Tambourine: Chris Rock’s Theology of Suffering
In Tambourine, his Netflix comedy special, Chris Rock recounts lessons he has learned about parenting, marriage, pornography, and God—among other things. The common thread is that Rock learned all the lessons the hard way. And while some of the advice he now offers is questionable, his understanding of the role of suffering in our lives does in many ways reflect a Christian understanding of the pain and frustration we experience.
For Rock, suffering is a fact of life. Rather than running away or minimizing our exposure, he suggests we can learn from those experiences. Rock questions zero-tolerance school policies toward bullying, suggesting that if school is designed to prepare you for life, it is important to know how to deal with unpleasant people at a young age. Joseph was bullied by his brothers and sold into slavery, but at the end of Genesis he confidently declares that through those negative experiences, God brought about good. Somewhat similarly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his personal suffering to galvanize the Civil Rights Movement, which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Rock also highlights suffering as a tool for building resilience. He jokes that it’s pressure that makes diamonds, “not hugs.” James is not quite as opposed to hugs, but he does tell us that trials develop perseverance and perseverance must complete its work so that we may be mature and complete. Difficult experiences are often the most effective tool in building the endurance we need in order to run this Christian race.
In an extended riff on parenting black children, Rock talks about the necessity of tough love as a survival tool, especially when preparing them for a particular kind of suffering: racism, which is unavoidable, painful, and sometimes even deadly. Rock wants to prepare his daughters for it, because he believes it’s better to learn horrible truths from someone who loves you and wants the best for you. Rock’s musings here are a reminder that some suffering is beyond our personal control.
There are plenty of great jokes in Tambourine, but beyond the jokes is the sober reality that Rock’s experience with hardship led to introspection and then reform. He learned that pornography is bad for relational intimacy, but only after he admitted to his addiction and the ways it desensitized him. He admits that these consequences he brought on himself. We often do not want to acknowledge that the choices we make lead to painful outcomes, so suffering the consequences of our sin can be necessary for our holiness. As Hebrews reminds us, the Lord disciplines those he loves, and chastens those he accepts as sons and daughters.
Suffering the consequences of our sin can be necessary for our holiness.
Later in Tambourine, Rock discusses the end of his marriage and the ways he was a bad husband. Admitting his personal failings led to new revelations about what it takes to make relationships work. He shares that competition does not work in relationships, suggesting that it is better to serve your partner. In fact, the title of the special is derived from his advice for couples to stop competing in relationships. He compares it to being in a band: sometimes you are the lead singer and other times you just play the tambourine. The tambourine analogy works in considering the role of suffering in our lives as well. We will experience the highs of love, laughter, and recognition, but other times we have to toil in the background under less favorable circumstances.
Rock openly claims in Tambourine that he is searching for God—that he wants to find God before God finds him. He believes that God never finds you at a good time, but in difficult times when life’s circumstances seem unfair. Rock has a very common response to suffering: he questions whether God is in fact all powerful and whether it is true that he never makes mistakes. When experiencing painful circumstances, we begin to doubt God, we question the fairness of what we are experiencing, and the reason for our suffering. Not every painful experience can be easily attributed to some larger purpose. It does not mean there is not one, just that we do not see it. Some things can only be seen in hindsight, and we can only hold to the promise of Psalm 23—that even through the valley of death, he is with us.
Some of the lessons Rock has learned are wrong, as when he jokes that men are never loved unconditionally, but only for what they can provide for others. Christians would affirm men as created in the image of God and worthy of love simply because they are God’s creation. But ultimately Rock sees suffering as a valuable teacher. Theologian Dorothee Soelle describes suffering as an exercise, not an activity. If we allow suffering to do its work, we can emerge stronger, wiser, and freer—and use those experiences to help others.
Even as we learn through suffering, sometimes the biggest and best lesson is that in our deepest pain, we are not alone. We have a Father who comforts those who mourn, who empathizes with our hardships, and who through it all is molding us into his image. Even when the necessary tool is suffering, we can trust that our lives are in the hands of the Master Potter.