The Old Preacher

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Category: Suffering (page 2 of 4)

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (13)

Tim Keller titles Chapter 13 “Trusting”–one of the ways to get through suffering, but a difficult assignment.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by [Keller, Timothy]

JOSEPH’S STORY (Genesis 37,39-47).

Jealous of Joseph, his eleven brothers threw him into a pit far from home.  Eventually he was pulled from the pit by traders who sold him into slavery in Egypt.  There he became a household slave to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.  He served his master well.  But, when he refused his master’s wife’s sexual advances, she accused him and Joseph was thrown into prison.  Years passed.  After correctly interpreting Pharaoh’s cupbearer’s dream, Joseph was brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dream.  Consequently, Pharaoh made Joseph Prince of Egypt.  And from that position, Joseph saved his whole family from famine.   God used Joseph’s mistreatment and years of suffering for great good.


For what must have seemed like endless years, God apparently abandoned Joseph.  On the contrary, writes Keller, “[God] was hidden, but he also was in complete control” (p. 260).


Keller argues, “God was hearing and responding to Joseph’s prayers for deliverance, rescue and salvation, but not in the ways or forms or times Joseph asked for it” (p. 262).  At the end, Joseph realized that God was at work for good.  Most of us never get to see that.  We’re left in the dark, like Job.  And when we are, we’re apt to say, “If God is going to shut the door in my face every time I pray, year in and year out, then I give up” (Keller, p. 262).

But Joseph’s story, Keller observes, ” . . . tells us that very often God does not give us exactly what we ask for.  Instead he gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything he knows” (p. 264).


Keller illustrates this principle with an intriguing story . . .

Redeemer (Presbyterian Church, which Keller pastors) exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were sent to New York City to start this as a new church.  Why were we sent?  It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out.  But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination?    We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and belief of Presbyterianism.  But why was that professor at the seminary at that time?  He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the the United States.

The professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa.  For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications.  What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester?  I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help.  The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time.  Why was his father president?  It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal.  But why did the Watergate scandal even occur?  I understand that it was because a nigh watchman noticed an unlatched door.

What if the security guard had not noticed that door?  What if he had simply looked in a different direction?  In that case–nothing else in that long string of “coincidences” would have ever occurred.  And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city . . . I like to say to people at Redeemer:  If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you” (p. 265,266).

(Five thousand attend three campuses in Manhattan.  Additionally, Redeemer has started over 100 smaller churches in the New York metropolitan area.)

Author John Newton wrote, “When you cannot see your way, be satisfied that he is your leader . . . ” . . . everything is needful (necessary) that [the Lord] sends, nothing can be needful (necessary) that he withholds” p. 267).


Imagine you’ve followed Jesus.  You’ve seen his power heal the sick and raise the dead.  You’ve heard his teachings.  You believe he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  But now he’s praying for the cup of suffering to be taken from him.  Now he’s betrayed into the hands of his enemies.  Now he’s nailed to a Roman cross.  You hear his cry:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  How, you wonder, could any good possibly come from this?

“And yet,” Keller writes, “you are standing there looking at the greatest, most brilliant thing God could ever do for the human race” (p. 268).

You fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds you so much dread,
Are big with mercy and shall break
With blessings on your head.
–“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”

” . . . because you cannot fit [something] into your own limited understanding, you [may be] in danger of walking away from God” ( p. 269).


Keller started this chapter admitting trusting the Lord in suffering is “a difficult assignment.”  I’m asked to believe God is working this suffering for my good.  I have the biblical record of Joseph and Job and Jesus–the accounts of how God used their suffering for great good.  I have Keller’s account of the many “coincidences” that led to Redeemer and its impact on NYC.  All should move me to trust God in my suffering.

It does, actually.  But not automatically. Not consistently.  And not without a fight.  I have to read and reread this “evidence”.  I have to think it through and write it, as I am here.  Left to itself, my mind drifts to what I can’t do any longer, to all the prayers for healing the Lord hasn’t answered, to a future of persistent disability and maybe worse symptoms.

So I have to fuel my faith.  I have to fill my mind with his Word and books like these.  I have to use them as weapons against despair and anger and unbelief.  I thank God for the resources he’s given.  I thank him for the Holy Spirit who is changing me from the inside out.  And I thank him that by his grace I’m mostly winning the fight.  And that someday from heaven’s mountaintop, I’ll be able to look back and see how “everything hung together”.



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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (12)

Keller is ready to discuss “ . . . the individual ways or strategies that the Bible lays out for walking through suffering” (p. 240).  The first:  “Weeping”.


Early Reformers frowned on Christians weeping.  They should trust God through “unflinching, joyful acceptance of his will” in suffering (p. 241).

But, Keller notes, their teaching doesn’t square with Scripture.  Many Psalms are called “Lament Psalms”—prayers which express frustration with or sorrow before God.

“Rouse yourself!  Why do you sleep, O Lord?” (Psalm 44:23).

“Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49).

Jeremiah prays . . .

“Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?  You are to me like a deceptive book, like a spring that fails” (Jeremiah 15:18).

In Job’s last chapter he admits his faith wasn’t what it should have been, yet the text says, “In all this Job sinned not” (Job 1:22).

By the book’s middle, Job curses the day he was born and almost angrily charges God with injustice.  Yet hear God’s verdict on Job . . .

“I will accept [my servant Job’s] prayer . . . You (Job’s ‘friends’) have not spoken the truth about me as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7-9).

