Hello, and welcome back to the blog! Last time we looked at Part 2 of Timothy Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering, where he looked at the reasons for suffering, the reasons for God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ Passion in suffering, how suffering can help develop our faith, and the varieties of suffering. Here, Keller turns his attention to the use of the Bible and biblical characters to help us through our individual and collective suffering.
The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (15th century icon)
In Chapter Eleven, Keller looks at the subject of “walking with God” through our suffering. This idea is in contrast to the modern idea of coping with suffering, which is taking time off, avoiding anything that can cause stress and finding supporting relationships that can help us overcome our suffering. But the idea of walking through our pain and suffering is more balanced as well as confrontational:
‘The walking metaphor points to the idea of progress. …. The unusual balance of the Christian faith is seen in the metaphor of walking – through darkness, swirling waters, or fire. We are not to lose our footing and just let the suffering have its way with us. But we are also not to think we can somehow avoid it or be completely impervious to it either. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.’
To back up this idea, Keller uses a whole range of biblical metaphors such as those found in Isaiah 43 and 1 Peter, which speak of faith under trial being like gold being refined by fire. Keller also uses the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from Daniel 3, who are thrown into the fire by King Nebuchadnezzar. In this story, the three men told the king that their reason for not bowing down in worship to the golden statue was due to their dedication and faith in God. They said that they believed that God would rescue them from the furnace, but even if He didn’t they would still not worship the golden statue. This statement of both ‘confidence and humility’ (Pg.230) may seem a bit of a contradiction but Keller says that it is indicative of a real faith in God:
‘The answer is that their confidence was actually in God, not in their limited understanding of what they thought he would do. They had inner assurance that God would rescue them. However, they were not so arrogant as to be sure they were “reading God right.” They knew that God was under no obligation to operate according to their limited wisdom. In other words, their confidence was in God himself, not in some agenda that they wanted God to promote. They trusted in God, and that included trust that he knew better than they what should happen. So they were essentially saying this: “Even if our God does not rescue us – and that is right – we will serve him and not you. We will serve him whether he conforms to our wisdom or not. We do not defy you because we think we are going to live – we defy you because our God is God.’
This is in contrast to some Christians who pray that God will answer their request the way they want, only to either never get that answer or get an entirely different answer from what they expected.
Another aspect of Daniel 3 that Keller focuses on is the presence of the fourth person, who rescues the three youths from the furnace and amazes King Nebuchadnezzar, who says that the fourth person looked like a “son of the gods.”
Who was it? (asks Keller) In the Old Testament, there is a mysterious figure called simply “the angel of the Lord” – not just an angel but the angel – and later Nebuchadnezzar actually says that the Lord “sent his angel and rescued them” (v.28). Who was this? He is not like other angels who appear elsewhere in the Bible. When he appears and speaks in the burning bush to Moses, his words are said to be God’s words; his speaking is God speaking (Ex.3:2-6). When the angel appears, he is given worship (Joshua 5:15) in a way that other angels refuse (Rev.19:10). To see this angel was to see God (Judges 13:16-22). The angel is mysterious because he seems to be God in a visual form. And indeed, Christians have understood for centuries who he was. Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer sums it all up well:
‘“The Angel is revealed as a merciful ‘accommodation’ or ‘condescension’ of God, whereby the Lord can be present among a sinful people when, were he to go with them himself, his presence would consume them …. He is that mode of deity whereby the holy God can keep company with sinner. There is only one other in the Bible who is both identical with and yet distinct from the Lord. One who, without abandoning the full essence and prerogatives of deity …. is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners …. Jesus Christ.”’
And yet, during Jesus’ First Coming on earth He underwent a completely different trial under fire: the crucifixion. Keller writes:
‘But when it came time for Jesus to enter the furnace of affliction, there was no one to walk through that furnace beside him. He was in it all by himself. No divine personage stood beside him, for he cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “When the fire of God’s wrath (quoting Iain M. Duguid) burned him to the core and blazed unchecked over him he was entirely alone.” Why? Why should God be with three Jewish exiles but not his only begotten Son? The answer is that on the cross Jesus was suffering not only with us but for us. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were good men, but they were still flawed human beings. David said that if anyone were to keep a record of our sins of hand and heart, no one could stand before God (Ps.130:3). These three did not then deserve the Lord’s deliverance because of the perfect purity of their lives. God could walk through the fire with them because he came to earth in Jesus Christ and went through the fire of punishment they and we all deserve. That this why he can forgive and accept those who trust in his mercy. And that is why he can be with us flawed, undeserving people in the fire.’
