There are some logical dilemmas in life that only faith can reconcile. As I’ve grown older, friends who were once committed to Christianity have altered their beliefs, some of them leaving the faith altogether for a variety of reasons. One of the most popular: the seeming dissonance between a good God and the existence of pain and suffering. Wrestling with the problem of pain and suffering has long been an issue with the potential to either shatter or strengthen one’s beliefs.
In his book Grace in the Valley, Heath Adamson attempts to provide an overview of this problem in the life of the individual through the lens of Psalm 23. Though the book quickly becomes less about the psalm itself and more about the thread of thought it supports found throughout the entire Bible: God’s love for us runs deeper than our external circumstances and he is worthy of our trust. Adamson puts it this way in his introduction: “Love reveals its profound essence when, though it can win, it chooses to come alongside us and hold us. By not preventing the valley but revealing itself in it, love’s great strength is revealed.”
Adamson never convincingly resolves the problem of pain and suffering, but maybe he never intended to do so. Rather, he constantly reminds readers that a life focused on pain and suffering, a life concentrated only on the valley, misses the ever-present love of God.
Sharing the Gospel Through Stories
From the opening pages, Adamson marks himself as a storyteller. In each chapter, he does more than illustrate his points—he draws them out through engaging and well-timed stories. At one point, he recaps a mission trip to a women’s prison where he and a group shared the gospel with children who were conceived out of prison prostitution and born into squalor. In another chapter, he recounts a woman who would have died from a skydiving accident if not for the miraculous healing she experienced after receiving hundreds of ant bites, which shocked her heart into beating again.
Perhaps Adamson commits as a storyteller because his personal story is the catalyst for his message. He characterizes his former life as one “steeped in drug abuse and the occult,” but miraculously, God saved him. Adamson writes, “It was almost as if the sky opened up and, for the first time in my life, I sensed real and pure love. The first words out of my mouth were, ‘Jesus, You are who You say You are.’”
He describes his life prior to knowing the goodness of God as a “valley,” one characterized by pain and suffering, which allows him to do more than simply encourage his writers to believe his assertions about God’s faithfulness. Adamson clearly believes them too, as he contends the Lord used his pain and suffering for his good, in order to introduce him to God’s love.
But what does it all mean?
While I found his stories engaging and appreciated his warmth toward readers, the book left me with a number of questions, primarily centered on some of his language and phrasing. Readers deserve a clear and conscientious message, especially when it comes to assertions about who God is and what it looks like to relate to him.
I found myself wondering what exactly Adamson meant with terms like “identity,” which lacked an adequate definition according to Scripture. I was similarly confused when he explained that one application of the phrase “my cup overflows” is that “God wants to pour stability into your finances.” His lack of careful explanation for these kinds of assertions and how they differ from self-centered messages may cause readers to become suspicious of Adamson’s theological foundation.
Still he manages to balance out these weaker teaching moments with more robust points, such as his description of the finality of Christ’s work: “When God looks at your life, he doesn’t need something else . . . to make him more satisfied with what he sees. He looks at you and, seeing the righteousness of Christ, declares you are enough.” Another example is when he challenges his reader to a deep dependence on Scripture: “Does your circumstance become the lens through which you embrace Scripture, or do you embrace who God is, revealed in his Word, regardless of your experience?” These are the clearer and more robust points that help counter some ambiguity.
Loving the Shepherd, Loving the Sheep
Before every nap and “good night,” my husband or I always pray a simple prayer over our children: “We ask that E and L come to know you and love you.” We do this because we’ve experienced the goodness of knowing God, and we want our kids to know it too. We want our kids to be transformed by the life-giving goodness of the gospel because we love them, and because we know that the gospel is good for them.
Adamson aims to do something similar. His bio claims that “[he] seeks to bring audiences from simply knowing information about God to actually experiencing God in life-changing ways,” which is clear throughout Grace in the Valley.
In his introduction, Adamson addresses the question, “Why doesn’t God just take this suffering away?” with the following: “There is something even more miraculous than a miracle. It is embracing the the reality that we are loved and deeply valued even in the valley.”
In short, he has experienced the life-giving goodness of the gospel and wants the same for his readers. The book is less about defending God in the face of pain and suffering as highlighting the present comfort of God’s love for those facing difficulty. God is good, even in the valley, and it’s clear that Adamson loves both the Good Shepherd and the sheep.
Cover photo by Waranont Wichittranont.