This despite, as Keller writes, “Job’s grief was expressed with powerful emotion and soaring rhetoric.  He did not ‘make nice’ with God, praying politely” (p. 242).

Surely, then, we are allowed to grieve.


Isaiah speaks of the Suffering Servant, who is Jesus (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20; Acts 8:32,33).  Applied to a person, Keller says, “ . . . ‘bruised’ means an injury that doesn’t show on the surface, but that is nonetheless fatal . . . Jesus Christ is attracted to hopeless cases.  He cares for the fragile” (p. 243).

Elijah was a mighty prophet against whom the people turned.  Despondent, he travels to the wilderness and prays, “Take my life.  I don’t even want to live” (1 Kings 19:4).  Does God condemn him?  No.  He sends an angel who cooks him a meal.  “Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God” (1 Kings 19:4-8).  Eventually God talks with Elijah, questions and challenges him.  God, says Keller, know we are complex creatures.  In this case, to have challenged Elijah first would have been breaking a bruised reed.

In The Bruised Reed and a Smoking Flax, the 27 century British Puritan Richard Sibbes wrote, “Never fear to go to God, since [we have] a mediator with him [who] “died that he might heal our souls with the medicine of his own blood . . . Let this keep us up when we feel ourselves bruised” (p. 245).

“The point,” Keller says is this—suffering people need to be able to weep and pour out their hearts, and not to immediately be shut down by being told what to do.  Nor should we do that to ourselves . . . “ (p. 245).


Psalm 88, writes commentator Derek Kidner of Psalm 88, “There is no sadder prayer in the Psalter” (p. 246).  Unlike all other lament psalms (except 39), Psalm 88 end without a glimmer of hope. (No space to quote it here; grab a Bible and read it!).  From the psalm, Keller draws three lessons.

One, as the psalm’s word implies, “believer can stay in darkness for a long time” (p. 247).

Two, “times of darkness . . . can reveal God’s grace in new depths” (p. 248).  God’s treatment of Job “shows that God remains this man’s God not because the man puts on a happy face and controls all his emotions, but because of grace.

Third, “it is perhaps when we are still in unrelenting darkness that we have the greatest opportunity to defeat the forces of evil.  In the darkness we have a choice that is not really there in better times. We can choose to serve God just because he is God” (p. 248).


How can we be sure God is present with us and working our suffering for good?

Jesus, writes Keller, experienced the ultimate darkness:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 24:45,46).  He was truly God-abandoned; we believers only feel as if we are.  Keller says . . .

“[Jesus] went into suffering for us.  He did not abandon us despite all his own suffering.  Do you think he will abandon you now in the midst of yours?” (p. 251).


What does it mean to “rejoice in suffering”?  Keller argues it can’t mean to have happy emotions or keep a stiff upper lip or defiantly claim this suffering won’t defeat us (p. 252).

Peter writes, “in [God’s] salvation you greatly rejoice though now . . . you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6,7).  They’re rejoicing and suffering simultaneously.  So can we.

Keller explains to “rejoice in God” means to “ dwell on and remind ourselves of who God is, who we are, and what he has done for us . . . Here is how it works.  The grief and sorrow drive you more into God . . . and show you the resources you never had . . . The weeping drives you into the joy . . . and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you” (p. 253).

D. M. Lloyd-Jones writes . . .

“What we are really saying . . . is that the Christian is one who has become immune to what is happening around him . . . [He] has something that enables him to rise above these things, but the glory of the Christian life is that you rise above them through you feel them” (p. 254).


I’m reminded of Psalm 30:5b—“ . . . weeping my remain for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”  David is celebrating deliverance from his enemies.  Suffering is over.  The Lord has turned his wailing into dancing (30:11).

On the other hand, Keller is writing not about joy after rescue from suffering, but about joy in the midst of suffering.

It occurs to me, though, we might apply Psalm 30:5b in line with Keller’s thoughts.  That is, in the midst of nighttime weeping, we may experience tastes of morning-like joy.

Joy is an emotion that runs deep and high.  Far more than a broad, bright smile.  More than rumbling laughter or giddy happiness. The Hebrew word here bears that out.  It implies a “shout of joy” or a “ringing cry”.  It connotes a victory celebration after the war is won. To say, then, we may taste morning-like joy while weeping in the night is to proclaim a weighty statement.

I think we might apply Psalm 30:5b, because I think I may have tasted little morsels of morning-like joy in night-like suffering.  Not a shout of joy or ringing cry.  More an assurance, an inner sense, that the Lord is with me.  That he’s using this for good.  That his grace is enough.  That with his strength in my weakness I can endure in faith.  That, even when I feel as if God has become a stranger, I’m coming to know him more deeply.

It’s okay to cry.  No need to put on a happy false face.  Go ahead and weep.  But know this:  before that glorious morning of eternal joy dawns, we can taste bits of its joy even when we hurt.



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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (11)

“Walking with God in the Furnace”–Part Three of Keller’s book.  He titles Chapter 11 simply “Walking”.

Here’s his opening question:  “How can we actually, practically, face and get through the suffering that has come upon us?” (p. 225).

Resources today generally tell us how to manage suffering and how to cope with its stress.  But Christianity offers a deeper response.


