Later today, I’ll be posting a Connected Kingdom podcast in which Tim and I interview Tullian Tchividjian about his new book Glorious Ruin. I have some worries about this book that I put to Tullian in the interview, and which he graciously answered, but in the meantime here’s a fuller explanation of these concerns.
If you’re looking for a book on suffering that offers simplistic answers, easy solutions, five-step formulas, and “pull up your bootstraps” triumphalism, don’t buy Glorious Ruin.
This is a brutally honest book about suffering: its universal reality and agonizing mystery. It calls us to embrace suffering and sufferers, to walk with them in it, and to encounter and enjoy Christ and His Gospel in the crucible. As such it restores a much-needed emphasis in our theology of suffering.
Tullian is right, too often our focus while suffering is on “Why did this happen to me?” and/or “How can I get good out of this?” Instead, Tullian argues that our question should be “Who is God in this?” turning the focus away from ourselves and towards our Savior.
While definitely agreeing with the need to add that third question, I don’t agree with Tullian’s rather dismissive attitude to the first two questions. He does briefly admit that there is a place for them, but the rest of the book mainly critiques them, resulting in imbalance and even confusion.
I’ll come back to this, but first of all let me agree with Tullian as to his diagnosis. He puts his finger on two sinful and damaging responses to suffering: moralizing and minimizing.
Minimizing and Moralizing
Moralizing is our tendency to say that there must be a moral reason for our suffering. Like Job’s friends we think, or even say, “You’re suffering because you sinned.” Who can deny that this is often our default response to others’ pain? We hear of something bad in someone’s life and we think, “They deserved it!” Especially if we don’t like them.
Minimizing can take the form of blowing off the pain with comments like, “Oh, well, it could be worse.” Or, more common in the church, the agony of the suffering is ignored and the focus is on what good results the suffering will bring about.
Tullian argues that both moralizing and minimizing flow from a mistaken “theology of glory,” the idea that God is only present in victory, and that suffering must be viewed as a means to the victorious end of personal growth and progress. Instead, he calls us to a “theology of the cross,” which accepts the suffering, and does not try to trace it to a moral cause, change it, or use it.
Tullian is right to emphasize this. In suffering we are all tempted to moralize or minimize, all with the aim of getting out of this pain as soon as possible. Rarely do we seek God and enjoy Him in the midst of our agony. No, as He must only be on the other side of our ache, we’ve got to escape from the trouble as quickly as possible. As Tullian puts it, by asking only “Why?” and “How?” we forget to ask “Who?” and thereby miss God.
However, while he’s right to include and emphasize the “Who?” question, by virtually ignoring and mainly critiquing the “Why?” and “How?” enquiries, he runs the risk of confusing people, or even limiting the benefit that they can get from suffering.
Although “Why?” and “How?” are sometimes overemphasized to the exclusion of “Who?” the solution is not to overemphasize “Who?” while shrinking “Why?” and “How?” virtually out of sight. Let’s ask all three together. We might get answers to all three. Or God may choose just to answer one, or even none.
Tullian beautifully explains the necessity of asking the “Who?” question and has some wonderful insights into the way we should do this – worth the price of the book in my opinion. Let me, therefore, conclude this review by explaining the necessity of retaining an equal emphasis on the “Why?” and the “How?” questions.
The “Why?” question
Tullian seems anxious to sever any moral link between sin and suffering. While it is definitely wrong to make infallible links between them, God does link them at times and calls us to search for those links as well. That’s the purpose of his Fatherly chastisement – a word and concept that is surprisingly absent from the book.
Tullian does allow for painful consequences to follow from sin (e.g. a drunk gets cirrhosis of the liver), but that mechanistic cause-and-effect analysis is very different to God actively, lovingly, and painfully intervening in our lives to call us away from our sin and to Himself, a practice I’m sure that Tullian himself practices as a loving Father.
The “How?” question”
Again, Tullian is right in saying that an over-hasty run to “How can I get good from this pain?” minimizes the suffering and the potential of learning about God in the suffering.
The Bible, though, does allow and even encourage us to pray, seek, and even work for fruit from our suffering (Heb. 12:10-13, 2 Cor. 3:2-7).
At times Tullian admits that good can come from suffering, but he seems to allow it only if it is not sought for, if it is incidental and almost unconscious; and he seems to limit the fruit to theological knowledge rather than also ethical and moral change in the sufferer.
However, Job used the hope of “coming out of the furnace as gold” to strengthen him and motivate him in his agony (Job 23:10), and Paul expects moral and ethical change to result from our sufferings (Rom. 5:3-5).
I know where Tullian is coming from in his desire to get people away from an exclusive focus on “Why?” and “How?” and to put the “Who?” question center stage. It is well-motivated and pastorally helpful in many situations, especially where there is no answer to “Why?” and “How?”
I also understand that in such a short book, no one could do justice to every aspect of the great mystery of suffering. Tullian admits that his book is limited. However, I think he could have accomplished his goal of getting people more focused on the God who answers the “Who?” question without diminishing and in some ways denouncing the “Why?” and the “How” questions. Can we not add without taking away?
Holding all three together is much more likely to set us free from our sin and liberate us to worship and serve God.