I wrote this review on the first edition of this book back in 2001 and posted it on Amazon.com. I want to put it here also because I think it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Read on if you’re interested:
Gerald Sittser’s book is among the best I have ever read for those who are struggling with a great loss in life. He speaks from terrible experience. He lost his wife, mother and a daughter in a single automobile accident. From is own experience of the pain and suffering that follows he draws out a meaningful perspective applicable to the universal experience of human suffering. Without diminishing the pain and evil that suffering inflicts and represents, Sittser helps us make sense of suffering in the context of the Christian faith. He does so with honesty and clarity. Suffering can provide an opportunity for spiritual growth and strengthening of character. We all have that choice available to us.
Sittser rejects the notion of “recovery” from catastrophic loss. Such a loss can not be recovered from if that means that we will be the same as before. We will never get over it. Instead, following Victor Frankl’s example, he insists that we must find some meaning in suffering. Our souls must be enlarged by it to help us transcend the experience and integrate it into our lives if we are not to be crushed by it instead. He is an able guide to the avenue that the Christian faith provides for this.
The book has a good chapter on the futility of comparing one person’s loss to another. He shows that there is no point in deciding whose serious, irretrievable loss is worse than another’s. Each experience of loss is unique because each person is unique.
Sittser doesn’t minimize the problems that Christian faith presents in suffering. He has been through the dark tunnel of wondering why this accident happened to him and what God’s interest, or lack thereof, is in his suffering. He has experienced the agony of loneliness and separation from a God who seems uncaring or unable to ease his pain. We may know in our minds that our perspective must be severely limited compared to God’s but it is very hard to continue trusting Him as we thought we did before, believing that somehow God will bring us out into the light again someday. He examines the alternatives to faith and finds them wanting. If there is no God, can there be any meaning in life itself let alone meaning in a life of suffering? Would we really rather live in a world where everyone gets exactly what they deserve, good or bad, a world with no pain, but also no grace? What bearing does God’s suffering as Christ on the cross have on our experience? What does it really mean to have faith in God? There are no simple answers, but considering the questions honestly can challenge our preconceived notions. It’s a risk worth taking. Sittser has found, as have many others, that there is undeniable grace given by God to those who trust Him in their suffering, a remolding of our character for good in response to the evil of our experience. While we would be fools to seek suffering for whatever good may come of it, it is hard for many to deny that, if the suffering had not come, they would probably not have experienced the works of grace they now find so valuable.
There is also a chapter on forgiveness. As in Sittser’s case, there are often particular people whose actions are responsible for our loss. Forgiveness is a hard pill to swallow, if only it were a pill. But withholding it will prevent our own healing. It’s helpful to know what forgiveness means and doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean condoning the act. It doesn’t mean the act should go unpunished. It doesn’t mean forgetting it happened. It means that we stop wishing evil for those who have harmed us and instead desire their good. It isn’t a process that culminates in a final result or a once-and-for-all event. Once it has been decided upon, forgiving is a continuous frame of mind and an occasionally renewed activity. Through forgiveness, we have the power to end the cycle of hurt. We can choose to have it stop with us, not letting it infect others through us.
Through all his suffering, Gerald Sittser has found that “life has the final word”, not death and despair. We don’t always get the life we want, but we can find that there is much more to life than what we want and a life beyond this life that exceeds our greatest desires. Our suffering can also help us to help others who suffer. It can provide opportunity for others to share our suffering in love. It’s common for many people to offer much needed and sincere support for the victims of loss immediately following the incident. Most of these people understandably try to get back to their own “lives as usual” soon afterward. It was very heartening to read about the people who went further in Sittser’s case. Those who decided that their lives would also be changed by his tragedy formed a community of love and support that was good for the long haul. What a blessing.