Here is a book review of Take This Cup by Joseph Laughon for the North American Anglican.
Take This Cup: How God Transforms Suffering into Glory and Joy. By Charles Erlandson. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020. 216 pp. $46 (cloth); $26 (paper).
Theodicy is a subject that writers, theologians, and even comedians have tried tackling. Every religion and thought system on some level attempts to explain human suffering. Oftentimes these discussions, in particular in the Christian world, tends towards the theoretical. These theodicies also usually focus on justifying God’s behavior towards us. While this is helpful, discussions of Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds or Irenaeaus’ theodicy may not be practical for a believer going through chemotherapy.
Charles Erlandson’s Take This Cup is a great departure from the more academic discussions of suffering, while still quite intellectually thorough. Rather than spend most of the book’s time justifying God to man, Erlandson instead gives the believer the tools to help connect their suffering to practical piety that can help ease their pain. He organizes his book through three kinds of “cups,” the cup we reject from God (as in “take this cup from me”), the cup Christ takes for us, and lastly, how we offer ourselves as a cup of sacrifice to God.
The thesis of the book is quite simple, if not radical. Erlandson explains that, “Far from being a sign of God’s nonexistence, apathy, or impotence, human suffering is transformed by Christ into a sign of God’s presence, love, and power.” Additionally God manifests His powerful love by being able to take something so terrible as suffering and use it for the good of His people.
In the first section, Erlandson lays out the first cup. Naturally we reject pain and suffering at all times. When Christ predicted His own Passion, Peter the Apostle even rebuked the Lord for saying such things. This is the section that would have benefited from a more thorough explanation as to what our rejection of suffering means, but this chapter is over in a few short pages.
Where Erlandson’s work shines the most is in the second cup: how Christ takes this cup for us and how we are united to him in our suffering. It is important to understand that he is very clear that suffering is “not inherently redemptive,” but rather that it is “both redeemable and a means of redemption because the Redeemer suffered for us and unites Himself to us by His suffering.”
In this chapter Christ’s work as the chief Sufferer is made clear. To answer the question, “What does Christ do in my suffering?” Erlandson quotes Henri de Lubac:
“Every day, he offers his face to spitting and his back to the whip. Every day, he is crowned with thorns. And when any member of the church is injured, it is still he who is struck in the face…The cry of the Lord on the cross represented our own suffering.” (82)
Through the Incarnation, we have a God Who suffers with us rather than abandoning us to our troubles. In the developed world we value comfort, but it is in suffering where Christ is found and where we find our way of being united to him. This is especially helpful in Erlandson’s treatment of the Eucharist. He explains, through exegesis of 1 Corinthians, how the Eucharist is impossible without sacrificial suffering. By commanding us to keep this memorial and by making Himself present in the elements, Christ offers Himself to us, through suffering and for our own suffering.
This is something to remember in our own suffering, that we do not have a Lord Who does not understand. In fact the term most often used in connection with how Christ feels towards us (σπλαγχνίζομαι) is best translated as the feeling of intense compassion that is so powerful it moves you from the very center of yourself, which the Authorized Version artfully transcribes as to be moved to one’s bowels. In our suffering it is important to remember that Christ is never unfeeling towards us, even as He suffers with us. The great Puritan John Flavel reminds us, “If He had plunged me into a Sea of Sorrow, yet I could say in all that Sea of Sorrow, there is not a drop of injustice.”
Ultimately the question isn’t whether we will suffer. We know we will. It is an inevitable part of the human condition. The question isn’t even whether we can endure our suffering. We endure it whether we like it or not. As C. S. Lewis once noted, “It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair, or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.”
The question is whether we will let God transform our suffering through His incarnation in uniting us to Him. Will we let Him transform our suffering into His glory and our own joy?
This is a much needed message especially around the time we celebrate Christmastide and Epiphany. As we contemplate the Incarnation at this time of our worship, it is important to remember that our time of celebration is connected with terrible suffering. As the prophet Simeon told of the salvation that this Incarnation would bring, he warned the Virgin that a sword will pierce her very soul. Even before Christ was born, there was a great weeping of mothers who refused to be comforted. Maternal grief and mass infanticide are coded into the very fabric of Christmas. Even as we celebrate going into Epiphany, the Church Militant suffers disease, grief, persecution, tribulation and from the crafts and assaults of the devil. Take This Cup helps us connect the miracle of the Incarnation to our everyday sufferings in this world. I thoroughly recommend this for any believer who is going through a trial or is simply wishing for a deeper understanding of how God makes “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”