InterVarsity Press | 2023 | 120 pages (hardcover) | $20.00
In the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on a novel by Stephen Chbosky, a high school first-year student named Charlie grapples with the suffering of those around him. As someone with undisclosed trauma from childhood, Charlie is especially observant of and empathetic toward the suffering he witnesses. After his friends graduate and leave for college, he is institutionalized for attempting to commit suicide. He talks with his doctor for the first time in a dimly lit hospital room:
“Just tell me how to stop it.”
“Seeing it. All their lives. All the time. How do you stop seeing it?”
“Seeing what, Charlie?”
“There is so much pain. And I don’t know how to not notice it.”
“What’s hurting you?”
“No, not me. It’s them. It’s everyone. It never stops. Do you understand?”
Charlie deeply desires to no longer see the suffering in those close to him, but what happens when we confront the fact that we can’t stop noticing this pain? Or what happens when we acknowledge we shouldn’t stop seeing the agony in the world, that it’s good to acknowledge it? How do we faithfully live as caring witnesses to mental suffering? These are the concerns of On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living, written by Alan Noble, an associate professor of literature at Oklahoma Baptist University and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture.
Whether it’s the suffering we’re experiencing or a loved one is enduring, we need to know how to bear the burden of living and see this same life as a gift. Our lives, even with suffering, are gifts from the God who graciously created us. Noble’s short book explores answers to the question “Why live?” when all of life’s evidence says, “Life isn’t worth living.”
Throughout what’s really a long essay, Noble spends ample time discussing the “evidence” of suffering in life, the uncountable instances of people “carrying around something unspeakably painful” (9). While Noble has his own personal suffering that he could use as anecdotal material, he has stated in interviews that he didn’t want this book to be a memoir, but rather a theological reflection born from firsthand experience. Much of what he discusses includes clinical diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Yet, he makes sure not to limit “mental affliction” to the realm of clinical psychiatry. Both those with a clinical diagnosis and those who can still attest to real suffering without a diagnosis can benefit from considering these realities of life: that life is both a burden and a blessing.
It’s all too easy to admit the fact that this life is a burden. Clear and honest about the reality of pain in this world, Noble admits this reality in two main ways. First, he testifies that we “all suffer silent crises,” carrying these “burdens that are incommunicable to those closest to us and occasionally even opaque to ourselves” (100; my italics). No matter the severity of our afflictions, this type of suffering is common to us all.
The second way can be found in his treatments of clinical mental illness. As someone diagnosed with specific phobia anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I appreciated his caution and care in dealing with the existence of mental illness, making sure to root the topic in Scripture without dismissing the need for medical treatment of these illnesses. He even deliberately confesses that he’s no expert in clinical psychiatry and that his words should be balanced with this fact. I appreciate all of this as a sign of honesty and humility on his part that leads to thoughtful reflection on suffering.
Noble’s central idea in this book concerns the sure goodness of existence. If we’re asking the question “Why live?” then his answer is “because our existence is good.” In the words of novelist Marilynne Robinson, we live because existence “seems to [us] now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” This existence is good because God has created us and called this creation good. As a result, even when it doesn’t feel like this is true, the goodness of our lives calls us to “do the next thing [as] an act of worship” (45).
While all this is correct, I’m concerned about a few implications of what the book doesn’t say. Is getting up and doing the next thing enough? Are we worshiping God if we merely get up and do the tasks before us? Noble instructs the reader: “Choose to do the next thing before and unto God, take a step toward the block. That is all you must ever do and all you can do. It is your spiritual act of worship” (45; my italics). To be fair, some faithful Christians are experiencing severe enough clinical mental or physical illnesses that getting out of bed is all they can do at the moment in the effort of worshiping God. However, Noble’s book is admittedly addressed to a much broader audience. So, this passage contains some problematic implications.
