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Tim Challies

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suffering

2 years 5 months ago
Some of the best writing, the writing that is most heartfelt and true, finds it source in life’s deepest valleys. This is exactly the case with Michael Kelley’s Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal.

Wednesdays were normal days for the Kelley family until they received the shocking news that their son Joshua, just two years old, had been diagnosed with leukemia. The normal life of this normal family was suddenly turned all around and upside down as their little boy battled for his life. The happy ending is that he won that battle and today is a healthy and growing boy. The journey, the subject of this book, is all the Wednesdays and other days between the diagnosis and the declaration that he is cancer-free at last. 

There are books that are good at asking questions and books that are good at answering them but not so many that bring strength to both questions and answers. The joy of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal is that it does both well, rather a rare combination. While this book has several notable strengths, allow me to point to just a couple of them.

The first has to do with the author’s authenticity. Kelley asks the kinds of questions that so many parents may grapple with as they struggle through the reality of pain and disease and the very real possibility that their child may not live to celebrate his next birthday. This is not an abstract or academic discussion of suffering, but one that is authentic in every detail. Kelley invites the reader into his family’s journey in both its highs and lows. Where he did well, he describes success, and where he did poorly, he describes failure. He humbly allows the reader to see both and through it all labors to point beyond himself.

The second strength has to do with the answers to those questions. The answers Kelley provides are satisfying and helpful because they are consistently rooted in Scripture. He affirms what is true and doesn’t let himself drift into easy answers or rebellion or outright defiance of God. Instead he reminds himself—and reminds the reader—that what God says is true, that even in the darkest valley God is still God and he is still good. He does not describe suffering divorced from theology but suffering deeply rooted within it. This allows the answers to be helpful, so deep and real. It allows this to be the kind of book you will want to read in your own dark valleys or give to those who are in their own.

 

(You may also want to consider How Long, O Lord by D.A. Carson or Written in Tears by Luke Veldt)

3 years 5 months ago
We should not be surprised that we are tempted and tried. After all, if temptation existed in a perfect world, in a sinless world, how much more will it exist in a world that is full of sin. Even the best of us, or perhaps especially the best of us are far from immune. After all, Christ himself was tempted by the devil. These temptations form the structure within Russell Moore’s new book Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ.

Let me say from the outset that it took this book to show me what a talented writer Russell Moore is. I have read Adopted for Life and have followed his blog for several years. Yet I found myself surprised by just what a sharp, witty, insightful writer he is. And I mean that. I read and even enjoy quite a lot of books written by average or good writers. It was a genuine pleasure to read a book written by so talented an author.

What Moore seeks to do in this book is demonstrate how the ways in which Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness reveal strategies he will use to tempt all of us. He applies these lessons to contemporary situations, showing that Satan’s designs have not changed much and, in fact, have not had to change much. He and his minions have made a long and thorough study of human nature and are well-versed in our weaknesses. And so they continue to attack through temptation.

This is the point in the review where I guess I need to summarize the content of the book and then tell you why you need to buy it (or why you don’t need to buy it). In this case I consider Tempted and Tried nearly a must-read. I can’t imagine a person who wouldn’t benefit in some way. But rather than employ my usual pattern I thought I’d share what a few other people have said about the book. Why? Because this book left a deep personal impression upon me and I can see that it has done so with others. And I am intrigued by this.

Here is what one person said: “This book is realistic and honest about sin and evil, but more than anything it gloriously sets forth Jesus as the Devil-smashing Victor that he is.” Another one recommends, “Read it. Search your heart. Pray for grace. And join the fight.” Still another says that “struggling Saints everywhere need to read this book.” I agree entirely. Why? I can think of two reasons. The first is that we will all be tempted and we do well to learn how to identify and how to overcome temptation. The second is to learn that temptation is not a sin. There is great comfort in knowing that temptation is universal and not necessarily a sign of a sinful life.

So what can I say? Read this book. Read it for the good of your soul. I loved it and found immediate benefit in my life as evidenced, perhaps, by the fact that it has already generated a couple of articles here at the blog (An Image Naked Enough & Your Desires). Learn from Moore as teaches how Satan shapes his temptation and how it can be overcome through the power given to us through the cross of Christ.

