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Broken Beauty – Reflections of a Soul Refined by Cancer

by Helena Bolhuis
252 pages / 2020

It’s kind of exciting when someone you are personally acquainted with publishes a book. It’s a bit of a thrill to hold the book in your hands, read their name on the cover, breathe in the new book smell, and anticipate sitting down with a cup of tea to crack it open and begin to read. I certainly felt this way when I purchased Broken Beauty – Reflections of a Soul Refined by Cancer, written by Helena Bolhuis. I don’t know Helena well, but having sat under her teaching on a couple of occasions – there experiencing her warmth, wisdom, and openness and seeing in her a sincere love for the Lord – I was definitely looking forward to reading her book. Attending her book launch at the local Free Reformed bookstore only heightened my eagerness, for that morning we got a glimpse into the beautiful and emotional journey this book would take us on.

Yet – dare I admit this? – I also felt a little bit of wariness, maybe even skepticism about the book, and at first I could not put my finger on why I felt this way. But on reflection, I realized what was making me uneasy: how could a book detailing someone’s personal experience not be a bit self-glorifying? How could the author, in human weakness, write about themselves without it being… all about them? Would God be given His proper place in this story?

And now, having read the book, I can answer that last question with a resounding “Yes!” Broken Beauty is, indeed, not a book about the author, but about the faithful God and loving Father who carried and led her through her cancer journey. From the dedication on the very first page – “for You, Father, for Your glory” – to the thanks at the end of the book, and everywhere in between, God is given the glory. Again and again, Helena points us to the Lord who supplied her every need in a time of sickness. The reader is left with a renewed sense of awe for the Great Physician, the God who refines us and draws us to himself through times of trial and weakness. The Father who carries us on eagle’s wings is the loving Author of this author’s story.

The book is organized in three main sections:

  • the journey
  • the provisions
  • and the destination

“The Journey” tells Helena’s cancer story as it unfolded in her life, describing doctor’s visits, waiting for and receiving test results, and the various treatments she had to undergo. And throughout this section of facts and details, Helena weaves the story of her inner struggle – emotional and spiritual – as she faced the very real possibility of her own death.

In the second section, “The Provisions,” Helena speaks about how God provided for her in so many ways along her cancer journey, and she draws a parallel here to how God provided for the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness. He provided for her relationally through the people in her life, and mentally through prayer, meditation, music, and books. God also supplied what she needed emotionally, physically, and spiritually in tangible ways. It was beautiful to read how every need was met by the loving hand of our Father.

“The Destination” describes the emotional and spiritual process of adjusting to life post-cancer, navigating life outside the close “cocoon” of God’s shelter and love that Helena experienced during her illness and recovery, and then having to move forward. The cancer journey was at an end, but regular daily life continues on towards the final destination – eternal glory!

Written with warmth, raw honesty, and so much hope, Broken Beauty gives the reader a close glimpse into a heart-rending yet beautiful time of suffering and sickness. Saturated with references to God’s Word and the comfort that Helena received from it, this book will be a real encouragement to anyone going through a period of trial or illness. It would also be useful to read when walking alongside a friend or relative experiencing a tough time, for throughout the book there is helpful advice and practical wisdom on how to be there for someone who is suffering. In this world broken by sin, we will all encounter suffering during our lives, whether our own or that of someone we love, and Helena’s book shines a bright light on how God turns our suffering into something beautiful, to His glory. I highly recommend it!

“Now I understood that life is all about God’s glory in my story and my delight in Him through that story. Now I understood that through His glory, my joy is made complete.” (p.239)

Broken Beauty is available at Amazon, including as an audiobook read by the author.

A version of this review will also appear in Una Sancta.


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Adult non-fiction

How does a Christian live in the midst of suffering?

