Glorious Ruin: Appreciation and Concerns

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.

Two Theologies
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).

Pastoral heart
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.

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Words of Comfort for Bereaved Parents

Upon the sudden death of his little five-year-old girl, Sophia, William Logan received numerous letters of sympathy from friends that he had met as a Town and Country Missionary in the UK in the 1800′s.

After carefully reading each one and enjoying the soothing words, he carefully set them aside. As the pile grew, however, he realized that there were many similarly bereaved parents that could benefit from such letters but were not likely to receive anything like the quantity or quality.

He extracted a few passages and had them published anonymously in a public journal and then in a four-page tract. When these extracts had such a beneficial effect, Logan began to collect similar literature and eventually published a 400-page book entitled Words of Comfort for Parents Bereaved of Little Children, including extracts from Hugh Miller, Ebenezer Erskine, Thomas Guthrie, etc. Many pastors welcomed the brief letters and extracts as much better suited to mourners than a long and continuous treatment.

As John Ker’s Introduction explains, “The origin of the book is noteworthy as an instance of the manner in which God often makes a personal sorrow the means of benefit, not merely to the sufferer but to others. It came from the heart of one who had found consolation for his heart in sympathy, and who thought of guiding fellow mourners to the same comforts with which he himself had been comforted of God.”

You can access the full text of Words of Comfort on Google books, but here are some noteworthy extracts. (UPDATE: The John Ker introduction is not in the Google books version, and the page numbers in the e-version are sometimes different to my book).

Sustaining then delivering
[His manner is to] show His power in sustaining before He shows it in delivering. This is the order of the old promise, “I will be with thee, in trouble I will deliver thee.” It is the rule of the furnace to walk with His friends in it before He brings them forth; and it is His course with His disciples in the storm: He did not calm the tempest when He was outside the ship, but came into it to tranquillize their hearts, and then He rebuked the waves and brought them to their desired haven (John Ker, xxiv)

Two ways of relieving pain
1. The one is to send our thoughts within the veil to dwell upon  the exceeding joy of that world into which our Christian friends have entered; its freedom from care and sorrow and sin, its nearness to the open face of Christ, and its fellowship with the blessed God. As our souls are elevated by this companionship, we become more unselfish, and are glad for our friends’ sakes that they are there.

2. The other is to be striving for ourselves to live closer to Christ, as the Lord both of the living and the dead. Every step nearer Him, every new attainment in His knowledge and grace, is a step nearer to our departed friends – a feather in the wing that bears us to them.

We can go to the other world and find our Christian friends with Him, and we can bring Him to this world and surround ourselves with the thoughts and hopes of them in our daily walk (John Ker, xxvi).

Less merciful? Never!
We shall never believe that heaven has made him less merciful than when he took the children in his arms and blessed them (John Ker, xxix).

A safely folded lamb
It is well with Sophia! She has gone to glory; and is now a safely folded lamb. The good Shepherd has taken her to Himself. You will greatly miss her, but your treasure is in heaven; and God has counted you worthy to have treasure there. You will find not the lost, but the living and redeemed one again: she is in good keeping.

Yes, your dear child is better occupied now than ever she could have been here. You closed her eyes upon all this world’s miseries and deep heart-sorrows; and she has already acquired more knowledge than she could have done in this world, though she had lived to close your eyes in death. She is crowned – she is folded – safely gathered and housed; and could you hear her speak, she would say to mother and yourself, “Weep not!” and that voice would have all the sweetness of an angel’s, and all the tenderness of your own Sophia, now glorified, redeemed, happy – infinitely happy. In taking your dear child, God has honoured you – blessed her beyond what we can express – glorified Himself – and added another gem to the Saviour’s crown, another lamb to His flock in glory, another lily to His paradise above, another happy spirit to the redeemed throng – and in doing so He has been but fulfilling His own promise: “With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought: they shall enter into the King’s palace” (A. W., Glasgow, 47-48).