Knowing that God is with us in the fire and also that Jesus was Himself put on the cross we will be able to overcome and endure all the fiery trials in faith. Without this knowledge, we’ll become easily disheartened and will turn to either anger or despair. Enduring also means sticking to the walking plan, day in and day out: in prayer, Bible reading, worship with fellow Christians, as well as using various exercises from the Bible that Keller will be looking at in the remaining chapters.
We looked at this theme of “walking with God” closely. We said that God’s presence in trials gives those trials meaning. R in particular liked the walking metaphor because it is something that’s possible. Not having to work ourselves up to fight or anything but just to put one foot in front of the other. Even when we cannot feel that God is there it still helps us to know that He is. It even reminded one member of a quote by David Jones “a faith that can’t be tested is a faith that can’t be trusted.”
When J thinks about Jesus suffering on the cross she thinks that she has nothing to complain about. GM thought of the Footprints poem, where God and the author walk along side-by-side until one day God carries the author in moments of trial.
This made us think further about walking with God. We noted that Jesus and His disciples walked a lot. Walking is a progression through. It maybe not be rapid but we still go through with our journeys. People even walk at different paces so there is no point in comparing yourself to others.
However, we can cast ourselves onto Jesus and then we don’t have to carry our suffering alone. For us, God’s greater meaning in suffering gives us comfort but if you don’t have faith in God then it must look like foolishness.
Lamentation of Christ, Erfurt, c.1480
Moving onto Chapter Twelve, Keller looks at the subject of weeping or lamentation. The reason why he writes about this subject is because most churches have a “stiff upper lip” attitude towards grief and lamentation. It dates back to the Reformation, where the Lutheran church was dead set against any expression of grief. ‘Christian were taught not to weep or cry but to show God their faith through unflinching, joyful acceptance of his will’ (Pg.241). Keller goes on to state that most Lutheran theologians were embarrassed by the Psalms of Lament and the Book of Job, one of the theologians even going onto say that the reason Job is included in the Bible is because ‘God wanted to show us he could still forgive and have mercy on someone with faith as weak as Job’s’ (Pg.241)!
But Keller disagrees with this idea, because even though Job did speak against God through the book that has his name, he simply began to lament when calamity came upon him and did not sin. Even though God did rebuke Job for not understanding His character, nevertheless He vindicated him and restored him to his fortunes. According to Keller, then, expressing our grief is natural for a Christian: ‘We should be more gentle and patient with (those who grieve)’ (Pg.242). We should allow those who suffer from grief and depression time to heal and recuperate. Even Jesus who was described in the Book of Isaiah as the Suffering Servant:
‘Who is this Servant? The Christian church has since its very beginning understood this to be Jesus Christ himself (Acts 8:32-33) and in Matthew 12:20, it is said that Jesus will not break the bruised reed or snuff out the dying candle. It means Jesus Christ the servant is attracted to hopeless cases. He cares for the fragile. He loves people who are beaten and battered and bruised. They may not show it on the outside, but inside they are dying. Jesus sees all the way into the heart and he knows what to do. The Lord binds up the brokenhearted and heals our wounds (Ps.147:3; Isa.61:1).’
Keller then looks at how God cared for Elijah when he felt overwhelmed by all his enemies:
‘If you read the narrative, you know this is not all that Elijah needs (food and drink). Eventually, God comes to him and challenges him out of despair. God asks him questions, gets him talking, and challenges his interpretation of things, showing him it is not as hopeless as he thinks. And God reveals that he still has a plan for Israel (1 Kings 19:9-17).
