Saturday, April 9, 2022

When the Stars Disappear {Book Review}

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him”
(Lamentations 3:19–24, ESV).

When the Stars Disappear: Help and Hope from Stories of Suffering in Scripture, by Dr. Mark Talbot of Wheaton College, is the first in a planned 4-volume series called Suffering in the Christian Life.  In this first volume, he examines the lives of Naomi, Job, and Jeremiah as case studies for the place of suffering in the Christian life. In the process, he normalizes our various sufferings and demonstrates how they manifest and convey the steadfast love of the Lord to His children (counter-intuitive as that may seem). 
One component of our response to trials is our expectation of how life ought to go. Expecting storms in life is a bulwark that helps faith and hope to endure and outlast them. This lesson is one Dr. Talbot has had to learn for himself in an adult life marked by chronic pain and disability and the devastating loss of one of his students to suicide. In Dr. Talbot’s words, 
Although this book began in response to a particular calamity, it is written for all Christians who are puzzled or distressed by the griefs, troubles, sicknesses, trials, betrayals, persecutions, and afflictions we and others undergo, whether that suffering is acute and perhaps calamitous, or chronic in some potentially overwhelming way, or even if it is simply significant enough to make us wonder why it should be. I hope it will remove some of the obstacles that suffering tends to throw across the path of Christian faith and hope. I want to help you, my fellow Christians, trust that our suffering is part of God’s loving care for us as his people, and that we shall ultimately see each piece of it as an unsought gift from him, no matter how difficult or perplexing it may now be. I shall show this from Scripture as corroborated by personal experience. As Augustine said, “I feed you on what I am fed on myself. . . . I set food before you from the pantry which I too live on, from the Lord’s storerooms” (Kindle location 248). 

In some ways, this is a tale of 2 books. Nearly half the book consists of endnotes. Yes, really. The main text, if read straight through, provides a useful introduction to the topic of Christian suffering for those who have not considered it in a systematic or detailed way. In particular, I appreciated Dr. Talbot’s emphasis on breathing in Scripture and breathing out prayer. We can so easily catch ourselves holding our breath, literally and metaphorically, in seasons of trial, and Dr. Talbot calls to us like a physical therapist: “Don’t forget to breathe!” His case studies were well-chosen to draw out different facets of suffering, or perhaps I should say distinct constellations in the astronomy of suffering. He helpfully points out that Jeremiah’s suffering, unlike Job’s and Naomi’s, fails to resolve within the biblical narrative. We don’t know whether the stars ever reappeared for him in earthly life. I needed that reminder. Maybe you do too. We chart our course in such trials by the promises of God and the hope of the resurrection, when everything sad will come untrue.  
In my view, the filet mignon of the book is in the second half, that is, the notes. This is where readers already familiar with the theme of suffering in the Bible will find treasure. In the author’s assessment, the dessert is a careful reading of the Scripture passages cited. Here is his proposed reading strategy for this book: 
I suggest that on a first and perhaps even second reading, you read only the main text and the footnotes. The footnotes, which are designated by small-letter superscripts like the one in this paragraph, will bolster your understanding of my text. During a second or third reading, please look up the Bible passages I’ve included. When I refer to biblical passages without quoting them, I put “see” before the reference to encourage you to look them up. There are a lot of those references because all of our theological claims should be backed up by Scripture. J. I. Packer has written that the “biblical references in my studies . . . are not . . . skippable; they are part of the argument, and are meant to be looked up.” The same goes here (Kindle location 1929). 
The opening story of a student’s suicide triggered some anxiety for me at the time I read it, to the point that it caused me to set the book aside for some months. Dr. Talbot’s consideration of the steadfast love (chesed) of the Lord amply repaid my perseverance in reading the rest of the book. Who would have expected a beautiful examination of God’s love in a book about not being surprised by suffering? Yet the love of God even in the dark is what so often carries us through trials. That’s why the steadfast love and great faithfulness of God reside at the core of Jeremiah’s carefully constructed Lamentations. Here is one lovely, helpful passage on that theme: 
Ultimately, our staying faithful and hopeful in the midst of profound suffering does not depend entirely on us. Yet there are steps we can take to maintain our perspective. First, we must remember that chesed—steadfast, kind, loyal, and merciful loving concern for others—is basic to God’s character and emblematic of all he is. Second, we must appeal to God’s chesed whenever we need reassurance of his radical and unceasing care for us. Third, we must believe that God is able to do all that his chesed intends for us. Suffering, we must remind ourselves, may pursue us in this lifetime, but God’s invincible power guarantees that the joy implicit in our being the recipients of God’s chesed will come to us with the morning. And, last, we must “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” biblical stories like Naomi’s, Job’s, and Jeremiah’s that trace God’s steadfast and unstoppable love for his saints through the starless darkness of their profound suffering. The truths that held for them will hold for us, and so we must apply them to every one of our personal stories. Sometimes we can do no more than merely endure. And as Jeremiah’s story shows, suffering can test our ability to do even that. It may be all we can do simply to avoid denying our Lord. As the clouds of suffering rolled over Naomi, Job, and Jeremiah, they lost their bearings. Things appeared so dark it seemed nothing good could lie ahead. So their hopes vanished. They even began taking false bearings that led them to believe falsehoods—most crucially, the falsehood that God was no longer manifesting his steadfast love to them. We now know they were wrong. Their stories teach us that appearance is not always reality. What appears at some point to be the story of a life may not be what the full story of that life actually and finally is. God was still working for their good (1549). 