Wide awake
She is not lost, but gone before. The child is not dead, but sleepeth: or, rather, is wide awake to the blessed reality of glory, honour, and immortality. She is now rejoicing in the smile of Him who said to you, as you clung to the departing object of your affections, as truly as He said to the disciples of old: “Suffer the little one to come unto me.” It is His prerogative – and oh, what a comfort to the Christian parent to realize this clearly! – to “gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom.” He has use for them in heaven. If aged saints there are stars in His diadem, young spirits, gathered thither in the bud, by virtue of His atoning merits, cluster like a garland of beauty around Him. We speak of getting our children settled in life; but how poor at the best is the meaning of this phrase compared with the plenitude of glorious significance it has in reference to the present circumstances of our beloved children, now settled in life in the loftiest sense – exempted henceforth from all evil of every kind, and of all liability thereto, and confirmed in holiness and in happiness throughout eternal ages! It only remains for you to say with David, “We shall go to her, but she shall not return to us” and by faith, patience, resignation, and prayer for fresh supplies of that Spirit whose name is “the Comforter” to bow to “the mighty hand of God, and He will exalt you in due time” (J. G., Glasgow, 48).

Meeting on the golden streets
I also have two daughters in heaven. Both died only four months old! They are now pure and perfect – and blessed spirits before the throne. It is very likely they have met your child upon the golden streets of the celestial city (A.F., Finsbury Chapel, London, 52).

She was but a loan – her work was finished. You are not called to sorrow as those who have no hope. Her death has made a deep impression on my own mind. It is only four months since my daughter Mary died – Sophia’s nurse. Their hearts were warmly united together: they were “lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in death they were not (long) divided” (J. R., Dumfriesshire, 52).

Heaven beautified
If the child’s absence makes your home look more desolate than it used to be, heaven has been rendered more than correspondingly rich and attractive. And what untold influence is brought to bear upon you to seek a better country, when to the voice of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, there is added that of your completely holy and happy child, saying, “Be ye followers of them who, through faith and patience, now inherit the promises!” ­(W. W., Langholm, Dumfriesshire, 53).

Powerful fullness
I never saw such a fulness, nor felt such a power in the following text, as when called to part with a lovely daughter of five years of age, viz. “All things work together for good to them that love God” (W. R., Bury, Lancashire, 54).

Tied to the world of spirits
I trust that you will find the consolations that are in Christ Jesus abounding to you, and that you will learn to say, “It is well.” You have one tie more to the world of spirits, and one tie less to the world of bodies (J. M., Glasgow, 42).

Absent from the body
The widowed mother had the little body bestrewed with beautiful flowers, and, being of intense sensibility, could not reconcile her feelings to part with the remains, until I brought, as vividly as I could before her mind, that it was not her son whom we were about to bury. Her son was ABSENT from the body and PRESENT with the Lord. It was but the dust which we were about to commit reverently and lovingly to the kindred dust. She grasped afresh the glorious reality, and was stayed! (G.G., Dundee, 54).

Scythe and dew
This week last year, my heart was first called to bleed under a stroke similar to your own. It is when the land is most weary, that “the shadow of the great Rock” is broadest, coolest, sweetest! And it is where the scythe of death has been, that the dews of the Comforter come most copiously down. With so many ties less to earth, and so many treasures more in heaven, let us live devoted to Him who died devoted for us! (J. R., Newington, Edinburgh, 55).

They love us still
Forget not that heaven is not a place where hearts grow cold. The departed ones love us still. They have lost nothing but the sorrows and infirmities which excited our compassion whilst they were with us. They form part of the “great cloud of witnesses.” Jesus is the connecting link between them and us (J. D. B., Bradford, 44).

Consummated happiness
Their education is completed: they know as they are known. Their holiness is perfected: they are holy as God is holy. Their happiness is consummate (John Macfarlane, London, 96).

Busy angels
How shall the mother recognize her son, who departed from her an emaciated infant, in yonder angelic form in the vigour and brilliancy of resurrection manhood. ­ And how shall the father, who wept bitter tears in secret over his daughter’s decrepitude, distinguish her in yonder seraph of celestial grace ­ What mean you, friends? ­ You surely cannot wish to meet your children in that plight of wretchedness in which you bade them farewell, so that, unassisted, you could of yourselves recognize them. The Lord will provide: but methinks it will, probably, be a busy day for those good angels who ministered to us on earth, finding us out for one another, and introducing us. Remembering how they had seen us grieve for one another, how sympathetically they will enjoy the scene, as we stand amazed for a while at one another’s glory before we embrace!

