Book Review: P Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?”

Book title:

Yancey P, 1990, Where is God when it hurts? (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan)

Subject: Christian living

Summary:

Philip Yancey discusses the question many of us ask when we suffer or when we see others suffer, namely, “Where is God when it hurts?” In parts one and two of the book he examines the biological nature of pain and considers, largely through the example of Job, the biblical approach to suffering, stressing the importance of our response. In parts three, four and five he uses uses real-life examples to demonstrate how different individuals have dealt with suffering  and gives practical advice how we can support those who suffer. He ends by emphasising the hope that our Christian faith gives us, that indeed, “human suffering remains meaningless and barren unless we have some assurance that God is sympathetic to our pain, and can somehow heal that pain. In Jesus, we have that assurance.”[1]

Review:

Yancey begins by discussing the merits of being able to feel pain in that “pain demands the attention that is crucial to… recovery.”[2] He uses the example of leprosy patients, who do not feel pain and therefore cause serious injury to themselves, to show that pain can be a good thing and demands a response from us.  Our response to pain and suffering is a recurring theme throughout the book.

He discusses the question of why there is suffering in this world, namely because of human freedom. Yancey argues that by giving us this freedom; God has given us the ability “to choose to love him freely, even when that choice involves pain, because we care committed to him, not to our own feelings and rewards.”[3] He frequently refers to Job as an example of someone who did not get the answer to his questions, but rather God responds in such a way that displays his greatness and shows that he is a God who can be trusted. God wants from us what he wanted from Job and that is “simply an admission of trust.”[4] Yancey emphasises that the important issue for Christians who face suffering is not one of causation, but rather of response. He states that “in the bible the problem of pain is less a philosophical riddle than a test of human response and faithfulness.”[5]

Yancey discusses the different human responses we can have to pain; either we “turn against God for allowing such misery… [or]… pain can… drive [us] to God.”[6] Yancey discusses how suffering in our lives reminds us that we are not self-sufficient, but utterly dependent on God in every circumstance. He also considers how pain in our lives can be transformed and that “periods of sharpest suffering [have] been the very occasions of spiritual growth”.[7] Indeed, he considers the connection between pleasure and pain and uses the example of Christian service, where “happiness will come upon [us] unexpectedly as a by-product, a surprising bonus for something I have invested myself in. And, most likely, that investment will include pain.”[8]

Yancey uses real-life examples of people who have experienced suffering. This is something that I appreciated about his approach to this subject in that he does not present us with a magic formula in answer to this question, but rather acknowledges that suffering is real, that Christians ask these questions of God and that God is big enough to deal with them. He describes how he met Joni Eareckson Tada, who explained that after her diving accident gradually her focus changed “from demanding an explanation from God to humbly depending on him…  I will never reach a place of self-sufficiency that crowds God out.”[9]

The part that really struck me in Yancey’s discussion was that even when it may feel to us that God is silent in the midst of pain, we still see God when we see his people acting with care and compassion as they “bear one another’s burdens” and act as the “body of Christ” towards each other.[10] Yancey discusses how people who are suffering need our love. He explains that they will struggle in four main areas, namely that of fear, helplessness, meaning and hope. Yancey discusses the importance of simply being available for people and the power of prayer, which “cuts through the sensory overload and allows me to direct myself to God.”[11]  We also need to be brave enough to talk about the eternal hope that we have, despite the fact that often the explanation that hope of “eternal life, ultimate healing, and resurrection [can sound] hollow [and] frail…”[12] to those who are suffering.

One of the most poignant themes for me throughout this book is that time and time again Yancey encourages us to look to Jesus. He states that “the best clue we have into how God feels about human pain is to look at Jesus’ response.”[13] He emphasises that often our response to suffering is that we want to know the answer to the ‘why?’ question – why is this person suffering? Rather what we should concentrate on and what Jesus directs our attention to is, “to what end?” because “in every case, suffering offers an opportunity… to display God’s work.”[14] Yancey uses Jesus’ reaction in John 9, to the disciples question of “… who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[15] to demonstrate this.

