“We’ve so fused our American Dream with the risen Christ that when suffering enters our lives and does not leave quickly, all we know how to do is hide, judge, or despair. We’ve reduced the gospel to rescue, power to privilege, and hope to swift healing, reducing ourselves in the process. Western Christendom has long treated suffering like a problem to fix and a blight to hide… When our storylines do not match the arc of triumph we’ve come to expect and revere, we can feel stuck on the outside of both our communities and God’s grace.”- KJ Ramsey
News of how the American Dream is largely a mirage has shown up on our televisions and smart phones for months now. We see the dream crumbling like an old abandoned building, as we read story upon story of inequities, and inhumane treatment suffered by many who call this nation home. Along with the decaying dream, we also see the hope of the Evangelical church in America fizzling out like Fourth of July sparklers.
Into this climate comes this timely call to re-examine our theology of suffering, and even of our God. It explores the question of whether we have emphasized the power and dominion of God and forgotten the God who comes near and suffers with? And who calls followers of Christ to do the same.
In this, her first, book author KJ Ramsey discusses her personal story of physical pain from a debilitating auto immune disease, but the content is surprisingly universal. The writing is a unique mix of personal story, brain science, theology, and counseling, with just the right amount of butt-kicking. It is smart and personal, scientific and soulful.
The chronically ill, or physically challenged are oft forgotten in our society, overlooked or viewed as a project. During these times when many of us are forced to stay home because of the advancing virus, these warriors are already very familiar with how this is done. For years, many have restricted their movements and stayed home because their immune systems required it, or because of the barriers they faced. This has been their daily reality which some of us are only now beginning to understand. Our current situation has revealed ways we have marginalized those who suffer, those who were prevented from attending church or participating in ways we view as “normal.”
READ: Comfort in a Time of Communal Suffering
Every leader in churches in the Western world should be reading this book before they make plans to re-open and go back to business as usual, which will again alienate the vulnerable. The author shares how living with chronic illness has been challenging within a body of believers. She becomes a loving whistleblower uncovering the ways the church has failed to embrace suffering as part of its inheritance, and how the suffering ones have been left on the scrap heap of success-driven Christianity. It is a call for the church to live up to its high and holy calling. After all we have experienced, and with the words of this book in our head, the voices of the marginalized can be heard and we know we can begin to do better.
While there is much in this book for leaders of faith communities, where it truly shines is for those who live a life of pain and those who journey with them. The author’s stories of fighting to be heard by the medical world, or accepted and affirmed by her church all the while facing doubt and pain, read like wisdom from a kind guide on the hard road of suffering. Her words allow the suffering person to feel seen and understood; it is a balm for the soul. As pain is acknowledged and weakness embraced, the author asserts, we are opened up to the presence of Jesus who himself is well acquainted with grief and sorrow. In spite of what society tells us, God is not absent during our struggles, but fully present and suffering alongside us. Into this place of communion with God, comes joy. The words in these pages are both challenging and encouraging, woven into a hope and grace-filled testament to the goodness of God in the midst of all of our stories.
There is likely no person alive who has not had the experience of receiving ill thought-out words in the midst of their pain, or has been the one to say the wrong things at the wrong time. We have heard such things as, “everything happens for a reason”, or “God must think you are strong to give you this”, perhaps, “all things work together for good.” These pat answers may hold a nugget of truth, but they are less than helpful in the moments of our deepest pain. We know words are inadequate, but we are not sure what we can offer instead. This book is a primer on how to respond. Ramsey leads the reader into an exploration of what true solidarity with the suffering might look like, how we embody the presence of God as we honor stories of pain and grief.
This Too Shall Last is for everyone who desires to go beyond trite, cliched responses to pain and hardship into a deeper, more nuanced understanding; we begin to hold the tension that suffering and joy can coexist. It refutes the ways we have adopted the prosperity gospel’s “name it and claim it” assertions for divine healing, and how we place the burden of continued pain on the shoulders of the one who suffers, who clearly did not have the faith required for a miracle. Instead we move into an understanding of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, joining our fellow believers around the world who expect hardship as an intrinsic part of faith. Our communities would be radically changed for the better if we could all read this book and learn to embrace the ones who suffer, while living into the balanced, whole-hearted, and biblical perspective it provides.