Where is God when we suffer? A new book by Frank Viola says he’s there by our side, suffering with us.
Viola’s newest, God’s Favorite Place on Earth, recounts the biblical stories of Jesus’ time in Bethany, the town of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead in anticipation of his own resurrection.
I read it leading up to Easter — or Pascha as we call it in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which often differs several weeks from Western Easter. This year it was May 5. The book served as a fitting backdrop to the season.
The core question of the book is how Christians come to terms with suffering. While his approach features extensive biblical quotation and an imaginative retelling of the events that occurred in Bethany, Viola is at his best when making connections between passages we perhaps do not often consider together. One that I found particularly moving was his treatment of John 11.35, “Jesus wept.”
Some dismiss the weight of this, the shortest verse in the Bible, but not Viola. If you’re familiar with the context, Lazarus’ sister Mary was weeping as were others gathered to mourn Lazarus’ death. Jesus arrived and was quickly overcome by grief as well. I’ve heard people say that Jesus’ tears were not genuine because, as God in the flesh, he knew he would raise Lazarus a moment later. No point crying, right? I’ve also heard people justify the tears by saying Christ really wept for the lack of faith among the mourners. Nonsense, says Viola. Jesus mourned with those who mourned. His tears showed the overflow of his compassion for his friends.
If Christ is able to redeem our suffering, it’s because he assumed our suffering. This is the upshot of Hebrews 4.14–5.10, and in contemplating Jesus’ tears Viola uses them as the path and the light through our own pain and rejection, through our own difficulty and travail. Jesus faced the same and meets us in the midst. What’s more, says Viola, underscoring the point by quoting Hebrews 13.8, “He still weeps with us today, for He is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
When I read that passage my mind jumped to the end of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, where the beleaguered detective, Gabriel Syme, asks Sunday if he’s ever suffered. “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?” comes the answer.
The question is an invitation and one that Viola offers as well. Suffering in this life is unavoidable. We often seek spiritual growth through reading — even books like this. But as Viola says, we progress far “more by suffering than by studying.” He invites us to see our struggles as “sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.” Because Christ stands with us and we with him, our suffering can be transformed into something deeply participatory and profoundly redemptive.
As part of the initial launch of God’s Favorite Place on Earth, Frankl Viola is making available twenty-five free downloads, but time is quickly running out on the offer. Click here for details.