‘But reasoning and explaining are not the first things God does with Elijah. He knows the prophet is also a physical being – he is exhausted, spent. He needs rest and food. He needs touch and gentleness. Later, (God) talks to (Elijah). The balance is striking. Some today conceive of depression as all physical, simply a matter of brain chemistry, and so they just need medicine and rest. Others, often Christians, may instead come upon a depressed person and tell him to buck up, to repent and get right with God, to pull himself together and do the right thing. But God here shows us that we are complex creatures – with bodies and souls. To oversimplify treatment would be to break the bruised reed – to put out the smoldering wick. God does not do that. At the right time, a despondent person may need a confrontation, and be challenged. But he also may need a walk by the sea and a great meal.’
In other words, we should allow a space where people (including ourselves) can fully express their grief and have someone listen. And the Bible itself has some writing that helps to express that grief. An example would be Psalm 88. From that psalm, Keller comes up with three interpretations:
- Psalm 88 is not scared to be honest about the darkness. In fact, it even uses the word three times! It does not even end on a note of hope! And to Keller, that’s alright: ‘Things don’t have to quickly work themselves out, nor does it always become clear why this or that happened’ (Pg.248). Therefore, it is reasonable for even a devout Christian to express pain.
- Darkness can help reveal God’s grace to us in a new way. The psalm’s author, Heman the Ezrahite, does not pull his punches in saying that he wants to praise God yet he cannot and so ends up in despair. And yet, according to Derek Kidner: ‘“The very presence of such prayers in Scripture is a witness to His understanding. He knows how men speak when they are desperate.”’ (Pg.248). In other words, while it may seem blasphemous to speak against God, the very presence of Psalm 88 in scripture is proof that it is OK to express anger and despair at God. And soon, even in the darkness, God will reveal His grace towards us.
- Finally, God can use these circumstances to rely on Him and His grace more and more. On the one hand, it may feel like that there is no point in trying to worship God and love our neighbor, yet what if, asks Keller, it helps to do both and rely more on His grace as well. It could make us see that there is no comfort in earthly things but in God alone.
In fact, even in our abandonment, Jesus is still there. He felt our sin and pain when he endured the cross. He even quoted from the suffering psalms, especially Psalm 22. While we may often feel abandoned by God, that is nothing compared to the pain that Jesus felt on the cross. And to deny our pain and despair would only lead to a false security. In fact, there will come a time when we’ll be able to rejoice when it is over.
We have often heard of certain phrases such as “stiff upper-lip”, “walk in victory” and “fake it till you make it”. We have noticed that our culture can view grief as weakness. The only place where problems can be fixed is in fiction, where they are resolved at the end of the story simply and neatly. This is according to the three unities of time, place and function as proposed by Aristotle. The same applies for Greek tragedies as well as sitcoms.
Obviously it is good for Christians to express their pain. In this case, Job’s reactions were quite reasonable! Asking “why” is not always helpful, just ask what would Jesus do with this?’ Sometimes, the best one can do is simple to take a nap and eat something. The reason is because we are physical beings and we need to remember to look after our bodies. Therefore, the best questions should may be, ‘we need to eat/sleep?’ Finally, we noted there are many fallible people in the Bible, which is very encouraging since we are fallible beings. The only thing we need to remind ourselves is that there is only ONE infallible Person. And he is NOT the Pope!
Joseph in Prison by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
In Chapter Thirteen, Keller looks at the other side of the coin: trusting in God. Throughout this chapter, he uses the story of Joseph, especially his trials and tribulations. To begin Joseph was a young if rather arrogant man, but after being sent to Egypt as a slave and even wrongfully accused, he learnt a lesson of depending upon God in adversity. And after that, God raised him up to a position of power in Pharaoh’s court. Through that Joseph was able to save not only Egypt but even his family as well.
‘How did all this come? (asks Keller) ‘It came through suffering. Suffering for the brothers and Jacob, terrible suffering for Joseph too. The terrible years of crushing slavery for Joseph, the terrible years of debilitating guilt for the brothers, and the terrible years of grief and depression for Jacob, were all brought about by God’s plan. Yet how else could they have been saved physically and spiritually? He “disciplines us for our good.” After the pain, comes a “harvest of righteousness and peace” (Heb.12:10-11).’
