The best books about suffering

2 authors have picked their favorite books about suffering and why they recommend each book.

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The Sweet Spot

By Paul Bloom,

Book cover of The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning

This book relates to a lot of what I’ve learned in my own research about rituals. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it argues that we humans are not hedonists by nature. Yes, we desire comfort and we pursue all kinds of pleasures. But we also often embrace struggle, effort, and even fear and pain, and those are in fact the things that make our lives truly meaningful. From watching horror films and climbing mountains to raising children and performing painful rituals, Paul Bloom argues that, in the right context, suffering can be part of a life well-lived.

The Sweet Spot

By Paul Bloom,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sweet Spot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“This book will challenge you to rethink your vision of a good life. With sharp insights and lucid prose, Paul Bloom makes a captivating case that pain and suffering are essential to happiness. It’s an exhilarating antidote to toxic positivity.” —Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of the TED podcast WorkLife

One of BehavioralScientist's"Notable Books of 2021"

From the author of Against Empathy, a different kind of happiness book, one that shows us how suffering is an essential source of both pleasure and meaning in our lives

Why do we so often seek…


Who am I?

I am an anthropologist and cognitive scientist who studies some of the things that make us human—but not the obvious ones. I am mostly interested in those things that may appear puzzling or pointless, but fill our lives with meaning and purpose. Growing up in Greece, I read National Geographic Magazine and reveled in the documentaries of Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, and Jacques Cousteau, which sparked in me a passion for exploration through the combined lenses of personal experience and scientific scrutiny. In my own research, I have spent two decades studying ritual by conducting several years of ethnographic research and bringing scientific measurements into real-life settings.


I wrote...

Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living

By Dimitris Xygalatas,

Book cover of Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living

What is my book about?

Ritual presents a profound paradox: people ascribe the utmost importance to their rituals, but few can explain why they are so important. Seemingly senseless acts pervade every documented society, from handshakes to hexes, hazings to parades. Before we ever learned to farm, we were gathering in giant stone temples to perform elaborate rites. And yet, though rituals exist in every culture and can persist nearly unchanged for centuries, their logic has remained a mystery—until now. A new science of ritual reveals that it is a primordial part of human nature, that helps us soothe our anxieties, connect, find meaning, and discover who we are.

The Palliative Society

By Byung-Chul Han, Daniel Steuer (translator),

Book cover of The Palliative Society: Pain Today

It’s a little weird that this book should find a place on my list. It’s a book about how society has become resistant to anything that is difficult and painful and the kinds of people that we have become as a result. But mathematics is difficult! To understand mathematics you have to think hard, sometimes for a long time. Moreover understanding something hard is discontinuous, it requires a leap to a new way of thinking. You have to start with a problem and this problem might be an ambiguity or a contradiction. A is true and B is true but A and B seem to contradict one another. When you sort out this problem you will have learned something.

The moral here is to embrace things that are difficult if you want to learn significant new things. “No pain, no gain.” You don’t have to worry about some super AI…

The Palliative Society

By Byung-Chul Han, Daniel Steuer (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Palliative Society as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Our societies today are characterized by a universal algophobia: a generalized fear of pain. We strive to avoid all painful conditions - even the pain of love is treated as suspect. This algophobia extends into society: less and less space is given to conflicts and controversies that might prompt painful discussions. It takes hold of politics too: politics becomes a palliative politics that is incapable of implementing radical reforms that might be painful, so all we get is more of the same.

Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, the palliative society is transformed into a society of survival. The virus enters…


Who am I?

I'm a mathematician but an unusual one because I am interested in how mathematics is created and how it is learned. From an early age, I loved mathematics because of the beauty of its concepts and the precision of its organization and reasoning. When I started to do research I realized that things were not so simple. To create something new you had to suspend or go beyond your rational mind for a while. I realized that the learning and creating of math have non-logical features. This was my eureka moment. It turned the conventional wisdom (about what math is and how it is done) on its head.


I wrote...

How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics

By William Byers,

Book cover of How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics

What is my book about?

If you love mathematics then this book will show you where the beauty and profundity that you love comes from. Most people mistakenly think that mathematics is nothing but logic, something like an AI program.  This book demonstrates that something very different is going on. Mathematics makes use of non-logical features like ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox. It is precisely these non-logical features that make math profound. The book demonstrates this with fascinating examples from all levels of math.