At the close of the book Yancey questions how the Christian faith can help us come to terms with the question of “Where is God when it hurts?” He states that all of our questions must be “filtered through what we know about Jesus.”[16] We know that he cared when people hurt and had compassion on them. We know he reacted in a similar vein to us when faced with pain, for example in the Garden of Gethsemane. We know that he did not try to avoid the pain of this world, he did not “give us… theories on the problem of pain [rather] he gave us himself.”[17] And now because of his death and resurrection “we can confidently assume that no trial… extends beyond the range of his transforming power.”[18] Yancey emphasises that because of the cross God understands any pain we go through and encourages us with the words of Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet… without sin.” If I were to recommend any chapter to read, as a stand-alone chapter, it would be chapter 18. It will do your heart good to be reminded that “because of Jesus, God understands, truly understands our pain. Our tears become his tears. We are not abandoned.”[19]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Yancey P, 1990, Where is God when it hurts? (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan), 173.

[2] Ibid. 38

[3] Ibid. 98

[4] Ibid. 114

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 78

[7] Ibid. 81

[8] Ibid. 63

[9] Ibid. 150

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. 192

[12] Ibid. 236

[13] Ibid. 89

[14] Ibid. 93

[15] John 9:2 (ESV)

[16] Yancey P, Where is God when it hurts? 173

[17] Ibid. 246

[18] Ibid. 252

[19] Ibid. 255

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Looking to Jesus in 2018

2017 ended on a bit of a high for me because… wait for it… I was part of a flashmob. Yes, yes, this is indeed true, you can put any autograph/selfie requests to me in writing.

To put you all out of your misery and to explain the context (or rather, more importantly, to stop the fan mail #tongueincheek #noreally) this formed part of our church nativity entitled “A Good Looking Christmas”… complete with pop-up choir, pop-up Gabriel, pop-up Angels (yes, we had glow sticks), a pop-up Herod who received an appropriate and very impressive “boo” and a rather disgruntled Shepherd who had lost his sheep! (Fear not, they have been reunited and no sheep were harmed in the making of the production.) I can take none of the credit for this creativity, but it was fab!

The different characters with whom we are familiar with within the Christmas story all draw our attention to look to and consider the Lord Jesus, for he is at the centre of the story. Indeed without him we would have no Christmas. Certainly in today’s society we can get caught up with many other things other than the Lord Jesus at this time of year. Indeed as we sang “Look to the skies there’s celebration” a couple of weeks ago, this got me thinking about what we as Christians focus on, particularly when life is difficult or doesn’t go the way we perhaps expect. Undoubtedly these times can impact all of us, to a greater or lesser extent.

A number of weeks ago I was reading in Matthew 14 where Peter walks on water. This was a huge step of faith for Peter, he was doing something he probably thought would never happen – it must have been pretty exciting, he was one of the disciples after all! And perhaps that’s a situation you find yourself in… you’ve taken a step of faith, life has changed and it’s actually quite exciting. But then Peter sees the wind and the waves and he starts to sink. And perhaps that can happen to us as well… suddenly things happen in life and all we can see are the overwhelming circumstances, we take our eyes of Jesus and then we start to sink. I don’t think these always have to be “big” things – we are all God’s children and he cares about what is going on in each of our hearts. Indeed as Tim Challies puts it, “God does not insist our trouble rise to a certain degree or extent before he becomes [our] refuge and strength.”

However Peter doesn’t try and deal with the situation by himself, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” Then we read great words in verse 31, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him…” Jesus took Peter’s hand and there was no way he was letting go. Perhaps if it had been the other way round Peter might not have had the strength to hold on, but as I was reminded a couple of weeks ago in student devotions, we are held by the hand of the one who calls us and keeps us – Isaiah 46:2 says, “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you…”

David was someone who often goes through what can only be described as an emotional roller coaster in many of the Psalms (which I believe should be a comfort to us all!) Recently I was reminded from Psalm 37:23 – 24 that the Lord guides our lives and “though [I] stumble , [I] will never fall, for the LORD holds me by the hand.” So often we forget the one who holds our hand, the one who has called us, the one who leads us, the one who fights for us and the one who carries us (Deuteronomy 1: 29 – 31) and our focus turns inwardly to our own circumstances and we let that overwhelm us. We need to learn a lesson from the Angels, shepherds and the wise men who all looked to the Lord Jesus. We need to cry out like Peter and let Jesus take our hand and for the independent, self-sufficient types amongst us, that does not always come easily.

