Surprised by Suffering: Book Review (summary)

This is a summary of R. C. Sproul's book, Surprised by Suffering. For a more condensed review 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, in which Sproul examines the theology of suffering. 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.” To prove that Scripture indeed carries this message, Sproul provides and explains examples from 1 Peter 4, Colossians 1:24, 1 Peter 1:6-9, and a myriad of other sources. From these verses, Sproul teaches “how it is possible to be perplexed but not in despair,” and that “our suffering has a purpose—it helps us toward the end of our faith, which is the salvation of our souls.” Chapter 2 looks at Christ Himself, who walked “the via dolorosa.” He points that “our Savior was a suffering Savior” who “went before us into the uncharted land of agony and death” and looks at the proper response of the church to imitate Christ as the bride of Christ, participating in His suffering yet adding nothing to His merit. In Chapter 3 Sproul examines Job as a case study in suffering, discussing the relationship of sin, suffering, and God’s Sovereignty in the midst of trial. Sproul challenges Christians to continue on the “pilgrimage [that] moves from faith to faith, from strength to strength, and from grace to grace,” even when “ironically, the progress passes through suffering and tribulation.” Chapter 4, not included in the original publication of the book, finishes Sproul’s discussion of suffering by considering its purpose. While admitting that “the Sovereignty of God is one of the most difficult doctrines to get in one’s bloodstream,” Sproul argues that we can trust that God is Sovereign even during our suffering. He points the reader to Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 and explains why it is “better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” because such a trip leads to wisdom.

While the first 4 chapters act as a primer on the theology of suffering and serve what I believe to be the strength of the book, the last 6 chapters read like a primer on the theology of death and salvation. Though the book’s subtitle, “the role of pain and death in the Christian life” hinted at such a discussion, I was taken aback a bit, since this did not fit Sproul’s stated intention for the book, quoted earlier. Sproul’s use of Christian terms such as “justification” and “righteousness” without subsequent definition as well as his discussion of people “dying in their sins” as opposed to “dying in faith” (a very “turn-or-burn” approach, though Sproul does not use those words) dates Sproul as part of an older generation of evangelicals. It was at this point I checked the date of the original printing. 1988 – which explains a lot. It is not that the terms “justification” and “righteousness” have fallen out of use (at least not rightfully) or that “turn-or-burn” is a very real message with very real consequences, but rather it has come to the attention of many that it is important to define theological terms to the unchurched as well as explain that there is joy and intimacy to be found with Christ, not just fire insurance. While I believe that Sproul would agree, these are simply not points that come across in his writing. As opposed to a discussion of the theology of suffering for believers and “seekers,” this section is a hodgepodge of Gospel tract and eschatology. Among other things, the latter includes affirmation of the intermediate state, denial of the existence of Purgatory, and a comparison of the resurrected body to the “natural” body. Chapter 10 finally returns to the theme of Christian suffering and finishes with Scripture about heaven and the promise of glory in heaven that promises, “that…our suffering is never, never, never in vain.”

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.