Profundity comes from being able to look at an idea from more than one point of view. Profound ideas often come from resolving situations of conflict, for example, zero resolves the conflict of having something that stands for nothing. Maybe I should have called the book, “mathematics beyond logic”.

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy

By Mark Vroegop,

Book cover of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament

Sometimes the pain of our suffering is multiplied because those around us act as though grieving is a sign of weakness and lack of faith. Although we live in a world with many wonderful things, we will all experience suffering at some point. And trying to numb or avoid our pain doesn’t make our hurt and grief disappear. For that reason, I’ve been helped and encouraged by Mark Vroegop’s book because it teaches us to lament, which is acknowledging our grief and pain to God, giving ourselves the space and time to grieve while holding onto hope at the same time.

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy

By Mark Vroegop,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book seeks to restore the lost art of lament in order to help readers discover the power of honest wrestling with the questions that come with grief and suffering.


Who am I?

I believe the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and that he loves us. But after enduring years of physical, mental, and emotional pain, special needs in one of our children, two job losses, and a degenerative ankle, I’ve struggled to understand why he’s allowed it. Over the years, God has been teaching me that there is more to our suffering than meets the eye. And what we see as pointless, God promises to redeem and use for his good purposes. As I’ve grown to trust Jesus, he’s changed me, and given me comfort, hope, and joy in the midst of my sorrows. 


I wrote...

Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God's Purpose in Your Suffering

By Kristen Wetherell, Sarah Walton,

Book cover of Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God's Purpose in Your Suffering

What is my book about?

Sarah and Kristen have walked through, and are walking in, difficult times. So these thirty biblical reflections are full of realism about the hurts of life—yet overwhelmingly full of hope about the God who gives life.

This book will gently encourage and greatly help anyone who is struggling with suffering—whether physical, emotional, or psychological, and whether for a season or for longer. It is a book to buy for yourself or to buy for a member of your church or friend. For anyone who is hurting, this book will give hope, not just for life beyond the suffering, but for life in the suffering. Each chapter contains a biblical reflection, with questions and prayers, and a space for journaling.

Book cover of Suffering Is Never for Nothing

Elisabeth Elliot knows pain. She lost her first husband, Jim Elliot, when he and other missionary husbands were murdered by the tribe of people they were trying to reach. With incredible tenacity and bravery, Elisabeth continued to reach out to the tribe who killed her husband and ended up living among them and helping translate the bible into their language. In addition to that, she also lost her second husband to cancer. Despite all of that, she has offered the hope of Jesus to countless people – including myself. And the profound wisdom that she’s gained through unimaginable suffering has been such a gift to me as I’ve struggled to understand the purposes of my own pain. 

Suffering Is Never for Nothing

By Elisabeth Elliot,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Suffering Is Never for Nothing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hard times come for all in life, with no real explanation. When we walk through suffering, it has the potential to devastate and destroy, or to be the gateway to gratitude and joy.

Elisabeth Elliot was no stranger to suffering. Her first husband, Jim, was murdered by the Waoroni people in Ecuador moments after he arrived in hopes of sharing the gospel. Her second husband was lost to cancer. Yet, it was in her deepest suffering that she learned the deepest lessons about God.

Why doesn’t God do something about suffering? He has, He did, He is, and He will.…


Who am I?

I believe the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and that he loves us. But after enduring years of physical, mental, and emotional pain, special needs in one of our children, two job losses, and a degenerative ankle, I’ve struggled to understand why he’s allowed it. Over the years, God has been teaching me that there is more to our suffering than meets the eye. And what we see as pointless, God promises to redeem and use for his good purposes. As I’ve grown to trust Jesus, he’s changed me, and given me comfort, hope, and joy in the midst of my sorrows. 


I wrote...

Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God's Purpose in Your Suffering

By Kristen Wetherell, Sarah Walton,

Book cover of Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God's Purpose in Your Suffering

What is my book about?

Sarah and Kristen have walked through, and are walking in, difficult times. So these thirty biblical reflections are full of realism about the hurts of life—yet overwhelmingly full of hope about the God who gives life.