Crown Him the Son of God, before the worlds began,
And ye who tread where He hath trod, crown Him the Son of Man;
That every grief hath known that wrings the human breast,
And takes and bears them for His own, that all in Him may rest
–Crown Him with Many Crowns

Walking is a biblical metaphor for facing affliction.  The familiar hymn above speaks of treading where the Son of God had trod.  David writes of walking in this well-known verse:  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

Walking implies progress.  Keller observes: “We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair” (p. 226).

Flood and fire are also biblical metaphors, but of extreme hardship.  However we have this biblical promise, not of suffering’s removal, but in suffering God with us . . .

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior . . . Do not be afraid, for I am with you (Isaiah 43:2,3,5).

 Peter tells us that trials come to prove the genuineness of our faith.  Keller comments:     “ . . . adversity is like a fire that, rather than destroying you, can refine, strengthen, and beautify you, as a fire does with metal ore” (p. 228).

But not automatically.  “We must recognize, depend on, speak with, and believe in God while in the fire . . . Knowing him personally . . . in our affliction is the key to becoming stronger rather than weaker” (p. 22(0.


 Three Hebrews, among the captives in Babylon, refused to bow down to the self-image King Nebuchadnezzar had erected.  The penalty:  the fiery furnace.  They replied . . .

“If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17,18, NRS).

God might not deliver them.  Their faith wasn’t in rescue but in God himself, whom they would serve no matter what.


Of course, the king threw the three into the flames.  But when he looked inside . . .

Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, O king.”  He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:24,25, NIV).

 The Old Testament speaks of “the angel of the Lord” (Exodus 3:2-6; Judges 13:16-20).  Perhaps that’s who the “fourth” was.  And who is he?  Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer explains . . .

There is only one other in the Bible who is both identical with and yet distinct from the Lord.  One who, without abandoning the full essence and prerogatives of deity . . . is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners . . . Jesus Christ.


One, God is with us in the fire.  We find the supreme example at the cross where Jesus came to die to save us from a “fiery” hell.

Two, the fires of suffering refine our faith, if we relate to God as God and as being with us.  Otherwise, fire hardens our hearts in unbelief and despair.

Three, we can recall the words of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” . . .

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.


“A walk”, writes Keller, “is a day in and day out praying; day in and day out Bible and Psalms reading; day in and day out obeying, talking to Christian friends and going to corporate worship, committing yourself to and fully participating in the life of a church . . . To walk with God is a metaphor that symbolizes slow and steady progress” (p. 236).

In other words, God walking with us in fiery sufferings doesn’t begin with our crying out to him from the furnace, but our walking with God in the “nondramatic, rhythmic . . . steady repeated actions” of everyday, ordinary life (Keller, p. 237).


As my Primary Lateral Sclerosis worsened, my faith-test got harder.  God seemed gone.  The disability was senseless.  I became angry at God.  But I couldn’t turn away from him.  Where would I go?  To whom would I go?  So:  I held on.  One reason I could . . .

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13, NRS).

My second reason for being able to hold on doesn’t diminish the first.  Both, in fact, are from God and of grace.  God was bending me, but he wouldn’t let me break.  He was feeding my anger, but he wouldn’t let me storm out the door.  He was testing me, but not beyond my strength.

That second reason is this:  my life had been “walking with God in the ‘nondramatic, rhythmic’ . . . . steady repeated actions” of everyday, ordinary life.”  When PLS hit without a cure, I kept on with God (though sometimes with just a whisper of faith), because I had walked with him in everyday life for years before.  “With him” became a way of walking, a way of living.  So, when I was confined to a wheelchair, I kept “walking”.  I can’t imagine what I would have done without the “steady, repeated actions of everyday, ordinary life with God.”

That’s my lesson take-away from Keller’s chapter.  But my image take-away is this:  the fourth man in the furnace.






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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (10)

“The Varieties of Suffering”—Keller’s title for Chapter Ten in his book very much worth reading . . .


A “one size fits all” prescription for suffering won’t work, because kinds of suffering are varied as are the personalities and spirituality of the sufferers.


A husband has sex with a woman not his wife.  He’s found out.  His wife files for divorce.  He’s separated from his children (except for alternate weekends).  He’s brought suffering on himself.

A life-threatening storm engulfed Jonah.  A worm ate his shade tree.  In the first case, Jonah was running from God.  In the second, Jonah was pouting because his enemies, the Assyrians, had repented and escaped God’s judgment.  In both cases, God was trying to show Jonah the evil in his heart.

David lusted after Bathsheba, another man’s wife.  After sex produced a son, the child died—and David’s life largely fell apart.  God was using that brokenness to awaken him to his sin and turn David back to himself.

On the other hand, Job did nothing to cause his suffering.  It’s crucial we see the difference in our own suffering.  At the same time, a Christian “must not  . . . miss this opportunity to put his roots deep into God and discover a dimension of spiritual growth and wisdom he would never otherwise have had access to” (Keller, p. 208).


Paul’s and Jeremiah’s suffering was both caused by the betrayal or attacks of others.

Paul was beaten, imprisoned and attacked by his own Jewish people and by Gentiles (2 Corinthians 11:23-29).  Jeremiah was held in stocks and put in prison just for “speaking the truth to power” (Jeremiah 20:1-6).

Today an employee might become the object of attack for taking an unpopular political position.  If someone thinks he has been wronged by a friend, he might try to hurt his “friend” or damage his reputation.

All are examples of suffering by betrayal.


