The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: Suffering (page 2 of 4)

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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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (4)

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus provocatively asked,  “Is [God] willing to prevent evil but not able?  Then he is impotent.  Is he able but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Whence then is evil?” (p. 85).

This is called “the argument against God from evil”.  It was often raised to disprove God’s existence.  Now a weaker claim is made:  “suffering is not proof but evidence that makes the existence of God less probable, although not impossible” (p. 89).  In any case, the problem of evil and suffering in the world drives many to question–and in some cases, outright reject–God’s existence.

Why does God allow evil?  Attempted answers are called “theodicies”.  One theodicy is “soul-making”.  “This view says that the evils of life can be justified if we recognize that the world was primarily created to be a place where people find God and grow spiritually into all they were designed to be” (p. 89).  This “answer” has two weaknesses.  One, many people with “bad souls” get little adversity while many with “good souls” get a lot.  Two, this view doesn’t explain why little children, infants or even animals suffer.

A second attempted answer is “the free will” theodicy.  Keller defines it: “God created us not to be robots or animals of instinct but free rational agents with the ability to choose and therefore to love.  But if God was able to make us choose the good freely, then he had to make us capable of also choosing evil.  So our free will can be abused and that is the reason for evil” (p. 90,91).  This theodicy also has weaknesses.  For one, it may explain evil that people do (moral evil) but doesn’t explain disasters and disease (natural evil).  For another, why couldn’t the all-powerful, sovereign God create humans capable of love but not such horrendous, suffering-causing evil?

Another (among many others) is the “punishment” theodicy.   It holds that because humanity rebelled against God in the beginning, all suffering is punishment for sin.  The randomness of suffering, however, makes this theodicy simplistic.

Theodicies such as these may help, but all fall short of satisfactorily explaining evil.  Keller writes, “It is very hard to insist that any of them show convincingly how God would be fully justified in permitting all the evil we see in the world . . .  Surely one of the messages [of the book of Job] . . .  is that it is both futile and inappropriate to assume that any human mind could comprehend all the reasons God might have for any instance of pain and sorrow, let alone for all evil” (p.95).

Therefore, instead of trying to explain why God allows suffering, Christians  recently have mounted a defense against the idea that the existence of evil doesn’t mean God must not exist.  Keller:  “If God has good reasons for allowing suffering and evil, then there is no contradiction between his existence and that of evil.  So in order for his case not to fail, the skeptic would have to reply that God could not possibly have any such reasons.  But it is very hard to prove that” (p. 97).  And since God is omniscient, why couldn’t he have good reasons to allow even the worst suffering, reasons we can’t think of?

In a world of complex and far-reaching cause-and-effect, human knowledge is too limited to trace out all reasons and causes for suffering.  Keller illustrates with “the butterfly effect”.  Scientists have learned that large systems—like weather—can be influenced by the tiniest changes.  “The classic example is the claim that a butterfly’s fluttering in China would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”

What, Keller wonders, if every event in time had similar ripple effects.  If so, “ . . . . how . . . could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly ‘senseless’ death of a young person and have any idea of what the effects in history will be?” (p. 100,101).  We are simply not positioned to judge whether a particular evil is pointless and unnecessary.

The dynamic of all this intellectual reasoning fades in the face of what Keller calls the “visceral argument from evil.”  “Visceral” refers to deep inward feelings rather than the ideas of the intellect.  In his book, Night, Eli Weisel confesses how the fires of the furnaces in the Nazi death camp destroyed his faith in God.  “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever . . . Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dusts” (p. 102).

Of course, not everyone who endures horrendous evil rejects God.  Keller argues that those who do reject God assume “that God, if he exists, has failed to do the right thing, that he has violated a moral standard”.  But, if God doesn’t exist, from where comes such strong moral feelings?

Some might claim those moral feelings are the genetic product of evolution.  Keller replies, “While that explanation may account for mere feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation.  What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those [behaviors] are right . . . ? (p. 104).

C.S. Lewis wrote, “In a word, unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn [something as evil]” (p. 105),  The moral God is the source of moral feeling and obligation!