This book will gently encourage and greatly help anyone who is struggling with suffering—whether physical, emotional, or psychological, and whether for a season or for longer. It is a book to buy for yourself or to buy for a member of your church or friend. For anyone who is hurting, this book will give hope, not just for life beyond the suffering, but for life in the suffering. Each chapter contains a biblical reflection, with questions and prayers, and a space for journaling.

No Mud, No Lotus

By Thich Nhat Hanh,

Book cover of No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering

I have read almost 40 books from Thich Nhat Hanh and every time I read his books, I feel a deep sense of peace.

I recommend this book to deal with the inner critic because it is about transforming suffering. Instead of running away from our emotional pain, the book teaches us to be present with it. I love how the author uses lotus as an analogy to help us see the beneficial aspects of all things. 

In his book, he wrote “We need to have mud for lotuses to grow. Without mud, there can be no lotus.” This reminds me to not reject the inner critic, but use it as an excellent teacher for my own growth.

No Mud, No Lotus

By Thich Nhat Hanh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked No Mud, No Lotus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The secret to happiness is to acknowledge and transform suffering, not to run away from it. Here, Thich Nhat Hanh offers practices and inspiration transforming suffering and finding true joy.

Thich Nhat Hanh acknowledges that because suffering can feel so bad, we try to run away from it or cover it up by consuming. We find something to eat or turn on the television. But unless we’re able to face our suffering, we can’t be present and available to life, and happiness will continue to elude us.

Nhat Hanh shares how the practices of stopping, mindful breathing, and deep concentration…

Who am I?

I grew up with low self-esteem. As an introvert, I found it difficult to make friends in school and I feel I wasn’t good enough for others. Even when I had my first job, I found myself tearing up in the restroom cubicle one day, feeling defective and unable to fit in. That set me off on a journey to improve my self-esteem. I began reading a lot and taking courses on this topic. For years, I felt more confident and worthy. However, it wasn’t until I had a depression that I was truly transformed. After I recovered, I become committed to living peacefully.


I wrote...

The Disbelief Habit: How to Use Doubt to Make Peace with Your Inner Critic

By Yong Kang Chan,

Book cover of The Disbelief Habit: How to Use Doubt to Make Peace with Your Inner Critic

What is my book about?

This book is about building a habit of mindfulness to help you deal with your inner critic.

If you grew up with low self-esteem like me, you most likely have a critical voice in your head that constantly tells you that you aren’t good enough. Many of us try to stop or silence these self-loathing thoughts. But we end up blaming ourselves when we failed to do so. This book approaches negative thinking with mindfulness. Instead of suppressing your thoughts, you use awareness and discernment to break the self-criticism cycle. When mindfulness becomes a new habit, you will feel at peace with all your thoughts, regardless if they are positive or negative.

Book cover of Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope

A friend once asked to whom I’d most want to be apprenticed. I thought about it for a while and answered, “Joan Chittister.” She invariably speaks deeply from a spirituality not limited to her Catholic orthodoxy, but inclusive of many other religious traditions. I never stop learning from her wisdom which often arises from her own experience.

In Chittister’s chapter about endurance, I am reminded of my own struggles as a writer and as a minister and how these struggles have deepened my spiritual understanding. Her words always give me hope and help me to persevere.

Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope

By Joan D. Chittister,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Everyone goes through times of pain and sorrow, depression and darkness, stress and suffering. It is in the necessary struggles of life, however, that we stretch our souls and gain new insights enabling us to go on.

Building on the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with God and on the story of her own battle with life-changing disappointment, Sister Joan Chittister deftly explores the landscape of suffering and hope, considering along the way such wide-ranging topics as consumerism, technology, grief, the role of women in the Catholic Church, and the events of September 11, 2001. We struggle, she says, against…

Who am I?

One Christmas Eve many years ago when I was a little girl, I was too excited to sleep. I prayed to the baby Jesus whom I’d heard about in carols. I felt wrapped in love and woke up well-rested on Christmas morning. I’ve always believed life is a spiritual journey: I respect and learn from many religious and secular traditions. After I joined a church, I became a spiritual director. When I was sixty, I earned an MA in pastoral ministry and women’s studies. I have pastored two churches and also became a preacher—something I could not imagine I’d ever be able to do. It’s never too late!


