“I was becoming totally preoccupied with how I was doing, if I was learning everything I was supposed to be learning during this difficult season, whether I was doing it right or not, and constantly taking my own spiritual pulse. You might say that my ‘inner lawyer’ was working overtime.”
Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, the new book by Tullian Tchividjian, is remarkable. It’s remarkable first because it radically departs from any notion of trying to learn from suffering or approach it in the ‘right’ way. This paradigm may sound innovative, but it’s actually rooted in the book of Job, where God “mercifully put to death Job’s final idol – the idol of explanation.” In Glorious Ruin, therefore, we have a book about suffering that paradoxically criticizes the human predilection towards understanding suffering. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the book is more illustrative than academic, more personal than abstract, and more humorous than any book about suffering has a right to be. Truth be told, Mockingbird-shaped fingerprints are all over it – from This American Life and Seinfeld to Gerhard Forde and a certain PZ – and indeed, the number of Mbird citations are flattering, to say the least. So much so that it’s difficult (impossible) to give an unbiased review…! But we’ll give it a shot.
What do we learn from these two hundred pages if not the ‘right’ approach to suffering? Perhaps, from Tullian’s point of view, the better question would be why we feel that suffering is a matter of performance, of getting it right or wrong. To set up a framework for this question of performance, he spends much of the front half of the book expounding on the distinction between Law and Gospel, going so far as to define original sin as “our universal, fatal love affair with control and law. If I can just recast suffering in a diminished role, then I will hurt less. Or, conversely, if I just do the right thing or just obey enough, God will be pleased, and I will hurt less. Neither approach takes God much into consideration.”
Though he doesn’t describe it quite in these terms, Tchividjian is pushing against our efforts, as human beings, to find false hope in our suffering by fabricating solutions – artificial hope in the most literal sense. He wisely points out two of the most common strategies we use in an attempt to transform suffering into something that’s superficially good, namely, minimizing (chronic depression, you said!? That’s nothing compared to how badly Job suffered!!) and moralizing (“You shouldn’t feel sad – your uncle’s really in a better place now!”). As true as these two sentiments may be, they are pastorally unhelpful, even more so when we are the ones giving these messages to ourselves.
“How Suffering Sets You Free”, the book’s catchy subtitle, could potentially mislead some of the book’s audience. That is, many American Christians will see this book as something which offers the promise of freedom as comfort for our present sufferings. Again, the book’s brilliant inner tension becomes manifest: Tullian does offer immense comfort in these pages, but it’s the comfort of defeat. In other words, it’s truly about how suffering objectively, indicatively does indeed set us free, but it offers nothing to those who, self-justifyingly, want to use suffering as a means to set ourselves free (read: everyone). So, as Richard Rohr put it, the great and merciful surprise is that we come to God not by doing it right, but by doing it wrong. We fail continually in careers, relationships, religion, and everything else under the sun. Suffering happens to us and, as far as you and I are concerned, that’s the end of it – we suffer. The promise of freedom in Tullian’s book isn’t some new or clever insight about how to free ourselves but, in quite the opposite vein, that God will free us from from ourselves, from our naïve and (dare we say) sinful attempts to do so on our own. Self-reliance is the problem, and its breakdown is the gift that suffering brings, whether we want it or not (sidenote: we never do!)
So if suffering accomplishes God’s purposes despite our tendencies to moralize or minimize it, why should anyone read Glorious Ruin? For starters, it’s pastorally crucial in its compassion, tracing the contours of the deep emotional suffering that all of us will eventually undergo–and it does so with the courage and conviction of someone who has actually lived these truths. Glorious Ruin is the opposite of a theological head-trip. Second, it cuts against the myths of moralization and minimization that our entire culture clings to – especially (and tragically) Christian culture. And in disabusing us of those projections, we are liberated from a major source of additional, second-order suffering that we place upon ourselves whenever we enter into the anxious and unhappy place of trying to make naïve sense of our painful experiences. Well, at least partially liberated – Glorious Ruin has such universal and profound appeal because the tendencies it critiques are, well, in everyone. We all, to some extent, have inner Prosperity theologians, we’re all moralists, all minimizers – and God knows that any relief we can get from those inner voices is much-welcomed.
Glorious Ruin, finally, is Good News: as much as we may ‘learn’ from the book, it’s ultimately not about us, but God. It’s about our experiences and how God works in them, no matter how much our attempts to manage or medicate suffering may get in His way. It contains no guidelines to appeal to the controlling, (for Tullian, Originally-) sinful part of ourselves, but it’s a wonderful story and promise about how God works. In this line of thought, the author says that all things work for our good (Rm 8:28) – “even misused Bible verses and the men and women who misuse them. Instead of diminishing our pain, then, these words proclaim the corresponding and overwhelming gratuity of our Redeemer.”
Tullian gives his readers the greatest comfort that someone can possibly have, perhaps because it’s the only comfort: the reassurance that we are not in control, that the prison of self-reliance is a non-starter. And now we’re in atonement territory. There is no hope outside of deliverance from the outside, specifically “the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’m not talking about an explanation of what happened on Calvary”, Tullian maintains, but “I’m talking about Calvary itself.” So Glorious Ruin is not so much a theological exploration of suffering, or of the connection between the Gospel and suffering – instead, it is a communication of the Gospel itself, which strikes the human heart most resonantly where it is hurting, “that bittersweet realization that our sin was both the cause of the horror as well as its merciful purpose.” These words are ambiguous–‘hope that is seen is not hope’ after all (Rm 8:24)–but they point to the very real assurance that although (true) hope amidst suffering is necessarily invisible, it is nonetheless there.
Very rarely does a ‘popular’ book treat suffering with so much honesty, humility, and theological responsibility. Even more rarely does such a book read with the ease and accessibility of Glorious Ruin. Glorious Ruin is at once fresh, concise, and an unusually articulate reminder of the Gospel that we inveterately self-reliant readers so quickly forget–the fact that it draws so richly and affectionately on the work of Mbird is just icing on the cake. It’s informative without puffing up, emotional without being sappy, and ultimately hopeful in the only authentic sense of the word – the sense that offers no easy answers, but instead allows suffering to be the (ultimately) God-given phenomenon of agony and future freedom that it is. Of course, Tullian would be the last person in the world to tell you that reading his book, or any other, could make suffering easier or facilitate God’s work amidst the suffering in your life. But for its insight, comfort, and hope, I couldn’t recommend Glorious Ruin more highly.