Everyone suffers. And yet perhaps because of the age in which we live, there have been few cultures that have struggled more with suffering than ours. I’m currently reading a popular book on loss and I’m struck by how vapid the wisdom of our age is in the face of suffering.
Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is, quite simply, the best book on suffering that I’ve read. Keller deals with the subject philosophically, theologically, and practically. Each treatment is successful on its own, and combined they pack a unique punch as Keller engages mind and heart alike.
Timothy Keller is such a unique author. His books range from the incredibly accessible: The Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods, to the slightly more rigorous, but still very accessible apologetic, The Reason for God, to the more rigorous practitioner’s guides such as Generous Justice or Preaching. Part of Timothy Keller’s unique gifting is his ability to write so well in each of these genres. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is the most rigorous book by Keller to date and yet the book is every bit as well written as any of his best.
Contemporary westerners are repelled by suffering and death. On the stage of world history, our fear of death is abnormal. Keller quotes an author at The New York Times Magazine, who, after the tragic sniper shootings in the Washington DC area reflected, “The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. [And yet] despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.”[i] This aversion to suffering and death is a cultural blind spot and means that we naturally approach the topic with naiveté.
To give us a firmer grounding, Keller wades through the philosophical arguments for the existence of evil, pain, and suffering. Ultimately, Keller doesn’t believe that any of the philosophical arguments are fully persuasive. And yet, Keller believes there is still hope for the theist: “the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God. If there is no God, why have a sense of outrage and horror when unjust suffering occurs to any group of people?”[ii] Keller pushes this further, quoting Evelyn Underhill: “If God were small enough to be understood, he wouldn’t be big enough to be worshiped.”[iii] Keller shifts the burden of proof from the theist to the atheist.
Keller suggests that our perspective might be terribly askew: “If there really is an infinitely glorious God, why should the universe revolve around us rather than around him? If we look at the biblical God’s standards for our behavior… it may occur to us that the real riddle of evil is not what we thought. Perhaps the real puzzle is this: Why, in light of our behavior as a human race, does God allow so much happiness?”[iv] Perhaps the biggest question is not why there is pain and suffering, but why is there joy?
Keller shows why Christianity might not be on as shaky grounding as many expect concerning the issue of pain and suffering by comparing it to the five other major alternative worldviews. Those are: 1) the moralistic view (karma); 2) self-transcendent view (Buddhism); 3) fatalism (Islam); 4) dualistic (Zoroastrianism); and 5) Secularism.
The way each of the worldviews deals with the question of pain and suffering is as follows:
· in a moralistic worldview, suffering is caused by wrongdoing: our response is to do good, and the resolution is eternal bliss.
· From a self-transcendent perspective, suffering is an illusion: our response is detachment, and the resolution is enlightenment.
· In a fatalistic worldview, the cause of suffering is destiny: the response is endurance, and the resolution is glory and honor.
· In a dualistic worldview, the cause of suffering is cosmic conflict: the response is purified faithfulness, and the resolution is the triumph of the light.
· In a secular worldview, suffering is an accident and doesn’t mean anything at all. Our response is to avoid suffering at all costs and minimize the discomfort as much as possible by bettering our social mechanisms. But, of course, we will suffering, and so, for the secularist, “suffering always wins.”
The weaknesses of these worldviews is glaring.
The Christian answer is that suffering is real, but that, when faced rightly, there can be a purpose to it. The double truths that ground the Christian response is first, we exist to glorify God—God does not exist to make us happy; and second, that God is a God who enters into suffering on the cross.
The Christian response to suffering is perhaps best exemplified in Luther’s theology of the cross. The answering to suffering begins with a God who not only allows human beings to suffering, but suffered himself for the sake of his children. In fact, Keller asserts, “suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith.”[v] The power of the cross, is that, in Christ’s suffering on the cross, “evil is ‘turned back on itself.’ Or, as John Calvin expressed it, on the cross, destruction was destroyed, ‘torment tormented, damnation damned…death dead, mortality made immortal.’”[vi] There is an incredible promise and encouragement to be had in this reality. Keller says that, “When things go wrong, one of the ways you lose your peace is that you think maybe you are being punished. But look at the cross! All the punishment fell on Jesus. Another thing you may think is that maybe God doesn’t care. But look at the cross.”[vii]
But what purpose does suffering serve? On the one hand, we finite beings can never know. On the other hand, Keller points out several. The first is moving from mere knowledge of God to a deep relationship with him: “One of the main ways we move from an abstract knowledge about God to a personal encounter with him as a living reality is through the furnace of affliction.”[viii] We are naturally selfish and self-absorbed creatures. As Martin Luther taught, “human nature is in curvatus in se, curved in on itself.”[ix]
If we are to take Scripture seriously, perhaps the reason for suffering might be to reshape us into the people God created us to be.[x] Why is suffering that tool? We cannot know. But we can be assured that if we have an infinite God then he must have reasons beyond our comprehension for suffering and, perhaps more important, he suffers with us. As Keller writes, "In Jesus Christ we see that God actually experiences the pain of the fire as we do. He is truly God with us, in love and understanding, in our anguish. He plunged himself into our furnace so that, when we find ourselves in the fire, we can turn to him and know we will not be consumed but will be made into people great and beautiful."
That truth is infinitely more profound than any other rationalization of suffering. The fact that we serve a God who has suffered and who using our suffering for his glory and to make us like him—that is hope that our world needs.
[i] Ann Patchell in The New York Times Magazine, October 20, 2002. Quoted in Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 3.
[ii] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 106-7.
[iii] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 255.
[iv] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 115.
[v] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 163.
[vi] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 157.
[vii] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 312.
[viii] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 5.
[ix] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 123.
[x] See James 1:2-4 and Romans 5:3-5.