I wrote...

Naomi and Ruth: Loyalty Among Women

By Christina St. Clair,

Book cover of Naomi and Ruth: Loyalty Among Women

What is my book about?

This is a novel that seeks to resolve some of the unexplained situations in the biblical book of Ruth: How did Naomi's husband and sons die? How did Naomi manage in a foreign land as a single mother? Why did Naomi develop deep feelings for Ruth? What made Naomi seek a marriage between Ruth and Boaz? This historically accurate novel is a work of fiction that Jewish readers might consider a midrash, but it is intended for women of all religious persuasions or none.

The study guide, with questions for reflection for each chapter, will be helpful to individuals and also to small groups for Bible study and in book clubs.

Affliction

By Russell Banks,

Book cover of Affliction

I’ve rarely read a book that explores the pain of the white working class better.  If you’ve ever wondered about the lives of those grizzled gas station attendants with their faded baseball hats, this book is a small masterpiece.

Affliction

By Russell Banks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Affliction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of the descent into violence of ordinary man. The narrator looks at the struggle between decency and brutality in his brother, whose early promise as an athlete and student was crushed by his father's fists. By the author of "Continental Drift".

Who am I?

Michael Kimmel is one of the world’s leading experts on men and masculinities. He was the SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University. Among his many books are Manhood in America, Angry White Men, The Politics of Manhood, The Gendered Society, and the best seller Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, he founded the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook in 2013.


I wrote...

Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men

By Michael Kimmel,

Book cover of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men

What is my book about?

The passage from adolescence to adulthood was once clear. Today, growing up has become more complex and confusing, as young men drift casually through college and beyond—hanging out, partying, playing with tech toys, watching sports. But beneath the appearance of a simple extended boyhood, a more dangerous social world has developed, far away from the traditional signposts and cultural signals that once helped boys navigate their way to manhood—a territory Michael Kimmel has identified as "Guyland."


In mapping the troubling social world where men are now made, Kimmel offers a view into the minds and times of America's sons, brothers, and boyfriends, and he works toward redefining what it means to be a man today—and tomorrow. Only by understanding this world and this life stage can we enable young men to chart their own paths, stay true to themselves, and emerge safely from Guyland as responsible and fully formed male adults.


Chronic Illness

By Esther Smith,

Book cover of Chronic Illness: Walking by Faith

Licensed Counselor Esther Smith masterfully offers an impressive Christian devotional for chronic illness sufferers that takes only a few minutes per day to read. I find myself referring back to it for strength, wisdom, and biblical insights. The chapter for each day includes a Bible verse pertaining to a topic, a faith-based discussion, reflection questions, and suggested actions.   

There is so much to love about this book: it is practical, relatable, quick and easy to read, and comforting. 

Chronic Illness

By Esther Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chronic Illness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Is chronic illness taking over your heart as much as your body? Physical symptoms and limitations change all aspects of life, leading to losses and to unique challenges that are difficult to navigate. Writing from her own experience with these issues, Esther Smith focuses heavily on encouragement and practical application, showing you how to release guilt and shame, ask for help, balance work and rest, and get through days of difficult symptoms. Each day, you will be encouraged as you consider how God uses illness in sanctifying, kingdom-advancing ways to display his glory and work in your heart.

In the…

Who am I?

I am a school psychologist and Christian who has lived with multiple debilitating chronic illnesses for 25 years. As a result, I am all too familiar with how disruptive and life-changing they can be to our daily lives. Yet few books exist that offer practical guidance for living with chronic illness. And even fewer of these books are for Christian readers. Written with different areas of expertise and angles, my book and the books below fill this gap. I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have!


I wrote...

Finding Joy with an Invisible Chronic Illness: Proven Strategies for Discovering Happiness, Meaning, and Fulfillment

By Christopher Martin,

Book cover of Finding Joy with an Invisible Chronic Illness: Proven Strategies for Discovering Happiness, Meaning, and Fulfillment

What is my book about?

