I think we can all agree that 2020 was one heck of a year. Many of us had to deal with loss and suffering whether that be lifestyle changes, loss of job, or the death of family and/or friends. 2021 hasn’t started out any better with the capital riots, and the strained transition of power between Presidents. As I was looking over my bookshelf, trying to determine what books I wanted to read for this blog, one caught my eye that seemed to be a good resource for the year we just had. Shaped by Suffering: How Temporary Hardships Prepare Us for Our Eternal Home by Kenneth Boa with Jenny Abel was published, rather timely, in February of 2020 by InterVarsity Press, and completes a trilogy of books on cultivating an eternal perspective. Boa and Abel essentially take on the age-old-question, in this book, “How can a good God allow suffering?” By looking at the epistle 1 Peter, they suggest that God uses our suffering for our spiritual formation to make us more like Christ.
It is important that we have an understanding of what Boa means by suffering in order to fully understand this book. In the introduction he writes, “When we think of suffering, our minds immediately gravitate to the more visible, outward forms. But suffering can be inward too…Mental illness, fear, and struggles against certain temptations are example of inward suffering.” So the scope of suffering that God can use for our formation is quite literally any circumstance that can cause struggles and strife. He also notes that suffering can be caused by by oneself, purposefully or by accident, or by some outside influence, spiritual or otherwise. According to Boa, these difficulties lead us to a place where God can work His transforming power on us to shape us into the image of His son.
Suffering can either make us bitter or make us better.
Suffering is something that all believers should expect in this world (John 15:20). Boa suggests a few way in which we can prepare ourselves for such a time. First, it is important that Christians have an ongoing relationship with Jesus, and to seek to add the spiritual disciplines into thier lives. This is important as it prepares the way for going through what stress may be headed your way, and keeps you from being disappointed or discouraged. A second preparation that should be made is having a “mindset of confidence in God” that keeps you from having feelings of fear. An meaningful biblical image for this is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Then, Christians should work to develop a Christlike attitude of humility towards suffering. Finally, you should stay alert for coming suffering. Then you continue to build upon all of this over and over again in a constant cycle, like building a sturdy wall to withstand any force that comes against it.
Adversity is real and to be expected; but Jesus has overcome the world, and he has promised that his people (the church) will prevail.
I’m not going to lie to you, reading this book was much more difficult than I expected. This wasn’t because of language, or material, or anything that had to do with the actually book. I had difficulty reading this because I was in a place of spiritual struggle as my family was dealing with financial difficulties and we did not feel very much that God cared for us. I’m sure in some ways this book is meant to be an encouragment to people that are suffering, but this is not what I experienced. Boa and Abel write in a way that is very sensitive to the sufferings of others, and they in no way desire to down play whatever difficulties you are going through. Looking back over the book, I can see what kind of benefit it provides.Here is a book that gives a practical guide for both preparing oneself for the suffering that will be coming and for ministering to those that are currently suffering. I think this book would make a great resource for any pastor to have on their bookshelf and continue to refer to it as they minister. I am thankful that I have read this book, though I still struggling. I can now see that the things I am dealing with now are a crucible that will make me into a better person for God. It will give me a deeper connection, the kind that I so desperately desire.
Pick yourself up a copy of this book and let’s continue the conversation about God using suffering in our spiritual formation.