First, getting out of bed and doing the next thing, while part of worshiping God, is likely not all Paul had in mind when he instructed the Christians in Rome to “present [their] bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). What Paul had in mind when he suggested this was to offer all of ourselves to God, and he wouldn’t seem to be content with these simple tasks of daily living as constituting our whole worship. We can worship God in these tasks, but it’s mistaken to have them constitute that worship on their own. I imagine Noble regards getting out of bed and living one more day is a sacrifice because our bodies are presented for service in fulfillment of our vocations: a parent gets out of bed for the sake of a child; an employee for the sake of coworkers; a disciple for the sake of church community. Sacrificial service deserves praise for its obedience to the second greatest commandment—love your neighbor, even when you are falling apart—but there’s more to “true and proper worship” than executing our appointed work.
Second, if doing these simple acts of living, on their own, constitute our worship, then this means that non-Christians who get up and go about their work are also worshiping God in the same way. And so, the life of a Christian and a non-Christian are equal in their worship of God, equally pleasing to him. Biblically, however, we can’t say that the same act performed from a heart of faith and from a heart lacking faith are equally pleasing to the Lord.
In addition to these concerns, the person of Christ plays a peripheral role to the main points of the book. Noble proclaims the goodness of God’s creation as an impetus to live lives in the midst of mental affliction. But is this enough? Will looking at the goodness of our existence, at ourselves, really provide a balm to our anguish? Or do we need to look beyond ourselves to find our answer in Christ? It seems Noble believes that a robust affirmation of the goodness of creation will lead us toward the goodness of our Creator, but his book would benefit from drawing the ladder of ascent more explicitly. For example, how does cooking a meal, grading papers, folding clothes, or calling a long-distance friend move us closer toward Christ? Solidarity with the Suffering Servant equips sufferers to experience their suffering, against all odds, as “light momentary affliction” that prepare them for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
The answer to the question “Why live?” cannot be separated from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To give Noble some credit in this, he does say later in the book, “The very same God who created you in an act of grace and who preserves you in an act of grace suffered so that you can be redeemed by an act of grace” (82). It’s clear that Noble’s book is not without Christ. Yet, I suggest that the person of Christ should be more central to his solution to the “life problem.”
At the end of The Perks of Being a Wallflower when Charlie is released from the hospital, he says, “My doctor said we can’t choose where we come from, but we can choose where we go from there. I know it’s not all the answers, but it was enough to start putting these pieces together.”
The question then becomes: What gives us the ability to move on, to start putting the pieces together? While I’m somewhat dissatisfied by Noble’s solution, I believe he’s provided a helpful beginning to the answer. He’s provided those struggling with any number of internal agonies a first step in worshiping the Triune God:
Your existence is a testament, a living argument, an affirmation of creation itself. When you rise each day, that act is a faint but real echo of God’s “It is good.” By living this life, you participate in God’s act of creation, asserting with your very existence that it is a good creation. (36)
This answer is incomplete because it doesn’t account for the centrality of Christ, especially in creation. Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is “the firstborn of all creation,” and that “by him all things were created . . . and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15–17). When we assert the goodness of creation, we must assert the goodness of Jesus Christ himself. For the creation and sustaining of all things is done only through Christ.
So, when all is said and done, why should we live? Because our life is a gift and it is good, even very good (Gen. 1:31). Even when we feel that it’s not a gift, it is. When we don’t feel that life is good, maybe the act of living, choosing to do the next thing as an act of worship can work in us the gratitude we currently lack.
Even though we may not have all the answers we want, knowing the goodness of God and his creation and salvation in Christ can be our starting place for an answer. If the promises of Scripture hold true, then there’s not only evidence of suffering in this life but evidence of God’s goodness: “Beauty and love and joy are normal, too” (27). And there’s no greater evidence of this goodness than the work of our Savior that equips us to wake up each morning with thankfulness. Let’s pay attention to all the evidence. Let’s notice the evidence of the cross and resurrection. Let’s get out of bed as Paul encourages us to do:
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, directed by Stephen Chbosky (Santa Monica, CA: Summit Entertainment, 2012), Digital.Back
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004), 53.Back