Special thanks to Christy Wong of Tyndale Publishers for providing me this review copy of Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie (and Laura Bartlett for suggesting the review program). I could not read this as other books, namely an academic review of a book in which I read as many chapters as possible in a short time. Rather, because the topic was so personal and emotional, I found that one chapter at a sitting was more than enough for me. My reflections, memories, and eventual praises meant that this was more than an academic exercise, it was life, difficult life. Thanks to Nancy Guthrie for writing what needs to be stated and doing so from one who has been there, even more, from one who has grown through the sorrow to a maturity that is hard to articulate, but which Guthrie has captured in this book.
Nancy Guthrie wrote Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow in light of her experiences regarding the deaths of two of her children. Her style is direct but sensitive, especially when relating some experiences with other Christians that could have produced writing that reflects resentment or anger toward those people. She skillfully avoids that pitfall and shows that God has indeed been working in and through her since all of the tragedies occurred. That takes time for anyone writing or speaking about personal sorrow.
I realized what a difficult task this would be for me in evaluating the book. First, Guthrie has experienced deep sorrow, two-fold. Any kind of comment regarding a specific point in this review may be seen by some as diminishing that truth. Such is not the intent, because having experience my own extended time of sorrow, I readily identify with what she writes. At times I was back reliving my own experiences in 1986, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2008, nodding my head, even dealing with tears at times, but also having heard Jesus speak into my own sorrow. What a tribute to the author that she could effectively communicate in such a way to bring alongside those who have also suffered. I think that in itself is highest praise for her work.
Second, as a Lutheran pastor/theologian, I look at the underlying theology and see what is behind the content. thus, I am attuned to differences in theological expressions. For instance, I expected the author’s approach to be based on “decision theology.” From a Lutheran perspective this would be a negative, because typically such theology takes away from Christ and what he has done, which affects not only “coming to faith” but also how Jesus is viewed relative to our lives after that time. In other words, “Jesus becomes a model for us to follow,” which can be defeatist for the Christian, especially for the one in sorrow. How many can follow Christ perfectly? Rather than a relief, this becomes an impossible burden.
Significantly, while the author occasionally reflects such an approach, the overall thrust of the book is that she clings to that which is truly gospel, namely what Christ has done for us. For that I rejoice! Guthrie clearly articulates the gospel as strategic points in the book. For instance, in the Introduction, her pastor’s question at the graveside was right on target: “This is the place where we ask, ‘Is the gospel really true?’” (p. xiv). As she relates, the question reflected her own desperation and discovery, readily identifying with the hope that Peter expressed in John 6, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” She writes: “Not having that hope to hold on to would have been an unbearable agony. I also knew that Jesus provided my only hope for coming back to life myself, as I felt the life in me was being snuffed out by sorrow” (p. xv). In her invitation to read Jesus’ words anew, she notes, “There is life, power, and authority in his every word. He speaks life into death, hope into despair, truth into delusion, meaning into futility, peace into panic” (pp. xix-xx).
Likewise in Chapter 1, “I, Too, Have Known Overwhelming Sorrow” Guthrie reflects this tension. “So many of the other ways I had heard Jesus speaking to me … were mostly about listening for what he could do for me. But in this hard place of grief, hearing Jesus was less about what he could do for me and more about the companionship he could share with me” (p. 3). She continues, “It’s in our suffering that we can truly begin to identify with his” (p. 4). Here I might quibble about the wording, but she comes back to the essential truth: Jesus for us, expressed in many different ways, is above all else.
The author also faced the seemingly impossible tension between God’s sovereignty and God’s grace. “I wondered how God could be truly sad with me since it had been in his power to cause things to work out differently. I think this is the wall that those of us who believe in God’s sovereignty run into eventually. And when we feel its full force, it hurts” (p. 12). I can certainly identify with that seeming indifference to my plight. Significantly, Guthrie comes to right junction, the intersection between the infinite, wise God and his plans and our own ideas about what is best can only be resolved in the cross of Jesus Christ. She continues, “It is at this place of inner conflict — where what we want and believe would be best seems to be at cross-purposes with the plans of God — where we need to hear Jesus speak” (p. 12). I have to think that she intended the double meaning of “cross-purposes” in this context.
Chapters 3 and 4 provide the clear expression of the Gospel because she recognizes the real problem. Prayers for healing become a double-edged sword, which she addresses head-on. “Those of us who do not get the physical healing we prayed for can be left assuming that either our faith is deficient or God is unable or unwilling to heal us or the one we love” (p. 24). The key to an appropriate response to this situation comes later in chapter 3, under the subtitle, “Jesus Speaks to Our Most Significant Sickness.” She writes, “Jesus comes to get to the real root of our problem, the cause of all our suffering and sorrow. He came on a mission to destroy what has brought on all our misery: sin” (p. 33). What follows on pages 35-38 should be mandatory reading for pastors, grief counselors, and every Christian, as summarized at the end of chapter 3,
“Perhaps what we need is not a miraculous healing of our bodies but a powerful awareness of our sin-sickness. We need to see our sin for the certain death it delivers — not just to our mortal bodies, but to our eternal souls. Only then can we appreciate the miracle Jesus offers us when he heals us of this fatal disease of sin.” (P. 38)
At the end of each chapter, Guthrie provides a unique way to express the key thoughts of the chapter with a short section titled “Hear Jesus Speak.” She takes several Biblical passages then makes them first-person narrative as Jesus speaking personally to the reader. She also provides a list of the Biblical passages used to develop this section. Not only is this effective as a summary, but it highlights the “Jesus to me; Jesus for me” truth of the entire book.
This is only the first part of the review, but I can state even now that this will prove a very beneficial to many people experiencing suffering/sorrow/tribulation. For the one experiencing any of this, Nancy Guthrie invites you to walk together to better understand this God who calls us to faith and brings us through the trials. The book is well written, direct, sensitive, Biblically solid, and offers a refreshing approach to a difficult topic. For pastors, this is an ideal companion to Eyer’s book, Pastoral Care Under the Cross.
Thank you, Nancy, for this important book.