The reason why God’s answer often feels slow to some is because He has a reason for this pain. God then becomes in Keller’s view, a “hidden” God. In the case of Joseph it was to attain a carefully planned out deliverance for his country and family, whereas in the case of the prophet Elisha God granted a miracle that saved Israel from destruction. In fact, Keller himself experienced a similar thing when he became pastor at New York City Redeemer Presbyterian because, of all things, the Watergate scandal! Because of one night watchman noticing suspicious activity, it led to a president being impeached, another one coming in, that president’s son providing an administrative complication that prevented a professor at Keller’s seminary from getting a visa delaying his arrival to the US till later, and when in the US, he was able to lead Keller to an interest in the Presbyterian denomination and later to that church in New York. All because of the plan of God.
In Genesis the plan of God helped to show Joseph and his family how sinful and conceited they were:
‘Joseph had two vivid dreams, each of which obviously meant that all of his brothers would eventually bow down to and serve him. Now, often dreams make concrete and vivid a desire we have been harboring secretly or subconsciously. Joseph’s eager announcement of the dreams shows that he had a growing sense of his own superiority. He was fast becoming a very arrogant young man, a narcissist with unrealistic views of himself, who would eventually have an inability to empathize with and love others. He was headed for the unhappy marriages and broken relationships and all-around miserable life that such people have.
‘But Joseph was also blind to the toxins in the family system. His dreams only made his brothers more furious at him (Gen 37:11), poisoning their hearts with more bitterness. They craved their father’s love but didn’t get it. They hated Joseph and competed with one another. The interlude chapter 38, the story of Judah and Tamar, shows the effect all this had on the characters of Jacob’s sons. They were becoming callous, selfish, and capable of real cruelty. The future was dim for everyone. A lifetime of fear, jealousy, disappointment, violence, and family breakdown was ahead of them all.’
In his suffering Joseph learnt to humble himself and rely on God even through the blackest days. And in the case of his brothers it led them to acknowledge their sins and to reconcile with their long-departed brother.
But perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Joseph’s story and his trust in the hidden God was the fact that Joseph himself was a forerunner to Jesus in that that Jesus too went to Egypt as a babe and later endured His passion and crucifixion. On one point, one may even ask why such as a powerful man would let himself die such an excruciating death? All because He trusted in God’s plan and was able to give us our salvation.
We agreed that Keller did a good job of bringing all the aspects of Joseph’s story together. We never thought about the dreams being a subconscious desire before. Why would Joseph take these to his brothers? We hadn’t thought about how his life would have turned out if he hadn’t been sold into slavery. He wasn’t the nice person we thought he was – he was a spoiled brat. God gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything He knows.
The only way we grow is by going through tough stuff. We wondered, ‘Is there growth in heaven?’ Heaven is an eternity, outside time, whereas growth is a function of time. This means that, maybe in heaven, there will be no need for growth.
But maybe we just don’t know how to grow without pain but maybe in a higher plane we won’t need pain to grow. Maybe growth in heaven will be like study but without the pain.
Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin (1869)
In Chapter Fourteen, Keller looks at prayer, particularly in the case of Job:
‘’No other book in the Bible or, to my mind, in all of ancient literature, faces the questions of evil and suffering with such emotional and dramatic realism yet also with such intellectual and philosophical deftness. Obviously, the main theme is that of innocent suffering – why do so many very good people have a disproportionate number of afflictions and tragedies, while many dishonest, selfish, and greedy people have comfortable lives? The book of Job is uniquely balanced in its treatment of this theme. It treats it neither abstractly nor just viscerally. The problem of evil is examined through one man’s vividly described agony. His cries are poignant and provocative. Nevertheless, the long speeches of Job are filled with profound, thoughtful reflection. This perfectly conveys that the problem of horrendous suffering is both a philosophical and a great personal problem. To treat it as only one or the other is inadequate.
