to come? Would they know who to ask? Would they find us? And if not, why not?

I hope that as more and more people target cities in their church planting, a new model of Christianity will begin to filter through to the popular media. Wouldn’t Rev be far more exciting if the church were based in a theatre, ran mid-week groups in pubs, led dance academies and homeless shelters, prayed for the sick and saw them instantly healed… but then I suppose there would be less opportunity for cheap gags about choir boys.

Look… If you want a taste of inner-city Church life that is passionate rather than parochial, visit one of the many vibrant London Churches run by godly men, who are making a big difference. Try ChristChurch London for a start. Visit websites like and find out why and how we plant churches in cities. Listen to this excellent talk from Tim Keller when he spoke to Newfrontiers leaders in London recently.

Or alternatively tune in to BBC 2, Monday at 10pm, where I gather this week you may get to see a church fete…