This is the kind of suffering that crushes one with grief.  Though this comes to everyone, there are many varieties—a spouse’s death after 50 years of marriage to the death of a young child, the slow decay of aging to death by an automobile accident.

Paul directs us not to “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) and reminds us that “ . . . our light and momentary troubles are achieving an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).


This is the suffering of which Psalm 44 speaks . . .

All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant.  Our heart has not turned back nor have out steps departed from your way; yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death . . . Why do you hide your face?  Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (Psalm 44:17-19,24).

Job, remains the classic example.

Keller observes what we all have seen or endured:  “When people experience horrendous, unusually severe suffering, it leaves the sufferer not so much filled with guilt, or resentment toward others, or pure grief—but with anger toward life and God himself . . . [Job] was being led to the place where he would obey God simply for the sake of who God is, not in order to receive something or to get something done . . . Job-type suffering requires a process of honest prayer and crying, the hard work of deliberate trust in God, and what St. Augustine called a re-ordering of our loves” (p. 212,213).


Quoting Simone Weil (a French philosopher, mystic, political activist and teacher), Keller lists various aspects of affliction.

Isolation—barriers go up between the sufferer and anyone who hasn’t experienced the same suffering.

Implosion—the sufferer becomes self-absorbed.

Condemnation—the sufferer feels she’s being punished.

Anger—at oneself, others, God, or at the general injustice of life.

Diversities of temperament will determine which of these affliction-aspects a sufferer feels, what combination of them, and to what degree.


Because every affliction is unique, every sufferer needs to find her own pathway through it.  Some “helps” are unhelpful for finding a pathway, such as those things we know in our mind are true, yet irritate or discourage at the time–statements like “we know all things are for the best and we know we have to trust God.”

That, of course, is true.  But sometimes the sufferer has to cry out like David in the Psalms or like Job.  In other words, the sufferer needs truth applied in the right order or for her pathway.

One sufferer was told by his father that “he shouldn’t expect to feel God’s grace and strength now for the whole ordeal ahead . . . God only promised today’s grace for today” (Keller, p. 217,281).  It was like a ray of light breaking through.

“Everything is needful that [God] sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds” (John Newton in Keller, p. 219).  Most helpful, yet not a “pill” for curing discouragement.

Keller insightfully comments on Psalm 23:4—“When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  A precious promise to sink into one’s soul.

One size “encouragement” doesn’t fit every size sufferer . . .

“As it turns out, there is more than one path in that valley.  And the Lord, the perfect Guide, will help you find the best way through” (p. 220).


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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (9)

Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the book with the title of this blog, calls Chapter 9 “Learning to Walk”.


Suffering reveals God’s glory, but it also prepares us for glory.  “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Therefore, in suffering trust God.  Keller writes, “If we love and obey God for his own sake, not ours, it begins to turn us into something strong and great and wise” (p. 187).

How, then, should we view suffering?  Primarily, as a way to know God better.


In his book, The Importance of Suffering, psychologist James Davies observes a lack of courage and a streak of selfishness in our character.  Further, when we get depressed, it can show us we have less control of our lives than we had thought.  Therefore, instead of denying those flaws that suffering exposes, we should work to learn and grow through them.  In other words, this right approach of what suffering reveals about us can lead to remarkable person growth.


Keller lists Bible passages that reveal how God uses suffering to build us up . . .

  • Hebrews 12:1-17
  • Romans 8:18-30
  • 2 Corinthians 1:3-12 and 4:7-5:5 and 11:24-12:10
  • Nearly all of 1 Peter

Suffering changes our attitude toward ourselves.  “It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride” (Keller, p. 190).  It also brings out the worst in us, so it leads us to examine ourselves.

Suffering shows us that certain good things have become too important to us.

Suffering can strengthen our relationship to God.  C. S. Lewis wrote that in prosperity God whispers to us but in adversity he shouts to us.  True, it may make us angry at God.  Yet, as Keller writes, “ . . . it also has the resources to greatly deepen our divine friendship . . . When times are good, how do you know if you love God or just love the things he is giving you or doing for you?” (p. 191).  So we should allow suffering to drive us to God, to pray as we never would otherwise.  John Newton wrote to a grieving woman, “Above all, keep close to the throne of grace [in prayer].  If we seem to get no good by attempting to draw near him, we may be sure we shall get none by keeping away from him” (p. 192).

Suffering is necessary for us to be of use to other people.  Paul wrote of his suffering . . .

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3,4). 


Affliction is painful but “later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who are being trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).  “Trained” is the Greek gymnazo, from which comes our word “gymnasium”.  As gym clothes reveal our physical bodies for what they are, so suffering exposes our character for what it is. Our worries, temper, pride, deceit, lack of self-discipline all emerge.

Suffering, then, calls us to “fix [our] eyes on Jesus . . . who endured the cross . . . its shame   .  . . who endured such opposition . . . so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:2,3).  God is like an exercise-coach, stretching and pushing us toward that “harvest of righteousness and peace.”


Suffering doesn’t automatically lead to growth.  So how are we to walk through pain and suffering?  We must prepare our mind before suffering hits.  But, again, how?  “It means developing a deep enough knowledge of the Bible and a strong and vital enough prayer life that you will neither be surprised or overthrown by affliction” (Keller, p. 197).

For example, listen to this often-missed theological truth:  “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:12,13).

Some good Christians presume that a really bad thing could never happen to them.  And so, when it comes they’re shocked, and that shock multiplies their suffering.

