Tuesday, July 22, 2014

book review: Invest your suffering

Every writing pastor seems to put out a book on two themes. One is marriage. Another is suffering. Judging from the prologues, the process goes something like this: they give a sermon series. It's popular (who isn't interested in these topics?). They turn the series into a book.

It can be hard to know which book on suffering to read, since there are so many. If you were to look over the recently published books on the topic, which one would you choose? I've read a fair few,* and my top pick would definitely be Paul Mallard's unassuming little book Invest Your Suffering. This book is ideal both for those preparing for suffering, and (a harder audience!) for those who are suffering.

I'd never heard of Invest Your Suffering, or of Paul Mallard, when I was asked to review it. I wasn't sure if I had time. I read one chapter in the dentist's waiting room (for me) and others between ongoing doctors' visits (for my chronically ill son). I didn't regret it. It came at a time when I needed it, and it met me in my need.

One of the things I love about Invest Your Suffering is that it doesn't aim for great things. You won't find some clever new theological perspective on suffering (thank goodness!). It's not long and exhaustive (for that, turn to Don Carson or, more recently, Tim Keller). It's readable, honest, and heart-felt. It's really just an exploration of some of the ways God's word meets us when we suffer, from the pen of a pastor long experienced in suffering.

In some ways, this book is a love story. It's about Paul Mallard's wife Edrie, who suffers from a painful and debilitating neurological condition, and the difficult stages of their journey. But it is less about their love - although that shines through the pages - than it is about God's love. Mallard states his goal here:
In the course of this book, we will engage with some of the great Bible passages that have brought light into Edrie's and my darkest moments. (p. 22)
Each chapter opens with a scene from their story and the hard questions it raised for them, then unpacks a truth about God that helped them at this time. This is not a systematic book, but a pastoral and exegetical one. As I read, I felt like I was sitting in Mallard's congregation, listening to him speak; or in his living room, talking with him and his wife.

Invest your suffering opens by inviting us to choose how we will respond to suffering. Will it make us better or bitter? Mallard says, "The right response is a deliberate and reasoned decision to trust" (p. 22), and the rest of his book is an invitation to this "reasoned trust".

The second chapter addresses how we think about our trials. Mallard shows how damaging false views of suffering can be, and how much more deeply a true understanding can help us. If you're looking for a clear, brief, biblical summary of God's sovereignty in suffering - the idea that he is the "first cause", and what that means - you'll find it here. 

Then it's into the body of the book, and the Bible passages and truths that helped Mallard and his wife. Open my copy of the book and you'll find six chapters circled on the contents page. These are the that spoke most deeply to me:
  • trusting God when we can't understand his purposes
  • learning to number our days
  • turning to God when we run out of answers
  • suffering prepares us to minister to others
  • only the cross of Christ helps when we are in emotional or physical pain
  • suffering moves us to long for heaven. 
I hope I've whetted your appetite for more!

When I read books, I hunt for the "gold": quotes that may help me or others. In this book, it was the sentences that made the book sparkle. Here are a few I collected along the way:
Praise God and keep taking the tablets. (p. 32)

We walk by faith, not by explanations. We don't have to understand everything God is doing in order to trust him. (p. 38)

We come to God with our broken hearts, and, without pausing, he continues to conduct the symphony of the stars while sweeping us into his arms and whispering that he loves us and that all is well. (p. 44)

God loves us and is too wise to make mistakes and too kind to cause us unnecessary pain. (p. 48)

Please don't tell me that Christians shouldn't grieve. (p. 56)

God has crushed us so that we can minister out of our pain. (p. 87)

Suffering is the best commentary on God's character, and pain is the finest exposition of his excellencies. We discover more about God's grace when we come to the end of ourselves. You will never know that God is all you need, until God is all you have. (p. 136)

When Edrie wept in the darkness and I wept with her, the Saviour was near, carrying us both on his heart and presenting us to his Father. (p. 152)

The main question we needed to ask was not 'why?' but 'how?'. How can we bring glory to God in the midst of 'attacks' which have all but robbed us of the day? (p. 156)
The book has few faults. I was a little alienated by some of the language (that we can "choose to overcome" and "triumph in the midst" of our pain - although Mallard, if anyone, has a right to say this) and by a couple of the chapters (on giving thanks, and on the benefits of suffering - they felt a little glib to me). Yet the vast majority of the book was sympathetic, sensitive, and open about the agonising questions aroused by suffering.

