Tim Keller on Suffering

Tim Keller on Suffering February 4, 2014

Interview with Tim Keller. David Moore conducted the following interview.  Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.

I’ve read quite a bit on the topic of suffering.  There are some very good books available, but the ones that simply articulate a “free will” defense leave me empty.  There is certainly truth to this line of argument, but it does not answer some of the more vexing issues I’ve struggled with, especially why suffering is so unevenly distributed.

I was somewhat skeptical about reading Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, but the opportunity to interview Tim Keller propelled me forward.  Was there really anything new which could be added to our understanding of suffering?  I think the answer is yes, and I would highlight three things which make this book an important read.

First, Keller has a healthy aversion to sanctimony and platitudes.  He has a low tolerance for simplistic answers.  Years of pastoral ministry in the hurly-burly of New York have given him a deep desire to articulate the Christian faith with integrity.  Second, Keller’s ability to frame old issues in fresh ways is a hallmark of both his teaching and writing.  Last, Keller’s sensitivity to the subject of suffering is fueled by his own experience.

Moore: It is common for people to get tripped up by the conundrum about the impossibility of God being both all-loving and all-powerful.  He may be one of the two, but He can’t possibly be both or there would be no suffering.  Not surprisingly, God’s wisdom, which changes everything, is always left out of the supposed dilemma.

How can we grow in our confidence of God’s wisdom when we are suffering?

Keller: There are two ways to grow in confidence in God’s wisdom.  The first may sound strange—we need to be less confident of our own wisdom.  This may be very hard for modern people.

Throughout history, people struggled with suffering and asked God ‘why?’ all the way back to Job.  But virtually no one on record thought suffering and evil made God’s existence impossible until the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  Why the change? By the mid-18th century the earliest forms of secularism had begun to develop.  In the past it was assumed that if God was infinite and ineffable then his ways would have to be beyond our comprehension.  So evil that was inexplicable to us—made perfect sense.  If there was a God who created all things—of course he would be infinitely wiser than we are and we could never have the insight to call him on the carpet for how things are going in the world.  But the modern belief was that all truth could be discovered by human reason.  As we got larger in our own eyes and more sure that we understood how the universe worked, and how history should go, the problem of evil became so intolerable.

But this was all to a great degree because of our own hubris.  If we can recapture that bigger view of God and the more realistic view of our own limitations, it would be easier to trust God’s wisdom.

The other way, of course, is to look at the Cross.  There we see something that, to the onlookers, appeared to be a defeat.  God had abandoned the best hope of the world. How could God bring anything good out of that?  But we have the vantage point such that we can get at least a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of the Cross.  If God can work his wisdom in suffering like he did in Jesus’ life—he can do it in ours as well.

Moore: As you well know, C.S. Lewis wrote two main books on suffering: The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed.  The former predictably articulates a “free-will” defense for suffering.  A Grief Observed is very different.  It is like reading the dark and desperate reflections of a friend’s journal.  The Problem of Pain has neat and tidy categories.  A Grief Observed is messy and unsettling.

I know Lewis has made a significant contribution to your life, so am curious if you recommend both books to suffering people.

Keller: Yes, I recommend either book to suffering people.

The Problem of Pain book has a version of the free-will defense. The free will defense goes something like this.  We wouldn’t be free, rational agents who are capable of love is we didn’t have free will.  If we were programmed to act in a certain way, we would be robots, not persons.  So in order to make us persons God had to risk us mis-using our free will and causing evil.

In the end, I don’t think it is sufficient as an explanation for why God allows evil.  I mention this in my book and I give my reasons.  We don’t allow our own children free will if they are going to hurt themselves with it.  And in heaven, we will not be able so sin, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to love or that we will be robots. God is a person—indeed he consists of three persons—and he cannot lie, the Bible says.  Does that make him a non-person?  No.  So I think the free will defense in the end isn’t sufficient.

But I’d still recommend The Problem of Pain, because, a) the free will defense does provide a partial explanation, b) the rest of the book is wonderful, especially the descriptions of heaven, c) Lewis’ prose is luminous and always a joy to read.

Moore: I think we could do a much better job of taking the world by the throat and demanding (in a gracious manner of course!) how its philosophy is preferable to Christianity.  You do a good job of demonstrating the bankrupt nature of secular materialism in having anything important to offer suffering people.

Given the hollow answers skepticism offers to those who suffer, how do you conduct funerals for those outside the Christian faith?

Keller: Funerals are not for the dead person—they are for the man or woman’s family and friends.  So I speak about the person’s gifts and virtues with thankfulness and admiration.  And then I read lots of Scripture pointing to the Christian hope of heaven and the resurrection as the only way we can face the inevitability of death.  I don’t speculate about the spiritual condition of the departed, but few people at a funeral are thinking about that anyway.  They are wondering about their own death—and that’s where I can show them, as you say, the bankruptcy of secular materialism at such a time.

