Published by Zondervan on May 12, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Memoir, Theology
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This book is not a before and after story.
Our culture treats suffering like a problem to fix, a blight to hide, or the sad start of a transformation story. We silently, secretly wither under the pressure of living as though suffering is a predicament we can avoid or annihilate by having enough faith or trying harder. When your prayers for healing haven't been answered, the fog of depression isn't lifting, your marriage is ending in divorce, or grief won't go away, it's easy to feel you've failed God or, worse, he's failed you. If God loves us, why does he allow us to hurt?
Over a decade ago chronic illness plunged therapist and writer K.J. Ramsey straight into this paradox. Before her illness, faith made sense. But when pain came and never left, K.J. had to find a way across the widening canyon that seemed to separate God's goodness from her excruciating circumstances.
She wanted to conquer suffering. Instead, she encountered the God who chose it. She wanted to make pain past-tense. Instead, God invited her into a bigger story.
This Too Shall Last offers an antidote to our cultural idolatry of effort and ease. Through personal story and insights from neuroscience and theology, Ramsey invites us to let our tears become lenses of the wonder that before God ever rescues us, he stands in solidarity with us. We are all mid-story in circumstances we did not choose, wondering when our hard things will end and where grace will come if they don't. Together, we can encounter grace in the middle, where living with suffering that lingers can mean receiving God's presence that lasts.
What if the church treated suffering like a story to tell rather than a secret to keep until it passes?
“Suffering is coming to the edge of ourselves, to the place where we viscerally feel the truth that being human is being limited. All pain triggers a reminder, deeper than thought, buzzing through blood and bone, that we are fragile and finite. Suffering whispers, shouts, and screams the story no one wants to remember: we are not in control, and we are all going to die.”
When K.J. Ramsey was in college, she experienced the sudden onset of a debilitating autoimmune disease, and it completely upended her life. In This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers, she combines a memoir style with a carefully articulated theology of the body, sharing hard-won wisdom about how to endure life and trust God in the midst of great pain. She primarily targets this book towards the chronically ill, but people experiencing other forms of suffering may also find it helpful and encouraging.
Throughout this book, Ramsey addresses warped perspectives on suffering that are prevalent in Western culture and church traditions. She provides a firm defense against the view that suffering is a consequence for personal sin, and dismantles the idea that people can overcome their trials through sufficient prayer or penance. This book isn’t a checklist to victorious living, but a deep, embodied, theological perspective on how to live with pain. Ramsey takes on the meaningless platitudes, unjust accusations, and false hopes that make suffering even more bitter, and provides a testimony of how Christians can anchor their souls within Christ and his truth.
What About Sin? | This Too Shall Last
Ramsey addresses common struggles through the combined lenses of theology and neuroscience, but in her writings about trauma, shame, and what Christ’s death means for us, she almost entirely ignores the reality of sin. Since so many of her readers have baggage from people telling them that hidden sin is at the root of their suffering, I can understand why she would step lightly here, but I wish that she had clarified the biblical vision of sin, instead of occasionally apologizing for mentioning it.
Ramsey constantly omits sin as a central part of the redemptive story, and because she focuses on Christ’s death as a central part of embodied theology, her neglect of what his death was for is incredibly jarring. Yes, Jesus established his kingdom and died to redeem the broken world, but sin caused creation’s brokenness in the first place, and Jesus came on a mission of reconciliation. It is impossible to gloss over the reality of sin and still leave the story of Jesus intact.
During his ministry, Jesus made it abundantly clear that physical ailments have no cause-and-effect relation to a person’s sin (John 9:1-3). However, he often said “Your sins are forgiven” before healing someone, not because it was the cause for their problem, but because it was their bigger problem. He also claimed, in many words and in many ways, that his blood would be “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The forgiveness of sin was central to Jesus’s mission, and part of why the religious authorities of his day plotted his death is because he claimed to have the power to forgive sins, which was blasphemy to them (Matthew 9:1-8).
Undermining the Gospel | This Too Shall Last
Ultimately, by emphasizing every aspect of the gospel story except for sin, Ramsey undermines her own purpose. I understand her reticence to bring up sin when so many of her readers have suffered from people’s unjust accusations, but ignoring the issue of sin does nothing to restore them to a full, accurate theological vision. Besides, there is no subgroup of Christians who does not need to hear that Christ died for their sins. We are all sinners, regardless what our specific life problems happen to be, and we need to hear about Christ’s embodied nature and the forgiveness of sins, not just one or the other.
When I reached the chapter entitled “Repentance,” I hoped that she was about to shift her focus. However, she rarely mentions sin in this chapter either. Instead, she focuses on the importance of letting go of shame, turning back from despair, and trusting God. These are all important parts of repentance, but she still never addresses how sick people can navigate sin and temptation. She writes as if they don’t need to hear the gospel applied to their sin, and as if all of their struggles are from external suffering, never from within. She writes with grace and kindness, wanting people to understand God’s love for them and experience it even in the midst of their pain, but in her picture of what it means to be sick, she gives an incomplete picture of what it means to be human.
Implications for Life | This Too Shall Last
My experiences with chronic illness make me very aware of how sinful I am. At one point, I genuinely had so much to regret that it was unbearable to me to remember how I had behaved when my health was at its worst. What changed my life was an understanding of how forgiven I truly am, and that is what this book lacks. Ramsey addresses the spitting agony of pain, and how we need to relate to our loving God like suffering children, but even though she is very honest about how emotionally disruptive suffering is, she doesn’t address the implications of how sinfully charged our reactions can be, especially towards other people.
Ramsey’s avoidance of sin theology also restricts this book’s readership. She writes about how pain isn’t a consequence for sin, and this applies to her and many other people, but there are also those who deal with physical suffering and moral guilt because of their own destructive life choices. Because she glosses over the reality of sin, she never provides a clear, life-changing picture of the gospel, and she potentially alienates these readers instead of giving them hope.
Christ’s forgiveness is enough to cleanse us from every wrong we have ever done. It is hope for someone who has suffered because of their bad choices, and it is hope for people who will never know why they are in such pain. No matter what our circumstances are, or what might have caused them, we are all sinners, and we all need to be washed clean of every guilty stain. This book could have been so much more powerful if the author had included a robust understanding of sin and forgiveness, but she never did.
This Too Shall Last has lots of excellent elements, filling in theological gaps that the church often neglects. However, even though I appreciate the author’s vulnerable testimony, eloquent writing, and wonderful insights, her omission of sin as a central topic kept me from valuing this book as much as I would have. If it hadn’t been so theological in nature, it wouldn’t have mattered as much, but K.J. Ramsey’s message is profoundly, inextricably grounded in biblical teaching and theology, and this makes her omission very noticeable and concerning. She was probably just trying to focus on the neglected subject of body theology, knowing that other topics are well-addressed elsewhere, but because she emphasized the gospel and the death and resurrection of Christ again and again without clearly addressing sin, the book provides a lopsided view of Christianity and is much less powerful than it could have been.
Because this book lacks a clear message of forgiveness and focuses on those who endure mysterious, unexplained sufferings, I would not recommend this to people who are struggling because of destructive choices, but in general, Christians who struggle with physical pain can greatly benefit from this book. If I knew someone who needed to read a helpful book about suffering, I would encourage them to read this, and I would hope that it would deeply encourage them, because it has a lot to offer. Many elements of this book are absolutely wonderful, and it will bless lots of people, but the theological imbalances in this book are a big enough problem that I feel a need to reduce my rating because of them and address the issues in detail.