Go to any Christian bookstore and you will find shelf after shelf full of books addressing life issues from a “Christian” perspective: parenting, business, weight loss, goal setting, stress management, etc. No matter the topic, there is inevitably an “inspirational” twist to it that always ends up with a happy, smiley ending, where everything works out like a Lifetime movie. After all, the point of having faith in life is that you have your best life right now, right? And everybody knows that your best life means an increasing decrease of pain and discomfort.
That brief survey reveals a serious deficiency in the practical theology of US American Christians. We really have no theology of loss, pain, and distress. We’re Americans and Americans always win. Faith is ever triumphal. Our stories are supposed to wrap up with a neat bow at the end of each short-term episode.
Here’s the problem: life isn’t triumphal. Life is full of loss, pain and distress – even for Christians. There are unanswered questions and bow-less episodes. There’s long-term trouble. We struggle with disappointment, feelings of futility, anger with God, soul weariness, faith faltering and more. Absent any theology to handle that experience, what’s a Christian to do?
Polishing God’s Monuments: Pillars of Hope in Punishing Times is a rare and beautiful book that provides a practical, God-centered, faith-building perspective on life’s pain. Pastor and seminary professor Jim Andrews has done all Christians a service with his clear and compelling treatment of how to strengthen faith when everything around you is crumbling.
The arrangement of the book is what makes it so helpful. On the one hand, Andrews tells the heart-wrenching story of the mysterious illnesses that attacked his daughter and her husband over a 20 year period. At times, you are left open-mouthed with astonishment at the medical horrors this talented young couple endured, and how it affected their extended family as well. This story is recorded in a series of pastoral letters that Andrews wrote to his church family to update them on the family’s struggle and need for prayer.
In between the letters and the narrative, Andrews teaches a straightforward theology of loss, pain and distress. This is not simplistic cotton-candy teaching for the faint-of-heart. It is honest and Biblical, alternately sober and hopeful. He reminds us that “blind faith is not Biblical faith. Biblical faith is rooted in revelation, which is grounded on historical testimony and evidence.” .Monumental faith is not “‘great’ faith or heroic faith…the logic of monumental faith is simple. If God loved and cared for me in the past; if God displayed his wisdom and power for me in the past; if God in his essential and moral being is the same yesterday and today and forever; if I myself am on the same spiritual page as before when the Lord showed his glory on my behalf, then nothing in this baffling instance has changed except his secret purposes God has not changed, and you have not changed, but his purpose is different this time around.”
Andrews is not afraid to both affirm God’s sovereignty and embrace God’s mystery. “I don’t know why it is, but it seems more often than not, the Lord’s deliverances do not come early. He seldom saves the bacon before it is crisp!….let us come to terms with the reality that he can and will act as he pleases, our stifling preconceptions not withstanding. God can deliver us sooner…or later. He can deliver us through a storm, in the midst of it, or send us around one altogether….At times grace wears a fearful face….Christians know-or should know that what makes no sense to us makes all the sense in the world to God….Much may happen mysteriously, but nothing happens aimlessly.”
This is a wonderful meditation on the power and promise of the gospel. It is also a fascinating story of Christian commitment to faithfulness in marriage “in sickness and in health”. There are no short-cuts or platitudes here. Polishing God’s Monuments is a book all Christians would do well to read slowly and prayerfully. It will feed your soul for your own troubles-and prepare you to minister to others in their time of need.