I would like to take you on something of a journey that often feels lonely, but you do not have to walk it alone. I am talking about facing significant suffering or grief. This is a journey that we will all have to face at some point in our lives. As Tim Keller explains in his outstanding book Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (see also the free introduction):
“No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.” (Tim Keller)
I would like to share with you a kind of long form review of Keller’s book which I have benefited from immensely over the last few months. I will share some quotes, and summarise some of the critical points that I have found to be personally helpful in my own journey walking with Blood Cancer for two and a half years so far.
It took me a very long time to finish reading this book partly because I was at times not well enough to concentrate even for a few minutes on reading, but I am very glad I did. I wish I had read Keller’s book before I so desperately needed its core message. If, like the pre-sickness Adrian, you have not really faced major troubles in your life, arguably preparing yourself for suffering’s inevitable arrival is one of the most important things you ever can do.
Sometimes with a journey it’s good to understand your final destination so we know where we are going. That is what I want to do today.
Keller’s book Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering concludes with a series of chapters considering some practical steps and tools that can help the suffering individual. His final chapter is really perhaps the most important, and offers the number one medicine for us when we are seriously struggling: HOPE
There are clear reasons why Keller builds slowly to this crucial point of hope, and by starting at the conclusion I perhaps risk sounding twee and shallow to some of you who are in the early stages of huge grief and pain. Please understand what I outline below is a destination, not necessarily a starting point. And I will share in subsequent posts some of what Keller says to build to this point.
For the person who has never suffered what I am about to say may sound obvious and simplistic. To someone in the middle of the worst trial of their life, it may sound unattainable as feeling perplexed is in real danger of descending into despair. To someone who is has battled through the disappointment, anger, fear, uncertainty, depression, sense of loss, and utter aloneness that can come with significant suffering and somehow still clung on to Jesus, this word ‘hope’ may be the most precious verb in the dictionary.
Human beings cannot live without hope. Hope is like fuel to a weary and broken soul. Hope is the joyful expectation of a positive future. Suffering often brings with it fear about what will come next. A relentless series of blows often shake us to our very foundation. When the future looks truly bleak the present is simply unbearable.
Hope doesn’t usually disappear overnight, but can slowly ebb away till there is nothing left
The opposite of hope is fear, uncertainty and ultimately despair. Ultimately hopelessness can drive some even to suicide.
One of the most cruel things about significant suffering it can seem as if it is designed to ROB us of hope altogether.
Recently I have read something of the story of two different significant and well known Christian ministry leaders who have totally lost their own hope, and hence their faith in the face of significant suffering. What I read was sobering, and yet totally understandable. But that outcome need not be the case, as we hear from the Apostle Paul:
We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. . . For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:7-18, ESV)
There are many others with a testimony that after months, years, or even decades of struggling with a hope that seems at times to fade to almost nothing, God himself breathed on their heart like a smouldering candle wick, and caused HOPE to burn more brightly than ever before.
When we think about hope, there are two forms. The first is hope for the here and now, by which I mean the rest of our lives. There is also hope for eternity. Often Christians believe that they are hoping in God for eternity, and yet often the real focus of our hope is on our comfortable life right now continuing. When suffering seems to make our immediate and even perhaps long-term future seem uncertain, then all hope can evaporate.
Tim Keller explains this point:
“There is nothing more practical for sufferers than to have hope. The erosion or loss of hope is what makes suffering unbearable. And here at the end of the Bible is the ultimate hope—a material world in which all suffering is gone—“every tear wiped from our eyes.” This is a life-transforming, living hope.”
- Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering
But when people try to say that your earthly future will be just fine in the short term when the doctor has told you it isn’t, it can feel incredibly frustrating.
Building a false hope based on a promise that someone is “sure” everything will work out for you in the immediate future can actually be counter-productive.
Real hope faces an uncertain future knowing JESUS is walking in that future with you, and so yes you can have hope that He will work things around for your good without necessarily your problem disappearing. (see Romans 8:28)
When our hope in our earthly future is taking a beating we must learn to fix our eyes on our eternal hope, and then let that hope filter into a belief that the God who has promised us a glorious eternal future has not finished with us yet even in this life. God does want us to look optimistically at our future, even if our situation means that must be tinted with the reality of the genuine difficulties we face.
When things look bleak for your current life, the real question is are you hoping in God only for this life or do you have a hope that goes beyond the grave?
“If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world” (1 Cor 15:19, NLT)
Tim Keller contrasts two possible views of the future. When faced with significant suffering many people, maybe even everyone, will find times when they even begin to question if this suffering world is all there is. But ultimately if you stop believing in God, it doesn’t take away the pain, it just takes away the hope. I used this quote in my Songs of Praise interview in 2023
Rice Brooks puts it similarly in his book God’s Not Dead “Atheism doesn’t take away the pain of living in a fallen world, it only takes away the hope.” and Tim Keller explains further:
“Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future . . . Do you believe that when you die, you rot? That life in this world is all the happiness you will ever get? Do you believe that someday the sun is going to die and all human civilization is going to be gone, and nobody will remember anything anyone has ever done? That’s one way to imagine your future. But here’s another. Do you believe in “new heavens and new earth”? Do you believe in a Judgment Day when every evil deed and injustice will be redressed? Do you believe you are headed for a future of endless joy? Those are two utterly different futures, and depending on which one you believe, you are going to handle your dungeons, your suffering, in two utterly different ways.”
- Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering
And so there is no doubt in my mind that the only way to have real hope when facing huge suffering is to once again allow the Gospel to permeate your heart. And so before I could concentrate enough to read Keller’s book, I actually re-read my own book Hope Reborn (co-authored with Tope Kolesos) which is a simple statement of the Gospel, and listened to gospel-focussed worship songs. This at times felt like I was hearing the Good News for the first time as I asked myself the question perhaps every sufferer asks:
Do I really believe this?
Gradually over time I was able to answer not just with my head, but with my heart, “yes!”
When our hope is truly in Christ and the eternal future he has for us, then if suffering comes and robs us of things that we have valued, we may finally realise that JESUS is truly more valuable than anything this world has to offer us!
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11, ESV)
When Christian hope reaches its pinnacle, some Christians will experience incredible moments of glorious hope facing difficult circumstances. Don’t be discouraged if this is not something you have yet attained to. Part of the battle for hope is learning to hope when we DON’T feel it. But, take courage, even comfort, from the kind of experience Keller here describes:
“There have not been many times in my life when I felt “the peace that passes understanding.” But there was one time for which I am very grateful, and it stemmed from this great Christian hope. It was just before for my cancer surgery. My thyroid was about to be removed, and after that, I faced a treatment with radioactive iodine to destroy any residual cancerous thyroid tissue in my body. Of course my whole family and I were shaken by it all, and deeply anxious. On the morning of my surgery, after I said my good-byes to my wife and sons, I was wheeled into a room to be prepped. 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.”
- Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering
I have also written about other lessons I have learnt from Tim Keller’s book “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” here:
More hope-building articles
images: pixabay except where indicated.
Coming soon (God willing) : the rest of the series “Jesus Commands”
Jesus said that if you obey him your life will be established on a firm foundation when the storms come.
Adrian hopes God willing to be able to return to blogging more regularly soon.
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