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Jude is a feared litigator. He lives in a same-sex relationship with Willem, his childhood friend. He also has secrets: he harms himself frequently, cutting his calves and arms in the middle of the night.

Jude is one of the main characters in Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life. At 734 pages, it required some 16 hours to read, and not much of it was enjoyable. I’ve never read a darker novel that describes abuse and self-harm as much as this one. An article in the New Yorker comments:

What makes this book’s treatment of abuse and suffering subversive is that it does not offer any possibility of redemption and deliverance beyond these tender moments. It gives us a moral universe in which spiritual salvation of this sort does not exist.

Despite the darkness of this book, I’m glad I read it. It prompted me to ask two important questions.

Two Questions

As much as I’d like to avoid the fictional world that Yanagihara created, I live in a world in which abuse, self-harm, and suicide are a reality. A Little Life raised two questions that are important for all of us to ask.

Are we prepared for the brokenness around us?

Sometimes it feels like our churches are ready for mild forms of brokenness. We can handle someone who comes in with minor addictions and respectable sins. We don’t know how to handle the brokenness that actually exists.

A pastor-friend recommended a book to me on trauma’s effects on the body (review coming soon). He’s found it useful in his ministry, because so many people walking through the doors of our churches are dealing with trauma. Abuse and self-harm are all around us. Are we ready to deal with it, or will we pretend that it doesn’t exist?

Rosaria Butterfield shares the story of the morning she first attended church, feeling like a freak. “You never know the terrain someone else has walked to come worship the Lord,” she writes. We talk about the church being a safe place for messy people. Are we really prepared to welcome people who are dealing with levels of mess we’ve never experienced?

Jesus scandalized the religious in his day, because he had no problem embracing people at the fringes who had been overlooked by the religious.

We don’t need a gospel for the mildly broken. We need a gospel for the deepest levels of brokenness we can throw at it. This is the gospel that we have; it’s the gospel we must rediscover and embrace.

Do we grasp how much Jesus has done for us?

One of the most moving scenes in A Little Life takes place when an older couple, Harold and Julia, decide to adopt Jude when he’s an adult. Harold wants to embrace Jude completely:

I adopted the person he was, but along with that came the person he had been, and I didn’t know who that person was. Later, I would regret that I hadn’t made it clearer to him that that person, whoever he was, was someone I wanted as well.

Jude feels spectacularly unworthy of his adoption, and increases his self-harm. Despite his adoption, and the love lavished on him, he can’t accept that he’s this loved. He still lives as an orphan. Harold realizes:

Later, I realized that in those years just after the adoption, he was always wondering how permanent it was, always wondering what he would eventually eventually do that would make me disown him.

As I reflected on this, I began thinking of God’s adoption of his children. Like Jude, we can’t comprehend that God wants all of us, including our shame. We can’t accept that we’re this loved, and we continue to live as if we’re orphans. Jude doesn’t just give me a window into the brokenness of the world; he gives me a window into my own brokenness, and the grace that’s ours in Jesus. It led me to a deeper appreciation of my own adoption, and all that Jesus has done for us.

God’s Grace for a Messy World

As The New Yorker observes, there’s little redemption in A Little Life. But while the book is accurate in describing the brokenness around us, it fails to describe the hope that exists for a deeply broken world.

Let’s live in the real world, and never pretend that things are better than they are. But let’s live in light of real grace, a grace that can handle deeper levels of darkness than we can imagine.

A Little Life is dark, disturbing, and graphic. I can’t say I enjoyed it. In some ways, though, it may be one of the most important books I read as a church planter this year.

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