Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, by Tullian Tchividjian. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2012. 206 pages.
Readers of The Shepherds Study book reviews may be aware that Tullian Tchividjian resigned from the public ministry in 2015 because of admitted unfaithfulness to his wife. This review was written and published to this website before that became known. This review is not being “taken down” from the book reviews since it remains what it was when it was originally written: an evaluation of the book and its usefulness. Despite the author’s sin, we believe the book review can remain without offense since the author has, as time has passed, clearly disavowed his actions as sinful. Tchividjian has openly acknowledged that he “selfishly wrecked my life and the lives of many others.” He also has added, “Whatever bad stuff you may have read or heard about me, whether it is true or false, this I can tell you for sure: I am way worse than anyone knows. In fact, I am certain that if all my sins (thoughts, words, and deeds) over the last four decades were broadcast universally, the only person who would still love me is Jesus (and sometimes in my darkest moments of doubt and despair I have wondered whether even he would.
Tullian Tchividjian was senior pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He had also served as a visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Many people may know of him simply because he is the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. Others may know him because he is the author of the book Jesus + Nothing = Everything, and still others may know him because he is a contributing editor of Leadership Journal. Tchividjian wants his readers to know Christ, who suffered for us, “the Who amid our suffering” (25). In the introduction he notes that “the sincere hope of this short book is to explore how the reality of human suffering, in all its forms, might relate to the truth of God’s liberating grace in a way that is both honest and comforting” (15). He wants us to see our suffering “in the light of the cross” (197).
“This book started out as a series of sermons [Tchividjian] preached through the book of Job” (13) in 2010. Now summarized, reshaped and refashioned into a book Tchividjian begins this “new” telling with what might seem like an obvious truth: suffering is a real thing (29). There are plenty of ways by which we try to avoid suffering and even deny its presence, but as R.E.M. sang, “Everybody hurts” (15). One would think that an honest appraisal of life would lead a person to see, along with the hymn writer, that “the world is very evil” (TLH 605), but more difficult than that, it seems, is for us to be honest with ourselves when suffering comes into our lives. We must be honest about the presence of sin in the world. We need to be honest with ourselves about the sinful nature we drag with us and battle against every day. And we must be honest about the reasons God allows and even brings suffering into our lives, and reasons He does not. Suffering does not come to us because God is weak or vindictive or because we have hidden sins that we need to rectify on our own, as Job’s “friends” mistakenly thought. That kind of honesty and understanding does not come naturally. “We live amid devastating brokenness, and the cure for this is nothing less than Jesus dying on the cross for sinners like you and me” (90). “There’s nothing like suffering to show us that we need something bigger than our abilities and our strength and our explanations. There’s nothing like suffering to remind us how not in control we actually are, how little power we ultimately have, and how much we ultimately need God” (143).
In eight chapters Tchividjian shines the Law of God onto the idols we fashion and hold so dear, and then preaches the gospel to faint hearts; and like a good preacher, he applies the Word of God to himself before preaching it to others. “Along with the vast majority of professing Christians, I had reduced the gospel to what non-Christians must believe in order to be saved before moving into the deeper waters of sanctification. But suffering taught me that the only deeper waters are those of our own need and none of us ever grow to a place where we no longer require the 200-proof version of God’s mercy and forgiveness” (164). Again and again Tchividjian deftly reveals the foolishness of our continual attempts (intentional or unintentional though well-meaning) to minimize, compartmentalize, or moralize our suffering and thus keep it at arm’s length. Even recasting our suffering in triumphant terms will not save us, because suffering is not about self-improvement leading to the victorious life. “Christianity is not about good people getting better” (78). “We come to God on our knees and with heavy hearts—but we find to our surprise (grace is always a surprise!) that we are not met with advice or platitudes about growth, but with absolution and mercy. One hundred percent. With renewed faith in the grace of God found in the crucified Christ, we might even find ourselves moving out into the world with a bit more freedom from the ever-shifting laws we place ourselves under. Indeed, with a bit more freedom from ourselves” (192).
This book could be used in ministry work in a number of ways. Among the first “uses” that pastors may find is personal resonance with some of Tchividjian’s struggles and experiences in the ministry. For example “Anyone who has spent much time in churches knows that they are not immune from internal conflict. In fact, it sometimes seems like they are prone to it….God used the crucible of suffering to disillusion me about who I was. The pain cleared my vision, and once it was taken away, I realized just how much I’d been relying on the endorsement of others to make me feel like I mattered….I was spending way too much time thinking about me and what I needed to do, and far too little time thinking about Jesus and what He had already done for me….Because of Jesus’ finished work for me, I already had the justification, approval, acceptance, security, freedom, affection, cleansing, new beginning, righteousness, and rescue I longed for ” (147-9). Indeed, it is not just pastors who will find resonance with Tchividjian’s words, but laymen too, because sin infects us all and affects all of our homes and workplaces and relationships. Thankfully “the counterintuitive message of the cross is a message of immense hope and comfort to ‘those who are perishing’” (39). The message of Christ crucified for sinners resounds in this book.
Another fruitful use this book can play for any person is in helping us to reexamine the words we speak to those who are hurting. Even well-intentioned words can place burdens on the shoulders of those who are suffering. As we speak with them we can be honest about the hardness of life in this fallen world. We can and should sit with them in the dust. And then we are equipped to then lovingly free them from the “prison of Why” (156) by pointing them to Jesus. Christ is the rock who is higher than we. He has been sent “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18). “We may not ever fully understand why God allows the suffering that devastates our lives. We may not ever find the right answers to how we’ll dig ourselves out. There may not be any silver lining, especially not in the way we would like. But we don’t need answers as much as we need God’s presence in and through the suffering itself” (26).
Our friends and family members suffer, from unemployment, from divorce, from a death in the family, they suffer in so many ways, as do we ourselves, and this book calls the church to preach the gospel. As the overall tone of the book is conversational, it is a fast read. If a congregation has a group that regularly reads and discusses books, this would be a good one for them to tackle. LifeWay Christian Resources has even published a six session Bible Study (print and video) based on Tchividjian’s book. This book is pastoral at heart and is worth your time.