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”.
WHAT ABOUT OUR GLORY?
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.
HOW GOD USES SUFFERING
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.”
PREPARING THE MIND FOR SUFFERING
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.
PREPARING THE HEART FOR SUFFERING
“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).