People have struggled with suffering, whether inflicted by physical pain, social evils, or existential fears, since Job. And wrestling with the question of theodicy, of why a good God allows evil, does little to assuage the hurt. Faith-based publishers have long addressed the suffering born of injuries, illness, job loss, divorce, and more. Now, pile on the crises since 2020 — a million deaths from Covid, ripped-open wounds of racism, excoriating political battles, devastating gun violence in schools and streets — and it's no surprise that many titles releasing this year aim to ease people's minds, hearts, and souls.
When PW asked publishers to talk about a sampling of these books, many editors shared one common theme: God is always present, always working for the good, even in unseen ways.
NavPress acquiring editor Deborah Gonzalez notes, "Readers are feeling the ripple effects of the crises of 2020, and everyone is trying to figure out how to live, lead, and worship in this new reality. We’ve seen an uptick in book proposals that deal with how to live out our faith, lead our churches, and engage in discipleship amidst suffering, mental illness, broken relationships, divisiveness, and polarization." In April, the press will publish The Least of These: Practicing a Faith Without Margins in which 10 Christian scholars, clergy, and activists address troubling issues and ask: "What, then, is our responsibility to alleviate human suffering this side of eternity?" in essays edited by Angie Ward.
Gonzalez points to the chapter by Christiana Rice, a leader in The Parish Collective, which encourages people to "be the church in their own neighborhood." Rice describes how she picks up trash at a nearby park every week. She writes, "Perhaps our greatest solidarity with one another and with the most vulnerable comes from the most particular suffering and joy of our everyday lives in our everyday places, like our living rooms, cafés, sidewalks, and parks. And perhaps our deepest connection with God is in divine comfort during our darkest, ashiest of hours."
According to Zondervan executive editor Carolyn McCready, several proposals have taken on "suffering, depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental health issues. Some of this was already happening pre-pandemic, but the massive stress our country and the world have experienced over the last three years has pushed these issues to the forefront. It’s becoming ever more acceptable for these concerns to be talked about openly in the church and in Christian circles and I think that will continue for the next number of years."
McCready sees Michele Cushatt's A Faith That Will Not Fail: 10 Practices to Build Up Your Faith When Your World is Falling Apart (March) aligning with this trend. Cushatt has survived divorce, three rounds of head and neck cancer, and the challenges of rearing six children including adopted youths with traumatic histories. However, her book looks beyond her own experiences to address violence, racial tensions, and "suffering of the day-to-day wear and tear on our human existence." Among Cushatt's practices is learning to reframe one's regrets and losses into being a source of expertise and comfort for others. She writes, "In seeking justice and another's wholeness, we find a measure of our own. It doesn't erase or eliminate the pain. But God builds up something new from the ruins of the old."
When Your Days are Dark, God is Still Good: Biblical Advice to Help You Trust in Difficult Times" (Ave Maria, May) by Catholic writer and speaker Gary Zimak, examines how 15 biblical figures suffered and how God ultimately brought them out from their experiences. He deals with not only with the obvious characters such as Job but also with Hagar, who gave Abraham his first son and then was "used, rejected and abandoned," writes Zimak. Yet, the Bible shows God heard Hagar's cries and provided for her. Zimak connects her story to today when, he writes, "The world is filled with people who have been forgotten: abandoned spouses, refugees, prisoners, the homeless, shut-ins, and the mentally ill." God sees them, he writes, and "is willing and able to provide for their needs."
Ave Maria's editorial director Josh Noem says the press looks for pitches that "give us confidence that God is working in the same way in our own lives, even when we can't see or even imagine a way forward." When Your Days Are Dark is particularly timely in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which, he says, "did raise our collective consciousness around mortality and finding purpose and meaning. The question of suffering sits at the center of those existential concerns."
From Pandemic to Renewal: Practices for a World Shaken by Crisis (IVP, May) by Chris Rice, director of a Mennonite international relief, development, and peace agency, acknowledges that even before 2020, "many of us were already exhausted and overworked, depressed and anxious in a burnout society." And, he says, relying on "yes-we-can spirituality" won't help. Rice writes, "In challenging times when we allow our lives to be interrupted by new truth from God, when we expose and resist idols in our hearts and communities, when we dare to walk onto unfamiliar and difficult ground, when we learn to practice a better, more beautiful, more true way of life, that's what happens in us and around us: immeasurably more than we ask or imagine."
IVP senior trade editor Al Hsu says the book offers a "counterintuitive response" to suffering. "It's ultimately a book of joy and hope. While Rice is clear-eyed about the global challenges facing our generation, he is clear that the God who has worked throughout history has not abandoned us. He maintains a joyful hope that God is present and at work in his people to bring renewal and new life to the world.”
While faith can offer respite from suffering, institutional religion's home bases—churches, seminaries, and academia—have been settings for harm as well, according to Trauma Informed Evangelism: Cultivating Communities of Wounded Healers (Eerdmans, April). The authors, pastor Charles Kiser and writer and speaker Elaine A. Heath, are both theologians who encourage readers to "recognize and share in solidarity with the trauma and pain of our neighbors," including victims of patriarchy, racism, queer phobia, and nationalism, they write in the book. Trevor Thompson, senior acquisitions editor at Eerdmans, says that the authors observe that a "greater societal appreciation of individual and group suffering has heightened everyone’s awareness and recognition of suffering and the human condition. The new climate opens doors for writers to examine, explore, and address suffering in varied forms. Kiser and Heath rightly focus attention on spiritual suffering."
In addition to the Christian titles, Buddhist publisher Shambhala, where every book addresses the fundamental question of suffering, brings a new book making an ancient coping technique accessible. Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method (Oct.) is by Rebecca Li, "a young Asian-American teacher who is really talking to an audience of young people, many of whom don't consider themselves Buddhist," says Nikko Odiseos, president of Shambhala Publications.
Li's book introduces the practice of silent illumination, a centuries-old Chinese Buddhist practice of self-inquiry that Odiseos says is "meaningful for both a secular and a Buddhist audience. People who engage in this can be can better able to connect with who they really are, find their true nature, which is free from suffering, and finally develop wisdom and compassion so they can not only be free from suffering themselves but also can more fully benefit others."