3 years 6 months ago

Sunday, August 27, 2006, the sun beats down steadily but not oppressively on the streets of Pamplona. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in Spain, the kind of day siestas were made for.

The traffic on the streets—if you can call the occasional car “traffic”—is also lazy, relaxed and unhurried, with one exception. A silver van speeds down the avenue, pausing only briefly before shooting through a red light.

In the back of the van a young girl is spread out across the seat, her head cradled in her mother’s arms. “I need you to breathe, Allison!” the woman says. “Keep breathing!” But Allison is breathing, the deep breathing that’s past sleep, the coma from which she will not wake up. Or perhaps she has already awakened; perhaps, somewhere between the house and the hospital, her soul slipped away from the presence of her panicked parents and into the calm presence of her Father.

The sun shines on a lazy afternoon in Pamplona as the girl’s parents speed down the road toward the end of their world.


So begins Luke Veldt’s Written in Tears. That young girl was Allison Veldt, Luke’s thirteen year-old daughter. This book is a journey through the aftermath of that sudden, shocking, unexpected death. Left reeling after Allison died, Veldt found himself looking for answers and for comfort in the words of the Bible. Despite being a pastor and church planter, a man who knows his Bible well, he was still surprised by what he found in God’s Word. As he says in the opening pages of his book, “It took the death of my daughter for me to begin to understand the love of God.”

After Allison’s death, Veldt turned to Psalm 103 and he read it again and again. He read it every day for more than a year. And through that psalm he experienced God’s presence. This book, a short but powerful little volume, shares many of the lessons the Lord taught him through his grief.

One of the most compelling lessons he teaches is that there is a time for less (but better) theology and more presence in the midst of grief. Veldt says “I haven’t been elected as a spokesman for the suffering, but I’ll offer my opinion anyway: what we want is better theology, and less of it.” In the midst of the deepest grief it wasn’t answers he wanted; he wanted Allison back. “Answers, even if I could get them, would not dispel my grief; answers are a poor substitute for a daughter. It wasn’t an answer we were lacking, but a presence, a person. And you can’t replace a person with a doctrine. So the presence of God, while not the presence we were craving, was the right sort of response. It was more a hug than a word of wisdom. And as in the case of all of those struck with brief, a hug was what we needed most.”

Though I have never suffered the loss of a child or any other great loss, still this book had a lot to teach me. It taught me how to suffer well, it gave me confidence that when called upon to suffer the Lord will be present with me, and it taught me how to mourn with those who mourn. There are three emphases that stood out to me: The nature and character of God; the purpose of God in suffering and disability; and the importance of loving those who suffer.

Rather than write at length about a short book, let me share just a few meaningful quotes:

I hope. I believe. I know. I think. That hope is my anchor, the one certainty in an unsure world; it’s the huge gamble on which I’ve staked my life. Some days I’m as sure of it as I am of the ground I’m standing on. On other days, I wonder if I’m just trying to talk myself into something.

Sometimes people of faith have a hard time remembering that suffering was an excruciatingly painful process for Job. ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord,’ we quote Job brightly—forgetting that when he said it he had shaved his head and torn his clothes and that a few days later he was sitting on an ash heap, covering in painful boils and cursing the day he was born.

What those who have suffered loss understand is that … fears are not irrational. We know that a 99.9 percent survival rate means a devastating loss for one family out of a thousand, and that your love of God is no guarantee against that one family being yours. We come up against the indisputable conclusion that the faith we were resting in before was based largely not on the providence of God but on statistics.

I believe that God is good.

I don’t believe that it’s appropriate for you to tell for you to tell me so when my daughter dies.

When my daughter dies, it’s my job to tell you that God is good. Until I can do that, don’t be like Job’s friends. Offer your support, and wait in silence.

Don’t try to make the pain go away. The pain doesn’t go away. Hurt with me.

The … reason you should hesitate to share your thoughts on suffering with grieving friends is that they may already understand it better than you do, may be experiencing it at a level you have not, may be asking better questions and demanding better answers. It’s not that the information you have to offer is necessarily wrong; it just may not be relevant. Maybe you should be listening to your friend instead of offering advice.

