Timothy Keller wades into the depths of the human experience with Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. It’s a book that “take[s] life seriously … [and] want[s] to help readers live life well and even joyfully against the background of these terrible realities [of pain and suffering]” (p. 3). He does this by pointing out that Jesus Himself experienced suffering and pain. He shows how other worldviews attempt to address the concepts of pain and suffering but are bankrupt.
Suffering refines us
Walking with God is a full blown treatment of pain and suffering. There are some excellent books that tackle the philosophical questions, the theological foundations, and the devotional approach, but very few do all of these well within a framework the average person could find useful. Keller has combined all of these into a single volume. He doesn’t side step the tough questions. He doesn’t avoid the hard passages. He doesn’t sugar coat suffering. He drops his head, squares his shoulders, and runs straight for them. Central to holding these approaches together is the image of “fiery furnace”—seeing suffering as something we all experience and which, from the biblical perspective, refines us. Keller says it does so because Jesus suffers. He is our trailblazer even in this regard. “In Jesus Christ we see that God actually experiences the pain of the fire as we do. He truly is God with us, in love and understanding, in our anguish” (p. 10).
Our revulsion to the pain
One of the book’s highlights is Keller’s critique of our culture’s immanent frame where we’ve assumed the approach of the Deists. They say the personal God cannot also be the good and powerful God who created a world where suffering exists. They say they can see no good reason for suffering so there must not be one. Keller also says America now has this framework largely to blame for our failures in dealing with suffering. We medicate, avoid, and cope, but we do not suffer well. He suggests that just because we cannot see a good reason doesn’t mean God doesn’t have one.
At one point, Keller uses the image of a surgeon causing pain in order to heal. I think it’s a helpful image. Imagine waking up from a coma with memory gone and finding yourself under the knife. You would wonder why this person is causing you such immense pain. You only later come to find out he is a doctor who saved your life from some injury. Likewise, we find we are in a world filled with pain and suffering and we read Scripture and learn that God is sovereign. Why then all this pain and suffering? It must be enough now to know God loves, cares, and is sovereign. We mustn’t strive too hard to relieve the tension. The gospel thrives in that tension. Jesus died in that tension. As Peter said in his Acts two sermon, Jesus was delivered according to God’s definite plan but His death was carried out in sin by individuals. I appreciate Keller’s not trying to answering all the why’s of suffering, but instead pointing to Jesus Christ as our hope.
Preparing to walk with God
If you haven’t experienced any deep pain and suffering, I would recommend you immediately read Walking with God. Keller will prepare you to walk with God when (not if) the suffering comes. If you lay your foundation now, you will endure when the storm hits. If you are in the midst of suffering, Walking with God will still help you. There are stories in most of the chapters of others who have suffered. Keller also shares some of his own suffering. And he points you to Jesus Christ.
For those whose wounds are still raw, Keller recommends skipping the philosophy in part one and jumping straight into the second and third parts. He also points out throughout the book that not all of us suffer the same. Not all wounds are healed with the same words. Sometimes things that are true aren’t helpful in the midst of suffering. Wise advice from someone who cares. Wise advice from someone who has walked with God through the fire.
About the author
Timothy Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular Sunday attendees and has helped to start nearly two hundred churches around the world. Also the author of Every Good Endeavor, The Meaning of Marriage, Jesus the King, Generous Justice, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, The Reason for God, and the Encounters with Jesus eSeries, Timothy Keller lives in New York City with his family.