In an effort to bolster my pastoral care skills to those suffering from chronic pain, I picked up This Too Shall Last by K.J. Ramsey.
Ramsey has a story to tell the church and it isn’t a “before and after story.” This isn’t a story of sickness turned to health or fatiguing pain giving way to boundless energy. It’s a story of enduring suffering, of ongoing weakness, and ultimately, it’s the story of the ever-abiding faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
It’s no secret that American culture hates weakness. It’s lamentable that this attitude has far-too-often been absorbed by Christian congregations in the United States. Ramsey talks about how weakness and suffering is often ignored in the church, and how on those rare occasions when they are not, they are viewed only as a “problem to fix.” Predictably, when the problem lingers and the prayers for healing are answered in the negative, then the suffering is viewed with suspicion, or worse yet, some moral failure is assigned to the sufferer for their condition. This is not good, because such reactions to suffering are not faithful to the biblical witness or the will of God.
Ramsey invites the reader into her own story of chronic pain. You cringe with her when she recalls the less-than-helpful comments she has received from others. You suffer with her as she recalls the shame and difficulty of what her illness means for her life. You breathe a sigh of relief with her when people have accompanied her in her illness with grace rather than judgment.
Ramsey wants the reader to know that chronic pain (and suffering in general) does not disqualify someone from the grace of God. Jesus Christ is with the sufferer in the midst of their suffering. This necessary note of hope is occasionally obscured by Ramsey’s own writing, making my evaluation of this book very difficult. I so badly want to give this book an unequivocal endorsement, but the best I can do is offer a reserved one.
On the one hand, Ramsey presents a beautiful account of human suffering that is consistent with what Lutherans often called “the theology of the cross.” She warns against peering in to the hidden things of God when she writes, “Most of us see the cloud over the purpose of our pain and try to blow back the fog by finding an explanation. . . . We think that if we could find the reason we’re stuck in suffering, maybe we could learn the lesson and leave. . . . When we overspiritualize our suffering, we turn our hearts away from the sacred mystery of how God is forming us in our suffering. . . . [And] in the absence of a lesson, we try to create our own purpose . . . we’ll make something of our suffering, we’ll profit from the pain” (106–7). Ramsey rightly directs the reader to eschew such ‘theology of glory’ talk when she summarizes her argument thusly, “God is not on the other side of our suffering. He is in it” (109–10). This is beautiful.
But then Ramsey will sometimes speak in a way that makes the experience of God’s grace conditional, as though the sufferer needs to meet certain requirements before he or she can experience God’s grace. Sometimes grace is treated as something to be discovered and found, rather than something to be received and trusted. For example, she writes, “Finding my way to blues skies will only happen through first being honest about the clouded space I occupy. I have to acknowledge . . . I need to notice . . . I must be honest . . . I have to notice and name . . . in order to find grace right here” (113). Language such as this obscures the hope she was proclaiming earlier. Ramsey sometimes brings us to the precipice of Christ-for-you, but then leaves us there, like Moses seeing the Promised Land, but not entering it.
Much of my criticism is undoubtedly due to our differing understanding of the sacraments. There was so much sacramental application that was left unapplied. This ought not surprise me, because Ramsey and I understand the role of sacraments differently, given our varying faith traditions.
With that said, Ramsey did often leave the reader with Christ. Such as she did at the end of Chapter 6 where she says, “Advice or consolation from someone whose life has been easy isn’t that comforting or welcome. Jesus has earned the right to be heard. . . . This is grace: God joined us on the floor of this earth in the person of Jesus and forever changed the abyss into a portal. In the faithful life of Jesus and in the Spirit’s raising him from the grave, we can anticipate and even taste our liberation” (136–37).
I’m very self-conscious of this review. I’m particularly fearful that I have been overly critical of Ramsey’s work. As stated earlier, I can’t quite bring myself to give this book a ringing endorsement, but I would unreservedly encourage pastors to take up the book, learn from its pages and increase their witness and testimony to the stories and lives of sufferers in their midst, all while proclaiming the grace of Christ that does not flee from suffering, but meets and abides in it.
THIS TOO SHALL LAST: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers. By K.J. Ramsey. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2020. 221 pages. $18.99.