There are many more I could point to. Many more. In a few cases the value of the book is not so much in the answers or possible answers Veldt provides, but in standing alongside him as he reaches those answers—in being with him through that process. It was valuable for me to be allowed into his grief, into his attempts to find hope and meaning in the midst of his suffering. Through it all I learned that God is good, that his character remains steadfast in joy and trial, that God is no less God in grief than in good times.

Who is this book for? This book is for all of us, whether we suffer or whether we know people who suffer (or both). “This book is not about how I got through grief, how I got over the loss of Allison and went on to lead a normal life. Sorrow is my normal life now. We still grieve; two years after Allison’s death, we still don’t sleep well. You don’t get over the loss of a child—ever. Nor would I want to. My grief reminds me that Allison was important, and losing her an irreplaceable loss. … This book is about how I came to know God better, not just despite my loss, but because of it. It’s written in the hope that the things I learned and the comfort I experienced will be of help in your life as well.” That hope will be realized whether you suffer or whether you seek to comfort those who suffer.

This book showed up unsolicited and nearly unnoticed. I almost didn’t read it; I’m very glad I did. It’s a powerful little book and one I am glad to commend to you.

I come to the end of this review and realize that I haven’t even begun to tell you how much I enjoyed Written in Tears. This book has been on my mind and heart since I read the first page. It has given me so much to meditate upon, so much to absorb into my life. I cannot easily communicate how that is the case. All I can do is once more commend it to you and suggest you read it as well. Maybe you will find it just as helpful.

Note: If you are interested but undecided, you may like to download the Introduction and first chapter.

5 years 7 months ago
In July of 1984, when Jennifer Thompson was a twenty-three year old college student, a man broke into her apartment while she slept and raped her at knifepoint. She was eventually able to escape from him and later identified her attacker as Ronald Cotton. Though Ronald insisted that he was innocent, he was taken to court and, primarily on the basis of Jennifer’s identification of her assailant, sentenced to a life behind prison bars. Eleven years later, Cotton was allowed to take a DNA test, taking advantage of this new technology. The test proved his innocence. For more than a decade he had been behind bars for a crime he had not committed. Two years later, Donald and Jennifer met face-to-face and began a very unlikely friendship. Picking Cotton is their story.

This book is co-authored by Jennifer and Ronald (with the assistance of Erin Torneo). It follows an interesting and effective pattern with Jennifer narrating events up to the end of the trial, and then Ronald picking up the story, going over the trial from his perspective and describing those eleven long years in prison. In the third part, Jennifer and Ronald write together, alternating chapters as the narrative turns toward Ronald’s life after prison and Jennifer’s life after discovering her tragic error. In this third part we hear about what is really the heart of this story—their reconciliation. Despite what he had been through, Ronald never harbored resentment against Jennifer. When they finally decided to meet, he immediately and unreservedly forgave Jennifer for her mistake.

I suppose it is bad form to criticize a book for what it is not but in this case I cannot help myself. The one element I found unfortunate is that never do we hear any reflection on this story and its characters from a distinctly Christian perspective. We hear a psychological and medical perspective on why Jennifer chose the wrong man as her assailant; but never do we hear the Bible’s perspective on repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. The authors write a little bit of relationships with God, but only sparingly. This is not in any way a “Christian” book.

Except one, perhaps. We do see a great example of how a man can unreservedly forgive somebody who has wronged him and how he can release any kind of bitterness; we see a woman who has wronged another person seeking his forgiveness; and we see true reconciliation between the offended and the offender—reconciliation that creates a new relationship and a new friendship. In this way we see just a glimpse, a shadow, of the gospel message of the Bible that tells us how God offers free forgiveness and full reconciliation to those who have offended him with their sin.

I must warn that this book is quite graphic. It describes Jennifer’s attack in some detail—detail that was necessary to build a case against her attacker in one way or another, but detail that is difficult to read. The description of the court case brings some new facts to light and is also heart-rending. And Ronald’s time in prison is also covered with frankness, bringing to light the kind of behavior that often happens in prisons. In both cases the authors must have felt such detail was necessary and perhaps they are right; but it does mean at the very least that this book is not one you would want to give to a younger reader. There are also a few occasions where you’ll find some strong language (again, mostly while describing time behind bars).