Finding Joy presents a comprehensive, practical guide for living your best life with chronic illness. This psychology self-help book integrates personal and professional insights to give you tools for handling various aspects of living with a chronic illness. There is also a chapter specifically for the loved ones and caregivers of the chronically ill. While this book is designed for anyone with a chronic illness, the spiritual content early in the book suggests the value of sticking to your faith and offers several Bible references.

Beside Still Waters

By Charles H. Spurgeon,

Book cover of Beside Still Waters: Words of Comfort for the Soul

Over the past 15 years, I’ve walked through layers and layers of trials – including chronic illness in myself and all four of my children, special needs in one of our kids, a degenerative ankle that has led to six ankle surgeries, depression, and several seasons of financial struggle. During times when I haven’t had much capacity to read in large chunks, I have found Beside Still Waters to be a comfort and encouragement. Charles Spurgeon writes with profound insight and eloquence, but in a down-to-earth way.

Beside Still Waters

By Charles H. Spurgeon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beside Still Waters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A collection of Scripture-based readings that offer encouragement to individuals dealing with illness, loss, or other personal problems.


Who am I?

I believe the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and that he loves us. But after enduring years of physical, mental, and emotional pain, special needs in one of our children, two job losses, and a degenerative ankle, I’ve struggled to understand why he’s allowed it. Over the years, God has been teaching me that there is more to our suffering than meets the eye. And what we see as pointless, God promises to redeem and use for his good purposes. As I’ve grown to trust Jesus, he’s changed me, and given me comfort, hope, and joy in the midst of my sorrows. 


I wrote...

Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God's Purpose in Your Suffering

By Kristen Wetherell, Sarah Walton,

Book cover of Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God's Purpose in Your Suffering

What is my book about?

Sarah and Kristen have walked through, and are walking in, difficult times. So these thirty biblical reflections are full of realism about the hurts of life—yet overwhelmingly full of hope about the God who gives life.

This book will gently encourage and greatly help anyone who is struggling with suffering—whether physical, emotional, or psychological, and whether for a season or for longer. It is a book to buy for yourself or to buy for a member of your church or friend. For anyone who is hurting, this book will give hope, not just for life beyond the suffering, but for life in the suffering. Each chapter contains a biblical reflection, with questions and prayers, and a space for journaling.

Suffering

By Paul David Tripp,

Book cover of Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn't Make Sense

Sometimes life doesn’t go as we’d hoped or expected; sometimes it’s filled with layers of difficulty and struggle, and sometimes it’s flipped upside down with tragedy. And I’ve experienced all three. Out of nowhere, death, illness, job loss, etc, can change our lives and challenge our view of God, ourselves, and the world. But despite all the pain, confusion, and disappointment, we have hope.

Paul David Tripp wrote with personal experience about how we can learn to trust God in the midst of suffering. He’s helped me cling to God's promises in my trials, face my pain with honesty, and persevere with the hope of the gospel.

Suffering

By Paul David Tripp,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Suffering as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Best-selling author Paul David Tripp weaves together his personal story, years of counseling experience, and biblical insights to help us in the midst of suffering, identifying 6 traps to avoid and 6 comforts to embrace.


Who am I?

I believe the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and that he loves us. But after enduring years of physical, mental, and emotional pain, special needs in one of our children, two job losses, and a degenerative ankle, I’ve struggled to understand why he’s allowed it. Over the years, God has been teaching me that there is more to our suffering than meets the eye. And what we see as pointless, God promises to redeem and use for his good purposes. As I’ve grown to trust Jesus, he’s changed me, and given me comfort, hope, and joy in the midst of my sorrows. 


I wrote...

Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God's Purpose in Your Suffering

By Kristen Wetherell, Sarah Walton,

Book cover of Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God's Purpose in Your Suffering

What is my book about?

Sarah and Kristen have walked through, and are walking in, difficult times. So these thirty biblical reflections are full of realism about the hurts of life—yet overwhelmingly full of hope about the God who gives life.

This book will gently encourage and greatly help anyone who is struggling with suffering—whether physical, emotional, or psychological, and whether for a season or for longer. It is a book to buy for yourself or to buy for a member of your church or friend. For anyone who is hurting, this book will give hope, not just for life beyond the suffering, but for life in the suffering. Each chapter contains a biblical reflection, with questions and prayers, and a space for journaling.

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