What’s So Great about Suffering?

A review of The Sweet Side of Suffering by M. Esther Lovejoy

Lovejoy has walked some hard roads, and she knows how the story ends. On each page, she takes her readers’ eyes off of themselves and turns them to the fullness of Christ. The sweetness of our suffering does not depend so much on our ability to cling to Christ, but in his sure and certain ability to grab hold of us. This book beautifully reveals that suffering is an opportunity for more abundant grace.

Lovejoy, M. Esther. The Sweet Side of Suffering. 2013: Discovery House. 146 pages. ISBN 978-1-57293-745-1

I remember the first time I talked to a man who had been introduced to the Biblical narrative as an adult. He had never heard the story of God’s redemption before, and, vivid in my mind, is his retelling of his first reading through the Gospel of John. As he read about Jesus’ crucifixion, he was genuinely aghast. The Jesus he had come to love was … dead. At the time, this man had no idea that a turn of the page—the passage of three days—would reveal the triumph of resurrection and the first fruits of his own glorification.

Similarly, my children are often distressed by the text of the Scriptures, especially the narratives of suffering encountered by God’s people. Recently in family worship, we read through the life of Joseph, and, more than once, we observed little ones blinking back tears on the couch. How can his brothers be so mean to Joseph? What if they just leave him in that pit forever? Why did that unkind lady tell lies about Joseph and put him in jail?

Coming to the Scripture for the first time, where all the endings are surprises and every chapter break is a cliffhanger, has a unique immediacy and urgency. But for Christian adults, familiar with the Bible, we already know how it all turns out: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) For us, John’s Gospel or the book of Genesis is no longer a suspenseful read; it is something better.

The most precious fruit of the Biblical narrative comes after long years of study, when we are so familiar with the text that we can see in it the hand of God at every point.

(On our most recent study of Joseph, for example, I was suddenly aware of the importance of order: if the baker had told his dream first—and received its message of death—the cupbearer surely would have kept silent, and would have had no personal testimony for Pharaoh. My knowledge of the story’s ending highlighted its plot lines, and God is in those details.)

Only when we know how it all turns out, can we be alert to the microscopic providences that intersect to bring the God-glorifying conclusion.

A new book, The Sweet Side of Suffering by M. Esther Lovejoy, provides this kind of retrospective. Lovejoy herself is a woman with sorrows, familiar with suffering: her pastor husband fell into sin that resulted in his removal from ministry and the death of their marriage; her business failed through the duplicity of a business partner, and her home was foreclosed as a result; her children have wandered from the faith along painful paths.

In one of the early chapters, she uses the example of a young woman about to give birth to her first child. The older ladies in Lovejoy’s church had gathered around the pregnant woman, describing the experience of labor in glowing terms. Lovejoy, passing by, felt compelled to add her own perspective: “And, it hurts!”

This exchange becomes a framework for the rest of the book. She acknowledges both the pain of suffering and its glorious results. And her book proclaims the end from the beginning: what was meant for evil, God meant for good. Taking the role of experienced guide through the valley of suffering, Lovejoy tells her readers what to be looking for along the way.

This is the approach taken by Jesus himself in John 16:33. “In this world you will have tribulation,” he says. Suffering hurts. And then he proclaims the end, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Oh, the sweetness.

In this verse, Jesus also makes it clear that suffering is guaranteed: “you will have tribulation.” In view of this certainty, Lovejoy’s book will be useful for all Christians, whether they are currently in the valley or anticipating a future descent.

The book’s ten chapters each cover a different “sweetness” that Christians can find in the midst of trials: His Voice, Knowing God, His Care, Surrender, Shared Suffering, His Comfort, His Names, His Grace, Hope. Lovejoy gives personal examples of discovering each, drawn from her own experiences with suffering.

Particularly beneficial is her chapter on “The Sweetness of Knowing God.” In it, she points her readers to the ways that they can learn more of Christ as a result of trials. She writes:

“Suffering is often a confusing time spiritually. Why doesn’t God heal when he can? Why did God allow this to happen? Why doesn’t God change my circumstances? We are often baffled and confused by what we perceive to be God’s actions, or lack of concern, on our behalf. Whatever the specific question, it comes down to one agonizing word: Why?

We may never know the “whys,” but we can know the “Who.” We can begin to know in a deeply personal way the truths about God’s phenomenal nature—His unfailing love, His great faithfulness.” (p. 45-46)

Comparing suffering to a night she spent in the African countryside, Lovejoy explores how the absence of distracting and earthly lights can highlight the heavenly ones. In the same way, when suffering snuffs out our familiar and temporal sources of stability, we find ourselves able to see and experience Christ’s sufficiency, shining more brightly than we ever knew before.

I have two minor criticisms of the book. In Chapter 1, Lovejoy makes a point that God sustains His people in suffering by his promises; but, in one example, she quotes Ezekiel 36:33-36 as a specific promise that her rebellious daughter would be restored. This verse is indeed a glorious and trustworthy promise of God’s restoration of His covenant people, but I am not convinced it should be applied as a guarantee of a particular individual’s future redemption.

She is right, however, about the unfailing sweetness of God’s promises. Her words echo those of C.H. Spurgeon, who wrote during his own season of suffering: “Never were the promises of Jehovah so precious to me as in this hour.” (p. v, Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith)

Also, in Chapter 9, I found Lovejoy’s distinction between punishment and correction to be somewhat confusing. That said, if I understand her main point, it is a valid one: a Christian’s suffering should not be automatically viewed as punishment, but rather as God’s fatherly hand of discipline. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.” Neither of these two issues should detract significantly from Lovejoy’s larger message.

In talking to suffering saints, I often point to 1 Peter 1:6-7: “though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith. . .may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” [emphasis mine]

Suffering is not handed out sloppily. Each trial is for a distinct and glorious purpose. This book is in that spirit. Rather than simply advising teeth-gritting, clock-watching endurance, The Sweet Side of Suffering is a companion to seeking out the kind and necessary hand of God in all difficult things.

Lovejoy writes, “We can come to the end of our times of suffering having experienced nothing but the suffering, or we can allow the Lord to do the work he desires to do—to squeeze every possible benefit and good that can come from it.” (p. 135)

Lovejoy has walked some hard roads, and she knows how the story ends. On each page, she takes her readers’ eyes off of themselves and turns them to the fullness of Christ. The sweetness of our suffering does not depend so much on our ability to cling to Christ, but in his sure and certain ability to grab hold of us. This book beautifully reveals that suffering is an opportunity for more abundant grace.

You who suffer, take heart.

Megan Hill is a PCA pastor’s wife and regular contributor to The Aquila Report. She writes Sunday Women, a blog about ministry life, with her mother.