‘Another way the book of Job is unique is in its implicit critique of nearly all the common answers to the problem of evil. When suffering comes upon us, we wonder why it is happening to us. The traditional religious answer to this question is: You must have done something wrong or bad. The secular answer to the question is: There is no good reason. A good God wouldn’t do this – so he doesn’t exist or he’s cruel. One of the main messages of the book of Job is that both the religious and the irreligious, the moralistic and the nihilistic answers are wrong. Both are, in the end, pat answers that can be stated in a sentence or two. But neither the author of Job nor Job himself will go for such easy solutions. Both classic answers are given withering critiques in the book, and that is largely what creates the dramatic tension and makes the book so intriguing. The religious answer expressed by Job’s friends is revealed to be slanderously wrong: Job’s difficulties come upon him not despite his goodness but because of it. But the nihilistic view, which Job veers towards at times, is also a grave mistake.’
Keller first looks at the beginning of the book of Job, where God and Satan debate the merits of Job’s worth. Satan says that, if God took away all the good things that Job has, such as family, wealth and health, Job will start to curse God to His face. And with that, God gives Satan permission to inflict whatever pain Satan can bring to Job. Now while it may seem shocking that a good God can allow Satan to inflict pain and suffering on a good man like Job, Keller says that this trial by fire is helpful in making Christians become true lovers of God:
‘There is a difference between external religiosity and internal heart love and devotion to God. That gap is to some degree in us all, and it is one of the reasons we don’t have the intimacy with God and the peace and the joy in him that we should. What is a real servant of God? Well, think of any love relationship. What if you fell in love with someone who seemed to love you back, but then when you had a financial reversal, he or she broke off the relationship? Wouldn’t you feel used? Wouldn’t you think the person loved the things you could give him rather than loving you for you yourself? It’s no different with God. We should love God for himself alone, not for the benefits he brings.
‘How do you develop a love like that? Let’s say you initially fall in love with a person, and, if you are honest, it was partly because of some of the person’s “assets” – his or her looks or connections, for instance. But as the relationship progresses, you begin to love the person for himself alone, and then when some of the assets go away, you don’t mind. We call that growth in love and character. Now, what if you grew in your love for God like that? What if you could grow in your love for him so that he became increasingly satisfying in himself to you? That would mean that circumstances wouldn’t rattle you so much, since you had God and his love enriching and nourishing you regardless of the circumstances.’
In other words, God often uses hardship to help us to develop our love for Him rather than just the good things that He gives us. In fact, God has control of even Satan and it is not God who inflicts these things on Job, nor does God enjoy inflicting pain on Job. The point of these hardships is to develop a better relationship between God and Job.
Next Keller moves onto the debates between an embittered Job and his friends. As mentioned earlier in the book, Job’s friends are under the assumption of a moral theology, but it’s one that simply bases God upon a human idea of morality, in that He behaves according to human mores. Against this, Job argues that his friends are both wrong about his sinfulness and the nature of God. Job even complains about his treatment from the hands of God and wants to hear personally from God Himself the reason for his suffering, which leads to a new truth:
‘“If there is (quoting Francis Anderson) a grain of truth in Eliphaz’s teaching about the “the [correction] of the Almighty” (5:17), it is not in the negative sense of training so a person is restrained from potential sin. Job had long since attained this …. The readers know what Job does not know, namely that Job’s highest wisdom is to love God for Himself alone. Hence Eliphaz’s words, far from being a comfort, are a trap. The violence with which Job rejects them shows his recognition of the danger.”
(Anderson shows that Job) was being called to live on a new plane. Job shows that he has an inkling of this. Through all the speeches and prayers, Job repeatedly states his desire is granted, but not in the way he expected. When God actually does appear and speak to Job in the final chapter of the book, there are four great shocks and surprises.’
The four “shocks and surprises” are:
- God’s final appearance as a storm – He appears in front of Job in the form of a cloud, in a moment off power, as Yahweh. Yet He has appeared not to punish Job but to teach him grace, to enter into a dialogue with Job about His power and wisdom. ‘God comes both as a gracious, personal God and as an infinite, overwhelming force – at the very same time.’ (Pg.282). Keller even connects this appearance to Jesus who came down in the form of a hapless baby and yet revealed God’s power and grace at the same time to a sinful humanity.
