Jerry Sittser understands pain. He understands loss. He understands grief. But more importantly, he understands that our life is a story of redemption, of connection to the person of Christ. While we cannot forget, nor should we forget, our painful times in life, we need to know that the God’s story for our life is not over.
This is no mere glib, theological chatter. Sittser’s family was in a car hit by a drunk driver nearly 20 years ago. In an instant, his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters, was gone. Three generations of women gone all at once, and Sittsler suddenly finds himself the single father of two daughters and a son — all young.
Sittser wrote about the incident four years after it happened, in “A Grace Disguised.” He now returns with more distance from the event. But what makes this work so powerful, is that Sittser is not writing a memoir, but using his story to tell the story of God’s working out our redemption. “This book will not tell a sweet and simple story about tragedy leading to triumph. Still, I hope it will tell a redemptive story.”
And it does. Sittser is inspirational not in that he, twenty years later, he is “handling” the tragedy well. Instead, he inspirational in how he seems himself in the context of a larger story, and he trusts God’s authorship. This is not a self-help book, it is not called, “Using God to Feel Better About How Bad Life Is.” It is about redemption. “Redemption involves the story of how God reclaims and restores us into a living relationship with himself so that we can become the people that God has always intended us to be.”
Sittser organizes the book in way which focuses on redemption as a story. Chapters are about characters, “Scene and Setting,” “Plot,” “Author,” and other story devices. The Bible itself is explored as a story, and in six of the most amazing pages I’ve ever read, he summarizes the entire Bible by relating it as a story. Sittser focuses on scripture for what he explores, and he quotes scripture (often at length) to show the story of redemption. So many books today, including Christian books, spend more time quoting other authors than returning to the source, which makes this book so strong, theologically speaking.
This is not surprising. Sittser is a professor of Theology at Whitworth College (and, I was pleased to learn, a fellow alum from Hope College). He has a unique gift for be theologically grounded, but clearly able to write for the layperson. And his unfortunate credentials in suffering create an authentic voice.
On a very personal note, this was a profoundly moving book for me. Myself a father of four, I am also the parent of a six-year-old who has been battling cancer for nearly three years. There is no longer much hope that this will be cured, and we have wrestled with this reality. I have written openly and honestly about this process since the outset, and many people have said, you should write a book. Well, Sittser has written the book I would want to write, and done it far better than I could ever do.
I knew at the outset that his voice would be one I understand. “God has written and played the key role in the story of salvation, which promises to redeem our stories….This glorious story of redemption turns on the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Savior of the world, who came into this world to make us new, which he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. It is all his doing, a gift of pure grace. But we must receive this gift and make it our own, like children growing into adults.”
That last line challenges us to not feel sorry for ourselves, but to accept God’s grace and trust in his story. How many of us have wasted our lives, filling it with bitterness over real and imagined tragedies, instead of recognizing that God is not done writing our story. But we need to accept that gift, and accepting gifts requires humility. Some people are blessed with a natural humility, others learn it the hard way, but those who never see themselves in a larger context, who center their world around themselves instead of God — well, there is the true tragedy in life. A stepping out of the story God is writing.
Sittser shares the story of a woman who, after many years of struggling, decides to meet the man who murdered her brother. And she tells him as she leaves, God wants him to know that “It is not too late to become the man that God designed you to be.” Our stories are not over.