Here's a typical passage that is worth the price of the book alone:
There was one truth that, for me, stood head and shoulders above the others. It was the fact of the love of God demonstrated in the sacrifice of his Son at Calvary. I lived in the Gospels, and particularly John's Gospel. I read it on my knees. I prayed it. I preached it. As I did these things, Jesus became more and more precious for me. Looking at his love and the suffering he experienced for me helped me to look beyond the apparent meaninglessness of our suffering to see that, at the heart of the Godhead, is a Saviour who knows and feels and sympathizes with our suffering. (p. 149)
Would I recommend this book to those who suffer? Definitely. Not many books are helpful and readable when you're in the furnace. But Mallard's honesty about his pain and doubt, his clarity of thought, and his pastor's heart, make this a good choice for someone who is suffering. By the end you will feel like you have traveled with this godly man and his wife on their hard journey, and drunk deeply with them of the life-giving water of God's word.

* I recently began, and am thoroughly enjoying, Tim Keller's new book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 21, 2014

online meanderings

When God seems silent

Whole house reveal - How to truly makeover a house. Love it!

10 things missionaries won't tell you

4 questions to keep close to your wallet

The perfect family - An honest, haunting story about a family full of needs.

6 ways your phone is changing you

How to understand Revelation - Brilliant!
If you only choose to praise the Lord when you’re healthy, comfortable and enjoying life, you’re going to spend a lot of your existence grumbling and questioning God's love and goodness. Paul Tripp

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to scripture, faith and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated. - Don Carson

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

thoughts on an imperfect holiday

Hi, friends! We're back from 2 weeks' holiday. We spent the first week at a conference for our uni Christian group, and last week at the beach at Apollo Bay.

There were many lovely moments:

- a wild wind blowing spray backwards from the waves
- the golden lights of evening on the harbour
- seeing the world "like a bird does" (as Thomas said) from the lookout
- sampling the best coconut ice cream ever
- jogging and walking along the beach.

Steve was sick throughout our holiday (he's had a rough year). In the end, he had to take anti-nausea medication. He's still sick - he's now on medication for gastritis - but he made it down to the beach a couple of times. I did my best to look after him, and help the kids to have a good holiday.

I used to think holidays had to be perfect. I'd try to capture that mood where body and mind are at peace, and there's nothing to disturb the feeling. It's not something you can get just by wanting, so I spent every holiday in a state of nagging disappointment.

There were also holidays of teary exhaustion because none of my babies ever slept away from home. And the time I fractured a bone in my foot (I was trying to put a piece of tomato down my brother's back at the time, so at least it was in a good cause). And the plague year when I discovered an allergy to midge bites. Yup, holidays aren't perfect.

I have learned to be thankful for imperfect holidays. Watching the kids splash in the freezing water in their wetsuits. Sitting with my daughter in a cafe, both sipping on spiced chai. A family game of Cluedo. I don't care if I'm sitting on a lump of hard sand, or the kids are bickering; I love moments like those.

We're taught to idolise holidays. We post photos of beaches on Facebook - #it'sahardlife - and wait for the "likes!" that hide our friends' envy. We work and save all year for a week at a resort. We're always in search of the perfect experience - the perfect location - the perfect rest. Like all idols, this one is empty and unsatisfying.

Holidays are good. They're a gift of God for our refreshment. They renew us so we can serve him. They give us meaningful time with family and friends. But they're not yet heaven. In this world, they will often be marred by illness and injury and dissatisfaction. They will always, in some way, disappoint.

There's a better holiday coming - a perfect rest - one where there will be no midge bites or arguments or illness. A holiday only hinted at by those rare, perfect holiday moments. A holiday that will never come to an end.

I, for one, can't wait.

Monday, June 30, 2014

online meanderings

Learning to speak to yourself - I once thought that the psalms were sung by a fine choir in God’s throne room. Then I actually read them, and they sounded more like the words a street troubadour who encourages the participation of those around him. Now I find that they are simply spoken and sung everywhere: in the darkness of night, in the early morning, in all the details of everyday life. And there are a handful of psalms in which the psalmists speak to themselves ...