As I close this final blog for 2017, I’ve just been reminded that Helen Roseveare, who was a missionary in Congo for many years, prayed each year that the Lord would give her a verse as her “verse of the year”. In light of what has gone before let’s keep “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2) in 2018.

In All Things Give Thanks!

Which would you be more thankful for… a sofa or a fish?

Keep reading, keep reading… there is a point to this new version of the “Would you rather?” game!

Thankfulness has been something that has been on my mind a lot recently and something that is a recurrent theme throughout Paul’s writings. When we pray he urges us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:17), “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6) and of the Christians in Ephesus he said, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:16).

As I considered these verses I realised that I have much to be thankful for! In fact, what precipitated this thought process was my experience of “flat-sitting” over the past two weeks. Some of you may know that I have been on my mission field placement and one reason (amongst many!) I was so thankful for this placement was because it made me feel like an adult again (perhaps student life is a little overrated?!) I have never been so thankful for the sense of responsibility that “flat-sitting” gave me! This also involved the weighty responsibility of feeding a gold-fish and watering an Amaryllis (the former remains alive, the latter does not). Each time I sat on the sofa (I was probably marginally more thankful for the sofa than the fish – see question above) in a REAL living room… drinking a cup of tea made with water boiled in a REAL kettle… in a REAL kitchen I gave “thanks to the Lord, for he is good!” (Psalm 107:1). I hasten to add that there are real kettles and rooms in student accommodation, however when a sense of independence is taken away for a while it gives you a new appreciation for many of the things we often take for granted in life – things that are all good gifts from our Heavenly Father!

Yet so I often I forget this and become discontent. I was reading this week about the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12 and was struck by the words of the Lord Jesus when He said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). I have been greatly challenged by this and indeed this was reinforced by a little saying that I read recently that said, “The Best things in Life aren’t things”. So what is the best thing in life? David reminds us that it is the “steadfast love” of the Lord that “endures forever” (Psalm 107:1). He reminds us that we should “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!” (Psalm 107).

So how do we see this “steadfast love” in our daily lives? I believe we see it in our friends, in our families, in our churches, when someone offers to meet you for coffee, when you get a ridiculous message to your family Whatsapp group, when someone prays with you, when you read the bible and it speaks right to your circumstances there and then! I could go on – God is good! He wants us to reflect that goodness and steadfast love to the world around us – to become more like His Son who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

In one of Paul Tripp’s latest blogs “What you were made to live for” he states:

*”We Were Made To Live For Community (Genesis 2:18)
We were made to need one another, and this community is meant to exist in a variety of forms: sibling, parent, spouse, neighbor, friend, teammate, co-worker, etc. This web of ongoing relationships requires us to live for more than just ourselves.”

Indeed I have seen an example of that sense of community lived out before my eyes over the past two weeks – showing love, spending time with people, getting to know your neighbours is something not to be underestimated. As John says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 1:18) How else are people to know that we are followers of Jesus? (John 13:34-35). How else are people to know that I am a REAL Christian? Do they see where the desires of my heart truly lie?

There is nothing wrong with wanting certain things in life, indeed the Lord Jesus tells us to be persistent in our asking, but there is a condition and that condition is that we seek His Kingdom first (Luke 11 and 12), which can I say is much easier to blog about in theory, than carry out in practice! However I love the words of David when he says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). When we seek His Kingdom first, our desires and His desires become as one.