This fallen world is filled with disease, death and natural disasters all due to sin.  Why does it wash over me?  We can’t understand the ways of the infinite God.  But sound theological reflection can prepare our mind for what may come.


“How will I get through this?” is a personal problem, not intellectual.  To prepare the heart for suffering we must develop “a consistent, vibrant, theologically deep yet existentially rich prayer life” (Keller, p. 198.

John S. Feinberg was a theology student who thought that intellectual answers to suffering were enough to endure it.  Then he learned his wife had Huntington’s Chorea, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes the loss of all voluntary bodily movements, memory loss, depression, hallucinations and paranoia.  And, because the disease is genetically transmitted, his children had a 50-50 chance of getting it.

Though he knew theology intellectually, in his heart he felt God had tricked him.  In this furnace of suffering he couldn’t function.  “Feinberg relates how, eventually, he was able to regain his equilibrium only through revisiting many of the truths he had known in the abstract but that he had never connected to lived experience, or to the actual affections and functions of his heart” (Keller, p. 201).

I (Allan), too, knew the biblical answers intellectually.  But when my suffering hit, it took (and still takes) a great deal of work for them to make a difference in my heart. 

Keller concludes:  “It is one thing to have an intellectual explanation for why God allows suffering; it is another thing to actually find a path through suffering so that, instead of becoming more bitter, cynical, despondent and broken, you become more wise, grounded, humble, strong and even content . . .

Using the intellect to make some sense out of suffering is important, but it must be accompanied not merely with knowing about God, but with knowing God” (p. 202).

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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (2)

“The classical author Cicero famously argued that the main task of philosophy is to teach us how to face death” (p. 35).

With that, Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (, begins Chapter Two .  He goes on to trace historical philosophies that have influenced our concepts of suffering and death.

Stoicism was an influential Greek school of philosophy.  While denying a personal God, it believed the universe had a moral order to which human must align themselves.  This meant facing suffering and death by accepting the twists and turns of fate, not attaching ourselves to anything in life, and realizing that when we die our substance becomes part of the universe in another form. The Roman Cicero (cited above), influenced by the Stoics, believed that grief over suffering and death was useless.

Meanwhile, in Eastern culture the oldest scriptures of Hindu thought there is “not only no evil but no good, no individuals, no material world.  Everything is actually part of the One, the All-Soul, the Absolute Spirit . . . Ultimately we cannot lose anything.  We are part of everything” (p. 40).  (That’s what today’s Buddhists believe.)

Therefore, we overcome suffering by detaching our heart from things in this world, which are impermanent.  Not only so, both Stoics and Buddhists claim to live in hope is not a good thing.

Christianity’s birth brought radically new ideas that countered Western and Eastern thought, especially regarding suffering and grief.  First, Christianity offered a better hope.  The doctrine of a future bodily resurrection in which “our personalities will be sustain, beautified and perfected after death” (p. 42), where we will be reunited with our loved ones sharply contrasted with Stoicism and Eastern thought.

John 1:1-18 offers the most striking contrast.  The Greeks called the moral order of the universe Logos.    John wrote, “In the beginning was the Logos” and “The Logos became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14).  John was saying “that the Logos behind the universe was not an abstract, rational principle that could be known only 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 person relation by anyone at all” (p.43).

Second, Christianity offered, not only a better hope, but the right to express sorrow and grief, yet not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  Christians do not stoically repress grief over the loss of life or loved ones.  And while Christianity agrees we mustn’t love this world’s things too much, it doesn’t teach us renounce them so much as to love God more. 

In the poem “The Raven”, Edgar Allan Poe gives the bird one word to say:  nevermore.  Keller observes, “With frightening pithiness, this conveys the irreversibility of life.  Once our youth, our childhood home, our loved ones are gone there is no going back . . . but Christianity offers a restoration of life.  We get our bodies back—indeed, we get the bodies we never had but wished we had . . . We get our lives back . . . the soul and the body are finally perfectly integrated, one in which we dance, sing, hug, work and play.  The Christian doctrine of the resurrection is, then, a reversal of death’s seeming irreversibility.  It is the end of ‘nevermore’” (p. 46).

After the time of Pope Gregory (c. 540-604), the idea grew that suffering was a way to “work off” one’s sins and merit heaven.  That all changed, however, with the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther.  Luther taught that suffering crucified our pride and led us to find our only security in Christ.  More importantly, Luther taught “the theology of the cross”—God doesn’t reveal himself in “the theology of glory”, but “the deepest revelation of the character of God is in the weakness, suffering and death of the cross” (p. 50). And in that weakness and suffering, the Messiah died to put death to death.

Luther prized Jesus’ cry from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) as “the greatest words in all Scripture.”  Keller writes, “Christ suffered Godforsakeness in his human nature; he knew [that state of hopelessness and helplessness] in infinite degree . . . “ Thus we can approach him for mercy and grace “in our time of need” because he can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:14,15).  Keller concludes, “Suffering produces growth in us when we understand Christ’s suffering and work on our behalf” (p. 52).

I’m especially moved by these words:  “Christ suffered Godforsakeness in his human nature; he knew [that state of hopeless and helplessness] . . . “.  They move me because I often feel that way.  So, I envision Jesus hopeless and helpless on the cross, then breathing his last and buried.  But on the third day he was raised from death.  New life defeated hopelessness and helplessness!