I first read about Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton in Chris Braun’s excellent book Unpacking Forgiveness where their story is front and center in chapter 1. It is a powerful story and one that deserves to be told. I do wish the authors had been able to tell the story just a little bit less graphically and had they been able to, I would be more comfortable recommending it. As it stands, I can recommend it only in light of the cautions in the paragraph above.

 

6 years 5 days ago

You do not need to live long in this world before you will accumulate a nearly endless list of people to whom you owe forgiveness. Even young children quickly begin to sin against others and have to ask forgiveness (just as my two-year old had to seek forgiveness from her sister yesterday for tearing a page from her new Bible). And though Christians speak often of forgiveness extended to them by God, they speak far less often of forgiveness offered to others. In Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns provides “biblical answers for complex questions and deep wounds.” And really it is only God’s word that can unpack forgiveness, offering hope for true and lasting healing.

Brauns offers teaching on forgiveness that counters much of the mainstream of Evangelical thought. Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in his discussion about the conditional nature of forgiveness. Where we are accustomed to Christians “forgiving” any and everyone, perhaps standing outside the scene of a school shooting with signs saying, “We forgive you,” Brauns shows that this is not true forgiveness in a biblical sense. He distinguishes between a kind of therapeutic forgiveness that may make us feel better, and a genuine forgiveness that actually brings about reconciliation.

The book is packed with illustrations, many of which are heartbreaking. You will read some stories that have been widely reported in the media (such as the story of the Willis family whose six children were killed in a van accident caused by a manufacturing defect) and others that will be new to you. But through each of the stories you will see remarkable examples of Christians both extending and receiving forgiveness.

Brauns roots the human pattern of forgiveness in the divine model given to us by God. He offers the key principle that God expects believers to forgive others in the way that he forgave them. How, then, does God forgive? Brauns defines God’s forgiveness in this way: “A commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.” We see that God’s forgiveness is gracious but not free; it is conditional (meaning that only those who repent and believe are forgiven); it lays the groundwork for reconciliation; and it does not eliminate all consequences. And this model of forgiveness, exemplified so clearly and so amazingly in the cross, is the pattern we are to imitate. Human forgiveness, then, is “a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and so to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.”

The book continues into areas of application, asking when it is appropriate to simply overlook an offense and offering principles on how to actually go about seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. Brauns offers biblical wisdom on what to do if you find that you simply cannot forgive and he provides principles on responding to the unrepentant. He writes about bitterness, about the inability to get over a wrong committed and about those times that Christians simply cannot agree. A useful Appendix includes a grab-bag of questions and answers, and valuable ones at that (How can I be sure that God has forgiven me? How can I forgive myself? Should adultery always be confessed?).

There are few things more unnatural and few things more holy than forgiveness. Living as we do in a fallen world, we are given endless opportunities both to extend and to seek forgiveness. In Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns eschews the easy answers and looks to the Bible to provide God’s wisdom on how and when we are to forgive. Relying on his experience as a pastor and on his deep knowledge of Scripture, he provides what is a logical, well-illustrated book on the subject. With humor at times and appropriate gravitas at others, Brauns leads the reader first to understand and then to apply what the Bible teaches on forgiveness. Because it deals biblically with a subject of universal importance, any reader can benefit from reading Unpacking Forgiveness. I recommend that you do just that. This is an excellent book you will not want to overlook.

6 years 1 month ago
I grew up in a stable family and in a church community of stable families. Divorce was almost unknown among the Christians I knew as a child. But as I looked to friends and family outside the bounds of the church I saw many broken homes. My parents let us see these families and I think they wanted us to see them as an object lesson in the reality that God is the one who had bound our family together and the one we would trust to always keep it bound together. It is a sad reality, though, that many families and almost a majority of families are immediately affected by divorce. It is sadder still that Christian families are by no means immune.

Kristine Steakley came from such a broken home. Here is how she begins her new book Child of Divorce, Child of God:

Three-year-old Krissy stands at the window, her mom by her side. Outside, Krissy’s dad drives away in his car while Krissy and Mom wave goodbye. It sounds like a common enough memory—and it would be, except that it is the only memory Krissy will ever have of her mom and dad together.

More than thirty years later, that memory still makes my heart weep for the child I was. That was me, waving goodbye to Daddy.

