Reverand Eric Tonjes is a Presbyterian pastor, and his young wife and mother of their three children is dying from cancer. In these pages, he shares his reflections from that excruciating season with a breadth that spans the raw to the pastoral. He is a fellow traveler and thoughtful guide, and he commands a unique position as a seminary-educated pastor encountering the piercing agony of terminal illness and death, who further possesses a willingness to have his suffering be seen by the world as well as the presence of mind coherently to write about it.
Tonjes begins by suggesting that modern American culture displays a basic lack of skills—even an unwillingness—to face suffering and death, and he regards the modern American church as having a share in that ineptitude. Christians generally mimic the pattern of their unbelieving neighbors, seeking to avoid grappling with death in favor of more comfortable pursuits. Yet Tonjes points out that Jesus himself stands as a rebuke to that agenda, if for no other reason than that he himself faced death and died. Moreover, the Psalms, the hymnbook of God’s people, provide a liturgy for the gamut of human experience, not least of which is lament. In issuing this criticism, Tonjes effectively establishes his audience and his aim. It is evident that he means to speak to Christian people, and he intends to have their imaginations ferment in the realities of suffering and death—using the anguish within his own life as the leaven—in order to explore essential richness in the character of God.
Before turning to this objective, he includes a review of the creation and fall accounts, since they provide an essential framework for understanding all human experience, from suffering to joy. Tonjes suggests that these accounts taken together enable Christians to hold their experiences of beauty and brokenness in appropriate tension. So, with this background in place, he gives his attention to the person of God, and this is the focus of most of the rest of his book.
In the following eight chapters, Tonjes presents four aspects of the character of God which, to his mind, are most relevant to the human experience of suffering and death: God Above Us, God Beside Us, God Within Us, and God Victorious. Under the heading of God Above Us, Tonjes offers God’s sovereign kingship as the answer to what is perhaps the most widely felt concern among reformed Christian people who experience profound suffering: “this is out of control.” Tonjes does not mince his words. “Perhaps the most challenging idea in Scripture is its insistence that God is in control even of the circumstances of our grief”.1 He trumpets the sovereignty of God in no uncertain terms; he scratches the keenly-felt reformed itch to be assured that every event— the seemingly serendipitous to the most bitterly painful— occurs according to God’s meticulous control and divinely ordered will.
However, Tonjes’ implication that any disagreement with this description of God’s management of the cosmos arises out of a lack of humility2 is troubling and perhaps alienating to the Christian reader who is not as staunchly reformed as he is. Further, his subsequent presentation of divine incomprehensibility, while not illegitimate from a theological point of view, has the rhetorical impact of ending the conversation precisely where he has said his piece. Tonjes makes no allowances. This may not bother readers who closely share his view, and it may deeply comfort them, which need not be problematized in itself. But it may estrange other Christian people who seek solace.
“Suffering is not wasted for those in Christ; indeed, he works good in the midst of it.”
Tonjes proceeds with discussing glory and purpose as a reply to the concern: “this is wasted.” This chapter functions to take his previous argument a natural step further: God orders all things according to his wisdom and gives all things purpose in bringing him glory. Suffering is not wasted for those in Christ; indeed, he works good in the midst of it.
From God Above Us, he moves to God Beside Us and holds out Jesus, a man of sorrows, to the cry raised by grief: “I suffer alone.” Tonjes insists that Jesus suffers with us and we with him, and because Jesus is one with the Father, his suffering death on the cross illuminates our understanding of the nature of God. Which is to say, by incredible mystery, God himself suffers with us. Following this is Tonjes’ chapter on deaths and resurrections, where he offers a response to the despairing thought that “this is beyond hope.” Tonjes points to the resurrection of Jesus and claims that nothing is beyond the redemptive power of God, for he can raise the dead.
From God Beside Us, he moves to God Within Us and presents God-in-our-midst to the anxiety that “I am abandoned.” Here, Tonjes traces the presence of God throughout Scripture, covering Eden, tabernacle, temple, the Incarnation, and finally Pentecost. We are not abandoned even in agony, and not only because Jesus suffers with us, but also because the Spirit dwells within us. Tonjes then turns to the postures of wrestling and resting, which function as a path forward for those who cry “I am in turmoil.” A soul in chaos may need to wrestle or to rest, and God welcomes both. The patriarch Jacob wrestled with God through the night. Jesus himself invites the weary to rest. Faith in the midst of suffering does not mean there is no struggle; it means the struggle is Godward.
Tonjes then shifts finally to God Victorious. He offers Jesus’ triumph to grief’s cynicism that “death is the last word.” Tonjes focuses on the Christian story that culminates not in death and flames, but in the resurrection of Jesus. The pattern instills hope; it is not simply life-to-death, but life-to-death-to-life again. And finally, his chapter on resurrection and restoration addresses the attitude that “eternity is not worth the pain of death.” Tonjes champions an embodied resurrection and insists that God will raise our bodies to an eternity more real and worthwhile than we have ever known.
Having covered these aspects of the character of God, Tonjes attends briefly to the question of healing, and he observes the latent idolatry in the quest for a quick fix. He encourages his readers to endure for the long game, as he himself models the posture which is reflected in the title of the book: God may heal his wife or he may not, but “either way, he is faithful and we’re going to be okay”.3
In his penultimate chapter addressing practical considerations for those who are suffering, he includes three: the means of grace, the snare of sin, and the fellowship of the saints. In keeping with the Westminster Shorter Catechism, he identifies Scripture, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer as the means of grace designed to sustain God’s people. These practices, taken with the community of believers, are well-given—they are accessible to the wounded, they nourish the weary instead of making steep demands of them, and they increase faith.
“Pain and death are undeniable realities, yet God may be seen through them, and even understood more truly through their lens.”
His treatment of the snare of sin—the reality of temptation for the suffering—possesses a significant flaw that is perhaps as unintentional as it is damaging in its implications. Tonjes cites 1 Peter 5:8, which describes the devil as one who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Tonjes highlights specific lion behavior of which Peter makes no mention, namely, their targeting of the slow and weak.4 He then casts the suffering as “stragglers,” like a wounded animal lagging behind the herd, and Tonjes insists that the devil-lion will have no mercy on them even in their weakened state. It is a spiritual “survival of the fittest” scenario.
To his credit, Tonjes (and Peter) means to put his suffering readers on their guard, but this is so they may resist the temptation when it comes!5 The straggler image suggests that being mastered by the devil is inevitable. Moreover, the whole of Scripture attests that Satan preys on everybody, weak and strong alike. Peter simply does not use the lion image chiefly to highlight Satan’s selectivity, or even his readers’ susceptibility. Further to that, it would be unfair (at the very least) to imply that a person in pain is a spiritual liability with respect to temptation in general. Talking about temptation is important; talking about it in the context of suffering is appropriate; using the straggler image to illustrate vulnerability creates problems.
In his final chapter, Tonjes shares experiences of God’s nearness—above him, beside him, within him, reigning victorious—as his wife nears her death. He brings the reader full circle, back to the locus of his grief, and demonstrates what he is trying to encourage. He looks to God with eyes clouded with tears. Pain and death are undeniable realities, yet God may be seen through them, and even understood more truly through their lens. Tonjes’ book can help us begin an overlooked, but necessary space to listen to God at work: the modern American church needs to give her ear to the suffering among us.