In recent centuries, instead of living with that triumphant view of Luther, philosopher Charles Taylor says we live inside “’an immanent frame,’ the view that the world if a completely natural order without any supernatural” (p. 53).  Strangely however,  we still believe in God, but he/it is distant, not someone/something we can know.  And instead of believing that we exist for God’s glory, this new belief holds that God exists to take care of us.  This is why we explode in anger at God or fall into deep depression when we suffer—because God’s not doing “his job.”

We then have go further:  we claim that evil’s existence disproves God’s.  If we  believe God exists to make us happy, then, when evil strikes, our belief in God fades.

For all practical purposes, we (along with all Western societies) have become secularists (even though many profess a traditional belief in God).  Keller notes, “ . . . this secularized belief in God, or this residue of Christianity, may be the worst possible preexisting condition in which to encounter suffering” (p. 58).

As I’ve admitted elsewhere, my suffering has shown me how much I’ve allowed “this secularized belief in God” to influence me.  If asked, I would vehemently deny that God exists to make me happy.  But deep inside I get angry and depressed when he lets me suffer.  I am more a product of worldly philosophies that I thought or like to admit.  I study Scripture but close my mind to it when I’m in pain.

I need to reshape my thinking.  Keller concludes Chapter Two withfour Christian beliefs which do just that, beliefs that giveus “victory” in suffering . . .

One, God is a “personal, wise, infinite and therefore inscrutable (mysterious) God who controls the affairs of the world—and that is far more comforting than the belief that our lives are in the hands of fickle fate or random chance.

Two, “in Jesus Christ, God came to earth and suffered with and for us sacrificially—and that is far more comforting than the idea that God is remote and uninvolved… “

Third, “ . . . through faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we can have assurance of our salvation—and that is far more comforting than the karmic systems of thought.”

Fourth, because of Christ’s resurrection, we who are his by faith will also be bodily resurrected.  “We get our bodies back, in a state of beauty and power that we cannot today imagine” (p. 58).

Long-held philosophies have failed.  Only God is Christ gives us sufferers victory.

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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (8)

The reason for suffering.  That’s what we all want to know.  In Chapter 8 of Walking with God through Pain and Suffering Timothy Keller unveils it.

“According to Christian theology, suffering is not meaningless—neither in general nor in particular instances.  For God has proposed to defeat evil so exhaustively on the cross that all the ravages of evil will someday be undone and we, despite participating in it so deeply, will be saved . . . it is through the suffering of God that the suffering of humankind will eventually be overcome and undone” (p. 163).


Psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims “people need adversity, setbacks and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment and personal development” (p. 164).

That’s all well and good.  But, when we’re suffering we’re hardly concerned about personal development!  That’s one reason the Bible shows us many of the afflicted crying, “Why, Lord?”  How does he answer?


This is our ultimate life’s purpose.  If we respond the right way to our sufferings, even they can glorify God. (How cruel that must sound to parents watching a child die from cancer.)

C.S. Lewis once questioned Scripture commands to glorify God.  “We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness,” he wrote (p. 167).  But eventually Lewis realized we find our peace and joy when we glorify God, because it is “fitting . . . to praise him” (Psalm 33:1).  For then we are giving God what is appropriate and fulfilling our reason for being.


What is the glory of God? Keller defines it:  the glory of God is “the combined magnitude of all God’s attributes and qualities put together”—that is, “his infinite beyondness” (p. 168).

It’s also “his supreme importance.”  Kabad, the Hebrew word for “glory”, means “weight.”  God is “weighty.”  God matters.  Nothing should matter more to us than him.

God’s glory is also his “absolute beauty and splendor.”  The New Testament Greek word for glory, doxa, means “praise and wonder; luminosity, brilliance, or beauty” (p. 169).  We don’t glorify God by obeying him because we have to, but because we’re attracted to him and have learned to delight in him.


How, then, can we glorify God in suffering?

By trusting in his wisdom, even when we don’t understand.

How prone we are to see God as the One who follows our plans, who supports us, who acts as we want him to!  That God is our creation, an idol, a graven image.  But God as he is, as the God we can’t understand, we’re aghast when asked to trust him.

But that’s how in suffering we glorify him–“by simply treating him as the infinite, sovereign, all-wise, and yet incarnate and suffering God that he is” (Keller, p. 174).


When others know we are Christians, our patient endurance of suffering can reveal to them God’s power.  Christian writers after the first century like Ambrose, Cyprian, Ignatius and Polycarp repeatedly said, “Christians died so well, leaving onlookers wondering where they got their power” (p. 176).  Paul wrote from imprisonment, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (Philippians 1:12,13).

October 2006.  A gunman takes hostages in a one-room school in a Lancaster, Pennsylvania Amish community.  He shoots ten aged seven through thirteen.  Five die. Then he kills himself.  The Amish supports his parents, his young widow and three children.  They attend the killers’ funeral.

Their testimony was so powerful many muted it. A made-for-TV movie had the mother of one murdered child doubt God, explode in anger at him and almost lose her faith.  The Amish, to a person, denied that anyone had their faith shaken or refused to forgive.

Years later, a group of sociologists published a book and concluded, “forgiveness is a form of self-renunciation—it means giving up your right to pay back . . . this is directly opposed to how Americans are taught to live.”  And, “Most of us have been formed by a culture that nourishes revenge and mocks grace” (p. 177).  That’s why our peace and love in suffering so powerfully bear witness of Jesus who renounced himself and died for us.


