Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has once again written a very insightful book on an important subject. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is a 300 page book in three main parts:
- The first part looks at how various cultures, religions, and eras in history have viewed suffering and how they’ve deal with it.
- The second looks in depth at the biblical view of suffering and evil. Keller is an insightful theologian.
- The third is more pastoral. It’s written to help believers deal with suffering in their lives or in this world.
Who it’s good for
For believers currently experiencing pain and suffering in their lives Part Three might be the only section of the book they will want to read right now. The chapters in this section are biblical and practical – “Walking”, “Weeping”, “Trusting”, “Praying”, “Thinking/Thanking/Loving”, and “Hoping”.
For others who want to be prepared for personal suffering in the future, as well as to be able to help others in their suffering, even in their understanding of the problem of evil in the world, reading the second part, as well as the third would be helpful.
For those who want to be challenged intellectually in their understanding of suffering as viewed over the centuries by Christians, as well as by people of other religions and cultures, the first part in addition to the second and third should be read.
The second and third parts of the book were for the most part familiar territory for me. Just the same I found them thought provoking and edifying. Keller believes that the Bible’s teaching on suffering is much deeper than that of other religions and philosophies. It’s rich and multifaceted. He shows from the Bible itself that suffering is both just and unjust and that God is both a sovereign God and a suffering God. I highly recommend that you read how Keller unpacks these truths.
On the subject of the sovereignty of God, one of special interest to me, Keller writes, “The doctrine of the sovereignty in the Bible is sometimes called “compatibilism”. The Bible teaches that God is completely in control of what happens in history and yet He exercises that control in such a way that human beings are responsible for their freely chosen actions and the results of those actions. Human freedom and God’s direction of historical events are therefore completely compatible. To put it more practically and vividly – if a man robs a bank, that moral evil is fully his responsibility, though it also is part of God’s plan.” (Keller substantiates compatibilism through a fine study of Genesis 50, especially v. 20, Acts 2:23 and Luke 22:22, as well as Exodus 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 11:10, 14: 4, and 8.)
Having admitted that the biblical section of the book was fairly familiar to me, I must now acknowledge that Part One, the philosophical/historical section, was newer, extremely enlightening, and sometimes tough for me to understand. Here Keller exposes the roots of our own contemporary society’s view of suffering and helps us know how to speak biblical truth into our culture.
The secular view today, which eliminates God completely, struggles less philosophically with the problem of evil and suffering than previous generations. Rather its focus is to work to eradicate the causes of suffering through the application of science and technology. Sadly, this view gives little hope to families in time of personal suffering. For that reason modern secular families still often turn to religion or spirituality of some kind in time of personal grief. We saw this in the recent Newtown, CT shooting – well educated secular family members of the victims went to the church and its traditions for consolation.
Keller contends that the traditional biblical view gives greater resources for facing evil, suffering, and death than the modern view. Here are some of the biblical truths he develops to help us in facing hard times:
“The first relevant Christian belief is in a personal, wise, infinite, and therefore inscrutable God who controls the affairs of the world – and that is more comforting than the belief that our lives are in the hands of fickle fate or random chance.
“The second crucial tenet is that, in Jesus Christ, God came to earth and suffered with and for us sacrificially – and that is more comforting than the idea that God is remote and uninvolved. The cross also proves that, despite all the inscrutability, God is for us.
“The third doctrine is that through faith in Christ’s work on the cross we can have assurance of salvation – that is far more comforting than the karmic systems of thought. We are assured that the difficulties are not payment for past sins, since Jesus paid for them. As Luther taught, suffering is unbearable if you aren’t certain that is God for you and with you.
“The fourth great doctrine is that of the bodily resurrection from the dead for all who believe. This completes the spectrum of our joys and consolations. One of the deepest desires of the human heart is for love without parting. Needless to say, the prospect of the resurrection is far more comforting than the beliefs that death takes you into nothingness or into an impersonal spiritual substance. The resurrection goes beyond the promise of ethereal, disembodied afterlife. We get our bodies back, in a state of beauty and power that we cannot today imagine.”
Many consider the problem of evil in the world the most powerful argument against the existence of God. The well-known argument goes something like this: if an all-powerful, loving God exists, why is there suffering in this world? The presence of evil in the world shows that no such God exists. Keller believes that this argument “has a hidden premise, namely that God does not have good reasons to allow evil to exist.” Then he quotes Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, as to how a believer might respond to someone who uses this argument:
“It may mean that someone has a very strong desire for something and is able to obtain this thing, but does not act on this desire – because he has reasons for not doing so that seem to him to outweigh the desirability of the thing. … (so) God might have reasons for allowing evil to exist, in his mind, outweigh the desirability of the non-existence of God.”
One of the many strengths of this book is that at the end of each of the chapters in Part One and Part Two there’s a testimony by a contemporary Christian sharing his or her personal story of suffering. These vignettes help make the deep truths taught in the book real and practical to the average Christian reader.
If you want an easy read with stories on suffering and a few Bible verses thrown in, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re prepared to reflect deeply about (1) the biblical view of pain and suffering, (2) the thinking of modern society, and (3) how to communicate theological truth to our world today, this might be exactly the book for you.