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Discovering God in the Midst of Pain and Suffering (Part 1)

Air Date 09/11/2014

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Pastor Timothy Keller offers some perspective and hope for those times in life when trouble and hardship cause us to question our faith in God. (Part 1 of 2)

Episode Transcript

Opening:

John: Welcome to "Focus on the Family," with Focus president, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and recently Jim and I had the opportunity to be in New York City and to record a conversation with Pastor Tim Keller. He's written a number of books, one about walking with God through pain and suffering. It's a very compelling book. And Jim's son, Troy, who was I think 11 at the time was along for the trip. And here's how we began the discussion, with Troy asking Dr. Keller an age-old question.

Clip:

Troy Daly: Why does God allow pain happen to good people?

Tim Keller: Um … I don't know.

End of Clip

John: Now that was a rather awkward moment, because this man has contemplated and written about the problem of pain in our world, a stark admission from him. Now he's going to explore that subject beyond the "I don't know" on today's program.

Jim: Boy and you know, pain and suffering, John, are probably the two biggest questions we Christians ask the Lord, because it's hard to contemplate a good God and then see all the pain and suffering that occurs in this world. I know many people stumble becoming Christians because of this issue.

John: Yeah.

Jim: And today we want to be mindful that it's the 13th anniversary of 9/11, a day which we saw so much suffering and loss here in America. And our guest, Tim Keller, who resides in New York City, knows all about that day and that pain and suffering that we experienced. Uh ... his congregation is right there in Manhattan. He was directly impacted on 9/11. It was their city that was attacked and people are still hurting today because of it. Our hearts and prayers continue to go out for those families who lost loved ones during that terrible attack.

John: Uh-hm and today Tim is going to help us deal with the kinds of difficult questions. Why me? Why God? Why? And we'll hear this conversation as recorded at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where Dr. Keller has pastored for, I think about 25 years. Here now is Jim Daly's first question to Tim Keller on today's "Focus on the Family."

Body:

Jim: Tim, that is really the crux of the Christian life isn't it, is how do we define and discern what suffering does in our lives? Why do you think God allows us to suffer?

Tim: Well, now if you pose the question like that, you know, what does God do with suffering in our lives, there's lots of good answers to that, lots of good answers. The Bible's filled with them. It teaches us patience, teaches us humility. Generally suffering means something that's valuable to us, is threatened or taken away from us.

And Saint Augustine said that our biggest problem is what he would call "disordered loves." We love things too much. Like for example, we may love our comfort. We might love money. We may love even our family--I'm saying this to Focus on the Family (Laughter)--if we love our family more than God, so, that's a disordered love.

So, if you love God fourth and your family third and your job and money second, you know and your maybe self-esteem and reputation first, that's a disordered heart. And it creates all kinds of problems, of course.

I mean, obviously, if you're putting money over your family,. That's gonna create problems. If you how your family's doing over what God thinks about you, it creates all sorts of problems. Suffering comes along, usually goes after one of those things that is too important to you--

Jim: Hm.

Tim: --and forces you to turn to God in a way you weren't before or walk away. I mean, you could just say, okay, God's letting this happen. I'm angry and I'm out. But what happens is, if you turn to God and say, I need to rely more on Him than on my wealth, which I'm losing or I need to rely more on Him than my health, which I'm losing or my wisdom, which isn't working, it reorders your heart's loves and makes you a stronger person and it makes you a humbler person, makes a more patient person.

The Bible's constantly talking about how suffering is a refining fire and we're like the metal ore that goes through and we come out the other side more pure. So, if you asked that question that way, why does God let suffering … how does God use suffering in our lives, there's lots of great answers to that.

Jim: Hm. Is it reasonable to believe that well, God has a purpose in it?

Tim: A purpose that's over and beyond just making us better people.

Jim: Correct.

Tim: Yes, but that's what we don't know. We do not know what that would be, because what that means is, and this is where the question, I think … put it like this. We know that if God is good, He doesn't enjoy our suffering. If He's powerful, He could stop the suffering, but He doesn't. So, if we know … if He said He doesn't enjoy suffering and we know He could stop it, but He doesn't, then the question is, He must have some purpose for us to be going through the suffering, that has to be good, but we have no idea what that could possibly be.

And that's the reason why, if somebody actually says, why does God allow evil and suffering in the sense of, what purpose does He have for allowing evil and suffering to continue, there the answer's gotta be, "I do not know. I have no idea."

Jim: There's a Scripture that caught my attention in prepping for our discussion today. It's in 2 Corinthians 4:17, where Paul writes, "Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." Does that play into this discussion? What--

Tim: Yes--

Jim: --what is Paul describing for us there?"

