Mike Streezy

BOOK REVIEW: SURPRISED BY SUFFERING

TITLE: SURPRISED BY SUFFERING: The Role of Pain and Death in the Christian Life

AUTHOR: R. C. Sproul

PUBLISHER: Reformation Trust

AUDIENCE: The book is written to the general body of Christ who are currently suffering or ministering to the suffering brothers and sisters around them.

GENERAL SUMMARY:  Surprised by Suffering is a book written with the intent of preparing the body of Christ for suffering. Sproul identified that many Christians who are experiencing abnormal levels of blessings become vulnerable to believing they are invulnerable. The problem with that belief is that it does not understand a biblical view of suffering. When suffering comes, which it most likely will, then the Christian can find themselves surprised and caught off guard. Sproul’s purpose is “that you would not be surprised when suffering comes into your life. I want you to see that suffering is not at all uncommon, but also that it is not random—it is sent by our heavenly Father, who is both sovereign and loving, for our ultimate good. Indeed, I want you to understand suffering is a vocation, a calling from God.”

WHY I READ IT: I read this book for two reasons. First, I wanted to read it because I, myself, had recently discovered the weight of surprise that came from suffering at the hands of those I loved and trusted. People I genuinely looked up to and thought had my good (if not the family or body of believers in general’s good) in mind as we interacted. The resulting confusion and introspection that followed revealed a great need. The title caught my eye at the recent Bethlehem College and Seminary Pastor’s Conference (formerly known as the Desiring God Pastor’s Conference) and I thought it would be a great investment and a helpful counseling tool. The second reason I read it is because Sproul is one of my favorite teachers. He helps me each day as I drive to work through his radio program. He is also my wife’s favorite theological author and she steals all my Sproul books (unless you ask her and she will tell you I knew it was her book when I bought it because I must’ve noticed the author’s name). I decided I could give it to her after I read it and it would be a double win!

DID IT DELIVER?: Yes. Sproul has provided a solid biblical counseling book that is especially pastoral in its approach. This book is not going to magically heal every suffering soul. No book will. No counselor will. The gospel contained in its pages will remind each reader that Christ has made it His business to completely heal us one day in the future when we are glorified and in perfect communion with God. That is our hope. I love and hate this reality. I earnestly desire the healing I will not attain in this life so it was hard to read all of the truth of Scripture and be reminded of the fact that I have to wait. At the same time I was thankful to be reminded by someone who knows firsthand that this is more normal than American Christians might naturally expect. How truly blessed we are. How truly needy we are too. What a weighty reality to carry.

SUMMARY OF STRUCTURE:  Sproul divides the book into two parts. Chapters 1-6 unpack suffering up to the point of death. Chapters 7-10 unpack the reality of what is to come after death and the implications it has on life until that point. Sproul begins with the picture of suffering we stumble upon and ends with “a vision of things to come”. He follows the content with a Q&A section, which is pretty standard for his books (including his children’s books) and two indices. The first is a Scripture index and the second is a subjects and names index.

PART I: UNTO DEATH

Sproul begins his counseling by acknowledging the size of the challenge Christians face when it comes to suffering. After acknowledging the weight of suffering, He reminds us the truth that in actuality this burden is light. This might seem confusing, but it is not as odd as it sounds to be “perplexed, but not in despair” as his quote from Paul reminds us. We can believe our suffering is without meaning, but this is simply not true. God has a purpose for our suffering. Though suffering drives us to despair as we face death, Christ’s promise will instead lead us to hope in Christ’s victory and “ultimate deliverance from death”.

This path of suffering is the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross, and it’s a path Jesus Christ Himself walked. We participate in his suffering. This is not contrary to God’s will. It has been clearly stated as God’s will from the beginning and has simultaneously been combated by men who viewed it as incompatible with God’s character such as Peter. “It is in weeping that we learn to contemplate the goodness of God. It is in mourning that we discover the peace of God that passes understanding.” The purpose of God in suffering is to work for our good. Therefore, “those who understand God’s sovereignty have joy even in the midst of suffering, a joy reflected on their very faces, for they see that their suffering is not without purpose.” Death is a divine vocation, or calling, that every Christian is “called” to enter. Dying in faith leads to ultimate healing and eternity among those who also died in faith in the presence of God.

PART II: AFTER DEATH

Section two focuses on two major concerns: Is there really a heaven and if so, what is it like? Sproul addresses speculations on life after death that include a good deal of time on Greek assertions and questions from the philosophers of old and the occult. He instead points us to Jesus’ teachings on the afterlife. He argues for the authority of Jesus and the recorded eyewitness testimony that we have to confirm his resurrection and its implications. Sproul argues that for the Christian to die is truly gain and addresses the intermediate state between death and the final resurrection, our immediate presence in heaven, teaching on our bodies, and the continuity and discontinuity from the world as we know it.

The final chapter, A Vision of Things to Come, opens by pointing us to John’s portrayal of heaven in Revelation. A comparison of the Jewish understanding of seas and rivers and springs explains why it is a good thing to see the future will hold a world with no seas. Instead of the danger and death that seas carried, springs and streams and rivers meant life and flourishing. This is a hope filled world. There will also be a redeemed city, the New Jerusalem, where we will reside with Jesus for all eternity. Jesus’ presence means no more sorrow. He also argues for the beauty and glory of this new city from its resident, Jesus, to the materials it is built from and reminds us that we will not need a temple because the entire city is a temple. The curse will finally be removed and no suffering we have experienced to this point will compare to the glory that awaits us.  This is the hope we have as we suffer.

PRIMARY SUBJECTS: Suffering, Biblical Counseling, Death, Grief, Bereavement, Christian Life, Heaven, Eternal Life, Perseverance

STRENGTHS:  This book was easy to read. Sproul is blessed with an ability to make complex subjects and doctrines easy to understand. He explains terms that might be confusing. He provides personal narration and testimony as he travels along the path to healing the book follows. He also admits some things we might wonder about cannot be answered definitively while giving us best guesses and alternative viewpoints. He carries us through the biblical narrative of restoration. He also provides a helpful question and answer portion that immediately follows the book’s conclusion. In it, he addresses suicide, death of children (including a clarification on abortion), free will decisions that lead to death (like smoking cigarettes), and whether or not pets have souls. His reformed theology is clear in all of his answers as subjects like suffering, free will, and God’s sovereignty come into play to show how doctrine impacts our worldview, especially when grief or suffering come into view.  Christ is supreme and ultimately worthy in such a way that we will not eventually despise suffering because of what Christ is doing for our eternal good.

WEAKNESSES: The primary weakness of the book is the limited nature of the discussion. I desired to hear more of the biblical story of our snake-crushing God. Sproul flirted with the destruction of God’s enemies as he addressed a longing that cries out “to die is gain” while seeking God be pleased to crush us so that we might join Him in eternity, but I was surprised at how little this came into view. Sproul doesn’t duck restoration. Half of the book is on what occurs after death. The emphasis is just different than I would prefer. I would recommend pairing this book up with John Piper’s Spectacular Sins.