Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book Review: Where Is God When It Hurts

(Reclaimed from Blogjob, where it appeared with the following tags: God’s place in human anguishneurological consideration of pain,theological consideration of paintiger swallowtail butterflytwentieth century Christian classicuse and abuse of philosophical beliefs about pain.)

A Fair Trade Book
Author: Philip Yancey
Author's web page:
Date: 1977, 1990
Publisher: Zondervan
ISBN: 0-310-35411-0
Length: 278 pages plus 6 pages of endnotes
Quote: “I learned that many books on pain seem oddly irrelevant to suffering people...Many suffering people want to love God, but cannot see past their tears.”
Where Is God When It Hurts? is a Christian Classic. That's the trouble with it. It's become a cliché, and although Yancey's answer to this question has comforted many people it's also become an excuse people use to avoid doing what they know they should be doing about others' distress.
This book is primarily about chronic physical pain. The new edition contains a lot of interesting research on the human sensorium. It’s possible that Yancey’s reports on how and why we perceive things might provide several welcome hours of distraction.
Then again there are little errors at which some minds like to pick. “We have eyes: the world assaults them with neon lights and phosphorescent colors until a sunset or butterfly pales in comparison. Imagine what a glimpse of a tiger swallowtail butterfly did for the senses in a village of medieval Europe.”
Interestingly enough, no medieval European writer I’ve read ever mentioned such a glimpse, not because the medieval Europeans were numb to the beautiful sights they had—they found a lot to say about roses, lilies, wheatfields, maybush, and nightingales—but because tiger swallowtail butterflies don't live in Europe. Some people who are bedfast and in pain let quibbles like this one carry their minds along through months of distraction.
For me, distractions and several other techniques of pain management seem more likely to help than page after page of stories about human anguish, presumably on the theory that what suffering people need is to be told that someone else is or was suffering more. Maybe it’s because I’m Highly Sensory-Perceptive, but although reading about someone else’s crushed spine or postpolio damage may help me understand and work with that person, reading or thinking about such things will not relieve my blistered heel or food intolerance reaction. Far from it. Yancey has apparently shared these stories with patients in hospitals, and not been thrown out and even been invited to come back, so presumably this approach works for some people. I just don’t know any of them.
Yancey’s conclusion is that God is suffering with us. And in a way I can believe this. Christians are told that we are the living Body of Christ. When Christ has given us the ability to relieve someone’s suffering—to fix the facts first, and let the feelings follow—and we do nothing, how are we to imagine that Christ would feel? I imagine that He feels like a paralyzed stroke patient. Part of His Body has gone dead on Him and is not moving as He wants it to move. Oh, the pain, the frustration we must be giving our Lord...when we spout our “spiritual” clichés and fail to fix the facts!
Sometimes we have not been given the ability to fix the facts. There is no real cure for rheumatoid arthritis. But when we use this discouraging fact to distract ourselves from the fact that we have been given the ability to fix the facts in many cases of human suffering, and have failed to do the task, maybe we should imagine Jesus as a paraplegic patient going through an especially gruesome round of physical therapy. Will that foot never heal!
The people who most need this book are the ones who aren’t suffering from anything, or aren’t suffering from anything worse than poor self-care. Reading about quadriplegics with continuous intense pain from crushed spines, or inmates of prison camps, can offer the hope of improvement for these people in either of two ways. Either it can show them that they are comparatively well off and give them the idea that they might do something to help someone else; or, failing that, it can at least give them a genuinely sad story to share with anyone foolish enough to ask why they’re so sad.
Other Christians need to think about how they quote or recommend this book. We have a neighbor, let's say (because I've used this true story before) who lost his job due to a painful injury that kept him from working for several months. When he lost his job, his wife and children left him and became welfare dependents. When he was able to look for another job, his driver's license was revoked because he'd been unable to pay child support. When he lost his driver's license, he became unqualified for most of the jobs he could still do. Now he's afraid that, if he loses his nice house in our neighborhood, he'll have to go back to another neighborhood, fall in with old drinking buddies again, and sink back into alcoholism again...he's been doing so well in AA all these years that we didn't even know he was an alcoholic, but he is. And, being in the habit of spending a lot of our money on extravagant Christmas decorations, gifts, and parties, we fidget and say, "God is suffering right along with you, Joe!" Indeed God is--and the angels are weeping. Why they didn't smite the neighbors who watched this happen with a pestilence, I'll never understand.
For those who can resist the temptation to abuse Where Is God When It Hurts?, this book is widely available online, in many editions including Kindle and audio recordings. You may find a better price, but, if you send $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to either address at the bottom of the screen, I'll send $1 per copy to Yancey or a charity of his choice. Yes, that means that if you want four copies you send me $25 by U.S. postal money order, or $26 by Paypal, and Yancey or his charity gets $4.