Doctrine can be life-saving. As we think about the Truth it leads to thankfulness, and greater love for God no matter what we are facing at the time.
I feel like I am juggling a couple of plates on here at the moment. One is the series on obeying Jesus commandments, and the second is the theme of suffering. They might seem unrelated. But they are not. For when we are suffering it is then that our foundation is tested. And what is our foundation? What is it that Jesus says will mean that your house will not be destroyed when the storm comes buffeting? Most of us immediately reply “by having your life built on the rock!” But what is the rock? Jesus said those who build on a solid foundation are everyone who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice ie obeying his commands.
We had an interlude to share about the way Kanye West has recently been converted through his own season of great suffering, and to talk to Matt Chandler about his new book on suffering. Today I want to get back to my backwards review of Keller’s outstanding book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.
The penultimate chapter of Kellers book speaks about another critical way of dealing with our suffering, and the emotions we feel when facing severe challenges. Keller urges us not to pretend that we don’t feel bad. Nor to even try to simply deny or push away our emotions or thoughts. But instead to look the situation head on, aknowledge it but remind yourself to think about some crucial things that will help you to think, to thank and to love.
“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 . . . Here is a metaphor for it. If you have ever been on a coast in a storm and seen the waves come in and hit the rocks, sometimes the waves are so large that they cover a particular rock, and you think, “That is the end of that rock.” But when the waves recede, there it is still. It hasn’t budged an inch. A person who feels the “peace that passes understanding” is like that. No matter what is thrown at you, you know it will not make you lose your footing . . . if you want peace, think hard and long about the core doctrines of the Bible.” – Tim Keller Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
Keller is arguing that for the Christian we need to think long and hard about the big questions of life: who are we, why are we here, what will happen to us after we die. We have good answers to these questions. Much better answers to those of modern society as Keller explains:
Why don’t contemporary books on stress and anxiety tell you to respond to it by doing deep thinking about life? It is because our Western secular culture is perhaps the first society that operates without any answers to the big questions. If there is no God, we are here essentially by accident, and when we die, we are only remembered for a while. Eventually, in this view, the sun will die and all that has ever been done by human beings will come to nothing. If that is the nature of things, then it is no wonder that secular books for people under stress never ask them to think about questions such as “What are we here for?” Instead, they advise you to not think so hard about everything but to relax and to find experiences that give you pleasure.” – Tim Keller Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
To put it another way and to connect with his final chapter, atheism doesn’t take away the problem of suffering, or its pain. It just takes away the hope.
Instinctively we often think that doctrine is somehow unimportant. And particularly when we are suffering. But for me personally reflecting on the gospel was the single biggest help and comfort to me at some really low points during this period of sickness I have been in for the last two and a half years. Keller recognises the possible objection some might feel to the importance of this reflection on truth and demolishes it:
“Someone reading this might say, “You are talking about doctrine but what I really need is comfort.” But think! Is Jesus really the Son of God? Did he really come to earth, die for you, rise again, and pass through the heavens to the right hand of God? Did he endure infinite suffering for you, so that someday he could take you to himself and wipe away every tear from your eyes? If so, then there is all the comfort in the world. If not—if none of these things are true—then we may be stuck here living for seventy or eighty years until we perish, and the only happiness we will ever know is in this life.” – Tim Keller Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
This is one of the amazing gifts of suffering. When things are going well, we can find happiness through the pleasure that we can find in this world. We have our health, we are able to work and get a sense of acheivment. We go on holiday, we enjoy so many things. And we can forget the really important matters of life. When we are suffering these distractions are taken away. And often we can even lose any sense of the presence of God that we may have enjoyed. And so in our anguish we seek God desperately. And the Bible promises us that those who seek him, find him. Real comfort can be found in dwelling on these wonderful truths. Whether it be by reading the gospel of John (which I strongly recommend), or a book about the gospel, or simply listening to music that is saturated in gospel truth. We must learn to meditate on the truth of Jesus’ love for us, and his sacrifices for us in order that we might know him for ever.
Keller summarises the first published sermon of Jonathan Edwards (preached when he was just 18 years old) as follows:
“His simple point was that a Christian should be happy, “whatever his outward circumstances are.”385 Then he makes his case in three propositions, which I paraphrase. For Christians: Their “bad things” will work out for good (Rom 8:28). Their “good things”—adoption into God’s family, justification in his sight, union with him—cannot be taken away (Rom 8:1).Their best things—life in heaven, new heavens and the new earth, resurrection—are yet to come (Rev 22:1ff). This sermon is simply an example of one young man doing what Paul is talking about. He is “reckoning,” counting it all and adding it up and letting the glory of the gospel salvation sink in. Our bad things will turn out for good, our good things cannot be taken away, and the best is yet to come. “Think about such things” (Phil 4:8)” . – Tim Keller Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
AS we think on these things it should inevitably lead to us thanking God for all he has done for us. Even if we cannot think of something in our current situation to thank him for because everything looks so hopeless right now, we can thank him for loving us enough to send Jesus to die for us and save us. We can thank him that in just a little while our human earthly suffering will be over and we will be with him forever.
If we really stop to think about our situation fully, our eyes will soon be opened, however, that there are always many things to thank God for. I remember being very grateful for being able to sleep in my own bed again after a stay in hospital. It might seem a small thing if you have never had to try to sleep in a hospital bed.
Suffering, approached rightly, can also make us incredibly grateful for the small things since they are evidences of God’s grace and kindness towards us. If you are facing a really tough period right now it may be a good idea to start a list of all the things you want to thank God for. Top of that list will be Jesus saving you. Thats a great place to start. But if you look around and really think you will find much more to add. And the more you add, the more thanksgiving will well up in your heart as you express it towards God.
And the natural fruit of thinking about the kindness of God, and thanking him is surely worship. And as we worship, love will well up in our hearts for him. We will realise that He is so much more important to us than all the things we held so precious, so much of which suffering may have robbed us of. And so we rededicate ourselves to his service, and to love him. We love him because he first loved us.
And so if we think about the good things God has done for us, we thank him for these things, and we learn afresh to love him, that will give us a stability which means that whilst suffering will indeed shake us, it will not destroy us.
“We must love many things—and when these good things are taken away, it will hurt. And yet, if we cultivate within ourselves a deep rest in God, an existential grasp of his love for us, then we will find that suffering can sting and cause pain, but it can’t uproot us, overthrow us. Because suffering can’t touch our Main Thing—God, his love and his salvation” – Tim Keller Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
I hope you can see already why I found this book by Keller so very helpful!
I have also written about other lessons I have learnt from Tim Keller’s book “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” here:
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Jesus said that if you obey him your life will be established on a firm foundation when the storms come.
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