In the throes of suffering we might shake our fist at the heavens and deny God’s existence.  But Keller concludes Chapter 4 this way:  “So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all and, as we will see, it removes many resources for facing it” (p. 107).

Each chapter in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (
concludes with an appropriate “Life Story.  This one is “Mary’s.”

Throughout her young adult years, Mary suffered beating, sexual abuse, severe health problems, a schizophrenic child and financial ruin. Her words are an inspiring climax to a chapter about “the argument against God from evil” and offer a wise, humble response to evil . . .

“What I discovered about heartaches and problems, especially the ones that are way beyond what we can handle, is that maybe those are the problems [God] does permit precisely because we cannot handle them or the pain and anxiety they cause.  But He can.  I think He wants us to realize that trusting Him to handle these situations is actually a gift.  His gift of peace to us in the midst of the craziness.  Problems don’t disappear and life continues, but He replaces the sting of those heartaches with hope . . . ” (p. 108,109).

O God, to us who suffer so deeply that we sometimes doubt your existence and for whom the intellectual reasons don’t remove the visceral pain, give Mary’s realization that trusting You to handle the situation is actually Your gift of peace and hope.  We are not intellectual giants, Father.  We’re just Your hurting children who need Your gracious gift.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.




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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (3)

The secular worldview “dominates the elite institutions of Western society, [but] it is largely ignored by actual sufferers.”

Thus Timothy Keller begins Chapter Three of his excellent book ( keywords=walking+with+god+through+pain+and+suffering+by

The December 2012 Newtown school shootings are a sad, but glaring, example of Keller’s point.  Every family who lost a child held a religious service.

Some atheists admit religion provides a needed sense of community in the face of horrific suffering.  But Keller counters, “Community among persons is forged only when there is something more important than one’s own interests to which all share a higher allegiance” (p. 66). Religious faith provides that “higher allegiance.”

“The Great Agnostic, Robert Green Ingersoll, standing at the graveside of a friend’s child, consoled, “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear.  The larger and noble faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest . . . The dead do not suffer” (p. 67).

Keller answers: “It makes little sense to point to a state in which we are stripped of all love and everything that gives meaning in life—and tell people they need not fear it” (p. 67).  So much for Ingersoll’s consolation!

Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Nazi death camps, saw how some of his fellow prisoners were able to endure the horror, while others couldn’t.  Frankl said the difference came down to “meaning.”  Keller comments: “to ‘live for meaning’ means not that you try to get something out of life but that life expects something from us.  In other words, you have meaning only when there is something in life more than your own personal freedom and happiness, something for which you are glad to sacrifice your happiness” (p. 70,71).

The only happiness secularism offers is here and now.  If we can’t find it here, we’ll never have it.

Secularism wasn’t king at America’s start.  We lived for God’s glory. Then, claims Andrew Delbanco in The Real American Dream:  A Meditation on Hope, 19th century Americans substituted the nation for God’s kingdom.  God became more remote and less majestic.  Later in the 20th century, instant gratification became “the hallmark of the good life” (p. 75,76).  Victor Frankl’s observation is profound:  “ . . . people who . . . have nothing to die for . . . therefore have nothing to live for when life takes away their freedom” (p. 77).  When personal happiness is our only meaning, “suffering can lead very quickly to suicide,” warned Frankl (p. 77).

We Christians realize human suffering came because the creatures turned away from the Creator.  So it was through suffering that Jesus Christ came to rescue us for himself.  “And now it is how we suffer,” explains Keller, “that comprises one of the main ways we become great and Christ-like, holy and happy, and a crucial way we show the world the love and glory of our Savior” (p. 77,78).

Of course, we do all we can, like the secularists, to care for sufferers and lessen suffering.  But this line from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien rings clearly true: “Always after a defeat and respite, [evil] takes another shape and grows again” (p. 80).  Suffering in this life will never be eradicated.

Secularism provides no solution.  It has no foundation for its views.  It offers no hope for everything we cherish about life.