Stop faking spiritual maturity

4 ways to prepare for suffering now - These would top my list too.

4 reasons to sit near the front in church

The pointlessness of unplugging

for young men
Dear single dudes: it's time to man up

Letter to a potential boyfriend  

Growing older should grow faith, so that like Abraham, we look forward to the heavenly country, to the city built by God—the permanent city, the one with foundations (Hebrews 11:10, 13-16)—where we can be forever with our eternal, unchanging, wholly-satisfying Lord. Rebecca Stark

Healing is a good thing, but it remains entirely in God’s hands. We cannot force or demand it and it is not a benefit that we can earn or receive as a reward. Healing is a gift. There is no secret rite that will elicit its appearance, no magic formula that will sway the sovereignty of the giver. God will bless as he sees fit and in accordance with his own counsel and wisdom. Should he choose to bless you with this mercy, receive it with humility, thanksgiving and joyful praise. Should he choose to withhold this mercy, endure with humility, thanksgiving and joyful praise. - Scott Blackwell

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online meanderings for dads and mums

Our children are our neighbours too

4 lovely pieces of advice for a young dad

Letter to a potential boyfriend - A mum writes to a young man who wants to date her daughter. Awesome.

On daughters and dating - For dads: how to intimidate potential suitors.

Why my family doesn't do sleepovers - This is not the only helpful approach, but it's worth considering.
When we’re exhausted, when we feel the dusty earth of the Calvary road, we can remember that it’s especially then that the life of Jesus is manifested in us (2 Corinthians 4:10). It’s then that Jesus gives us more of himself, proving over and over that he is enough, that he is good, that there is more joy in him than in the grain and wine that abound (Psalm 4:7)—or in the kids who never make messes and the dinner that prepares itself and the schedules that operate seamlessly. He is better. There’s no way a finite, nurturing heart can hold all these things, but Jesus can, Jesus does, Jesus will. - Gloria Furman

I like to think that the amount of water my children waste when they shower is partly made up for by their failure to flush the toilet and remember to brush their teeth. - Deb

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

what I'm reading: wounded but not wasted

I thought there could be no worthy successor to JI Packer's Knowing God to feed my soul this year. I was wrong.

On a Friday morning, sitting under the oak trees outside my favourite cafe, I can't wait to open Tim Chester's The Ordinary Hero.

Here's a favourite quote-within-a-quote:
We should avoid, not a wounded life, says John Piper, but a wasted life ...

Too often, we can't quite lay hold of the treasure of Christ with both hands because we're still clinging to the baubles of this world ...

Piper again:
What a tragic waste when people turn away from the Calvary road of love and suffering. All the riches of the glory of God in Christ are on that road. All the sweetest fellowship with Jesus is there. All the treasures of assurance. All the ecstasies of joy. All the clearest sightings of eternity. All the noblest camaraderie. All the humblest affections. All the most tender acts of forgiving kindness. All the deepest discoveries of God’s Word. All the most earnest prayers. They are all on the Calvary road where Jesus walks with his people. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. On this road, and this road alone, life is Christ and death is gain. Life on every other road is wasted.

Tim Chester The Ordinary Hero 77, quoting John Piper Don't Waste Your Life 76.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

online meanderings

Get out of your holy huddle - 7 ways to deepen relationships.

When the prospect of pain threatens our pleasure - Thoughtful, encouraging.

Christianity is not a religion of the stiff upper lip - Just read the Psalms.

The day I lost my temper - "More like I found my temper. I found it right where I left it." 

Will she live with us forever - A moving post about a daughter born with Down syndrome.

12 questions to ask before you watch "Game of thrones" (or any show with nudity in it).

A pattern for regular time off, 3 assumptions we must conquer, and 8 ways to say "no" - 3 posts on busyness and burnout.

The 5 stages of biblical repentance - "One of the strangest and most deplorable phenomena I’ve ever encountered in the Christian church is the tendency of many believers to take the side of the abuser in domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault cases, particularly if the abuser is a pastor or leader in the church."

To see more links and quotes, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).      