Nor will it be with little excitement that they hasten to meet you, their brothers and sisters, with whom they may associate and worship, as being more of their own nature than any others to be found in all the kingdom (Wm. Anderson, Glasgow, 100).

Flower-planting gravedigger (with some translation)
Mr Gray the Parish minister came across the gravedigger, John Brown, smoothing and trimming the lowly bed of a child which had been buried a few days before, he asked him why he was so particular in dressing and keeping the graves of the children. John paused for a moment at his work, and looking up, not at the minister, but at the sky, said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

“And on this account you tend and adorn them with so much care,” remarked the minister, who was greatly struck with the reply.

“Surely, sir,” answered John, “I canna make ower braw and fine [I can't make too beautiful] the bed-coverin’ o’ a little innocent sleeper that is waitin’ there till it is God’s time to wauken it [waken it] and cover it with the white robe, and waft it away to glory. When sic [such] grandeur is awaitin’ it yonder, it’s fit it should be decked oot [out] here. I think the Saviour that counts its dust sae precious will like to see the white clover sheet spread abunde’t [about it]; dae ye no think sae, sir?”

But why not thus cover larger graves?” asked the minister, hardly able to suppress his emotion. “The ‘dust of all His saints is precious in the Saviour’s sight.”

“Very true, sir,” responded John, with great solemnity “but I canna be sure wha are his saints wha are noo [who are his saints and who are not]. I hope there are mony [many] o’ them lyin’ in this kirkyard; but it wad be great presumption in me to mark them oot [out]. There are some that I’m gey sure aboot [very sure about], and I keep their graves as nate and snod [neat and tidy] as I can, and plant a bit floure [flower] here and there as a sign o’ my hope; but I daurna gie [dare not give] them the white sheet. It’s clean different, tho’, wi’ the bairns [infants]. We hae His ain [have his own] word for their up-going, and sae I canna mak’ an error there” (108-109).

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What a difference a day makes
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The science behind how your productivity is chosen by what you eat
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Brothers, we are not professors
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Kingdom through Covenant: A Review
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Positive Leadership: Courageous and Compassionate

Courageous Leadership

A fearful leader is not a leader. I’m not saying a leader never fears. Of course he does. I wouldn’t follow anyone who never felt afraid. Such a man is not brave but a fool. When I say “a fearful leader is not a leader,” I’m describing someone who is characterized by fear, overwhelmed with fear, never gets past fear, is dominated by fear, and makes decisions based on fear.

A positive leader is someone who fears but doesn’t stop there, paralyzed and useless. Rather, he takes his fear to the Lord, confesses it, seeks courage to overcome it and to act bravely.

Animals can smell fear. But so can humans! People will be able to tell when cowardice is dominating and directing your decisions, words and actions. They will smell the fear behind your favoritism, excuses, and waffle. They will lose respect for you, stop following you, and even start intimidating you. That’s why I said, “A fearful leader is not a leader.” No one is following him, regardless of his title.

If we focus on pastoral ministry, courageous leadership is demonstrated in evangelism, in preaching the whole counsel of God, in dealing with discipline cases without prejudice, in reforming the church, and in taking unpopular stands against sin in the church and in the world.

Compassionate Leadership

This vision of positive leadership may have built up a caricature in your mind of a person who is self-assured, self-confident, and maybe a bit self-centered. However, I want to demolish that by emphasizing lastly that a positive leader is a caring and compassionate person. He is not self-centered but other-centered.

Speaking of pastors in particular, I’ve seen people try to lead congregations through preaching alone; leading from the pulpit. Others have tried to lead through being effective administrators; leading from the computer, you might say. Still others have tried to lead through their growing international reputation; leading a local congregation through non-local accomplishment.  And then of course there are the dictators; leading through tyrannical abuse of power.

However, none of these work long-term. A positive leader is out among his people, present with them, caring for them, and providing for them. And that’s not just when illness, bereavement, or problems arise; that would be reactive leadership. No, positive leadership means getting out in front of the problems and trials, getting to know people in the calm, not just appearing in the storm. It’s building relationships over years so that trust and credibility is present when the real difficulties do arise. The positive leader is not just waiting for trouble, he’s positively investing in lives and families over the long-term.

Previous posts in the Positive Leadership series:

  1. Cheerful leadership
  2. Climbing Leadership
  3. Confident Leadership
  4. Clear Leadership
  5. Communicative Leadership

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