Our only real hope lies in the words of the psalmist:  “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

I’ve reached 73 faster than I could ever run.  Wheelchair-bound, I recall being a child, parenting our children, pastoring for four decades, beach-walking with Lois and so much more.  With grateful joy, but also profound sadness, I reminisce.  I’ll never do it again.  Today I suffer the pains of aging and illness.

The secularist says, “Be happy with what you’ve had.  Enjoy the memories.  Soon suffering will end in the ‘perfect rest’ of death.”  But my heart refuses to be satisfied with that.  It cries for something more.  Something grounded, not in a wish or a philosophy, but in this historical, incredible truth:  Christ came and suffered for my sins, so I might be restored to my Creator.  Then, on the third day, he rose bodily from the grave.  The perfect, acceptable sacrifice for my sins and the powerful, life-giving resurrection for my death.  “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).

A hole in ground to “rest”–that’s the best secularism can offer.  The resurrected Christ offers life “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).



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Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (1)

This blog title is also the title of an excellent book by Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in New York City.

(Another pastor blessed with baldness!)

I’ve just finished reading it and want to do a “book report” (interspersed with my devotional commentaries), both to solidify what I’m learning and hopefully help you. Perhaps my writing will make you thirsty to read Keller’s . . .

In Chapter One Keller justifies his book:  “Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity.”  In the Epilogue he does it again:  “If we know the biblical theology of suffering and have our hearts and minds engaged by it, then when grief, pain and loss come, we will not be surprised and can respond in the various ways laid out in Scripture.”

I’d rather stick my head in the sand and presume Jesus gives his people “heaven on earth.”  But that’s only for dumb birds.  Nobody escapes suffering.  ” . . . through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).

I remember hearing a well-known TV evangelist say, “God will keep me healthy; I’m just going to die of old age.”  Not only presumptuous, that statement is foolish.  Old-age body parts wear out, and we suffer.  There’s no escape, unless Jesus returns first.

Nevertheless, our Western culture (sometimes including Christianity) does a poor job explaining suffering and preparing us for it.  Keller quotes Dr. Paul Brand, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon in the treatment of leprosy:  “In the United States . . . I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs.  Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated (elsewhere in the world), but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it” (p.16).

In our secular culture, this world is all there is.  Therefore, suffering has no meaningful place.  It’s an enemy that interrupts our pleasure-seeking. This contrasts with every other culture which views suffering as punishment or test or opportunity.

But our culture says suffering is senseless.  In the view of Richard Dawkins’ (evolutionary biologist), “the reason people struggle so mightily in the face of suffering is because they will not accept it never has any purpose.”  Richard Shweder (cultural anthropologist) writes, “The sufferer is a victim, under attack from natural forces devoid of intentionality.”

Thus, the sufferer is not responsible for how he responds.  Keller writes, “The older view of suffering was that the pain is a symptom of a conflict between a person’s internal and external world.  It meant the sufferer’s behavior and thinking may need to be changed, or some significant circumstance in the environment had to be changed, or both.  The focus was not on the painful and uncomfortable feeling—it was on what the feelings told you about your life, and what should be done about it” (p. 25).

Suffering is sometimes caused by “unjust economic and social conditions, bad public policies, broken family patterns, or simply villainous evil parties” (p. 26).  Our response is anger.  Current events, right?

C.S. Lewis wrote:  “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue . . . For [modernity] the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men, the solution is technique” (p. 26).

Christianity holds a radically different view of suffering, even while other cultures contain half-truths of it.  For example, a fatalistic culture demands stoic endurance;  Christians are encouraged “to express their grief with cries and questions” (p. 28).  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46).

Karma-believers hold that the sufferer is being punished for past wrongs; Christians believe “suffering is often unjust and disproportionate.”  Job is the classic example and Jesus the supreme.

Moralists believe that suffering works off one’s sinful debt; Christians believe our sin-debt has been paid.  “ . . .  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23,24).  Therefore, suffering is not meritorious.

Christianity teaches that suffering has a purpose, “and, if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine” (p. 30).

The key, then, is learning how to face suffering “rightly”.  This Keller (and I) will discuss in coming posts.  For now, let’s conclude Chapter One with these compelling words from Keller . . .

“While other worldviews led us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy” (p. 31).







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