Moore: I have read four of your books (The Reason for God, Counterfeit God, Every Good Endeavor, and this one).  Though they are very different books, I noticed that all four cite Andrew Delbanco’s, The Real American Dream: a Mediation on Hope.  Why is that book so formative to your thinking?

Keller: It is a terrific analysis of contemporary American culture, put into the context of American history.   Delbanco says that American cultural history has had three phases—each one centering on one high priority.  He lists them: “God. Nation. Self.”   I don’t think you can improve on the simplicity and penetration of that analysis.

I don’t think his book is necessarily more formative than any other book to my thinking, but it is so broadly applicable—to psychology, vocation, politics, sexuality, religion, or whatever. That’s why it’s hard not to cite it, no matter what the subject.

Moore: Since we are talking about reading, would you give us an idea of the following: how many books do you give a careful read per year, what is your note taking system like (marginalia in the text, highlighting, creating your own index, filing for research, etc.) and how do you determine what you will read?

Keller: I don’t know exactly, but I probably read carefully 30-50 books (depending on the length) and skim the same number.  My ‘system’ is to underline and put notes in the margin of the physical book. Then when I go back to the book I can grasp the main points and take-aways of it in a few minutes.

I read what interests me, though once I read Book A it almost always leads to reading other Books B and C and D in the same area of study because of the footnotes and citations I discovered in Book A.

Moore: Job was not aware that the origins of his suffering were due to a challenge taking place in the heavenlies.  None of us can know for sure right now, but do you think there could be people today whose suffering like Job’s is a demonstration to the heavenly realm?

Keller: Yes.  It may be Jesus was saying in John 9 that the man born blind was experiencing a kind of suffering that was similar to Job.  Not that he mentions ‘spiritual warfare’ but he does say the man’s blindness was in order that Jesus could heal him and show God’s glory.

Moore: Many understand the final chapters of Job to be showcasing the impatience of God.  God is finally fed up with Job’s silly questions.  God puts Job in his proper place.  He is God after all.

You see a grace operative in those final chapters, don’t you?

Keller: Of course. If God was being cranky and angry with Job, there would have been no Job left.  Most commentators see lots of grace in those chapters.

First, it’s astonishing grace that the great God of the universe would actually show up and talk to Job.  Second, it’s astonishing grace that he does not smite Job for his impertinence.  This is something like Jesus showing up for Thomas.  Thomas says he won’t believe unless he sees the nail prints in his hands and the wound in his side. Jesus appears but does not say, “how dare you question me?” Jesus actually offers Thomas his hands and side.  And yet there is a rebuke, “Stop doubting and believe.”  So there is both a gentleness and a rebuke.

God is doing the same thing here. He is being incredibly patient to show up and spend all this time addressing the doubts and questions of one human being.  And yet, of course, God is also rebuking Job for trying to understand what he cannot and calling God to account.

Moore: Our culture constantly tells us “it is bad to feel bad.”

How do you counsel people who are anxious and depressed, especially when the consuming desire is simply to start feeling better.  Also, do you encourage people taking drugs of any sort as a part of their healing?

Keller: That’s a huge subject—the last third of the book is devoted to this.  I spend so much time on it because there are not simple answers.  You must not force yourself to feel good too quickly—there are lessons to be learned and insights into life and your heart to be grasped.  Also grief and anger can’t just be denied or stuffed, they need to be worked through with meditation, reflection, and prayer.

And yet you must not, on the other hand, allow yourself to get stuck in grief and sorrow.  Simone Weil talks about the temptation to become ‘complicit’ with pain and suffering, to semi-consciously decide to stay in it, because it is more painful to get on with life than to stay swamped with your problems.

Medication may or may not be appropriate. That must be considered on a case by case basis.

Moore: What encourages one person who is suffering may discourage another.  You do a nice job of reminding of this reality.  How can we better develop sensitivity that people truly are wired differently?

Keller: I don’t know!  It’s not just a problem when it comes to ministry to the suffering.  People also come to faith differently.  We live in a very technique driven society (see Ellul’s The Technological Society).  We don’t want insights and principles that are applied differently.  We want ‘action steps’ and ‘how-tos’.   It’s a problem, absolutely.  I don’t know what to do about it.  My contribution was to write a long book on the subject that doesn’t break down things very well into neat steps.

Moore: On the other side of the spectrum, there are some things which a suffering person may need to hear which are not immediately encouraging.  How do we grow in our discernment to know if there is anything difficult to share with a close friend going through deep waters?

Keller: There are many things to share with a close friend going through deep waters.  I list them at the very end of the book.  But almost never do you lay those things on the person immediately.  And seldom in the same order, and never in the same way.


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