Joni Earekson Tada has been paralyzed from the neck down since her teenage years, the result of a diving accident.  Through books and speaking engagements, Joni has been able to use her condition as a platform to glorify God.

But Joni wondered about Denise, who she came to know from a hospital stay.  Denise was seventeen years old when she was stricken with multiple sclerosis.  Eight long years later, she died.  But few people knew about her.  To Joni, Denise’s suffering seemed for nothing.

Then she read Luke15:10 about the angels rejoicing over one repentant sinner.  And Ephesians 3:10 about angels seeing what happens in the church.  And she knew:  “Someone was watching [Denise] in that lonely hospital room—a great many someones” (p. 179).


“Suffering glorifes God to the universe and eventually even achieves glory for us” (Keller, p. 180).

And we must remember that “Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you:  . . .being cast away from God.  He took that so that now all suffering that comes into your life will only make you great” (Keller, p. 180,181).

Why, then,suffering?  For God’s glory and our ultimate good.


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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (7)

“The other side of the sovereignty of God is the suffering of God  . . . the main reason that Christians insist God can be trusted in the midst of suffering is that . . . God himself has firsthand experience of suffering.”

With this astonishing proclamation, Timothy Keller begins Chapter Seven of Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. 

Astonishing. First, because the sovereign God can suffer. Second, because he chose to suffer for us.   Sadly, we’ve become so familiar with the suffering God that we’re barely moved.

Already in Genesis 6:5,6, God is shown to suffer.  “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of man had become . . . The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”  Can we imagine God grieved and in pain?   Here’s more . . .


The Gospels depict Jesus suffering life’s ordinary pains.  These climax beyond comprehension at the cross.  His suffering echoes in his poignant cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Scottish preach Robert Murray M’Cheyne commented . . .

He was without any comforts of God—no feeling that God loved him—no feeling that God pitied him—no feeling that God supported him.  God was his sun before—now that sun became all darkness . . . He was without God—he was as if he had no God.  All that God had been to him before was taken from him now . . . . He had the feeling of the condemned . . . Ah!  This is the hell that Christ suffered.  The ocean of Christ’s sufferings is unfathomable (p. 150,151).

And M’Cheyne writes, the answer to Jesus’ question is:  “For us.”


Keller insists we must hold both truths as complementary—God suffers and remains sovereign.  This is what makes his suffering so astonishing:  he suffers voluntarily, motivated by love.

Peter Berger, Austrian-American sociologist says . . .

If God is no exception—if even he has suffered—then we cannot say he doesn’t understand, or that his sovereignty over suffering is being exercised in a cruel and unfeeling way, or that he is a cold king who lets things happen without caring about what we’re going through (p. 153).

For that reason, we can be assured that our suffering always has purpose.  As a child who trusts his parent without understanding the reason for her actions, so we can trust God.  He earned our trust at the cross.


The difficult-to-interpret Book of Revelation speaks clearly about suffering and evil.  “ . . . the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Revelation 6:9) cry out for justice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth . . . “ (Revelation 6:10)?

Keller observes that by judgment we can punish evil, but not undo it.  Yet, as Revelation envisions great judgments, it moves beyond toward the renewal of all things—renewal that springs from the worst evil could do against God at the cross.  Yet God used that evil to bring about the greatest good.  Divine irony!

Theologian Henri Blocher writes: “God entraps the deceiver in his own wiles.  Evil, like a judoist {tries to] take advantage of the power of the good, which it perverts; the Lord, like a supreme champion, replies by using the very grip of the opponent” (p. 157).

True, Christianity doesn’t offer a full explanation for every instance of suffering.  But it does give a final answer to it!  Dostoevsky, the Russian author and philosopher, wrote . . .

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened (p. 158).

And John, the Spirit-inspired writer of Revelation wrote . . .

Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
(Revelation 7:16,17)

It seems to me quite disastrous that the idea should have got about that Christianity is an other-worldly, unreal, idealistic kind of religion that suggests that if we are good we shall be happy . . . On the contrary, it is fiercely and even harshly realistic, insisting that . . . there are certain eternal achievements that make even happiness look like trash (Dorothy Sayers, English author).

This is what the suffering God has achieved.

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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (6)

In Chapter 6, Timothy Keller takes what he’s written so far and begins to lay out what the Bible teaches about pain and suffering.

I’m broadly summarizing this book because, after reading it, I learn better by writing a general summary.  I hope it benefits you too.  You may even want to consider buying it.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by [Keller, Timothy]


Suffering exists as God’s judgment against Adam and Eve’s sin.  As a result, Genesis 3 describes a world of “spiritual alienation, inner psychological pain, social and interpersonal conflict and cruelty, natural disasters, disease and death” (p. 131).

But God’s judgment has purpose . . .

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us . . . For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God (Romans 8:18,20,21).

Suffering, therefore, is a form of justice.  Once suffering climaxes in final judgment creation will be glorious.


Individual suffering may not be the result of individual sin.  Nor are evil and suffering distributed fairly.  So much so that Ecclesiastes’ author writes . . .

I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead, who had already died,
are happier than the living, who are still alive.
But better than both is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun (4:1-3).

Job is the classic example of the “blameless” man who suffered.  Nevertheless, though humans often can’t see it, the universe has moral order, as the climax of the Book of Job reveals.