 

In this book, just published by IVP Books, she writes about the challenges, both emotional and spiritual, that face adult children of divorce. Do note that this is not a book written specifically for parents of broken families or for young children, but for grown children who have experienced divorce as part of their childhood. By telling her own story, Steakley describes the difficulties faced by many adults who once saw their families fall apart. And while she describes honestly the inevitable challenges, she offers hope—the hope given to us through the God who cares, the God who is the Father to the Fatherless and the healer of broken hearts.

The pain of divorce and its wide-ranging implications do not end with the dawn of adulthood. Instead, the hurt may continue indefinitely and, unless dealt with in God’s way, may never go away. And so this book deals with a wide range of issues: the acknowledgment that God is compassionate and tender and wants to help with deep hurts; that God is faithful even when others have proven they are unfaithful; that children of divorce carry heavy burdens that God wishes to help carry; that God’s love sustains and overcomes natural inabilities; that God is the source of peace and security; that God can restore hope and joy; that there is purpose in suffering and that God is able to help children of divorce be more than mere statistics; that God expects His people to extend forgiveness and to let go of bitterness. The overall message is that God is sovereign and that God is love. He is the source of all true healing.

The author’s pattern throughout the book is simple and effective; she describes one of these issues particular to children of divorce and brings Scripture to bear on them. And she does so with clarity and with great effectiveness. Throughout she seeks to have the reader experience the hope and healing that comes from knowing the depth of God’s love. And she seeks to have the reader, who is intimately familiar with the pain of broken homes, become an advocate for families. “I pray that all of us would become advocates and intercessors for other families in trouble. I pray that we would stand firmly on the side of marriage, encourage others to honor and cherish their spouses, and live our own lives in ways that uphold biblical standards. I pray that, on behalf of other children of divorce who may not have a voice, we would speak out about the heartache we have experienced and the incredible hope and healing we have found in Christ. I pray that we would find ways to reach out to the families in our own churches and communities that have been touched by divorce. When we do these things, we redeem the tragedy of divorce that struck our family, turning it into something that brings hope to others and glory to God.”

I noted just a couple of downsides to the book. First, I would have liked to see perhaps just a little bit more emphasis on the gospel. This is not to say that the gospel was absent from the book but I’m not sure it maintained quite the centrality it might have had. Second, I would caution readers against the author’s advice that they read John Eldredge’s book The Journey of Desire when considering hopes and dreams. And finally, the issue of conditional versus unconditional forgiveness arose in my mind as she described the importance of extending forgiveness. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more on forgiving those who seek no forgiveness and perhaps the difference between offering forgiveness and actually granting forgiveness.

Overall, Child of Divorce, Child of God is an excellent book and one I would not hesitate to recommend. I am grateful to God that I am not the book’s primary audience, but am still grateful that I read it. It has given me a valuable window into the challenges faced by those who come from broken families and how they may carry deep wounds into adulthood. It has strengthened my resolve that I must do all that is necessary to protect my own marriage. And it has shown me the incredible centrality of the family in God’s plan for people and thus the heartbreaking tragedy that is divorce.

7 years 2 months ago

Delighting in God’s sovereignty, even through affliction.

I typically post a new book review here every Tuesday morning. But because I was so excited by the book I planned on reviewing this week, I thought I would break with tradition and post this review a day early.

Polishing God’s Monuments was an unexpected surprise. A book that arrived (as do so many others) without any fanfare, I quickly skimmed the four endorsements and paused only when I saw Bruce Ware’s name and his claim that this title is “so gripping and moving and inspiring that one cannot put the book down.” Based on my respect for Bruce Ware, on the enthusiasm of his endorsement and on the track record of the publisher, Shepherd Press, I decided I should at least give the book a try. Am I ever glad I did!

Polishing God’s Monuments is the story of a young woman and her devoted husband who have faced a lifetime of mysterious, devastating illness. Written by Jim Andrews, the young woman’s father, the book intersperses narrative with teaching, experience with theology.

When she was young, just a senior at Wheaton Conservatory of Music, Juli Andrews contracted mononucleosis. Though mono is not usually a devastating or long-lasting illness, in Juli’s case it set in motion a bizarre series of events that culminated in her being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (now referred to as Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome) and eventually a horrifying accompanying disease known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. This is an affliction that causes some patients, and Juli among them, to become extremely sensitive to chemicals that do not bother most other people. Paul, Juli’s husband, contracted mononucleosis and then CFS at around the same time as his new wife. The young family was devastated.