Tim: --but see now that goes back again to the fact that suffering does great things in us. And that's gotta be part of the answer--

Jim: Hm.

Tim: --for why suffering and evil happens. In fact, somebody once pointed out that if there was no evil and suffering, there would never have been such a thing as courage--

Jim: That's true.

Tim: --or sacri …--

Jim: You wouldn't need.

Tim: --or sacrifice.

Jim: Right.

Tim: See, you would never have to sacrifice. You wouldn't have to give your life for someone else. Are we really thinking that sacrifice and courage are, you know, not important things? They're good things. That certainly doesn't feel to me, like enough of a reason for God to allow so much of the stuff that's happening in the world. But you can begin to get a sense of …ok, so because of evil and trouble, there's such a thing as sacrifice, such a thing as courage. Very often people find God because of suffering. People grow into Christlikeness through suffering. You can start to see some reasons. They're not sufficient. But in the end, every time I try to make a long enough list of things I see God doing through suffering, does this justify Him allowing the horrendous pain that we see. No. There's gotta be more reasons that we just don't know about.

Jim: Yeah.

Tim: And that's the reason why we have to in the end say, "I don't know."

Jim: Does that also tie into to where Paul wrote in terms of suffering leads to perseverance--

Tim: Uh-hm.

Jim: --perseverance, character and character, hope? I think I get the first three of those. I'm tryin' to better understand how those three parlay into hope.

Tim: Oh.

Jim: Why do those three things give us hope?

Tim: Well, see, when you go back to Saint Augustine, which I was talking about before, when Augustine talks about … he thinks the core of who we are is what we love. The difference from the city of God and the city of man is, the city of God is the community of people who say, "God is my highest love. God is what I love." The city of man is power, self. That's what I love. I love power for myself, wealth for myself, prosperity for myself, not God."

But see, when he's talkin' about love, he doesn't just mean what we think, which is sort of emotional affection. He's also talking about, what do you hope in?

Jim: Hm.

Tim: What do you rest in? What do you depend on? What do you look to for your significance and security? And so, it's not that hard for me to see that if I love, for example, my job and I put too much hope in my talent, my smarts, my ability to figure things out, because I got into the right grad school and I got this great job and now I'm making a lot of money and I could buy two homes and I've put all my hope in my own wisdom and my discipline and my talent. And I'm also putting hope in prosperity and the material things, and along something comes and my career is ruined. Somebody betrays me. I have an injury and I can't do something, suffering. I'm gonna have to put my hope in God in a way I was putting hope in myself, or having to love God more than I love my own wisdom. And so, hope and love, I think in the Augustinian sense are similar. It's your heart rests in.

Jim: It's where you find peace.

Tim: Yeah, yeah, so I've no problem with seeing how suffering leads to hope—hope in God.

Jim: Is it fair to say that everybody and you've been a pastor for many decades, you've seen many suffering people, in this life, is it inevitable? Is everyone gonna hit a point where they'll go through suffering?

Tim: Yeah. No matter how hard you try, you can't stop betrayals. You can't stop catastrophic illnesses. You can't stop bereavement. I always thought if you die young, that's tragic. On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to live a long time, you're gonna see virtually everybody else that you love die.

Jim: Hm.

Tim: So, either way, you're gonna be knee deep in death, either your own or everybody else's. And so, I don't know how in the world you could possibly say we could possibly escape suffering.

Jim: In that context, too, in the Western culture particularly, as we're talking about what we yearn for as human beings, which is usually comfort and ease--

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: --how does that play into even our Christian understanding as a Western Christian? We tend to not want to suffer. We don't think that's good. In fact, we'll build theologies--

Tim: Right.

Jim: --around not suffering.

Tim: Right. Well, in the book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, there's a--his name is escaping me—a doctor who spent about half of his career in India. He was a British doctor, about half his career in India treating many, many poor people and then about half his career in America. And he says, Western people just cannot handle suffering in a way that non-Western people are far better at taking it, far better. They expect it. They're way better at taking it. Western people melt down. They feel like it's not right. It's not fair. They really can't handle it.

And see, that's why I think it's fair to say that up until about 500 years ago, most people in the West didn't know why God allowed evil and suffering, but they didn't expect that they should know. They figured, of course it would be a mystery. Of course, God is bigger than me.

Of course, life is, you know, swift and brutish, and then you die and you go to heaven. And of course, there's gonna be suffering here and we don't understand why, but that's all right. I mean, it doesn't mean there's no God.