Every Christian’s story has a happy ending, even if we never see it in this life. Let me repeat that: every Christian’s story has a happy ending. The God who cannot lie has promised. The stories of Naomi and Job display that resolution in their earthly pilgrimages. Jeremiah’s demonstrates how to endure in faith when visible, earthly things go from bad to worse to awful to excruciating. 
The title of this volume hints at that contrast between appearance and reality. The stars never disappear, even when we can’t see them because of ambient light or cloud cover. In Dr. Talbot’s words again, 
When profound suffering strikes, it can seem that all of the stars that have guided our Christian lives have disappeared. And yet the core of Christian faith is the belief that God sovereignly controls all of life’s storms and that he can—and indeed ultimately will—see his people safely through even the worst storms. We have his word and the experience of his saints in Scripture that when those storms finally begin to subside and the sky begins to clear, we will look up and once again see the sun and the moon and the stars, and then realize that our loving heavenly Father has indeed been with us all along our way. This may not happen in this lifetime, but then it will happen in the one to come (1875). 
As noted at the outset, this book is planned to introduce a quartet of books on suffering. The author does readers the courtesy of sketching out the content of the rest: 
This volume introduces the topic and tries to offer suffering Christians some immediate aid by, among other things, showing that suffering is common in Scripture. We shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer, and we should expect from what we find in Scripture that our God will help us through it. The second volume, which will appear in a year, answers the questions, Why do we suffer? and Why is there so much suffering? It places our suffering in the context of the full Christian story. The third volume shows that a thorough knowledge of Scripture is indispensable for healthy Christian life and then explores what Scripture tells us about the relationship between God’s will and our suffering. It is meant to reassure you, if you are suffering, that nothing slips past God and he is always working for our good. The final volume will consider how suffering relates to the three Christian graces of faith, hope, and love. It closes by considering how we will regard our suffering in the afterlife (1945). 

In summary, When the Stars Disappear provides a useful, narrative-driven overview of the normalcy of suffering in the Christian life. Because of a particular suffering in my own life when I started reading it, I needed to pause for a matter of months before picking it up again. Because of that, I might be more inclined to recommend this to someone preparing for suffering, coming up for air between storms, or seeking to love a suffering friend well, as opposed to someone in the throes of the acute grief and pain of his or her own typhoon. It offers a thoughtful, relatively brief, nuanced consideration of the theme. Dr. Talbot writes with the wisdom of a seasoned professor and the compassion of a seasoned sufferer. I look forward to the next volume, Give Me Understanding That I May Live, due in summer 2022.

Note: Crossway provided a complimentary galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. Links are affiliate links that will drop a few cents in my tip jar for purchases made through them.


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