No amount of money, power, and planning can prevent bereavement, dire illness, relationship betrayal, financial disaster, or a host of other troubles from entering your life. Human life is fatally fragile and subject to forces beyond our power to manage. Life is tragic.We all need support if we are not to succumb to despair. In this book we will argue that inevitably this support must be spiritual.When pain and suffering come upon us, we finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives but that we never were.Over the years, I also came to realize that adversity did not merely lead people to believe in God’s existence. It pulled those who already believed into a deeper experience of God’s reality, love, and grace. One of the main ways we move from abstract knowledge about God to a personal encounter with him as a living reality is through the furnace of affliction.
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 world-views attempt to address the concepts of pain and suffering but are bankrupt in their perspective and ability to actually help the sufferer.
Most books on the topic of pain and suffering like this treat the subject mainly from just one perspective. Many books use the philosophical perspective, weighing the “problem of evil” and whether it made the existence of God more or less likely or Christianity more or less plausible. Others took a theological approach, distilling and assembling all the biblical themes and teachings about pain and suffering. Finally, many books take a devotional approach, writing a series of meditations designed to help actual sufferers in the midst of their grief. There was also a smaller number of articles and books that took both a historical and an anthropological approach, examining how different cultures have helped its members face troubles and trials. The more I read, the clearer it became that these various perspectives informed one another, and that any treatment that confined itself to only one vantage point left far too many unanswered questions.
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 Aversion of 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.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK:
In the first part of the book, we will look at the “furnace” from the outside—the phenomenon of human suffering, as well as the various ways that different cultures, religions, and eras in history have sought to help people face and get through it. We also will look at the classic philosophical “problem of evil” and what responses we can give to it. Because this first part of the book surveys a great deal of scholarship, it inevitably will be a more theoretical discussion. It is crucial for seeing the entire picture but, frankly, may feel too abstract for a person in the midst of adversity.
The second part of the book moves away from more theoretical issues and begins to digest all that the Bible says about the character of suffering. This section begins a journey from the philosophical toward the personal. We could almost say that, like a parent with a toddler, the Bible is teaching us to walk, step by step. The Bible calls us to walk steadily through afflictions, and to do so requires that we understand its wonderfully balanced and comprehensive teaching on this subject— both profoundly realistic and yet astonishingly hopeful. This keeps us from thinking we can run from the furnace (avoid it) or quickly run through it (deny it) or just lie down hopelessly (despair in it).
Finally, the third part of the book provides the most practical material. The Bible does not perceive going through the “furnace of affliction” as a matter of technique. Suffering can refine us rather than destroy us because God himself walks with us in the fire. But how do we actually walk with God in such times? How do we orient ourselves toward him so that suffering changes us for the better rather than for the worse? Each chapter is based on one main strategy for connecting with God in the furnace of pain and suffering.
Preparing to Walk with God
If you haven’t experienced any deep pain and suffering, I would recommend you read Walking with God soon. 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.