22 Oct 2022

Life on the Ash Heap: Growing through Suffering & Emotional Loss (Some Resources)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apologetics, Christian hope, Journey, Ministry, Suffering, Theodicy

As long as there has been “recorded” history humanity has been asking questions about pain, suffering, loss, … in short “evil.” Indeed one of the oldest civilizations known, that of the Sumerians, preserved the agonizing cries of a now anonymous sufferer. Samuel Noah Kramer dubbed this 24th century BC poet as “The First Job” (see brief discussion and translation in History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History, pp. 111-115).

I have always had some sort of interest in this subject and took a number of philosophy classes with Dr. David Lipe and Kippy Myers way back in the day, one was on The Problem of Evil. I do not remember much from the class on evil (nor Logic and the Bible with Dr. Lipe) but I have never departed far from this subject. Through the often deep losses by some of my dearest friends I have simply continued to ask the same question of the first Job – WHY!? Then I after what seemed like a storybook life (except being dismissed from a church once in MS) I went through an earth shattering divorce. Then after several years I remarried and went through the same hell again. I was saying “let me out of this rock & roll hell” (KISS, or if you prefer Bachman, Turner, Overdrive).

My loss is nothing like the loss of some people I count as my dearest friends. But it again forced me back to the bedrock of my faith and say “Bobby what do you really believe in?” “What is this all about?” I do not wish to rate a person’s suffering or their sense of loss. Such is beyond foolish. Loss is loss. Yet some loss does seem to force you to the mat and raise your hands to the night and say … no scream … “why!?”

So back to the text, texts, and resources searching for answers … often finding profound thinking, profound faith, and profound humility in face of something beyond explanation. I have found philosophers (and even some forms of religion) that totally insult the human condition by denying the reality of evil and suffering. I refuse to do that.

I have found however much truth in Paul who seems to think we often grow and are transformed through suffering and loss. I am not the same person I was in December 2007 for example. I offer the following list as suggestions for meditation, reading and even worship. I know that there are a myriad of resources out there that I will not list. Some I have read. Many I have not. But these texts and resources have provided Spiritual nourishment for me as I have sat up in the middle of the dark night. I believe all of these works will bless you if you are a fellow sufferer or if you know some one suffering or you have questions. You probably fit in all three categories. What follows includes biblical texts to affirm faith and express loss along with other book resources to reflect on suffering and growing through it. As I mentioned I have not chosen to be comprehensive but I have chosen material that has pastoral relevance for everyone and preachers in particular. But none of the sources listed are very difficult to engage. Be Blessed

1) Biblical Texts

Psalms. I cannot stress how the Psalms have enriched my walk with God but have also helped me go through the Grief Cycle and find healing with saints and with Jesus. Within Psalms some specific texts have been written into my journal more than once: Ps 13; Ps 22; Ps 23; Ps 44; Ps 73; Ps 88, Ps 104, Ps 107, etc. The Laments should be devoured.

Isaiah. A truly comforting chapter in the Bible is Isaiah 40. I would add Isaiah 52.13-53-12 as a text deserving our frequent communion.

Jeremiah. There are a series of texts sometimes called “The Confessions of Jeremiah” that give vent to this Prophet’s frustration with the status of the world. I treasure them. They are 11.18-12.6; 15.10-21; 17.14-18; 18.18-23; 20.7-18. I would add Jeremiah 30-31 here as incredibly comforting texts. A message of consolation and hope. The final text in Jeremiah that I find so very powerful because it proclaims to us that God shares our pain himself and sheds his own tears over us, chapter 8.18-9.22.

Lamentations. I have dubbed Lamentations as one of the five most ignored books of the Bible by Christians, much to our loss.

Habakkuk. Habakkuk does not speak so much to the people on behalf of the Lord but to the Lord on behalf of the people. Truly a profound book on trusting faith in God when the world makes no earthly sense. Chapter 3.17-19 is one of the most profound statements on faith when there is no reason to have any in either Testament.

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

(Habakkuk 3.17-19)

The Passion Narratives. Some times we do not spend enough time with the Crucified One. Allow yourself to be drawn into the story as an actor within the drama. The Gospel of Matthew chapters 26-27 deserve slow prayerful reading. (The parallels and John do too: Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 18-19).

Romans. One of the greatest chapters of the Bible has to be Romans 8. I think it could be argued that it contains the whole of the Pauline understanding of the Gospel and its plan for God’s suffering and groaning creation.

Revelation. Some may be shocked to find Revelation here. However I have found that Revelation is incredibly profound in its vision of the reigning king and being the people of God in the middle of a completely messed up world. This is faith in the face of evil! Meditate on Revelation 4-5 and 21-22.

Job. I save Job for last because that is often what people think of first. Job does not try to solve “the problem of suffering.” The whole book is easily described as an “argument” with God. Yet it does have common religious answers argued by Job’s friends why bad things happen to good people … ideas that end up being profoundly wrong. I love Job. Chapters 26-31 contain some of the greatest stuff in the Bible.

2) Music

Music has Spiritual power of this I am convinced. Both “sacred” and “secular” (the Spirit can mysteriously move in either!). My choice of music may not be your choice but music that gives voice to the human condition and hope are worth being on our iPods or phones …

“Be Thou My Vision” is one of my favorite songs though old as the hills as they say

Pink Floyd, “The Wall” the whole album

Pink Floyd, “Wish You were Here.”

