A Place for Weakness is a book all about being prepared for suffering. In fact, the subtitle to the book Preparing Yourself for Suffering seems to be a more appropriate title. The idea for this book was born out of the author’s own struggle to deal with the painful loss of his father and his own wife’s deep need to deal with her repeated miscarriages. Where he wishes that he would have been better armed with God’s Gospel to meet trial, he wishes the opposite for the reader. “Where all of this leads is to a conviction that learning theology is very difficult to do in the trial itself. It is not a good time for being taught” (18). But, now is a good time to be taught what God’s Word says about suffering, he argues.
A Place for Weakness is divided neatly into two parts. Part One is entitled: God of the Cross. In these six chapters, the author compares and contrasts a Biblical theology of the cross with contemporary thought and culture. It is the author’s opinion that religion today with its theology of glory is leaves its adherents unprepared for the reality of suffering and death. Our culture’s reliance on therapy and happy thinking also is inadequate when it comes to life’s true reality. “Our feeble sentimentalism simply cannot handle the tragic side of life: discomfort, sickness, disabilities, death, evil, depression, fear, anxiety. They are not realities to be faced, we tell ourselves, but symptoms of an ignored disease that we can treat with proper medication, entertainment, therapy, and technology” (29). While a theology of glory and cultural sentimentality leave us unprepared for suffering, the theology of the cross is a robust, biblical, practical gospel teaching that prepares us for the reality of this sinful, depraved world. “So where is God amid so much suffering? Hanging on the cross, bearing in his own body the curse of his own law, drinking the cup of wrath and the venom of our sin and death…God is neither aloof to our suffering nor powerless to intervene” (45).
Part Two is entitled: God of the Empty Tomb. These chapters focus on God’s promises to the sufferer. The author points out for us Job’s hope as he sits in the dust. He spends two chapters looking at the power of the Spirit in our lives as taught by the Apostle Paul. He ends triumphantly with the catchy phrase for a chapter heading, “When God Goes to a Funeral.” These chapters are full of gospel-centered hope for those dealing with very real trouble in their lives. “Christ is risen indeed! Let us rejoice in that hope even with our troubled hearts…” (194).
Michael Horton is a gifted writer and scholar. He quotes Nietzsche, rattles off truths about our sentimental society, and Scripture passages all with equal ease. Michael Horton is not a monk who leaves on a mountain. Instead he knows that we live in a broken world that doesn’t know how to deal with the reality of suffering. He knows that clinging to Christ is the only answer and wishes his readers to be comforted by his cross and empty tomb. His grasp of Scripture and his insights into well-known Bible passages is where he is at his best. His discussion of Job is short, but perhaps the best I have read. His devotional approach to Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, even moving into exegesis at some points, is well done and worth reading for any pastor preaching on the John 11 text for a funeral.
While the strength of the book is its scholarship, it is also its great weakness. At times, I felt that instead of comforting grieving people or people about to grieve he is more interested in making sure that we all know that Nietzsche is wrong. He also spends quite some time in the book dealing with theological jargon. Chapter 6, which is the very heart of the book theologically, spends too much time discussing what he calls “crucial” distinctions. At the same time, never does Horton with great clarity answer the question that he raises in the chapter heading, “If We Just Knew Why God Let it Happen.” In fact, Horton doesn’t want us to be able to have an easy answer to the question. His more nuanced answer, which is no answer is: “While God is ultimately sovereign over all events, large and small, and will not allow us to endure a trial that he cannot turn to our profit, a lot of the adversities we face in this life are simply part of the web of ordinary causes and effects in the world” (92).
With A Place for Weakness, the author tries to compete for space in a WELS pastor’s already crowded pastoral library. The competition, especially regarding the theme of suffering, is fierce. Sitting on my own desk, titles on the same subject include, Where is God When it Hurts by Philip Yancey, and The Problem of Suffering by Gregory Schulz. A pastor might pick up Yancey for a more popular, scientific approach to seeing the good in suffering. For a very personal, emotional, and theological approach to suffering, the pastor would pick up The Problem of Suffering. What about A Place for Weakness? While I certainly don’t regret reading this book, just in my own reading, I would suggest starting with the first two titles. The readers of this review might suggest other titles as well.
So, what is the bottom line with this? While the book might not join the list of “must reads” for you this year, there are several chapters that deserve any pastor’s attention. Do you want proof that our society is too sentimental and unable to deal with suffering and especially death? Read chapter 2. You will have fresh material for your Easter sermon. Do you need an easy outline of the theological arguments in the book of Job from both Job and his friends? Read chapter 7. Do you need to critique the newest spiritual craze called spiritual warfare? Read chapter 9. Do you want to take a fresh look at Jesus and the raising of Lazarus for an upcoming funeral sermon? Read chapter 10. There are peaks and valleys when reading this book, but the peaks are worth the read.
A Place for Weakness, by Michael S. Horton. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. 203 pages.
Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine, Horton is the author of more than 20 publications, including The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way.