- God’s answer – His answer is different from that Job and his friends were expecting. Instead of explaining the reason for Job’s problems and affirming Job’s friends that Job is a sinner, God simply speaks about the natural world. In a paradoxical way, God does not answer Job’s cries, but His “absence” provides Job the experience to grow and develop into a true follower of God. ‘(God) would have been cooperating with Job’s impulse for self-justification had (God) given (Job) those reasons (for his sufferings). Instead, the experience of suffering leads Job to the place where he loves and trusts him simply because he is God. Job becomes a person of enormous strength and joy, who does not need favorable circumstances in order to stand up straight spiritually. This makes the suffering – or, more accurately, the results of the suffering – a very great gift indeed, and it is doubtful that this level of reliance on the grace of God can ever be gotten any other way.’ (Pg.284).
- God’s speeches – God gives Job and his friends a wide-ranging look on creation and finally asks Job if he will contend with the Almighty. Keller likens it to that of an ancient Israelite king behaving as a judge who sets things to rights, and that is what God is doing by asking Job if he has power like God’s. ‘Since Job does not have the power to be judge, he does not have the right. Job says that he can run the universe better than God – but that is simply a fiction. Job is being told to drop his claim that he can do so. (Francis) Anderson says that Job is being called to “hand the whole matter completely to God more trustingly, less fretfully. And do it without insisting that God should first answer all his questions”’ (Pg.286). This helps rid of Job of any pride and makes him rely upon God.
- God restores Job and rebukes his friends – God restores Job to his former glory and also tells off Job’s friends for their false advice. Some modern readers have often questioned this segment asking why God would restore Job back to his wealth after Job has cursed Him to His face. But Keller says that the difference is that Job addressed these complaints in the form of a prayer, that ‘the suffering did not drive (Job) away from God but toward him.’ (Pg.288). In fact, it is ok for a Christian to turn all our complaints towards God: Like Job, you must seek him, go to him. Pray even if you are dry. Read the Scriptures even if it is an agony. Eventually, you will sense him again – the darkness won’t last forever. The strength you need for suffering comes in the doing of the responsibilities and duties God requires. Shirk no commands of God. Read, pray, study, fellowship, serve, witness, obey. Do all your duties that you physically can and the God of peace will be with you’ (Pg.288). Above all, also re-examine your feelings and hopes, and allow prayer to change you. Keller refers to advice from a Christian psychiatrist John White: ‘hen you are despondent an effort to read the Bible “devotionally” – that is, looking for inspiration and uplift – is not the answer. Instead, (White) counsels that you should study the Bible for content. Get the truth out of the text. Remind yourself of who God is, and you are in Christ, and what he has done for you. Simone Weil says that it is important to at least want to love God. So do what you can to pray to him and ponder the truth. And wait. Wait like Job waited.’
This news vindicates Job and enables him to move onto a better understanding of God. But, like Joseph in Chapter 13, Job is also a type of Christ, in that He also underwent pain and torment under Satan and managed to bring about our salvation through that entire struggle.
R said she liked the idea that the whole process of God’s treatment of Job was to bring Job into a better relationship with God. Paul said, “I’ve learnt to be content in all circumstances” (Phil.4:11-13). Paul didn’t need the good things of God to be in relationship with God. It is the same with what Keller is saying about Job. The more you know the Bible the more you can use it in life, which is better than a devotional book. Read, pray, study, fellowship, serve witness, and obey – we all love this.
Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt van Rijn
In Chapter Fifteen, Keller turns his attention to the apostle Paul, especially in relation to his Epistle to the Philippians:
‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil.4:4-9)’
According to Keller, this “peace” that Paul has received has helped him through many tribulations during his ministry. Keller says that this peace Paul possessed is different from an innate stoicism because Paul learnt it from God. Nor is it an absence of anything bad, but a “presence”: ‘Christian peace does not start with the ousting of negative thinking. If you do that, you may simply be refusing to face how bad things are. That is one way to calm yourself – by refusing to admit the facts. But it will be a short-lived peace! Christian peace doesn’t start that way. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them’ (Pg.297). In fact, even if bad things happen, the peace of God will keep many believers, like Paul, afloat. The way to learn this peace is via three things:
- The Discipline of Thinking – in verses 8-9 of Philippians 4, Paul tells his readers to think about whatever is ‘true, …. noble, …. right, ..… pure, …. lovely, (and)’ (Pg.295). In Keller’s point-of-view, it is not aspirational, lofty thinking but rather basing our thoughts on salvation: ‘the specific teaching of the Bible about God, sin, Christ, salvation, the world, human nature, and God’s plans for the world – the plan of salvation’ (Pg.298). It means turning our minds to the idea of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and rising from the dead. It is different from the peace that wants us to deny anything bad and simply turn our thoughts somewhere else, which is what Keller calls a “stupid peace”. Rather, it means turning our minds to the bigger picture of salvation and deriving our peace from there, which Keller calls a “smart peace”.
- The Discipline of Thanking – in v.6 of Philippians 4, Paul also says that we should not be anxious but make our requests to God in This is putting our trust in the God in charge of our history, even when we do not understand the bad things that happen to us. Keller quotes another of Paul’s writings Romans 8:28 where “all things work together for those who love God.” Keller warns us, though, that ‘Romans 8 must not be read in a saccharine way. It does not say that every bad thing has a “silver lining” or that every terrible thing that can happen is somehow “actually a good thing if you learn to look at it properly.” No, Paul says in Romans 8:28 that all things – even bad things – will ultimately together be overruled by God in such a way that the intended evil will, in the end, only accomplish the opposite of its designs – a greater good and glory than would otherwise have come to pass. Only God now has the eternal perspective and vantage point from which he can see all things working together for our good and for his glory – but eventually we will occupy that place and will see it too’ (Pgs.301-302). We are, therefore, to thank God for everything, even if we do not always understand what is happening to us, even if His ways do not always answer our requests.
- The Discipline of Reordering Our Loves – Paul then encourages his readers to turn their love to God ‘not just to order the thoughts of their mind but to engage the affections of the heart …. It is not enough just to think the right things. It is also important to love the right things’ (Pgs.302-303). This is different from Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, which argues for a complete detachment from everything that could cause us to feel pain. Here, a Christian puts his-or-her love in God who is above and beyond all material things and not to place our love for anyone or anything above and beyond God.
These three things, according to Keller, can help use our suffering to review our lives, to see if we placing our trust in the wrong things in life and to have a ‘rediscovery of the gospel of free grace. If we hear the accusation in our heart: “God will not save you; you are unworthy!” the only answer is that God’s salvation is not for the worthy but for the humble – those who admit they are not worthy. …. We do not save ourselves – it is unmerited’ (Pgs.306-307). It means looking at the Person of Jesus and His atoning death and to place it above and beyond everything else. Yes, we may love some things, but when Christians suffer it should make us rethink our priorities and place our love on Jesus. To illustrate this point, Keller tells the story of two actors:
‘Some years ago, I remember two young men at Redeemer who were actors. They both auditioned for the same role, and it was the biggest one for which they’d ever been considered. Both were professing Christians, but one, I believe, put all his emotional and spiritual hopes into having a successful acting career. He believed in Jesus, but it was clear that he could only enjoy life and feel good about himself if his career was going well. The other man was also a professing Christian, but after some disappointments, he had come to the place where he wanted as his main goal in life to please and honor the God who had saved him. He thought he could do that by being an actor.
‘They were both turned down – neither got the part. The first man was devastated, going into a time of depression and drug abuse. The other felt terrible at first, and wept. But not long afterward, he was fine, and saying, “I guess I was wrong. Looks like I can please and honor God better in some other career.” See the difference? The second man held his acting career as a means to an end; the first man had made acting an end in itself. The circumstances of life couldn’t touch the second man’s treasure in life, but it was able to sweep away the first man’s treasure, and it was terrible for him. To be loved by God, to be known by God, is the ultimate treasure. And if you make it your ultimate treasure, then no “thief can break in and steal” it (Matt.6:19).’