Thursday, June 19, 2014

online meanderings

The psalmists' rich view of depression - An interesting article about the psalms, biblical counseling and depression.

What to do on days when sin looks delicious

3 thing things I tell myself when I'm feeling low on patience

When it's time to leave a church - Red lights, green lights, yellow lights.

On the benefits of employing people with disabilities - An inspiring story.

for parents:
Setting up my kids for salvation (or why we can't) 

5 ways to model grace-dependence to our children

An open letter to my daughter-in-law - A great read for mums, especially new ones.
Eternal life is more about a Person than a place. ... That is the treasure you have discovered in the field of this fallen world. Jesus has paid for it all, and it costs you everything you own in this age to have it. Yet it is such a small payment for such an everlasting, never-ending treasure that only a fool would pass it up. The treasure makes all the difference. Jon Bloom

The person of great sacrifice must be the person of little sacrifices ... The big moment of courageous action doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but has behind it tiny moments of simple sacrifice that have been trending that direction all along. In other words, if we can’t wash dishes and change diapers, we shouldn’t kid ourselves with the idea that we’d step in front of a bullet. If we are stingy with our time and money toward those in need, we’ll be stingy with our lives when a gun gets pulled on innocent people. Jonathon Parnell

To see more links and quotes, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).     

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

what I'm reading: where else have I to go?

This is one of the saddest and most encouraging things I've read.

It's from Tim Chester's brilliant book (read it! do!) The Ordinary Hero.
In 2007 violence erupted after disputed elections in Kenya. Beth, a Kenyan studying in the UK, and part of The Crowded House, the family of church planting networks to which I belong, emailed me at the time:
This past week I’ve realized that I don’t truly know what God being good, wise, sovereign and faithful means.

I know what it doesn’t mean – it doesn’t mean no suffering in this life. I know that whatever he allows is for his glory and our good. But I also don’t want to be flippant or simply parrot phrases as though I’ve merely learned them by rote.

I talk to my aunt and uncle who are doctors and have hardly slept during the last three days because of the sheer number of people coming in. I want to know what it means to talk to them and then say “God is good”.

Surely any earthly parent would come running at the sound of their baby’s blood-curdling shriek. So I want to be sure I know what I mean by “God is good” when we have prayed and prayed to the soundtrack of the screams of children being burnt, knowing that the stench is getting to heaven and silence is the response.

When I watch on live television people being dragged out of cars and hacked to death, my mind spins – and not because I have wondered if God is sovereign, but because I know he is ...

Life as I’ve known it has changed and will never be the way it was. And a huge chunk of me grieves … I’m not losing faith, for where else have I to go? Whom else have I in heaven but him?

I read through Job today in one sitting and realized that Job had a lot of questions, but God didn’t answer any of them. He only revealed his character and that was enough. Job says, “I had heard of you but now I have seen you.”

And so that’s my prayer: that God would move me from having heard of him to seeing him, and that his comforting, sustaining and sanctifying grace would abound in the gap of hearing and seeing.

Tim Chester The Ordinary Hero 18-19, 22.

Friday, June 13, 2014

online meanderings

Partnering with people in their pain - By a man whose wife lives with chronic pain.

A year that hasn't gone according to plan - More helpful reflections from Jenny.

The extraordinary work of ordinary means - How songs can do their work long after they are sung.

God has timed the grief of aging perfectly

Pastors, you make your own sandwich - A great post about life and ministry.

Learning to be a writer - Very reassuring.

for parents ... and a quote for tired mums
10 toys I don't regret buying

Qualities to teach your kids as they relate as brothers and sisters
'This is the season of boo-boos and spit up and dirt. It’s the season for 10 minute showers, half shaved legs, and one eyed mascara. You will get lonely. And jealous. And maybe sometimes you’ll begrudge your life and wish you had someone else’s. You’ll get frustrated and angry and you’ll want to escape. This will be the most unglamorous and unappreciated time of your life, and sometimes it just totally sucks. That’s ok. But have peace in knowing that this will be the season you look back on longingly. One day, we’ll gladly give up all the friends in the world to have our babies small again. To be able to fit them on our laps and read them stories and go on adventures and eat pancakes at every meal. Kristen

To see more links and quotes, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).