Juli’s condition left her in terrible condition, unable to care for herself and often unable to do even the simplest things. Her chemical sensitivities rendered her unable to handle even the fainest smell of perfume or the chemicals used in inks and fabrics. Eventually she even developed extreme sensitivity to light, to the chlorine in water and even to the presence of electricity, leaving her lying day after day in the cold and the dark. Her disease left her unable to live even a semblance of a normal life for year after year. But through it all her husband tended to her, cared for her, and searched far and wide for something, anything, that might alleviate her condition.

This is the story Andrews tells in this book. A pastor for the last seventeen years and a seminary professor before that, the bulk of the narrative comes in the form of letters he wrote to his congregation to keep them updated on the drama of Juli’s life. But woven between these touching letters is straightforward theology—biblical reflections on the nature of suffering, the character of God, and the important discipline of looking to what God has done in the past to remind us of His faithfulness in the present and the future. That discipline, which Andrews refers to as “Polishing God’s Monuments,” gives title to the book.

Andrews writes about suffering from the perspective of one who has seen suffering in a close and personal way and one who has suffered by watching and participating in the afflictions of the ones he loves. He writes well and in a way that equally affects the heart and the mind. The following is drawn from the web site of Lake Bible Church where Andrews is pastor:

Though some think of Jim as a cerebral preacher, he is not your typical academic. True to his down-to-earth “country roots,” he comes to the pulpit with a dead-on, look-you-in-the-eye, tell-it-like-it is prophetic style that never hesitates to go toe-to-toe with the conscience. As he himself describes his preaching philosophy, he strives in the pulpit “to herd biblical truth and the issues of life into violent collision at the intersections of the mind and heart.” Jim models that old adage that sees the preacher’s job as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” He candidly explains that his ministry is not for “navel gazers, but for star gazers.”

Those collisions between truth and life at the intersections of the mind and heart are evident throughout the book. He constantly shows how truth must prevail even when it seems impossible. And he writes the book in such a way that it must bring comfort to those who are suffering while at the same time afflicting the hearts and consciences of those who are far too comfortable.

As long as the Lord tarries we will all suffer. Whether we suffer through disease or persecution or just the difficult situations that come with this life, suffering is inevitable and unavoidable. Though we do all we can to alleviate and avoid it, we know it is always lurking, always waiting to show it’s ugly face. It does us good to be prepared and to arm ourselves in advance with good theology regarding sin, suffering and the sovereignty of God. Though our doctrine will always be perfected in the midst of the battle, it is nevertheless wise to be prepared. This book brought me face-to-face with the sovereignty of God not despite suffering, but in the very midst of heart-rending suffering, arming me for the suffering that I know must come. I learned from the faith of this family that God has allowed to suffer—I learned that God is faithful to His promises, that He is sovereign, that He is sufficient, and that He can bring joy through even the greatest pain.

There are at least two potential dangers in writing a book in this format, alternating between narrative and theology. The first is that the story may so overshadow the teaching that the teaching gets lost in the narrative. Alternatively, the teaching can so overshadow the story that the narrative seems to be little more than a desperate attempt to lend credibility to what is taught. Andrews strikes a near-perfect balance between these, using the narrative to springboard useful, biblical discussion of serious issues.

So how do we keep the faith, sunny side up, in the face of this maddening mystery side of God? And how can we “recommend” a walk with God when, frankly, he seems to have abandoned us to wallow in our pain, to have shut his ears to our pleas, and to have heartlessly left the scene of the accident? What is an honest saint to do when God appears either indifferent or impotent?

This book confronts these issues head-on and offers believers in despair biblical perspective and practical direction that should reinvigorate the spirit of all who will regularly heed and apply them. It is about walking with God in times of trouble, about being tested to our socks, about what to do when extreme pressure threatens our very faith. And for illustrative purposes, it is about the multi-layered afflictions of a young woman, my younger daughter, and her devoted husband, who have faced it all (and then some) as a baffling, mind-boggling illness hijacked their youth and shattered their dreams.

