In Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and chairman of the Redeemer City to City church planting network, tackles the subjects of grief, suffering and evil, and why he believes Christianity is humanity's greatest means of making sense of, and utilizing for good the dark moments everyone eventually encounters in life.
Keller, whose 2008 The Reason for God was a New York Times bestseller, spoke with The Christian Post Wednesday about Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering and explained how God is glorified through human suffering and what makes the Western world least equipped to deal with such experiences.
Below is an edited transcript of CP's interview with Keller, whose new book was released Oct. 1 through Penguin Group's Dutton imprint.
CP: This book seems so deep and wide on the issue of suffering. You touch on the subject through history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychiatry, and of course religion while you make a case for Christianity in every argument. Can you please comment on that?
Keller: The subject, suffering, goes across all those categories. That's what's so hard about writing a book on this. It's a psychological issue because of all the emotions. It's a philosophical issue because of the huge questions it raises (what does it mean and why does this happen?). It's also a cultural issue because every culture...one of the main thing a culture does is it tries to give its members a way of handling suffering. There's no culture that doesn't do that because it's such a big issue. Then of course, there's no religion that doesn't address it. There's your spiritual issues and theological, there's your anthropological and cultural, there's your psychological, there's your philosophical...I mean, there's no way to do justice to it. I always feel so small in front of the subject, because you can't fit it in a category and it cuts across all of them. It forced me as a writer to go to all those places.
CP: You state in the introduction of Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering that your aim with the book was to urge people "to take life seriously" by choosing to face pain, tragedy and suffering head-on instead of trying to escape or suppress these realities of life. Can you elaborate?
Keller: There's a place in Hebrews 12 where it talks about the Lord's discipline, it's talking about difficulty in trouble. It actually says 'don't despise it and don't faint under it.' Some translations say 'don't make light of it or don't be crushed by it.' To despise it or make light of it means you don't learn a thing from it. You just grit your teeth and say, 'I'm alright, I'm alright.' You deny how much it hurts and wait for it to go away. To faint or be crushed by it means you just fall apart and you just go to pieces, and that way you don't learn anything either. I think both of those in a way fail to take life seriously and admit that life is filled with suffering. I think that people who take it lightly say, 'This is an anomaly and I'm just going to wait for it to go by.' And those who fall apart say, 'This just shouldn't happen.' They are naive. Both of those different approaches I think fail to accept the suffering and misery of life.
CP: But what's wrong with trying to dull the pain or avoid tragedy and suffering?
Keller: There's nothing wrong with avoiding it to the degree you can. I mean, there's no doubt that if you see a piano falling out of a window that you don't go running under it. Or if you're under it, you get out of the way. That's avoiding suffering, and it would be wrong not to. In that sense, of course, absolutely you avoid it as much as you possibly can.
Then there's a way of avoiding suffering...to avoid suffering you are cowardly. I know people, for example, who say, 'I refuse to get married and have a family because then I'll lose people.' That's a perfect example of someone who's avoiding suffering and yet is impoverishing his or her life. It's really true, that if you get married, you have children, everybody's gonna — it sounds terrible, but if you have a family around a table, somebody eventually is gonna see every other person around that table die. You don't avoid suffering like that, because that actually impoverishes you.
You should avoid suffering if you can because that's being a good steward of the body God gave you. That's the reason why you go to a doctor, you're trying to avoid suffering. But it doesn't mean that you refuse suffering at all costs, you refuse to give your heart to people, (or) that you refuse to live the way God wants you to live — and if you live the way God wants you to live in the world, you will suffer.
CP: The book also addresses what you call a "secularized belief in God," a situation in which the believer is essentially at the center being serviced by God. You write that this kind of thinking "may be the worst possible preexisting condition in which to encounter suffering." Please explain.
Keller: That statement comes in a fairly long chapter in which I try to show (that) in the last three or four centuries, most Western people have a smaller more remote view of God than people did earlier. So it used to be that people saw God as very great and very majestic and very glorious, and 'bad things happen but of course why would we know about that….we wouldn't understand that because He's so great and we're so small.' There was this kind of respect for God in a sense that God knows, and we don't. But in the last few centuries, what we've really developed is a view of God that actually comes from Deism. The Deists believe that God made the world but then doesn't really get that involved in it. So you have a kind of remote God. Some people call Deism belief in a God who's a clockmaker. He makes the clock but then He doesn't stand there and move the hands. He's not involved. And because we now have a view of a God who's kind of remote, who made the world but is not here involved, when suffering happens we just get mad at Him. Because we actually feel like well He...we have a smaller view of God. He needs to explain Himself, that He is some how beholden to us, or really, accountable to us.
Ancient people didn't have that idea. The ancient people said, 'We're here to serve God and we're here to be accountable to Him.' Modern people have an idea that God has to serve us and He's accountable to us. I think that is actually a more difficult set of beliefs in which to encounter suffering than being an atheist. If you're an atheist you say, 'Well, this is the way life is. Tough.' If you have a big view of God you say, 'Well I don't know why He's doing this, but He knows.' But if you have a small view of God, not an atheist view or the traditional view, you just get furious. That's the reason why that's the worst possible situation in which you can be handling suffering.
CP: What is it, do you think, that moves professed atheists or ardent nonbelievers to deny God's existence and presence on one hand, but when tragedy occurs, He's the first one they call on, to cuss or to plead with?
Keller: As a Christian minister who believes the Bible, I think there's a very deep intuition in human beings that there is a God out there that we should call on. I think Romans 1 says that people who intellectually don't believe in God at a deep level still know He's there. So when there's a problem, when there's no rain and farmers are looking for rain, or when you fall into a crack in the mountain and you're hoping people are gonna find you, it's very difficult not to pray, extraordinarily difficult not to pray. So it seems very instinctive. When you feel helpless and dependent it's difficult not to pray because you sense...I think you sense that there's a God there. I think people do have that sense deep in them.
CP: What have you found is the purpose of suffering and evil? How is God glorified in suffering?
Keller: I say in the book that if you are patient — you might weep, you might be upset, you might be angry, you might be crying out, but if you do all that to God and you pray to God, you don't leave and don't turn away from Him and you endure the suffering with as much patience as possible, you're treating Him as God. Just being patient under suffering and to pray while you're suffering is treating Him as God. You're basically saying, 'You know and I don't know.' If you walk away and say I don't want anything to do with God, now what you're saying is, 'I know better. I know what should have happened.' But if you're patient with Him and you're praying, then you're treating Him as God because it glorifies Him, because it's treating Him as glorious. Whether anybody sees it or not, whether anything comes from it or not, for you to simply be patient under suffering glorifies God. … And therefore, that's a good (thing), and if you're a Christian that's one of the things you want to do. Because of who He is, you just do.