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The Theology Professor and His Ailing Wife

Written by Matt Damico on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Matt Damico

Life brings occasions, both good and bad, that serve as natural chapter breaks in our own narrative. Dealing with the good ones is enjoyable, and there’s usually time to prepare for things like a wedding and the birth of a child. There’s no preparation for the bad ones, though. They happen, and you flee to wherever—whomever—you find refuge.

For John Feinberg, longtime professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and his wife, Pat, that day came on November 4, 1987. That was the day Pat was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a genetically transmitted ailment that gradually devastates physical and mental capacities. John’s wife is now confined to a wheelchair, uses a feeding tube, and can’t speak. John cares for her, even as “the Pat [he] married slips slowly and irreversibly away.”

The news of the diagnosis—and the accompanying reality their three sons could end up with the same condition—led to “shock, confusion, and disbelief” for the Feinbergs. When There Are No Easy Answers: Thinking Differently About God, Suffering, and Evil tells their story.

Good Counsel 

It’s impossible to read this book and remain unmoved by all the Feinbergs have endured. Their faithfulness in the face of trial left me sobered, humbled, and motivated not to take today’s joys for granted.

Though mostly narrative, When There Are No Easy Answers includes much valuable counsel for hurting people and those ministering to them. There are chapters with specific advice for walking through affliction, and chapters that broaden to deal with issues of suffering, evil, goodness, and grace.    

One insight I found particularly helpful was Feinberg’s description of the abandonment people feel throughout their suffering. When a loved one suffers, it’s tempting to stay away, lest we make the situation worse by inserting ourselves. Taking this approach, though, “confirms the worst fears of the sufferer,” which is that he or she will face the suffering alone. “When family and friends keep their distance,” Feinberg observes, “they communicate that this is likely true.” Being present and willing to listen is imperative for meaningful care. And it’s vital not just in the aftermath of tragedy but also long-term, when most assume the sufferer has “moved on” or adjusted to the new realities. This was a good reminder that we should care for others by imitating our never-leaving-nor-forsaking Lord.

The chapter titled “Grace, Justice, and the Suffering of the Righteous” would serve any reader, too. Envy, jealousy, and bitterness are temptations for afflicted people, so Feinberg gives help for the fight. Instead of comparing their circumstances with others, hurting people should consider their circumstances in light of what they deserve and the grace they’ve received. 

Avoidable Problem

I don’t pretend to know what the last 29 years have been like for the Feinbergs, so I tremble to take issue with anything in the book. On the one hand, whatever kind of emotions, questions, or general response one might have after such a seismic life change seems warranted. On the other, some doubt and pain can be exacerbated by the confusion one brings into a trial. Since Feinberg wants the book to help others who suffer, I thought there was a missed opportunity to help people avoid unnecessary pain.

Feinberg details how carefully he and his wife sought God’s will prior to getting married. They were careful about this process since they assumed they had mutually exclusive ministry calls, and since Pat’s family had a history of (what they thought was) mental illness. So they did due diligence to ensure there was no threat of Pat getting the same condition and putting any future children at risk. After much prayer, certain they were doing the right thing, they married.

Yet they collided head-on with everything they sought to avoid. In addition to dealing with the diagnosis, they dealt with doubts about whether they’d been wrong in discerning God’s will. Maybe the diagnosis was discipline for choosing the wrong path. Maybe God deceived them into doing his will, only to introduce them to incredible pain.

It’s common to think of God’s will this way, but I don’t think it’s biblical, and it only compounds confusion and grief.

A better view is presented in Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will. DeYoung says seeking God’s “will of direction” leaves us “disappointed with ourselves or angry with God because we can’t seem to figure out how to find God’s will for our lives.” Such disappointment and anger can add grief upon grief, leaving us thinking bad things “could have been prevented if we had just better discerned God’s will.”

Instead, DeYoung says, we should “walk into the future with God-glorifying confidence, not because the future is known to us but because it is known to God.”

This is a much more liberating and biblical way to view God’s will. In fact, Scripture reveals God’s will for each of his people: love God, love neighbor, walk in holiness, spread the gospel. Beyond that, we exercise prudence, seek counsel, and know there’s freedom in the decisions we make. Through many tribulations God’s people will enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22), but let us not add difficulties by thinking wrongly about God’s will. 

What’s a Promise For?

I was also unsure how to react to the chapter “Recipes for Disaster, or, How Not to Help the Afflicted.” I know people can do much harm in the name of help. So the goal of the chapter is good, and I was eager to learn from it. Nobody wants to be like Job’s friends.

But some of the counsel was confusing. For example, one of the things Feinberg counsels against is saying, “Just remember Romans 8:28.” Feinberg says, “Reminding them of what God can do before God has done anything isn’t likely to help very much.” But isn’t it the nature of hope and trust to believe God will do something before he’s done it? Isn’t that how promises work? We trust God works all things for good even when there’s no good in sight, because that’s who God is and that’s what he’s promised to do.

God’s Word is the most effective tool the counselor has, and while Romans 8:28 is not the only thing we should say—and perhaps not the first thing we should say—on what other grounds do we offer hope? The book was intended to encourage us to counsel the afflicted, but I finished the chapter hesitant about saying anything to someone grieving. 

Good and Wise Instruction 

When There Are No Easy Answers gives a lot of good and wise instruction for caring for suffering people. The Feinbergs’ trusting perseverance stirred me to be more grateful and to love my family better; I hope I’m half as caring of a husband as John Feinberg.

While this won’t be the first book I recommend to someone hurting or looking to help someone who is, I have no doubt it will prove beneficial to anyone who picks it up.

John S. Feinberg. When There Are No Easy Answers: Thinking Differently About God, Suffering, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2016. 151 pp. $14.99.

Matt Damico is associate pastor of worship at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

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