Walking with God through Pain and Sufferingby Timothy Keller
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Meshing the what and how of apologetics, Apologetics at the Cross is a guidebook on how to witness Christ in a late-modern world. Effective witnesses will vary their approach based on the context, and Apologetics at the Cross helps a Christian understand how.
Who should read this?
Christians who want to understand how to more effectively witness Jesus in an increasingly Godless society.
At the 2018 TG4 conference, in his sermon, The Whole in Our Holiness, Ligon Duncan emphasised the point that Adam and Eve could enjoy God’s supreme blessing and love in the sphere of obedience. But, because of their disobedience, all of mankind was plunged into despair of God’s supreme curse and wrath. Yet, mankind is not alone in its groaning, since creation groans, awaiting future redemption, because it, too, was subjected to God’s supreme curse and wrath.
Therefore, “[h]uman life is totally fragile” and “tragic,” as Timothy Keller opens in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Our lives are dictated by “forces beyond our power to manage” (Keller 3). Yes, these forces are under the sovereignty of God. Yet, many of these forces are not benevolent, but rather malevolent, since they are the schemes of the devil, designed to swallow and devour us in despair.
From cradle to grave, death is a looming reality that dangles like a sword over our entire being ~ head, heart, and hands. This reality affects the direction of our lives. Because of our intuition that we are eternal beings and the consequent longing to find eternal bliss, life will take two of the following forms: an idol or a gift. If we esteem life as supremely precious, we will grip onto our life and agonize when it is taken away.
If we esteem the Author of life as supremely precious, we will joyfully hold our lives out with an open hand to God to cultivate, sustain, and take as He pleases. Whether life is perceived as our deserved property or an undeserved gift, we know brokenness was not a part of the original natural order. Therefore, we desire to find the meaning and purpose behind that brokenness.
At the end of each chapter in the first two sections, personal stories of suffering are written. One story was written by Tess who experienced tragedy in her training to become a physician: “seven-year-olds being thrown from pickup trucks, fatal automobile accidents, twenty-five-year-olds diagnosed with breast cancer, heart attacks on Christmas Day” (Keller 60). Tragedy touched her family.
Her mother eventually died after being diagnosed with “metastatic and recurrent ovarian cancer, with a terminal prognosis.” Her son died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), during a nap, while she was at work (Keller 61, 62). Yet, she trusted and hoped in the Lord.
Her very first thought was, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21), which was soon followed by, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). For an hour, she and her husband, along with their nanny, prayed to the Lord for physical resurrection for her son:
“We went to the throne of God boldly, completely lucid, not grief-stricken, and asked as as forthrightly as we could to give us back our baby. Not my will, but Yours be done. God heard our prayer. And He said no. And I told Him, okay, but You’re going to have to get us through this, because we cannot do this ourselves” (Keller 62).
During this trial, her Redeemer Church community rallied around both she and her husband during their grief. “Every single last detail was taken of, in typical Type-A New Yorker style, with precision and excellence, and all without our knowledge or consent.” They were given the opportunity to descend into the depths of their grief, experience that grief in all its agony, and emerge on the other side in joy.
God used this trial to cultivate unity in their church community and blessed them with another child. In the midst of all of this pain, this is the idea that sustained and empowered her: God, Himself, has suffered everything in the human experience and, in His resurrection, His scars became His glory (Keller 62-63).
This is an encouraging story which gives us hope, yet not all stories have such harmonious and happy endings. The sons of Korah ended a psalm, “darkness is my only friend” (Psalm 88:18 CSB).
We share in the common experience with sickness, pain, and death, alongside the accompanying sorrow, yet we have different experiences with the stench of death. The emotional responses to such disaster are varied and paired opposites: peace and angst, belief and disbelief, prayer and silence, confidence and fear, hope and despair, joy and gloom, and love and hatred.
How can we face, endure, and triumph over such monstrous tragedy? The solution is not found in ignoring our internal impulses and longings, while fooling ourselves into believing that death is reducible into a predictable and exhortable equation. The solution is found in searching the Bible for the object of our internal impulses and longings, knowing that “[d]eath is irreducibly unpredictable and inexorable” (Keller 2).
The Bible’s “balanced” and “comprehensive” teaching on the subject of death is “profoundly realistic” and “astonishingly hopeful,” providing us a path through the furnace. In light of Jesus’ victory over death, we can walk with patience and hope through affliction, rather than avoid, deny, or despair in it. Going beyond patient tolerance, we can joyfully embrace the promised, central, spiritual goods won for us in our redemption through the shedding of Christ’ blood.
The Modern Response to Suffering
Andrew Delbanco, writing on the century when America was founded, wrote, “Pride of self, once the mark of the devil, was now not just a legitimate emotion but America’s uncontested god… Liberal individualism assumed its modern form in these years.”
Modern American culture abhors suffering as a “damaging encumbrance” and “purely negative force,” because it esteems individual freedom and happiness as the ultimate meaning of life. We are seduced to fool ourselves to believe our purpose is to “use our reason and free will to support human flourishing” (Keller 54). Typically, when tragedy strikes, the secular person’s source of meaning has been snatched from right under their feet, leaving them to hazardly fall backwards in despair.
