Kara Tippetts. The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life's Hard. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015. 192 pp. $15.99.

Christians spend significant time developing a theology of suffering. But often our carefully crafted theology and experience meet along a dividing line. The oil of our professed beliefs does not mix easily with the harsh vinegar of reality. Oil and vinegar, though, cannot be joined with a simple stir. Their union requires a vigorous shake. The Hardest Peace is that vigorous shake.

Kara Tippetts, a 38-year-old mother of four, died of breast cancer this spring. Rather than demanding death with dignity, Tippetts exemplified dignity while dying. Her final book, The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard, chronicles her journey. Tippetts tells her story with deep awareness that she won’t find the other side of cancer on this side of heaven. Many of us pray we never have to taste her particular brand of vinegar—but some of us will. Her experiences ensure readers they will find gain in the midst of loss, even if they lose their lives.

Thinking and Feeling

When some of my friends heard I was reading The Hardest Peace, they asked if they would “make it” through the book. They were asking how hard Tippetts’s story made me cry. I don’t believe you can read this book devoid of emotion, or that you should. I don’t cry easily, and I like that about myself. As a seminarian, I should study Greek alphabets, mull over first-century theologians, and ponder the intricacies of the Trinity. I’m too educated to cry, right?

I starred the sentence I lost it—page 34. Given chapter one starts on page 21, I don’t qualify as having tear-ducts-of-steel. Tippetts fuses both mind and heart in her writing. She does not give readers the luxury of sympathizing with her story without stopping to evaluate their own. Her story requires thinking and feeling. 

Ferocious Grace

The Hardest Peace identifies Tippetts’s many “pre-existing” hardships from the outset. Abuse, drugs, and broken relationships all precede her disease. Tippetts calls these her “hard.” As she describes the fierceness of each hard, she demonstrates the ferocity of grace.

Grace prevails in The Hardest Peace, but Tippetts doesn’t tenderly or flippantly drape it across its pages. Instead, grace invades her story in a way that forbids a passive understanding of the word. How could she speak of a timid grace? She writes of sickening chemo-induced moments, crushing diagnostic news, and gut-wrenching time spent preparing loved ones for her own death. These experiences don’t promote a gushy, Hallmark-card grace; they proclaim a raging, relentless grace—a ferocious grace determined to persevere in every difficult moment. 

Tippetts concludes each chapter with questions to help readers process their experiences. One in particular seems to pervade the entire book: Could I ever truly extol the grace of God while reclining in a life of ease? Gifts from an unearned love can lack luster during times of comfort. God’s fierce grace is welcomed but gets little attention—let alone praise—without the perspective pain brings. Holding tear-stained rags of desperation in her cancer-worn hands, Tippetts polishes her gifts of grace until they shine with the worth of the Giver.

Strength in Submission

We often mark cancer patients as “fighters.” Tippetts certainly fits this description, but her tenacity comes from submission, not strength. She wants readers to see her insufficiency. She tells of longing for “plenty without pain” and of struggling to see goodness in her own story. Her weaknesses feel familiar and relatable. I harbor them in my heart, too.

But submission does not require sufficiency. When God beckons Tippetts to a road we all fear walking, she takes each step with confidence in the one leading the way, not in herself. She walks with trust in God’s ability, not her own. 

Does Tippetts exercise a naïve submission? Does The Hardest Peace just repackage the well-meaning but trite adage to simply “trust the Lord and everything will turn out fine”? No. Tippetts couples submission with expectation. She expects God to make good on his promises of sufficiency and nearness, and to magnify his strength in her weakness. She expects God will act like God. Her expectations of God anchor her submission to him.

How does one implement an expectant submission? Tippetts keeps a certain posture: “I entered the scary and hard looking for grace, expecting grace, with face lifted, walking in love unimaginable” (33). This is the practical theology of Kara Tippetts: don’t walk around your hard things—walk through them on a scavenger hunt for grace.

Finding Peace in Grace

Tippetts looks expectantly for grace because she knows Jesus has already secured the greatest grace of all—one that brings unending peace. She writes: 

He bought me that day he died, and he showed his power when he overcame death and rose from the grave. He overcame my death in that moment. He overcame my fear of death in that unbelievable, beautiful moment, and the fruit of that death, that resurrection, and that stunning grace is peace. It is the hardest peace because it’s brutal. Horribly brutal and ugly, and we want to look away, but it is the greatest, greatest story that ever was. (156)

Knowing and believing the greatest story that ever was allows Tippetts to look at her own story and say, “This is my testimony of what is broken and ugly being made right and redeemed. This is the story of meeting Jesus in the hard, knowing him in today, and sharing his goodness in devastation” (17). She has experienced the peace purchased for her on the cross. The Hardest Peace challenges us to do the same.

When the Vinegar Comes 

No one wants the sour vinegar of suffering poured onto our sweet theology. Yet we have all tasted the harshness of vinegar, and we will all taste it again. Will you walk through your hard holding tight to the truth of God’s Word? When the vinegar comes, will you trust God to combine what you believe about him with your experience of him?

The Hardest Peace tells us the story of a woman who did. The oil of Tippetts’s theology and the vinegar of her suffering did not mix with a simple stir. They were shaken together until you couldn’t tell one from the other. Might the same be said of us when the vinegar is poured on our oil.