Like lots of people, I’ve had no shortage of challenges and heartaches in my life, including disability, the sudden loss of my father, and career setbacks. Once, when grieving a broken relationship, I turned to a trusted older friend for comfort.
“This hurts more than anything I’ve ever experienced,” I said.
“Oh,” my friend gently replied over the phone. “You’ll have to face a lot worse than this.”
And of course this friend was right. It was a bracing wake-up call from someone farther along the path of suffering, who has survived a brain infection, cancer, and the death of a spouse.
Phil Ryken—president of Wheaton College and former senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia—takes a similarly realistic but ultimately compassionate approach to Christian suffering in his latest book, When Trouble Comes. Rather than offer up yet another tightly argued theodicy, Ryken steps into the trenches with us, both as a pastor and also as a fellow sufferer.
In so doing, he describes a period of deep discouragement when thoughts of suicide intruded into his life. Part of what helped Ryken survive was the realization that incredibly painful times are completely normal.
“The bitterness I briefly tasted,” he writes, “is something that most Christians go through sooner or later, and that some Christians struggle with for a lifetime.”
Ryken’s purpose in When Trouble Comes, however, isn’t to bare his own soul but to point to some souls in Scripture who found God to be “an ever-present help to us in times of trouble.” As one who has been stalked by dark thoughts and has struggled at times to keep them at bay, I found Ryken’s treatment of these old saints refreshing and challenging.
First is Isaiah, who finds himself undone by a vision of the thrice-holy Lord in the temple. Ryken says the prophet’s wail of confession—“Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips!”—concerns a lot more than occasional rough language. It also includes verbal manipulation and a tendency to tear down rather than build up.
“Isaiah’s confession is a good word for anyone who makes critical comments, which includes most of us,” he writes. “When critical thinking is not consecrated by humility, it becomes a critical spirit.” Ouch.
For those not infected with a sharp tongue, Ryken encourages us to take spiritual inventory anyway, asking, “What sin do I need to confess?” He warns that it will likely arise from an area in which you consider yourself to be particularly strong or righteous.
Nevertheless, “Whatever it is—whether it is sports, music, academics, or ministry—there is not one single part of us that is not perfectly protected from the stain of sin.” Atonement comes, as it did for Isaiah, on the basis of blood.
Encouragement from Elijah
Of course, trouble comes in other ways too. In Elijah’s case, fatigue, isolation, opposition, and raw emotions yielded a case of spiritual depression that left the mighty prophet burned out and suicidal. Elijah’s brief prayer in the wilderness is full of self-pity: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my, life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
For a supposed spiritual giant who stared down the prophets of Baal, it’s hardly a prayer of victory. And for those of us who hope we’ll not be judged on our worst days, Ryken’s pastoral response is reassuring. “Notice that even at the point of absolute desperation—when he may have been the loneliest man in the world—Elijah still managed to pray,” Ryken says. “He took his complaint to God.”
Encouragement from Others
The encouragement keeps coming in the lives of:
- Ruth, who chooses God despite her grief;
- David, who repents and receives God’s mercy;
- Jeremiah, who takes his troubles to the Lord before cursing the day of his birth, reflecting the “confusing, sometimes schizophrenic nature” of the life of faith;
- Mary the mother of Jesus, who says yes to the virgin birth and maintains her commitment;
- Jesus, who submits himself to a higher purpose than self-preservation; and
- Paul, who sees the Lord using his temporary sufferings for the salvation of the lost.
Inexplicably, for a volume that examines suffering through the lives of biblical saints, Job doesn’t get his own chapter (though he does come up as an illustration elsewhere).
Throughout When Trouble Comes, Ryken helps us see the purpose in our pain, while bringing us alongside fellow sufferers from history (such as Charles Spurgeon and Rose Thurgood) and today.
This intensely practical book is ideal for the hurting and those who hurt for them. It’s perfect for sermon series, Sunday school classes, small groups, and private or family devotions—because it isn’t if trouble comes, but when.
Philip Ryken. When Trouble Comes. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016. 176 pp. $12.99.