Today people feel like God owes me an explanation and if I'm living a pretty good life, God owes me a good life. Christian Smith calls that "moralistic therapeutic deism"--

Jim: Hm.

Tim: -- that if our assumptions are that if there is a God, it's His job to give me a good life as long as I live according to my standards.

Jim: How …

Tim: And so, that's why--

Jim: Yeah.

Tim: --the problem of pain is a bigger deal to us now and a bigger deal in the West than it has been other places in the world or in the past.

Jim: And you talk about that transformation of that thought. Explain why. Why did we used to understand it--

Tim: Oh.

Jim: --and today we don't? Is it the power of media? Is it what we--

Tim: No.

Jim: --learned to expect and--

Tim: It's a deep --

Jim: --embrace?

Tim: --than this.

Jim: What is it?

Tim: Well, it's deeper than that. It's our idea that in my book on Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, I look at Charles Taylor, who wrote a book called A Secular Age; he's a Canadian philosopher, and he tries to explain this shift.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Tim: Part of the shift is a different understanding of the self, that we have today the idea that the self has to be able to determine right and wrong. We don't align with meaning out there. We create our own meaning.

The self, also because of our reason, we can figure things out. In the past, there was much more of a sense that the world is filled with mystery and our reason can only go so far. There was humility before the universe.

Modern times, we actually believe that the world is an imminent order of natural causes, that everything's got a natural explanation. Everything's got a scientific explanation. If we figure this out, we can pretty much make the world the way it oughta be.

And we don't have that humility before the mystery anymore. So, that's a major shift. It's so deep that people don't even see it. It's like--

Jim: Hm.

Tim: --invisible to the members of the culture, you know. And this inflated view of the self and its ability to figure things out, is something that everybody takes for granted now. But that's the reason why up until the Lisbon earthquake like in the 1700's and then a lot of the philosophers started to say, well, how can we believe in a God who lets this happen? There have been earthquakes for centuries--

Jim: Sure.

Tim: --before that and people believed in God and they said, "Wow, this is awful," and Job, you know, was mad, but he didn't say, "You can't exist." And today unless God answers to us and give a good reason for pain and suffering and we don't have one, a lot of people say, that gives me a warrant for walking away from Him.

Jim: I mean, that's a profound statement and I think an accurate one, that people use that now as an excuse--

Tim: Uh-hm.

Jim: --to not engage God because He didn't treat me right.

Tim: Right. One of the things that I love about Job and I learned this many years ago when I was at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and I had a professor of Old Testament explain that for many years he read the book of Job and during the book you see Job, because he's suffering, he's crying out. He's cursing the day he was born. He's actually saying to God, "If You would appear to me, I have a bunch of questions for You. And I don't know, you know, how You'd answer them." And you know, he talks what we would consider pretty disrespectfully at some points to God.

At the end of the book, God shows up and essentially says, "Job, you have handled things rightly." And he's mad at his friends and say, "If Job prays for you, maybe I won't punish you." So, at the end of the book, He shows up and basically vindicates Job. And yet, if you go back through the book, it looks like he blew it to me.

Jim: Hm.

Tim: And then here's what the Old Testament professor said. "He never stopped praying." He was complaining and he was yelling and he was screaming and he was biting the rug, but he always did it in God's presence. He never walked away.

Jim: Hm.

Tim: He was processing it through prayer. He never ever even hinted that God didn't exist or that there was any possibility of him living without God.

Jim: And that's a good thing to remember when we are struggling through something. God doesn't mind you being honest with Him. In fact, He wants you to be.

Tim: That's exactly the right balance you get from the book of Job. You can be far more honest than we usually are. And read Job.

Jim: Yeah.

Tim: I love the place (Chuckling) early in the book it says, Job shaved his head, tore his clothes, shrieked, fell to the ground. And it says, "In all these things, Job sinned not." And I think in the average Evangelical church we would say, "Oh, that poor guy, he lost the victory."

Jim: Right.

Tim: You know, if he was real, he'd [be] praisin' the Lord and just trustin' the Lord. He wouldn't be doing all that."

Jim: Well, and it shows God loves an honest heart most of all.

Tim: Exactly, in fact, the Psalms are filled with complaining (Laughter), complaint prayers.

Jim: Let me ask you, when you look at the totality of Scripture, and for those that have read the Bible all the way through, a great deal of it does point toward pain and suffering, doesn't it?

Tim: Oh, my word, you could actually say the whole Book's about it, because it climaxes, you know, in the suffering of Jesus--

Jim: Right.

Tim: --Who comes not in strength, but in weakness, Who's rejected. So, you really could say practically, the entire Book's about pain and suffering.