When Jesus approached Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:38), he was “deeply moved” (NIV) or was “groaning in himself” (NKJ).  Both translations are too weak Keller claims, suggesting the Greek means “to bellow with anger” (p. 137).  Calvin explains, “It is death that is the object of his wrath . . . What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation.   Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe” (p. 137).

Even though God has decreed suffering as the consequence of sin, he hates it.


Suffering and pain are not distributed proportionately; often the innocent suffer more than the wicked.  Thus we are correct to cry out in distress and unfairness.  Yet we must remember, because of sin against our Creator, suffering generally is just.  Forget that and  we fall into self-pity and turn against God.


“The Bible teaches that God is in complete 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 result of those actions . . . To put if most 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” (p. 140).

“In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will . .  . “ (Ephesians 1:11).

 Therefore, suffering isn’t an interruption to God’s plan, but part of it.


“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).  Keller explains, “God plans our plans.”  We make our plans, but they ultimately fit into God’s.

So Joseph explains to his evil-acting brothers, “You intended me harm, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Jesus was crucified “according to the definite plan of God” (Acts 2:23), yet men put him to death and were guilty of lawlessness.

This is more than a ”theological” doctrine to be believed.  It provides us with deep assurance, even in desperate times.  The psalmist expressed it like this . . .

“I will cry out to God Most High, to God who performs all things for me” (Psalm 57:2, NKJ).

 And Paul affirms it this way in “well-worn” Romans 8:28 . . .

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).

Keller concludes, “At the most practical level, we have the crucial assurance that even wickedness and tragedy, which we know was not part of God’s original design, is nonetheless being woven into a wise plan” (p. 144).

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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (5)

“I don’t want to believe in a God who would let this happen!”  That’s the visceral argument against God.

In Chapter 5, Keller discusses “three powerful themes of Christian teaching” that can comfort us in those deep inward feelings when we’re suffering.

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First, the doctrines of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3.

God’s creation was “very good.”  But then our first parents mistrusted and disobeyed the Creator and alienated all humanity from him.    When Adam and Eve turned from God everything stopped working as it should.  God’s judgment against sin fell.  But a world of suffering and evil isn’t what God originally intended.  Death is not just a normal part of life. Keller writes, “ . . . the good pattern of the life God created here is not completely eradicated, but it now falls far short of its original intent” (p. 114).

Second, the doctrines of the final judgment and world renewal.

Many people claim they can’t believe in a God of judgment.  But, if there is no judgment, what about all the injustice that’s been committed and inadequately punished, if at all?  Without Judgment Day we have no hope of justice or we must take revenge.

Judgment Day is coming.  But what lies beyond especially consoles sufferers.  Peter van Inwagen (Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and Research Professor of Philosophy at Duke) writes . . .

At some point for all eternity, there will be no more unmerited suffering:  this present darkness, “the age of evil,” will eventually be remembered as a brief flicker at the beginning of human history.  Every evil done by the wicked to the innocent will have been avenged, and every tear will have been wiped away (p. 117).

And Keller comments, “We not only get the bodies and lives we had but the bodies and lives we wished for but had never before received.  We get a glorious, perfect unimaginably rich life in a new material world” (p. 117).

C.S. Lewis wrote of suffering people who say “no future bliss” can make up for my suffering, “not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory” (p. 118).

And J. R. R. Tolkien envisioned a time when “everything sad is going to come untrue” (p. 118).

Third, the doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement.

In the book of Job, Keller writes, “we have the most difficult and severe truth about suffering—namely, that in the end we cannot question God . . . God confronts Job with his own finitude, his inability to understand God’s counsels and purposes even if they were revealed, and his status as a sinner [leaves] him in no position to demand a comfortable life” (p. 119).

But the incarnation and atonement solve the severity of God’s answer to Job.  Sociologist Peter Berger writes . . .

Through Christ the terrible otherness of the Yahweh of the thunderstorms [in Job] is mellowed.  At the same time, because the contemplation of Christ’s suffering deepens the conviction of man’s unworthiness . . . Christ’s suffering does not justify God, but man (p. 119).

God himself came down into this dark world and bore the suffering and death for sin we earned.  “He [took] the punishment upon himself so that someday he can return and end all evil without having to condemn and punish us . . . What the Muslim denounces as blasphemy the Christian holds precious:  God has wounds” (Keller, p. 120,121).

True, we don’t know why God allows suffering and evil to continue, or why it’s so random.  But we do know it’s not because God doesn’t love or care about us.

Even if God explained why he allows certain things to happen, our finite minds couldn’t comprehend.  Keller illustrates with a three-year-old child who can’t understand the reasons her parents require certain conduct.  But she can know her parents’ love and trust them.  So we can know our Father’s love and trust him.

But when Jesus came, why didn’t he just destroy suffering and evil?  Martin Luther’s teaching explains.  He said that human nature is “curved in” on itself.  “We are so instinctively and profoundly self-centered that we don’t believe we are” (Keller, p. 123).

Therefore, if Jesus came and destroyed all evil, no humans would have been left.  “Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment our sins deserved, so that someday he can return to earth to end evil without destroying us all” (Keller, p. 124).

These doctrines don’t eradicate suffering.  But knowing a suffering world wasn’t God’s original design, knowing that judgment and a renewed world are coming, and knowing Jesus died to fit us for that world offers us comfort when we hurt . . .

. . .until the day when we won’t, anymore.


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