To keep this nightmare from becoming reality, the secular person will attempt to eliminate every possibility for suffering. “Suffering is caused by unjust economic and social conditions, bad public policies, broken family patterns, or simply villainous evil parties” (Keller 26). By mainstream secular theory, with man acting as sovereign to respond in outrage, to confront the parties at fault, and to take action to change such unjust conditions, all the evil in the world can be solved.
Relying on man to solve evil is hopeless and vain, since “[t]he causes of suffering are infinitely complex and impossible to eliminate” (Keller 74). In New York Times Magazine, Ann Patchett once wrote on “staving off our own death,” a favorite national pastime:
“Despite our best intentions, it [death] is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.”
Not even the greatest earthly wealth, power, and planning can keep death at bay. Death will somehow, sometime, and somewhere strike and succeed. In our youth, standing at the bedside of our loved-ones, we will gaze into their eyes for the last time. We will hear their last gasp of breath. The vigor, strength, and beauty of youth will fade away into the lethargy, weakness, and unattractiveness of old age.
Having flipped roles, we will gaze into the eyes of our loved-ones from the deathbed for the last time. We, too, will gasp our last breath. Then, we will be buried into the ground. Blaise Pascal once wrote, “The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever.”
Though our culture understands the vanity in attempting to eliminate suffering, it will not surrender itself to death’s sovereignty. Rather, it violently shoves death into the margins as subject of taboo nature. Then, it promotes distraction from the inevitable through the modes of entertainment and sex. Because the body, supposedly, is “the sovereign property of the self,” vain attempts are made to push back aging and disease.
The prevention of aging and disease is not a bad goal, since taking dominion of creation, including our bodies, is part of the mandate expressed by God to Adam and Eve. Yet, the end of prevention can prove to be problematic. The attempt to claim “total sovereignty” over the body are one of those problematic ends since that attempt denies the sovereignty of God as our Creator.
The pro-choice movement, which supports abortion, gender-realignment surgery, and euthanasia, is unbiblical for this exact reason: the creature claiming to be supreme in wisdom, love, and power is defying the natural and moral laws of the Creator.
The Christian Response to Suffering
Pleasure and joy, not suffering and sadness, was the pinnacle of the original natural order. With the rebellion of Adam and Eve, chaos took root in the world and affected every piece of our lives.
The world was spoken into being by the World which dwelled with God and was God. A few thousand years of groaning by the earth and its inhabitant passed. Suddenly, as Luc Ferry wrote, an “unfathomable shift” occurred, and this shift had an “incalculable effect on the history of ideas.” In writing, “in the beginning [of time] was the Logos” (John 1:1), John agreed with Greek philosophy that “there is an ordering structure behind the universe, and that the meaning of life is to be found in aligning oneself with it” (Keller 43).
But, John also went beyond Greek philosophy, writing, “The Logos became flesh, and made his dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory” (John 1:14). Essentially, the Logos is “not an abstract rational principle that could only be known through high contemplation by the educated elite. Rather, the Logos of the universe is a person – Jesus Christ – who can be loved and known in a personal relationship by anyone at all” (Keller 43).
After living a life of perfect obedience, Jesus imputed His righteousness to us on the cross, while He took on our sin. His sacrifice was finished when He gasped His last breath and was approved by the Father when He rose from His grace. By the same Holy Spirit who rose Jesus from dead, we are risen from our spiritual graves to walk in newness of life. We are united to Christ in His death, so that we can be united to Him in holy matrimony, having died to the law as our abusive spouse.
In Christ, our suffering is for our spiritual good. As Sinclair Ferguson once put it, the friction of suffering removes the blemishes of our faith and magnifies its shine. Christ reigned supreme and victorious over death, and uses it as a tool to purify and sanctify us more into conformity to His image. He also uses it to create a pathway for our abstract knowledge to travel from our head to our heart, so that we can experience a personal, intimate relationship with Him as a living reality. C.S. Lewis once wrote:
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pain.”
In this quote, C.S. Lewis is alluding to God arousing us from the “illusion that we have the strength and competence to rule our own lives and save ourselves” (Keller 49). Essentially, man is emptied of his creaturely false confidences, so he can confide in God and His grace.
Martin Luther once wrote, “It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing; hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything.” By emptying us of our earthly confidences, God is making room to create and cultivate our sense of dependence upon Him.
The mindset of Job’s friends, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and many of the leaders of the medieval church in Luther’s day and of the “evangelical” church of our day is what Martin Luther called a theology of glory. They gaze into “the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things that have been made.” Meanwhile, the Bible encourages a theology of the cross. They comprehend “the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
We can hope and rejoice, while we lament and suffer. While we gaze into the casket of a loved-one, lay in a hospital bed after having an open-heart surgery, see nothing but a dark abyss because we are blind, stand at the side of the road after a car accident, or sit in isolation without any company to console us, we can look to the coming return of Jesus.
At His second-coming, He will restore to us what we lost in this life. He will surpass what we dreamed and longed for in this life. Through His sacrifice, He has been given the power to do such amazing things.
In a personal story at the end of a chapter, Mary wrote:
“Problems don’t disappear and life continues, but He replaces the sting of those heartaches with hope… Hope comes not in the solution to the problem, but focusing on Christ, who facilitates the change.”