I have just finished reading Isabel Kuhn’s book, “By Searching”. In this she speaks of investing time and energy in people. She says, “By searching for [the Lord], He makes us conscious of the need of others, and helps us cut channels by which He may be poured into their lives. In no time we find ourselves His fellow workers, and life is rich.” Life is rich! Yes, because we see the Lord at work, perhaps not always in the way we expect or want and perhaps in ways we will never understand, but life is rich because there is treasure in heaven! (Matthew 6)

Before I sign off I should say that I address these thoughts as much to my own heart as to anyone else. Indeed, as I write this, the words of “My Heart is filled with thankfulness” have been going over in my head and undoubtedly what better note to end on than thankfulness “To Him who bore my pain; Who plumbed the depths of my disgrace, And gave me life again!”**

*https://www.paultripp.com/wednesdays-word/posts/what-were-you-made-to-live-for

**http://www.gettymusic.com/my-heart-is-filled-with-thankfulness/

Book Review: “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World”

I was given this book as a present just before I came to Tilsley College and have found it one of the most helpful and insightful books with regard to a growing relationship with Jesus. If you can forgive the ‘americanisms’ (sorry to any Americans reading this!), it’s well worth a read… twice in fact. (I have a bad memory… I’m now 30, remember).

Book title: Weaver J, 2002, “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World” (Waterbrook Press: Colorado Springs)

Subject: Devotional/Christian life

Summary: This book considers the struggle we often face in our Christian life of addressing the balance between work and worship. Weaver neatly sums up the issue when she states that “we want to worship like Mary, but the Martha inside keeps bossing us around.”[1]

The book centres on the passage in Luke 10:38 – 42 and most specifically around the Lord’s words to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”[2] The book follows the spiritual transformation of the two sisters, as they learn to balance work and worship and ends in John 11 and 12, with the death and resurrection of Lazarus and Mary anointing the Lord in Bethany.

Review: Weaver introduces us to the dilemma that many of us often find ourselves in – that often our service for the Lord means that we miss out on really getting to know Him. Weaver emphasises that when we have the correct balance, worship will lead to service – “kitchen service will be the natural result of Living Room Intimacy with God.”[3] She explains that “the better part” is open to all of us i.e. that close relationship with the Lord, but that each of us have to make an active choice to cultivate that relationship.

Weaver considers Martha’s plea to the Lord where she says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” Weaver addresses what she describes as the “Three Deadly Ds of Destruction”[4] which Satan uses to take our eyes off the Lord and to look inwardly toward ourselves. She states that these are “Distraction, Discouragement and Doubt”.[5] She addresses the issue of how my feelings can clash with what we know of the character of God. Weaver shows us that the Lord wants us to be honest with Him about how we are feeling, just as Martha was, but the key to a transformed heart and growing in the knowledge of the Lord is that we listen to Him. Weaver states, “I love the compassion Jesus has in this story. He saw Martha’s situation. He understood her complaint. But he loved her too much to give her what she wanted. Instead, Jesus gave her what she needed – an invitation to draw close to him.”[6]

Weaver considers what is at the heart of Martha’s problem – “…the curse of anxiety. The on-going burden of worry and fear”[7] and this is something I think we can all relate to. She examines how our worry stems from the fact that we do not believe God to be in control. I liked how Weaver constantly goes to bible passages and links these passages with practical application to help the reader address the problem. In relation to the issue of Martha’s anxiety, Weaver uses Philippians 4, within the context of worry, to emphasise the importance of the role of prayer. She writes of the importance of guarding our hearts and mind from Satan and of the active role we must play, through prayer and bible reading/meditation for “the peace of God” to be ours.

She considers that often our service for the Lord becomes laden with “human agendas and expectations”[8] and that “so often we give God the gift we think he needs rather than take time to find out what he desires.”[9] Weaver uses Matthew 11:28 – 29 to demonstrate that the Lord does not want to give us a heavy load, but that we put these expectations on ourselves, rather the one thing He wants is fellowship with us and from that our service will flow. She accurately sums up how we often feel as Christians about having to earn God’s love through our service: “… somewhere along the way, I had twisted God’s love into something I had to earn… But of course I stumbled again and again. Each time it took me weeks to work up enough spiritual brownie points to feel like I was back on God’s side.”[10]

