(Photo: David Sacks/Penguin Group USA)
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.
Now, having said that, the Bible says there are several other things suffering can do for you. And that is, if you are patient under it, one thing it does, it tends to make you more compassionate and helpful to other people. Secondly, it helps you understand your own heart, you get to know your own strengths and weaknesses, you come to understand your own limitations better. Thirdly, you do learn what's important in life. Very often suffering shows you that it was too important to you that you did this and did that, and you rest your heart more in God. Suffering enables you to trust God better and reorder your priorities, enables you to know yourself, it humbles you in a good way and makes you far more compassionate to other people. So it does develop character in you, but that's not the primary purpose of it. It's to glorify God.
CP: In the Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering you also refer to the theme of the "refiner's furnace" in terms of suffering. Please comment on that.
Keller: That's something that the Bible uses...Peter uses that as a metaphor for suffering. What's brilliant about it is the refiner's furnace, of course, is heat, which of course could destroy. But if it's used properly, the heat forges you, strengthens you. When you put metal in there, it can strengthen it, purify it, beautify it. You put gold in there, it gets rid of the impurities. If you put iron in there, you can temper it and make it stronger. … Instead of letting your sorrows destroy you, just make you bitter, make you angry...there's a lot of ways it can destroy you. It can make you proud. I've seen people who've suffered who just get very proud and arrogant because they think 'nobody suffered like me.' In all those cases, the fire you might say, if the suffering is like the fire, the fire is actually burning you up. But if you trust in God, it becomes like a refiner's forge where the fire — it still hurts, it's still hot — but it's strengthening and beautifying you.
CP: You and your family have endured your own moments of grief and you mention that while living through these experiences you once considered quitting pastoral ministry. What is the joy that you've found in experiencing suffering and grief?
Keller: I would not say that my suffering...you know, I'm a 63-year-old man, so I don't think I've had unusual amount of suffering compared to other people. I had thyroid cancer, and that was a scare…and I've survived it so far. My wife had a very very debilitating disease and at one point she was so sick that I thought I would have to leave the pastoral ministry. But she's gotten better, too. These are the sorts of things people go through. None of my children have died, for example, nor has my wife died, and there are plenty of people who get in their 60s who have experienced that, which is much worse than what I've experienced so far. But eventually, we do lose our loved ones. So I would say — this sounds a little strange to say — but I feel like my suffering is rather ordinary and is very ordinary human suffering. Yet, there were times in which during that suffering I turned to God. Sometimes it was just I had to hold on, and I learned just to hold on even though I felt terrible. Occasionally, He gave me particular moments of peace. But that is not a promise. He doesn't promise that if you turn to Him you'll just be fine. But He does promise to be there with you. So I think I've had a very ordinary, not extraordinary, experience with suffering. In other words, I haven't had anything horrendous, really out of the ordinary. Nor have I felt terribly abandoned by God. Nor have I felt that I've gotten these incredible revelations of His peace and rapture either. I've had such an ordinary experience of suffering as a Christian man that it helps me write the book. I feel like I'm sort of in the mainstream at this point. I have not had a charmed life, but I also haven't had a horrendous life.
CP: Speaking to the role of God, the Sovereignty of God who is transcendent but who became incarnate, you speak of Jesus as the "ultimate Job, the only truly innocent sufferer." How do you remind people that God is there in the suffering because he himself has endured it?
Keller: I can do it as a preacher, and I can do it because I try to get to Jesus every time I preach a sermon no matter where I am. If I'm preaching in the Book of Job, I'm not going to end that sermon without talking about how even though Job was a relatively innocent sufferer. He didn't deserve the suffering, the suffering came to him. He was an innocent sufferer. Job's friends accused him of being a terrible sinner. They said, 'If you're having a worse life than us, then you must be a worse person than us.' At the end, God basically condemns Jobs' friends and says, 'No that's not the way it works. Sometimes people have worse lives even though they're good people.' But if you just end the book like that, I don't think it helps because then you just say, 'I already knew that, I already knew that sometimes bad things happen to good people.' That's what the Book of Job is about.
But if you realize that everything in the Bible points to Jesus, so that on the cross you have a perfect example of a person who was totally innocent, not relatively innocent, totally innocent, having a terrible terrible life, then you realize, 'Oh, so sometimes God does let bad things happen to good people and He brings good out of it somehow.' So if you were watching Jesus die on the cross, you might say, 'I don't see how God can bring any good of this.' But of course He did. But if you had walked away and lost your faith because you couldn't understand it, that would have been your fault. I say look at Jesus as the ultimate Job. He's the ultimate Jonah who suffered because he went into the ultimate storm of wrath. He's the ultimate David...he's the ultimate example of all the sufferers of the Bible. When you look at how he suffered, that sheds light on my suffering. I try to get there, that's how I try to do it every time I preach.
CP: Joni Eareckson Tada wrote in her review of of Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering that the subject of suffering has "consumed me for the last 46 years of quadriplegia," and that your book may be the most comprehensive contemporary book on the subject." How did you feel about that review?
Keller: I was really humbled by it. I really was. Because, see there's a person who's had her end of suffering. I've had thyroid cancer and I survived. My wife had Crohn's disease which she survived. I can walk about, she's been in a wheelchair, she's a quadriplegic. She's the same age as we are, so she spent 40 years or more reading books on suffering and writing books on suffering. For her to say this is the most comprehensive single book on it and I want to give it to all my friends, it was just a huge honor. It's an honor. It made me feel that if she thinks there's something in it, then I guess it'll help people. Honestly, I said, 'If she likes it, then it'll probably help people.'
More information on Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering can be found online at http://timothykeller.com.