A book summary of Kelly Kapic's Embodied Hope **** Pain and suffering require good theology because often, during intense pain of any kind, the whole question of how God’s sovereignty and goodness relate becomes intensely personal. Often Psalm 92:15 – The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him – becomes a very difficult confession. Is God really good? Sometimes it’s an arrogant question, but when there’s suffering it is often something entirely different. In Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, Reformed theologian Kelly Kapic considers physical pain and discusses “how a Christian might live in the midst of suffering.” That is, ultimately, what those in pain need, far more than abstract theories of the problem of suffering. THE NEED TO KNOW GOD AND KNOW THE SUFFERER Kapic, a professor with a wife who suffers severe chronic pain, insists that to help others with pain we need both pastoral sensitivity and theological insight. Without careful study of who God is – without theology – we often head into psychology and moralism. Conversely, without loving and knowing the sufferer, we may end up with harsh principles. Kapic’s deep understanding of the gospel, and of pain, and of the writings of godly men like Augustine, Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, and Bonhoeffer, enable him to explores how hope and lament are intertwined. He discusses how we can deal with the fact that God’s good creation has been compromised, how we experience that as we suffer, how to lament that biblically, and how God’s faithfulness ultimately shapes biblical lament. Vigorously rejecting the ancient and still common idea that the body and its pain are not important, Kapic points out that God created our bodies as well as our souls. Our bodies are essential to our identity as individuals, they are essential to our relationships, and essential to our worship. And all of that is tied to Jesus Christ, who is hope embodied, hope made physical. Jesus is the answer to the sufferer’s questions and he is God’s solution to the brokenness of the universe. Because of him our sufferings are not the final word, nor are pain, aging, forgotten memories, or death. 2017 / 192 pages GOD GIVES US EACH OTHER However, it is not only our individual relationship to Jesus Christ that counts; our relationships in the body of Christ are also vital. In fact, suffering shows how essential the body of Christ is to each member. Kapic states that we are in essence “members of a larger body, and thus also inherently unstable when isolated.” If this is true in general, it is even more important when someone is suffering. Being is pain is not a safe place to be alone. Lonely pain opens up temptations to despair, to dwelling on already-forgiven sins, and to questioning God’s care. A Christian who suffers chronic pain alone is vulnerable to Satan’s attacks, but a Christian who suffers in the body of Christ is, ideally, carried and encouraged by the faith, hope, and love of other believers. For example, when Luther was ill, he begged prayers from his friends that he would be saved “from blasphemy, doubt and distrust of his loving God.” Even so, sufferers must not ultimately look to other believers but to God’s revelation in Christ, since all faith, hope, and love “must ultimately point to and come from the triune God, and not merely from the communion of saints.” BEING THERE Of course, believers need to learn how to come along side those in pain. We often just want to help and, while this can be very important, our goal should not be to “fix” the other person. Rather we must learn to accept that pain is real and that the suffering person often just needs someone to be there. It can be very hard to watch someone suffer, and many people feel helpless and want to run away. Instead, we need to learn to share God’s love, perhaps with a glass of cold water, or a card, or a smile, or perhaps with endless hours of simply being there, suffering faithfully together, listening, honestly accepting the pain, and pointing to Christ, together. Just as the suffering person needs other believers, so other believers need sufferers. In loving and being loved by sufferers, those who are well are reminded that they, too, are poor and in need of God's grace. Otherwise it can become easy to imagine that they are self-sufficient and deserve their wellness because of how faithful they have been. Furthermore, those who suffer are uniquely able to witness that, though troubles are real, “God is unflinchingly faithful.” And, as Kapic points out, sufferers, too, have a responsibility. They can encourage and serve those who are well by loving them and being grateful and compassionate. They “need to beware of abusing others.” “Those dealing with a great deal of pain often have to work hard to avoid self-absorption and cultivate neighbor love. It takes intentionality. It takes a missional focus. But it can be life-giving.” CONCLUSION In Embodied Hope Kapic, as the husband of a wife with chronic pain, shares many practical insights. Yet he always comes around to this: “Beloved, amid the trials and tribulations of life, let us have confidence not in ourselves, not in our own efforts, but in God. This God has come in Christ, and he has overcome sin, death, and the devil. While we may currently be walking through the shadow of death, may our God’s love, grace, and compassion become ever more real to us. And may we, as the church, participate in the ongoing divine motions and movements of grace as God meets people in their need." This book has helped me come to terms with the fact that chronic suffering exists and has given me insight for supporting my daughter. I think it will be a blessing to every Christian who suffers physical pain or who loves someone who does, and I strongly recommend it. Embodied Hope would be a great addition to a church library, as well. Annie Kate Aarnoutse reviews books at Tea Time With Annie Kate where this first appeared....


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