I found the chapter, on what Weaver describes as “kitchen service”, to be challenging as she uses Jesus as our ultimate example to follow, as well as challenging our willingness to allow the Lord to use us in his plans, rather than asking Him to rubberstamp the service we think we should do for Him. She challenges us to serve wherever we are and reminds the reader that “when we surrender ourselves to be used by God, we don’t always get to pick the time, the method… in fact, sometimes, we may find ourselves doing nothing at all – except praying and waiting for God’s leading.”[11]

LORD AT THE CENTRE

At the centre of the book comes Weaver’s main focus – she explains what it is to have the “better part” and that is to have the Lord at the centre of our lives. Weaver succinctly explains how we can achieve the balance between work and worship – she states, “The secret to balancing worship and work, devotion and service, love of God and love of people is maintaining our connection to Jesus Christ. Our relationship with him is the fulcrum, the anchor, the steadying point… and the deeper that relationship goes, the more stable the balance will be.”[12]

Time and time again Weaver emphasises the recurrent themes of prayer, bible reading, journaling and persevering at those things as an act of my will, as the key to “Jesus Christ becom[ing] the steady balance in our life of constant motion.”[13] Weaver states that “the story of Mary and Martha was never meant to be a psychological profile… in which we choose the character with whom we most identify. This is the story of two different responses to one singular occasion. In it, we should find not our personality type, but the kind of heart Christ longs for us to have.”[14] And how do we keep the Lord at the centre of our lives? I loved how Weaver did not in any way give the reader any impression that there was any shortcut to what she describes as “living room intimacy” with the Lord. She states that “the formula for intimacy with God remains the same todays as it has always been:

PRAYER + the WORD + TIME = INTIMACY WITH GOD”[15]

Weaver also stresses that we need to keep short accounts with God in order to maintain our relationship with Him – “conscious repentance leads to unconscious holiness”.[16] I was struck by the simplicity of this once again – these are things that I know, but often find so hard to apply.

Weaver emphasises the importance of having this close relationship with the Lord by using the death of Lazarus to explore how in life things don’t always happen the way we expect them. However this is where “living room intimacy” comes in, because in order to trust God in these times, we must know the character of God.

Weaver demonstrates this by using Martha as an example of someone who has a “teachable heart” and whose knowledge of the character of God has increased since her last encounter with Jesus. Her response of, “Yes, Lord… I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was come into the world” (John 11:27) after the death of Lazarus and Jesus tells her that He is the resurrection and the life demonstrates how she has changed. Weaver explains that in order to have a “transformed heart”, we need to have a “teachable heart” – to be willing to listen, to be obedient to what we hear and respond to discipline. If we are not obedient then Jesus will not reveal Himself to us.

We learn that to have a “Mary heart in a Martha world” is not something that happens overnight, but rather “if we want to be like Jesus, we won’t be able to escape the refining process.”[17] We can see this demonstrated in both the lives of Mary and Martha. Martha had to learn to listen to the Lord and Mary anointed the Lord as an act of “extravagant love”[18] – giving her all for Him in an act of service.

Weaver constantly reiterates the same point that the only way we can partake of “the better part” is to spend time with the Lord – there is no magic formula for this, but prayer and bible study. This book would be good to do as a “one-to-one” study as part of a mentoring programme, or as a small group study, as it has great practical tips on maintaining our relationship with the Lord.

This book has helped me see that while, as Paul says in Philippians, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion”, I still have a responsibility to play an active role in “work[ing] out my salvation” (Philippians 2:12) and to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16) – that comes through spending time with the Lord in prayer and bible reading and letting Him shape my heart to His will, which may be painful at times. However from that “living room intimacy” my service for Him will then flow as an act of worship and not as an obligation.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Weaver J, “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World”, (Waterbrook Press: Colorado Springs), 2.

[2] Luke 10:42

[3] Ibid. 10

[4] Ibid. 17

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 28

[7] Ibid. 31

[8] Ibid. 53

[9] Ibid. 56

[10] Ibid. 45

[11] Ibid. 93

[12] Ibid. 190

[13] Ibid. 116

[14] Ibid. 101

[15] Ibid. 77

[16] Ibid. 80 (Oswald Chambers)

[17] Ibid.195

[18] Ibid. 157