Pink Floyd, “Sorrow”

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.2 “Resurrection” (some may be surprised I know what a symphony is!! lol)

Lots more

3) Books

Elie Wiesel. Night. I place this work first by a non-Christian Jewish thinker. I do not believe I have read a more profound book in my life than Night. Every human being (which includes Christians) needs to read Night. It is small, a mere 109 pages. I believe the Cross of Jesus which turned into the “night” at midday is God’s reply.

C. S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain. This is classic Lewis writing on the cusp of World War II. Not a difficult read and full of insight. One of the fascinating chapters is on the suffering of animals a concept that many American Evangelicals never give a second thought too.

C. S. Lewis. A Grief Observed. This work is, in my opinion, every bit the classic that Night is. Written 20 years after The Problem of Pain, and after living through the death of his beloved wife to cancer, a Grief Observed is confessional, searching and wrestling. It is a struggle to trust God when it does not seem like God can be trusted. Authentic faith is the goal.

Stephen E. Broyles, The Wind that Destroys and Heals: Trusting the God of Sorrow and Joy. This is a gem of a treasure. It is not a book you can breeze through. This is not because it is difficult reading because it is not. Rather it is they way Broyles weaves his own life, his wife’s death to cancer on Christmas morning and the Bible. Broyles was one of my teachers back in the day and I well remember the morning Elizabeth died. Rich. Profound. Moving.

Philip Yancy & Paul Brand, Where is God when it Hurts? Yancy is one of my favorite pop authors of Evangelicalism. This work is stimulating and begins by showing that not all pain is “evil.” In fact pain often has a redemptive function. It is a thought provoking book.

Martin Luther King Jr, “Suffering and Faith” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK was no stranger to evil and its manifestation in hate and suffering. Writing in 1960 this short essay helps us know that sometimes the only way to make it through suffering is not by denying faith but by running to it. Faith is the ground of hope.

John Mark Hicks, Christine Fox Parker, Bobby Valentine: Surrendering to Hope: Guidance for the Broken. This small book offers “fellowship” with the suffering. In short chapters we sit on the ash heap with those who have lost children, wives, suffered trauma of abuse, divorce, struggles is racism and sexual identity. We hear the story, we see the impassioned cries for God and we see faith with grit.

4) Books to Dig Deep

Leslie C. Allen, A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations. Do not let the word “Commentary” keep you from reading this outstanding work of both biblical scholarship but also real world contact. Allen brings the Lamentations from the ashes of Jerusalem to the ashes of our own hearts as individuals and communities of faith. Suddenly Lamentations is a powerful word from God to the suffering of our 21st century and becomes an instrument of healing. Allen does not address the “problem of evil” per se rather like Lamentations itself focuses upon processing grief. I devoured this book.

John Mark Hicks, Yet Will I Trust Him: Understanding God in a Suffering World. Hicks is no stranger to more than his share of Jobian experiences. In this book he wrestles with the Bible pure and simple. Does the Bible have some kind of perspective on suffering and does it have a “plan” on how to address it? Can we have a real, genuine authentic faith that does not insult the reality the experiences of so many in the face of evil. Some folks have asked me “Bobby what is the practical rational for your crazy new creation theology?” The answer is first of all that it is simply biblical. But beyond that it is because it gives HOPE in the face of EVIL in the world. This book shows exactly how. It gives direction to life in a world out of kilter. This work weaves autobiographical narrative with close reading of various texts in both Testaments.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. Beginning with a survey of how the Enlightenment turns evil on its head, Wright says that evil is “still a four letter word” that will not go away by denying it. Then he argues that Bible does not so much as answer the question of “where does evil come from” but instead argues “what God can do and is doing about evil.” The final chapter on “Deliver us from Evil” in which he discusses the Christian alternative to evil in forgiveness in light of the Crucified God is worth the book. And sooooooooooo hard.

Christopher J. H. Wright, The God i Don’t Understand: Reflecting on Tough Questions of Faith. Christopher Wright is one of my favorite scholars. Insightful and critical but reverent and trusting. In this work he works thru 4 questions that all relate to evil and the integrity of God. These are suffering? The Canaanites (did God perpetuate evil?)? How the Cross addresses Evil and the deep issues of “Sin” (much more than white lies) and finally the promise of Resurrection and Renewed Creation. Genuine work by a serious scholar but not aimed at scholars.

Christian faith is not a set of pat answers to the question “how to find the right church.” It is not pat answers to “how to avoid hell.” We often misconstrue what Christianity is really all about.

Christianity is the Story of Hope. It is the hope of the Creator God loving the created who brings ultimate healing to the world. This is the Christian faith.

May the Lord bless you and keep you
and make his face shine upon you

(Numbers 6.22f)

2 Responses to “Life on the Ash Heap: Growing through Suffering & Emotional Loss (Some Resources)”

  1. Robert Limb Says:

    Excellent! (YOU might be surprised that I know Pink Floyd (My High School English teacher knew them)…But I prefer Bruckner to Mahler.
    I am taking my congregation through Revelation this year, in the light of current angst about the state of the planet and the world, but I was not sure what to use as our Lenten text in 2023. And this post gave me the obvious answer: Lamentations!
    P.S. Yancey and Brand is a remarkable book. Elie Wiesel (who wrote in both French and English) lived through the Shoah, and his faith in YHWH was tested to the breaking point. A great man: Co-authored a book on Job, and another in dialogue with President Mitterrand.

  2. Jerry Starling Says:

    Thank you for this lexicon of works on suffering. I especially appreciate your drawing attention to Lamentations as a book of value in our Biblical Canon

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