Surprised by Suffering: Book Review (condensed)

This is a condensed review of R. C. Sproul's book, Surprised by Suffering. For a more complete summary of the book, please follow the link.

Surprised it's not entirely about the theology of suffering

Surprised by Suffering by R. C. Sproul, founder and chairman of Ligionier Ministries, is a “revised and expanded” 2009 reprint of the book by the same title. In its preface, Sproul addresses his readers “that you would not be surprised when suffering comes into your life. I want you to see that suffering is not at all uncommon, but also that it is not random—it is sent by our heavenly Father, who is both sovereign and loving, for our ultimate good.” This, along with the title of the book, prepared me for a discussion of the theology of suffering, “that suffering is a vocation, a calling from God.” However, while theologically solid and Scripture-infused, Surprised by Suffering is unsure of its message and audience. Sometimes it reads as a primer on the theology of suffering and sometimes it becomes eschatological discussion; sometimes it assumes familiarity with Christian terms and at other times it doesn’t; sometimes it is an encouragement to faithful Christians and at other times takes a tract-style approach to the Gospel.

The strength of Surprised by Suffering lies in its first four chapters, where Sproul gives the clear message that “suffering is a vocation, a calling from God” and discusses its implications. He takes an honest look at Scripture and at the world, quickly admitting the existence of suffering, and warns, “The zealous person who promises us a life free from suffering has found his message from a source other than Scripture.” Deferring to Christ as the Christian’s example, Sproul points that “our Savior was a suffering Savior” who “went before us into the uncharted land of agony and death” and discusses the proper response of the church to imitate Christ as the bride of Christ, participating in His suffering yet adding nothing to His merit. Subsequent chapters, however, discuss topics tangentially related to suffering but lose focus and direction. Sproul turns from a discussion of suffering in this life to an extensive exercise in eschatology including a discussion of those “dying in faith” as opposed to “dying in sin” (a very “turn-or-burn” approach), a study of the intermediate state, a denial of Purgatory, and a comparison of the heavenly body to the “natural” body.

I would recommend the first 4 chapters, the 10th chapter, and the section on “Questions and Answers” for Christians struggling with suffering (and their Christian friends). In these sections, Sproul provides much biblical wisdom into the nature and calling of suffering. However, Christians, particularly those with strong church backgrounds, may find the rest of the book mildly interesting but unhelpful during trial. I would not recommend this book for non-Christians, both “unchurched” and some “de-churched,” as Sproul assumes a certain level of familiarity with the Bible from his readers, with the exception of his tract-style presentation of the Gospel located in the middle of the book, which even most non-Christians are bound to have heard before. Three out of five stars.

FTC Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book “Surprised by Suffering” from the publisher, Reformation Trust, in exchange for this book review, which was required to be “serious, substantive and fair.” The publisher did not require a positive review.