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The Discipline of Grace

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The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges is one of the best books I have ever read on how to live life as a believer. One of the persistent difficulties in the church is the idea that God’s approval must somehow be earned, that when a believer sins, God becomes angry and punishes him but that when he does what is right, then God is pleased and blesses him. Yet this misconception is directly contrary to the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Somehow in going from salvation to sanctification, the extraordinary message of the gospel becomes forgotten, and believers turn to performance and good works in an effort to win favor with God (or, less charitably, to put God in their debt). So Bridges writes a prescription that serves as a refrain throughout the rest of the book: “Preach the gospel to yourself every day.”

In order to make sure his readers understand what he means, he then provides an excellent summary of the gospel, and the most salient feature of that gospel is God’s grace, his undeserved love and favor toward people. It is this grace that enables believers to pursue a life of holiness. By insisting on and holding together both grace and discipline, Bridges avoids two errors. The first focuses too much on grace and denies that believers have a role in their own perfecting. The second goes the other way and treats as grudging duty what should be joyful privilege.

The final chapters detail five disciplines necessary for pursuing holiness. These are not the religious disciplines one might expect: prayer, fasting, meditation, service, and so on. No, they are spiritual disciplines that deal much more with attitude than with action.

Throughout the book, the author draws liberally on Puritan theologians, often paraphrasing their prose for today’s audience. Nevertheless, the book is not for the casual or fainthearted reader. It requires but also amply repays patiently intent reading. Bridges is never glib; his writing cannot be skimmed. He deals with concepts that are inherently complex, even seemingly paradoxical, so his prose is likewise careful and precise. My only complaint is that at times his tone becomes somewhat scolding; at times he seems to assume that his readers are reluctant to follow him and in need of reminders of their duty. But this is a niggling objection to an otherwise excellent book.

This book is for any believer serious about becoming more like Jesus in his or her daily life. It is not a book of stuffy rules but of vivid principles. Those who read it with understanding will be changed by it as they put its principles into practice. Highly recommended.

I reviewed this book as part of the NavPress blogger review program, which provides free books in exchange for reviews. I did not receive any other payment for this review.

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Fort Hood Rampage

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The news coming out of Fort Hood is shocking. Soldiers killed and wounded by one of their own. My heart goes out to the families and friends of those killed and wounded. No words can console them; they are bereft.

Tomorrow the pundits and analysts will start in. We will hear again about the need for gun control legislation and about our Constitutional rights. Major Hasan’s motives will be examined, and some will wonder why no one saw him as a threat. There will be proposals to beef up security at our military bases. Some of the proposals might even do some good. Some will seize on Maj. Hasan’s evident Muslim faith as a probable factor. Others will point to the majority of Muslims throughout the world who just want to live and let live.

No matter what comes out, however, about Maj Hasan’s motives, we should keep two facts in mind: We cannot guarantee anyone’s safety, and we don’t want a society that values safety above freedom.

We certainly ought to take all reasonable precautions to protect our service members. If we can prevent a recurrence of what happened at Fort Hood, let’s do it. We need to realize, however, that an open society will always also be dangerous. We could (theoretically) have a benevolent totalitarian society where the government provides protection for everyone. No one has guns except the government. No one can move from place to place without official permission. We give up every privacy and all our self-determination in exchange for safety and control. As individuals, we face these same choices all the time. We can accept responsibility for our actions and remain a danger to ourselves and others, or we can cede control to others who declare that they have our best interests at heart and let them tell us what to do.

One of the reasons why we still like hero stories—movies about tough good guys and rule-breaking bad-asses with hearts of gold—is that we value freedom above safety. I think all humans are like this, though there are differences in degree from culture to culture. What we seldom realize is that in opting for freedom over safety, we are also choosing hardship and suffering over comfort and ease. Even those of us who lead lives of relative ease, do so by offering our sons and daughters, our friends and companions, those among us who are willing to fight and risk death in order to preserve our freedoms. They buy our right to safety and comfort. Usually the price is low: a few years of service with good pay and benefits and moderate risk. Sometimes it is high: traumatic injury, mental disorder, physical and emotional scars. Occasionally it is exorbitant: death.

Freedom isn’t free. It’s not free in the political world, and it’s not free in the spiritual world. Some of us must suffer and even die to maintain our freedoms. We don’t get to choose who among us will be the ones to pay. So everyone must be ready.

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New Problem of Pain

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Mark Tabb offers a very accessible explanation for why God allows pain and suffering in the world. Using the book of Job as well as anecdotes from his own experience as a pastor and chaplain, Tabb takes on the problem of pain and provides a defense that is compassionate, reasonable, and lucid.

The book of Job is not an easy book to understand. Written as ancient Hebrew poetry, it has troubled both translators and interpreters. Everything Job’s comforters say to him, for example, seems to come right out of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Yet the author of Job charges them with bad comfort and—worse—misrepresenting God. Tabb does an excellent job navigating the concepts presented in Job, explaining their relevance to his theme, and making the book come alive for his readers.

Interpreting Job, however, is not Tabb’s main purpose. He wants to answer the question that forms the title of his book: How Can a Good God Let Bad Things Happen? He tells us right off that he has another question in mind, too, one that Job himself asks: Shall we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10). Tabb squarely confronts the conundrum of a good God who nevertheless permits or even causes disaster (see Isaiah 45:7).

Throughout, Tabb’s style is conversational and personal. I never had the feeling that he was talking down to me or telling me just to buck up. His use of personal anecdotes as well as liberal quoting from the Bible and C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain appeals to both heart and head. This is a book for those who have experienced pain and loss. It is also a book for those who simply want to understand. The hardest part of sharing another’s grief is that you can’t. You want to empathize, to feel with them, but you find yourself able to offer nothing more than your presence.

Tabb leads us through the shock and horror of tragic loss, through anger at God and disbelief, to acceptance and perhaps something more, perhaps to genuine comfort. To some his answers will still seem trite. Certainly the last chapter, introducing heaven and eternity as balm for the wounded soul, is the weakest. He is at his best when dealing with the here and now. But his reasoning is theologically sound and thoroughly orthodox, an excellent antidote to recent works that explain pain by diminishing God.

This book is for anyone who has ever questioned how God can be both loving and all powerful. For some, this issue is a major stumbling block preventing them from coming to faith in Christ. It may also be for someone who has experienced suffering, but I would urge caution. Those who are grieving do not need more books to read. They need your presence.

Disclosure: The publisher, NavPress, provided me a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

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