There are a number of recent treatments on the problem of suffering. Christian writers and theologians have reflected on losing loved ones, trying circumstances, diagnoses of debilitating, chronic, and terminal diseases, and natural disasters. Many of these theologians seek to trace the place that suffering has within the purposes of God. In Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic offers his theological and pastoral meditation on pain, prompted by watching his wife battle chronic pain and fatigue for several years. He doesn’t guess at the ‘why’ behind suffering but describes the reality of pain, and the resources available to those of us who suffer.
Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) and an author of several books. He stands firmly in the Reformed tradition, but unlike some of his Calvinist friends, you won’t find him tweeting about ‘God’s greater purpose’ in the wake of profound tragedy. Embodied Hope doesn’t attempt a theodicy—a defense of God in the face of evil’s existence. His first chapter opens, “This book will make no attempt to defend God. I will not try to justify God or explain away the physical suffering in the world. Instead, I wrestle with nagging questions about our lives, our purpose, and our struggles. How should we live in the midst of this pain-soaked world? How do we relate to the God whose world this is?” (7-8).
In the pages that follow, Kapic examines the reality of pain, wrestling honestly with the experience (part 1), before examining the resources we have in the midst of suffering: Jesus (part two) and Christian community (part 3).
In part 1, Kapic takes an honest look at the problem of pain, describing its debilitating effect on our spirituality. In chapter one Kapic notes how the problem of pain causes us to ‘think hard things about God.’ In chapter two, he discusses the need for Christians to develop both pastoral sensitivity and theological instincts (24), by not attempting to untangle the ‘why’ behind suffering but instead seeking to love others well, even in our theologizing (26). In chapter three, Kapic advocates the place of lament and grief in Christian spirituality. He notes:
We will only discover hope when we are ruthlessly honest about what lies between us and that hope. At least such truth telling is required if we are ever to know the true hope of the ancient Christian confession. The church denies the power of the gospel when it trivializes grief and belittles physical pain, overspiritualizing our existence in such a way as to make a mockery of the Creator Lord. Faithfulness to the gospel requires the Christian community to deal with the messiness of human grief. Biblical faith is not meant to provide an escape from physical pain or to belittle the darkness of depression and death but rather invite us to discover hope amid our struggle (41).
Chapters five and six invite us to a spirituality that embraces our physical embodiment and the ‘questions that come with pain.
In part 2, Kapic describes the resources available in Christ Jesus for Christians suffering and in pain. Chapter six discusses how Jesus’ incarnation involved God’s self-identification with us in our embodiment. In chapter seven, Kapic explains how Christ on the cross, entered fully with us, into the experience of pain and death. In chapter eight, Kapic explores how we enter into Christ’s resurrection and the hope of redemption beyond our pain and death. Kapic writes, “Christian affirmation of resurrection is not chiefly about escaping this world but righting it. Resurrection is not about denying this world but rather enabling believers to have an honest assessment of their experience and yet to have a real hope for restoration beyond it. Pain is real, but it is not the only reality” (115).
Part 3 describes the resources available for sufferers within Christian community. In chapter nine, Kapic discusses, through the lens of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Luther, the ways fellow Christians enliven our faith when we are in a weakened state, proclaim hope to us when we are unable to proclaim hope for ourselves, and demonstrates to us the matrix of divine love by walking alongside us in our pain and suffering. Chapter ten reflects (with Dietrich Bonhoeffer) on the resources of confession for those who suffer (e.g. forgiveness, cleansing, healing, restoration, release from shame and condemnation and false images of God that compound psychological suffering, and mediating Christ’s presence). Chapter eleven describes faithfulness in the midst of suffering.
Kapic offers these reflections as a gift to the church. Pastors, pastoral counselors and all who walk along side Christians in pain, will find Kapic’s counsel to be both wise and sensitive. He avoids clichés and offers an embodied hope to those suffering. I appreciate the way he wrestles with the reality of pain and takes an honest look at it. He honors those who are suffering by describing with sensitivity the difficulties they face, but also acknowledges how destructive pain may be for their spiritual lives:
Christians struggling with physical pain often develop defense mechanisms that are destructive in the long run. Denial, for example, can take many forms, like the cultivation of detachment from pain. By deadening their affections and repressing their frustrations, some seek to carve out an inhabitable and safe place. Not only is this strategy partly successful, but the colors of life soon dissolve into the blandness of grays and whites. . . .Although the one who closes off the pain this way may not literally lie in the grave, those who know them whisper concerns about how ‘dead’ they have become (58).
It is only after describing the dangers and realities implicit in pain, and encouraging sufferers to examine themselves honestly, that he describes the embodied hope we have in the midst of pain: the Jesus who took on flesh, suffered, died, rose and ascended and the body of Christ which mediates His presence today.
This book will be a helpful aid for pastors, sufferers of chronic illness and for their supportive community. I recommend this book highly. Five stars: ★★★★★
Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review