 

As I closed the cover on this book, 294 pages (yet only one day) after beginning, it struck me that this is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I skimmed back through my files to see how many other books I’ve read in 2007 and can see that it is at least sixty or seventy. So it’s no small thing to realize that this is one of the best. I simply can’t recommend Polishing God’s Monuments too highly. I wholeheartedly agree with Bruce Ware who writes, “To enter into this theological reflection on suffering is to accept the challenge to grow deeply in Christ, and to cherish the sure and certain promise of the gospel.” This book gripped my heart and helped me cherish the promises of the gospel like few books I’ve read recently. I commend it to you, trusting you will benefit from it as I have. Perhaps the greatest tribute I can render Polishing God’s Monuments is this: I read almost 300 pages about suffering and pain, yet closed the book with tears of joy in my eyes, rejoicing at the greatness of our sovereign and gracious God.

7 years 12 months ago

Wednesday October 25, 2006

Humor: Phil Johnson shares a humorous story about getting in trouble after a Starbucks craving.

Law: In a rather disgusting abuse of the law, an American judge has chosen to punish a pervert by banishing him to Canada. The “Toronto Sun” reports.

Halloween: Lots of people are discussing Halloween, including Darrin Booker, whom I met for the first time a few weeks ago.

Technology: Al Mohler discusses the fifth anniversary of the iPod. “So, happy fifth birthday to the iPod. I celebrated the iPod’s birthday by loading several dozen new selections into my music library. Now, my iPod is armed with a whole new arsenal of music. It was the least I could do in recognition of such an auspicious occasion.”

8 years 9 months ago
The degree to which God controls the world is a topic that has received much debate in Christian circles through the past two or three decades. Where Christians once uniformly affirmed God’s absolute sovereignty over this world, today this is an area of great dispute. The aftermath of recent natural disasters has shown that there are two distinct beliefs within Christendom. Some claim that God is absolutely sovereign and controls everything within His creation. Others claim that God is in no way responsible for tragedy as disaster is just a natural occurence within a sinful world. These people claim that God does not have absolute control.

Into this fray steps Jerry Bridges in his upcoming book Is God Really In Control?. Bridges writes that this book “summarizes my ongoing wrestling with this very difficult - but finally comforting - theological issue. It was born out of the results of addressing needs in my own life and realizing that many other believers have similar questions and doubts. It is written from the perspective of a brother and companion to all those who are tempted at times to ask, ‘Can I really trust God?’” The book is written not for academicians but for the average person who has not necessarily encountered a major disaster, but who struggles with the typical adversities that every person faces.

Bridges affirms the clear teachings of Scripture that there are three essential truths about God that we must believe if we are to trust Him in times of adversity:

  • God is completely sovereign.
  • God is infinite in wisdom.
  • God is perfect in love.

He summarizes these truths as they relate to us as follows: “God in His love always wills what is best for us. In His wisdom He always knows what is best, and in His sovereignty He has the power to bring it about.” He teaches the utmost importance of believing these principles, for “if there is a single event in all of the universe that can occur outside of God’s sovereign control then we cannot trust Him.” If God’s purpose can be thwarted, our confidence in Him is shattered.

Bridges teaches that all people, whether believers or unbelievers, experience anxiety, frustration, heartache and disappointment. “But what should distinguish the suffering of believers from unbelievers is the confidence that our suffering is under the control of an all-powerful and all-loving God; our suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s eternal plan, and He brings or allows into our lives only what is for His glory and our good.”

In short, Bridges affirms the truths that are clearly taught to us in Scripture. He only briefly mentions the errant doctrine of open theism, yet this book stands as a entry-level refutation to that dangerous doctrine.

This book will equip believers to respond in a godly fashion when they encounter the pain, disappointment and frustration that life can bring. It will encourage the believer to trust that God is in control as much today as He was when he laid the foundations of the earth. It will teach some valuable truths of Scripture that need to be reaffirmed in the minds of today’s Christians. I am glad to recommend this book.

9 years 2 months ago
It seems that behind every sad song is a sad story. Behind an inspiring song is an inspiring story. Behind the song “Mommy Paints the Sky,” there is both. With thanksgiving but sadness in his heart, Danny Oertli wrote a song for his daughter. “As the sun lays down to sleep / You ask me why she’s gone / I don’t know where to start / As the sunset lights your face / I see God knows how to heal little hearts.”