Jim: Your suffering came in a physical way from what I understand. How did suffering show up in your life?

Tim: Look, my wife and I believe that we have had garden-variety normal suffering so far. We're in our early 60's. My wife's had Crohn's disease and she lost most of her colon with all the inconvenience and difficulties that go with that.

I had thyroid cancer. We worried about that. Looks like it's cured. But honestly, you know, compared to a lot of … I've had other people walk up to me and say, "I'm a cancer survivor, too." And they've lost, you know, big parts of their body and they have five years to live maybe. And I don't feel like it's fair for them to say we're like, each other. I mean--

Jim: Hm.

Tim: --in other words, my suffering is normal.

Jim: Right.

Tim: And I'm sure there'll be more. I mean, it has to be more. I'm probably not gonna be, you know … I may outlive part of my immediate family, you know. It's very, very likely. So, I think the kind of suffering I will experience, it's in the middle. I have not had a charmed life. On the other hand, I try to be careful in the book not to tell people, "I know just how you're feeling," because if you had a child die in a car accident--

Jim: Hm.

Tim: --or there's all sorts of far worse things than I went through. But that's my mild experience of suffering.

Jim: But the point of it, you still have gone through things.

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: And that's important to note.

Tim: Yeah, I don't know many people at my age that haven't already--

Jim: (Laughing)

Tim: --and eventually, it gets worse. It just keeps getting worse.

Jim: You write about--

Tim: What a nice radio show.

Jim: Yeah (Laughing)

Tim: Make everybody feel good.

Jim: Keeps getting worse.

John: Good encouragement for us.

Tim: Everybody feel good.

Jim: The Christian path. (Laughing)

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: But there's glory beyond this; that's what matters.

Tim: Oh, yes, infinite.

Jim: You write about the fiery furnace in life. What do you mean by it? I was thinking of that riding over here. I'm thinking, "the fiery furnace." To a point when you leave something in a furnace too long, it gets totally burned up.

Tim: Uh-hm.

Jim: I think my boys would attest to the fact that if we cook pizza too long in the microwave, it's gone.

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: What's the difference? What's "fiery furnace" in terms of our human experience, our human suffering? Does God put us in there just enough to kiln us in a way that we're better?

Tim: Sure.

Jim: Or if we're in there too long, do we die from it?

Tim: Well …

Jim: Can you die from pain and suffering?

Tim: Well, let's see, I don't want to start mixing a metaphor, but 1 Peter does talk pretty clearly about troubles and trials are a fire that we're plunged into and our faith redounds with greater purity. So, it must be that God is the refiner and the fire is … the suffering that's part of His plan for us. And therefore, 1 Corinthians 10:13 actually says, "There's no temptation that comes that is more than you can bear." So, that probably must mean that the fire isn't so hot that it will fry you.

Jim: Right.

Tim: He knows what you can take. So, it's gotta mean that. But if you want to mix the metaphors, you know, I've been in the dentist chair or in the doctor's chair where he says now, "I'm gonna snip this off, but be very still." And I mean, if I would suddenly start--

Jim: Yeah.

Tim: --jerking around in fear, he would wound me. So, there may be a sense in which when suffering comes, I have to say as a pastor, God knows what you can take, but honestly, I do think you've got some responsibility here. This could make you worse as a person or it could make you better. And you need to be patient with it and you need to be following God in this and not trying to get into behavior that medicates. You know, I mean, people, one, they go through suffering, very often will get into drink or drugs or get into pornography, anything to kinda just make themselves feel better.

Jim: Let me ask you that. Let's go a little deeper. What does that mean to use those things to medicate? What is the human being that's caught in those vices, what are they really doing? What does it mean to medicate with those things?

Tim: Well, in that case, it's a real obvious God substitute. I'm gonna turn to this, rather than false intimacy, which is one of the ways people talk about pornography, as opposed to real intimacy with God, in order to comfort myself.

Jim: What do you think ultimately drives a person there?

Tim: I may be wrong on this, 'cause I'm not a trained counselor, though after 40 years in the ministry, (Chuckling) I've done a lot of counseling.

Jim: You probably have more training--

Tim: But I--

Jim: --than most.

Tim: --I mean, generally it usually means going back to some habit they had before.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Tim: I guess that's not totally true. I guess I have known some people whose suffering drove them into something they've never done before. But by and large, it's a little bit like, an illustration I got years ago is here's a bridge. And there may be stress fractures in the bridge itself. In other words, it's already weak.

