Finding faith in fragility.
Suffering is God’s way of getting us to realize just how desperately we need him.
It It is to my shame that until now I haven’t shared with you the bounty I’ve gleaned from Paul Tripp’s part-memoir, part-theological treatment of suffering, aptly titled, Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense. Throughout the fourteen grace-laden chapters, Tripp endeavors to extol God’s surplus grace for his suffering sons and daughters through his own personal recollection of the grace that was found in his own ordeal. Indeed, that’s what makes Suffering a book that’s as powerful as it is — namely, it’s insights aren’t the sort that are derived by a theologian pensively contemplating a theology of suffering. Rather, it’s power comes from the pain and struggle of one who’s had to wrestle with the deep, soul-level conflict suffering inflicts. Which is to say, these aren’t words from any ivory tower; they’re words written in the trenches.
That is, I think, what makes not only Paul Tripp’s but also St. Paul’s examination of suffering so prescient. Well that and the fact that the apostle’s words were Holy Spirit inspired. Nevertheless, it’s no wonder that St. Paul’s incredible treatment of his own suffering in 2 Corinthians 4—5 figures quite significantly in Tripp’s discussion of his own difficulty. Indeed, Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church is very much an explanation of precisely why suffering is the Christian experience and not an aberration. The “normal Christian life” can’t be explained or experienced without suffering at the core. “What we suffer isn’t a failure of God’s plan,” writes Tripp, “but a tool to bring us in line with God’s plan so that we’ll love what he’s prepared for us more than we love our present comfort.”1
Both Tripp and the apostle make this point evident through a discussion of the realized treasure of “clay jars” (2 Cor. 4:7). Brittle clay vessels are an appropriate image of the sufferer, whose structural soundness diminishes significantly the more it is jostled about or dropped. Even still, as St. Paul makes clear, the fragility of clay vessels though difficult isn’t ultimately detrimental precisely because it is through difficulty and agony and pain and suffering “that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). Therefore, our inherent fragility and inability to withstand seasons of travail isn’t an accident either. In fact, as Tripp points out, “we were created to be fragile.”
We were created to be fragile, because God wants to accomplish something good through our fragility. He allows us to be cracked to we will finally get the fact that hope and security are never found by what’s in us but only by what’s in him.2
Tripp’s point here is indubitably comforting. And theologically significant. Our weaknesses aren’t by mistake or accident. They’re purposeful. As are the circumstances which seem to pinpoint the precise areas where we’re weak. The heartbreaking situations you and I endure feel as though they’ve been clued in to the exact spots where we are the most fragile. Where it’ll hurt the worst and hit us the hardest. And, indeed, that’s true so long as we confess that God’s in control of our every circumstance and is marshaling every ordeal to make us more like his Son. Suffering isn’t God singling you out. He’s not out to embarrass you. Suffering is God’s way of exposing your fragility and the intrinsic fragility of the varied assortment of things we tend to rely on that aren’t him — that we might come to realize with increasing certainty just how desperately we need him.
Paul Tripp, Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 185.
Tripp, Suffering, 179.