Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham and renowned pastor of the famed Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, calls Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free the most important thing he’s ever written. Patheos is hosting a rich conversation on the book, and I was eager to reach out to Tullian — someone I’ve enjoying meeting and speaking with before — about this most important of topics: suffering, which is also the topic of my own doctoral dissertation.
So I spoke with Tullian by phone:
How do you define suffering?
I would probably describe it in terms of reality on the ground. Suffering is the lived-out reality of broken people living in a broken world with other broken people. When people think about suffering, they think of death, disease and depression — they think of crises. I wanted to broaden the scope and talk about suffering in terms of, yes, those big things, but also the seemingly mundane and no-less real forms of suffering like frustration, disappointment, anxiety, stress, and sadness. My goal was to describe suffering in such a way that every single reader — healthy or unhealthy, rich or poor — could say, “You just described my reality.”
You and I both are fans of Luther’s theologia crucis. Do you see your views on suffering growing out of the theology of the cross?
Without question. As I say in the book, Luther didn’t come up with these things. He just put a label on them. When he describes a theology of glory, he’s describing the natural bent of human beings. The theology of glory is about becoming an overcomer. Becoming victorious. Fixing things and people, fixing myself. It’s seeing God at the top of the ladder instead of at the bottom. It’s seeing God in strength instead of weakness, in victory instead of defeat.
What Luther does is turn that on its head. God, according to the Bible, is a God who suffers with us and who, in the person of Jesus, suffered for us. He’s the man of sorrows. If we needed any proof whatsoever that God is most present in defeat, that God is most present in weakness, all we have to do is look at the cross. When embraced, the cross actually frees us to be real, to be honest, to be Christian Realists instead of Christian Idealists. It frees us to call a spade a spade — to say, this suffering is terrible, and this isn’t the way things were intended to be. It frees us to look forward to the day when every tear will be wiped away, and death and disease will be no more.
One of my goals with this book is to encourage honesty. Let’s come straight out and say it. Every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before. Let’s forget that nonsense about the victorious Christian life, whatever that means. Life by law is theology of glory. Life by grace is theology of the cross. That’s what set me free when I was going through my own crucible. I felt like, okay, I can say this is awful. I’m not being super-spiritual, pretending it isn’t awful. It creates honesty, which creates faith, which creates freedom.
Two of your chapters speak of the dangers of moralizing and minimizing suffering. What do you mean by those terms?
Moralizing is what we see in Job’s friends, a simplistic view of reality that dictates this conclusion: Good people get good stuff, bad people get bad stuff, and since you’re getting bad stuff you must have done something wrong. That’s a reflection of a theology of glory, too. Then the goal of life becomes, get better, do more, get clean, so that the suffering will stop. It becomes incredibly narcissistic. Moralizing suffering really does put God and his economy at bay, and it puts me at the center of the story. It reflects a very simplistic view of life and reality in a broken world.
Of course, what we find in the book of Job is that the readers of the story know why Job is suffering. We as the readers are privy to what goes on behind the scenes. Job and his friends on the other side of the curtain never get a glimpse of what actually took place. They spend thirty-odd chapters trying to figure out why Job is suffering. They become the worst possible accountability group. You wouldn’t be suffering all this, they suggest, if God were not angry at you.
It’s natural, right? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen wayward teenagers and silently wondered what their parents did wrong. Too strict, or not enough? Or it could be something as mundane as thinking that I’m having a bad day because I didn’t do my devotions — or the reason I got in an argument with my wife is because my prayer life has been spotty — or God would relieve me of my pain if I just prayed more and read my Bible more. Maybe every form of suffering, we think, is God disciplining me for my ungodliness.
Minimizing is another matter. Either we offer trite, canned Christian cliches when someone is going through something very painful. We try to bring relief with a Bible verse like “all things work out according to good for those who love Jesus.” We don’t engage the complexity of pain and suffering and loneliness. Or we minimize our own suffering by saying that we have no right to grieve over our seemingly mundane suffering. Who am I to complain, when God really cares about the kids all over the world who are starving? Then we’re dictating to God what he should and should not care about. When that happens, our prayer life is stunted. We feel embarrased to bring things before God that we have concluded are small and insignificant to him. Both forms of minimization generates dishonesty. We don’t engage the dark reality that generates pain.
Underneath all of that is this terribly faulty assumption that explanation and information alleviates pain. It never does. Even if God had told Job why he was suffering, Job would still have had to deal with the loss of his health and family and wealth.
If we do not go to our graves in our confusion, we will not go to our graves trusting. Explanations are a substitute for trust. I really hope the church gets and grasps that.
You speak of God suffering with us, being present with us in our suffering. Is God merely a cosmic sympathizer? Or does he transform the experience of suffering as well?
I think oftentimes we define redemption as theologians of glory, in the sense that redemption of our suffering must mean that we become victorious or better or improved. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That’s not the way that Bible describes redemption.
Jesus clearly says that he’s come to set the captives free and liberate the oppressed. It’s not so much freedom from our pain in this life but freedom in our pain. Often our pain has a lot less to do with our external circumstances and more to do with the anxiety, the stress, the joylessness, the frustration, that accompanies painful circumstances. The why questions contribute to so much of our pain. The way we deal with suffering perpetuates our pain, when we moralize or minimize it.
On the one hand, God has promised because of the resurrection that one day all things will be made new. Every tear will be wiped away. We will work and worship in a brand new world without the interference of sin. That day is coming, thank God. That should give us hope. But in between times, we’re stuck as broken people living with other broken people in a broken world, and in that stage God doesn’t promise to remove our pain but to set us free from our idolatry.
Suffering cannot rob us of joy, only idolatry can. When I was going through a painful transition during a church merger, I thought that the source of my joylessness was the fact that my circumstances were painful. If these people were being mean to me, I thought, if these people would leave, then my pain would go away. But the truth was that God was breaking down my idols. I never realized just how dependent I had become on human approval and acceptance until God took it away. He reminded me that all the acceptance and approval I longed for, I already have in Christ because of what he did on the cross.
What caused joylessness in the crucible of ache for me was that God was prying open my hands and taking away things I was clinging to more than Jesus. So when we talk about redemption in this life, we want to talk about freedom from idolatry, freedom from enslavement to things that can never provide for us the way Jesus can.
Is there anything else you would like potential readers to know?
Just that, in my opinion, this, because of the universal reality of suffering and how it touches down in every single person’s life, is by far the most important thing I’ve ever done. This book is by far the most important contribution I have made to date to the church universal.
I don’t know if there’s a better way to get to the gospel than to address the reality of suffering. I don’t know if there is a better way to present the gospel to people of all stripes than to come at it from the vantage point of pain, suffering and ache. I want to preach the gospel, so that captives will be set free, and the best way to do this is to write a book about suffering.
Note: This post is a part of a sponsored discussion on Glorious Ruin. Our partners do not pay for reviews, for obvious reasons, but Patheos works with publishers and filmmakers who want to make a difference in order to host conversations on the themes raised in their books and films.