A truck comes over that's too heavy and it collapses, not because the truck actually created all those flaws, but the flaws were already there and the truck kind of aggravated them.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Tim: So, generally speaking, I think places where we have self-pity, places where suffering can bring out the worst in you, what it can do is, it can actually take small flaws of character that have not been out of control and make them a lot worse, including the self-pity, including the desire to escape instead of--

Jim: Right.

Tim: --face things. So, generally speaking, I think it takes things we already had wrong with us and brings them out, which gives you another opportunity to grow—

Jim: Hm.

Tim: --'cause it brings out the very worst in you and you can see a lot of your flaws that you were in denial about.

Closing:

John: We spoke with Dr. Tim Keller at his offices there at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City about pain and suffering and what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly and Jim, it's such an honor to talk with that man. He has such honesty and is so thought provoking on so much, especially this difficult subject.

Jim: He is, John. I think he's one of the foremost theologians and thinkers of our time. He has written some fabulous books that make you go deeper and really consider what the Lord is walking you through. And like you said, it's an honor to speak to Dr. Tim Keller every time we have done so.

Tim has done a great job of helping us work through the issue of suffering in this discussion, even though he admitted at the start of the program that there is so much we don't fully understand and won't until we see the Lord. And perhaps at that point, it will fall away, because it won't be important any longer.

What I like about Tim, he usually comes to the question from an entirely different perspective. He's the kinda guy when you talk about suffering, he says, "Well, perhaps God has set it up that way so that we learn more of His character in it." It makes you slow down and think about why would God allow these things. And for the sincere Christian there's a lot of meat, not milk in what he has to say.

John, we have people listening today I'm quite sure and I think, hopefully, almost every day who are hurting. They're looking for encouragement. If you're in that spot, and you've heard Tim today, contact us. Call us if you need us, because we're here for you.

Let me give you one story of a listener who did just that. Liz called us after hearing one of our broadcasts on child sexual abuse. She had been hiding the shame that she had felt for a very long time after being abused. And Focus was there for her in very tangible ways to bring healing through the Lord for her.

Men and women call us telling us about their marriage and the difficulties that they're experiencing. They're afraid. They don't know who to talk to. But they conjure up the courage and they call or they write us and I am so blessed by that.

I hope if again, you're in that spot, don't delay allowing the Lord to begin healing your heart today. Get ahold of us. Let us be a part of that solution. It would be a privilege to serve you in that way.

John: Uh-hm, yes and we hear from moms and dads who are struggling with very difficult parenting circumstances, folks who are going through end-of-life decisions and they just don't have a place to turn. And our listeners are part of that work that God does through Focus on the Family, to meet those folks who are hurting, who have a point of need. You do that when you pray for us and you do that when you contribute financially to the work here.

Jim: Oh, that's so true John. And you know, sometimes we get discouraged thinking a gift of 20 or 30 or $50, it won't go far in a big budget like Focus's. It does, because we need literally tens of thousands of friends to provide those small gifts to make it all go here. You're really the oil that greases the engine of Focus.

So, let me encourage you to make a donation today. I think when the Lord views this, John, it's a tapestry. And you look at the one side of the tapestry and there's strings goin' everywhere. And that's kind of the chaos of how this all works. But then you turn it around and you see a beautiful picture, a depiction of something. And I think the Lord works that way with us in this context.

When you support and pray for Focus, you're doing ministry through us. You're directly impacting these lives, restoring a marriage, restoring a family. I hope you see it that way. I know the Lord does and really without you we wouldn't be here. And we need to hear from you now. In fact, when you support the work of Focus on the Family with a monthly gift of any amount, we'd like to send you a copy of Tim Keller's book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, really as our way of saying thank you for helping us help others. So, if you can, do it today.

John: And as you've heard from Tim today, there's a lot of depth and wisdom that he offers on this topic. It's not a formula. There aren't any pat answers. His book is an excellent resource to think through all of this, to have for your own personal study, to help you as you assist others who are going through difficult times or maybe to work through your own pain. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is a thorough exploration of this subject and I'll encourage you to get a copy today.

Become a Friend of the Family today and we'll send you that book. Contact us, donate when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459. Or you can find details at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and made possible by generous listeners like you. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team here, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time for more conversation with Dr. Tim Keller, as we offer trusted insights to help your family thrive.

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Guest

Timothy Keller

View Bio
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he founded in 1989 with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. He is also the chairman of Redeemer City to City, which plants new churches in New York and other cities around the world, and publishes resources for faith in an urban culture. Timothy is a New York Times best-selling author whose books include The Reason for God, The Prodigal God and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God. Learn more about Timothy by visiting his website, www.timothykeller.com.