We all agree with the ‘think, thank and love’ disciplines because it would help deal with the problems of life. Both actors and authors are trained at being rejected, so most of them would develop a hard skin in relation to rejection. We then went on talking about social media and thinking on the right things while watching what we read and watch on TV and the Internet. Some people even go so far as to not watch the news. Maybe it’s better to use news websites or something that can allow to absorb the information at our own pace. But, then again, we need to keep ourselves educated, especially when trying to vote. In the end, it is all a question of balance.
Vision of John on Patmos by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860
Finally, in Chapter Sixteen, Keller turns to another apostle John, especially in the book of Revelation, where, in spite of tribulation and suffering, there will be hope for Christians:
‘John gave (the Christians undergoing persecution) the ultimate hope – a new heavens and a new earth that was coming. That is what he gave them to face it, and it is a simple fact of history that it worked. We know that the early Christians took their suffering with great poise and peace and they sang hymns as the beasts were tearing them apart and they forgave the people who were killing them. And so the more they were killed, the more the Christian movement grew. Why? Because when people watched Christians dying like that, they said, “These people have got something.” Well, do you know what they had? They had this. It is a living hope.
‘Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future. I was reading a story some years ago about two men who were captured and thrown into a dungeon. Just before they went into prison, one man discovered that his wife and child were dead, and the other learned that his wife and child were alive and waiting for him. In the first couple years of imprisonment the first man just wasted away, curled up and died. But the other man endured and stayed strong and walked out a free man ten years later. Notice that these two men experienced the very same circumstances but responded differently because, while they experienced the same present, they had their minds set on different futures. It was the future that determined how they handled the present.’
It is this hope, that God will come and bring a new heaven and a new earth that brings joy in the midst of suffering. It is the same hope that sustained the African-American slaves in their turmoil, as evident in their songs. But again it is in Jesus that provides this hope:
‘Donald Grey Barnhouse, was a pastor at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for many years, lost his wife when his daughter was still a child. Dr. Barnhouse was trying to help his little girl, and himself process the loss of his wife and her mother. Once when they were driving, a huge moving van passed them. As it passed, the shadow of the truck swept over the car. The minister had a thought. He said something like this, “Would you rather be run over by a truck, or by its shadow?” His daughter replied, “By the shadow of course. That can’t hurt us at all.” Dr. Barnhouse replied, “Right. If the truck doesn’t hit you, but only its shadow, then you are fine. Well, it was only the shadow of death that went over your mother. She’s actually alive – more alive than we are. And that’s because two thousand years ago, the real truck of death hit Jesus. And because death crushed Jesus, and we believe in him, now the only thing that can come over us is the shadow of death, and the shadow of death is but my entrance into glory.” ’
This means that, because Jesus Himself bore our hopelessness along with our other sins on the cross, He has given us hope that will help us all even during our darkest moments. Keller himself felt this when he went under for an operation on his thyroid cancer: ‘And in the moments before they gave me the anesthetic, I prayed. To my surprise, I got a sudden, clear new perspective on everything. It seemed to me that the universe was an enormous realm of joy, mirth, and high beauty. Of course it was – didn’t the Triune God make it to be filled with his own boundless joy, wisdom, love, and delight? And within this great globe of glory was only one little speck of darkness – our world – where there was temporarily pain and suffering. But it was only one speck, and soon that speck would fade away and everything would be light. And I thought, “It doesn’t really matter how the surgery goes. Everything will be all right. Me – my wife, my children, my church – will all be all right.” I went to sleep with a bright peace on my heart.’
J loved the Donald Grey Barnhouse story. This makes us ask questions like how do we know that the darkness on our earth is the only place? There has to be life for there to be evil, meaning sentient beings, personalities, etc.
We talked about grief being always there, always with you. We liked that Keller ends his book with such triumph and hope. The hope that we have gives us the way through life, to walk through whatever life throws at us.
Overall, we enjoyed this book more than the last few we looked at the book club. It has given us some tools for life, not only because it helps us handle the most difficult aspects of our lives, but does so from a godly, Christian and biblical perspective. It is for this that we are grateful for Keller that he gave us the time and the resources to discuss this painful topic.
Join us next time as we look at the first part of Gary Neal Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants!
Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Hodder. 2013 (Rep:2015)