Book Review: The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God

The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God: Autobiographical and Theological Reflections. Rabbi Anson Hugh Laytner. Resource Publications (Wipf and Stock), Eugene Oregon. © 2019. Paperback, 176 pages.

Theodicy in theological terms is the way that humanity explains appearance of evil and suffering in the human condition. In the purest and messiest of theological constructs, there are few explanations that bring relief or intellectual understanding.

As a hospice chaplain, I often hear questions that stem from a struggle with developing a personal theodicy. The ‘why’ questions (Why me? Why now? Why this?) are never really answered outside of a faith system of some kind. But it is most frequently these ‘why’ questions that drive us to seek the Divine on a deeper level, and to invite hope and peace into the process of reconciling our ‘whys’ with our faith.

This is not easy work and is not taken lightly. Rabbi Anson Hugh Laytner writes with humility and thoughtfulness and brings his personal story into the fray, using the book of Iyov (Job) into his conversation and reflections. Rabbi Laytner lays out first the arguments which stem from a reading of the book of Iyov and then walks the reader through his own trials and sorrows. As he writes in the Introduction:

“At the heart of my story is a period of ten years during which my family and I endured wave and wave of suffering, grief, and death. At at the same time, it is also a story filled with love and transformation… Having lived through the trauma of those ten years, I now dwell in the life-after and continually reflect on how I came to be where I am today.” (p. xv)

Rabbi Laytner describes the tsumani of events for his family; his parents, in-laws, daughter and other relatives all struggling with disease and dying within this ten year period. He describes the process of finding emotional balance, struggling to make meaning, and heal from loss after loss. And he acknowledges his suffering was peripheral to the physical diseases that attacked others, though no less traumatic for his own emotional and spiritual well-being.

Layton’s book provides theological content and reflection through a series of chapters that untangle the book of Iyov and replace a transactional view of theodicy with one that is nuanced and grounded in restoration and trust that G-d hears and responds to our pleas. Rabbi Layton also admits that though he has come through the firestorm of loss, he still sees his joys through that lens.

“Even my happiest moments are grayed with a little grief. There is no forgetting, only a patching over the past with new life experiences. I live restored and content, but wounded nonetheless. And I continually think about what it all means to me.” (pp 135-136)

Kudos to this author for extensive footnotes, a helpful index, an extensive bibliography and his personal “39 Hypotheses – Or, Where I am Today”. In a time of “puff pastry theology” and “name-it-and-claim-it” charlatans, I am grateful for the deep dive into this topic. It will take more than one reading to absorb it all.

There is much wisdom in his writing, and much to contemplate. I recommend this book to the reader highly, especially if you have come through a storm of suffering and are struggling to put your shattered theology back together.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

RevGalBlogPals Friday Five: 5 Transformations

MaryBeth at RevGals has this week’s prompt:


I’m looking forward to a good summer…my husband feels well, I am taking on some new challenges, I have a new church home, and overall I feel like I am moving in some new directions. When I saw this sculpture, I felt a kinship with this woman (though I cannot to a lotus pose like that…not yet, anyway). The sculpture is called “Expansion” by Paige Bradley. You can read more about it and its creation here.

For today’s Friday Five, share five occasions or events in your life that have been turning points…when you have felt like a new thing was being born. You can refer to the birth of children, career, your kitchen garden, or whatever moves you.

1. Music: The story from my parents is that I was standing and singing along to my older sibs’ practicing before I was out of my crib. So I started piano lessons early, and sang in a choir for as long as I can remember. It’s what touches my heart and soul. While I’m not engaged in an official capacity or in any performing group right now, listening to music is a way that I center and one of the primary ways that I “sing back” to God.

2. Family Losses: I was 13 when my big brother died in an accident. In my young adult years, all four of my grandparents passed away. (It is a true blessing that I knew and spent lots of time with my grandparents in my growing up years… and why their deaths impacted me so.) Wrestling with the whys and wherefores of their declines (a range of cancer, Parkinson’s, and longevity) was the first of my questioning of God, life, death and grace. With my dad’s death in 2000 from lymphoma, and my brother-in-law’s last year from ALS, I again had to ponder (and be dissatisfied with) what I understood to be true about suffering, faith and grace (or theodicy, if you want that fancy-pants term.) It continues to be a formational part of my life.

3. Marriage: I can’t imagine life without the man I lovingly call “The Bearded Brewer.” I’ve lived with him longer than I lived with my parents. We’ve learned a lot on this road of 26+ years. That’s a grand gift of God.

progeny4. Children:  I know I brag about them endlessly. I try not to embarrass them or put them in sermons without their permission. 🙂 Our two lovelies are growing up to be the strong, caring, loving, bright women we had prayed for. I have made many mistakes along the way, but I’ve been blessed many times over by being their mom.

5. Calling: I resisted it. Denied it. Agreed with a fundamentalist church leadership who told me, after a broken engagement to a future missionary, that “women should not be in seminary unless they are married to a pastor or missionary.” So I listened to them, instead of listening to God, and dropped out of seminary. A member of that leadership later wrote me a note (perhaps out of guilt or conviction by the Holy Spirit?) and advised me to reread Gamaliel’s advice to the Sanhedrin:

“…If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!” (Acts 5:38b-39 CEB)

Years later, when I was told by three wise Christian leaders, in three different settings, that I was not listening to God’s Call on my life, those words came back. I was fighting God. It was time to acquiesce to the Spirit. Years of listening, praying, waiting, finally attending seminary and wrestling until I knew the place God wanted me – as a chaplain. A companion in joys and sorrows. A spiritual friend. A worshipper of the unlikely ways God works. And here I am today… walking and serving and living by Grace.

A BONUS: Over the years, I’ve noticed and tried to collect photos of what life in God’s grace means. Sometimes they are pictures of struggle, sometimes of victory. The one that grabbed me as I clicked through a few photos this morning was this one:

You are faithful to me...
You are faithful to me…