“Gracie, Jack and I were driving down the road in my really fast Honda minivan. As we pulled into a parking space at Wal-Mart an incredible sunset began to form over the mountains. The car’s interior was bathed in amber light and deep strokes of yellow criss-crossed the sky, as if drawn by an unseen hand.

“ ‘Daddy,’ came Gracie’s little voice from the back seat, ‘Did God let mommy paint the sky tonight?’

“Looking in the rearview mirror I saw her leaning into Jack to catch a better view. As the light from the sunset settled on their faces, I silently praised God for the healing and hope He had brought into our lives.

“For months I had been assuring Gracie and Jack that God had not forgotten us and that He loved us more than we could imagine. I had used big words like “sovereign” and “eternity,” concepts even I didn’t understand.”

But somehow, on that night, God gave Gracie a glimpse of something that touched her little heart. He began to heal her. On a warm, November night, God used the magnificence of His creation to teach a lonely little girl a lesson her father could not - that mommy had gone to be with Jesus. God began to heal a little heart that was hurting for its mommy.

Mommy Paints the Sky is a love story: a story written by Danny Oertli, a singer, songwriter and now an author, to share the story of his life with Cyndi. He fell in love with Cyndi in high school, dated her through college and married her shortly after. But within six months of marriage they were devastated to learn that she had cancer. God saw fit to heal her and in the years that followed to bring two children to their family. But after eight years marked with both struggle and triumph, God very suddenly called Cyndi to Himself, leaving a man struggling to find hope and meaning through the pain and leaving two children wondering when mommy would come home.

This is a beautiful story and one that touched me deeply, perhaps because I have been married for a similar amount of time and have a similar family, or perhaps because the lessons Oertli learned were ones I need to learn as well. As we read about Cyndi’s illness and her death, we can see Danny’s growth in his understanding of those terms he claims to know so little about - sovereignty and eternity. He comes to see that God is sovereign and can do His will within His creation. He comes to see that suffering is not meaningless, but that somehow it serves a purpose. Oertli writes, in his reflection on a special passage of Scripture, that “God was teaching me to take my eyes off myself and focus on others. It would be a hard-fought battle, as everything in me wanted to pull back from people and wallow in suffering” (page 133). At the same time he learned about eternity, that it is only one short sleep past (to borrow a phrase from John Donne). God exists outside of time, so while His timing may not be ours, we have to trust that He knows best.

Oertli expresses his understanding of these great truths in “Worship You With Tears,” the first song he wrote after Cyndi’s death. “You know when I rise / You know when I sleep / You know I need you desperately / I pour out my soul, oh Lord / I worship you with tears / I am broken / I have nothing to give / I fall at your feet / And worship you with tears.” He shows that he can worship God with tears, trusting not in knowing why God allowed this to happen, but in God’s goodness, faithfulness and sovereignty. That spirit of trust pervades the book.

I’ll admit that I had a few small concerns with the author’s theology, primarily with several uses of the “God spoke to me” language that is all too common today. Some may say that I’ve allowed emotion to distract me from this seriousness of this problem (and this is an emotional book), but I feel that it did not detract seriously from the book, and to focus undue attention on it would be to miss the beauty of the story. While God may not have spoken to Gracie through the sunset, He somehow used it to touch her heart and to help her understand that mommy had gone to be with Him. I cannot argue with that.

This book encouraged me, even as one who has never experienced so painful and significant a loss. I have little doubt it will be used to touch and to heal many hurting hearts and to prepare others for the pain that is always so nearby in this fallen world. To echo the words of Jerry Bridges in his endorsement, “Mommy Paints the Sky will draw you closer to God.” It will also move you to tears. A beautiful story, this is one I highly recommend. I would also recommend purchasing Danny Oertli’s album Everything Inbetween as a companion, as it has recordings of many of the songs he writes about in this book. The book grows better when you can hear the songs, and the songs have more meaning once you have read the story.

Be sure to read my interview with Danny Oertli and read the review of his album.

  Evaluation Support
Theology/Accuracy
Quite solid with the exception noted above.
 
Readability
An easy and enjoyable read.
Uniqueness
Quite a unique story of suffering and healing.
Importance
An important story that may help heal hurting hearts.
  Overall
A beautiful story that touched me deeply.
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