Pastor Tim Keller: I’m gonna immerse myself in the Psalms, because the Psalms give you every condition, every human condition—betrayal, disappointment, happiness, sadness, anger, every possible human si[tuation].
Mrs. Kathy Keller: Bitterness with God.
Tim: Every human situation is in the Psalms and it shows you how to pray through it, how to get through it, how to process it in prayer. And there’s no other book in the Bible like that. So, if you immerse yourself in it, it becomes second nature.
End of Teaser
John Fuller: Pastor Tim Keller, reflecting on the comfort that you can find in the book of Psalms. And he and his wife, Kathy are our guests today on “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, we’re in New York City today at the home of Tim and Kathy Keller and I am so glad that we could spend some time with them today, talking about an important topic, the Psalms.
John: Yeah, it’s interesting, the perspectives that they have on this book of the Old Testament. And I think there’s gonna be a lot of personal connection that our listeners have with the Kellers and lot of takeaway for all of life.
Jim: Well, and you know, so often when we’re at a point of need in our lives, we turn to the Psalms. And it brings us comfort and that’s an important aspect of the Christian walk.
John: Well, the Kellers have written a new book about this. It’s called The Songs of Jesus and it’s a devotional and Tim is a best-selling author. He’s pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City since 1989. And he’s got his doctorate in ministry. Kathy has a Master’s in theological studies and we talked with them about a marriage book that they co-wrote some time ago.
Jim: Let me just say it, Tim and Kathy, welcome to your own home. (Laughter)
Tim: –thank you for having us in. (Laughter)
Kathy: Thank you.
Jim: It’s very nice to be here in New York City. It’s a great place to visit, but you have to live here. (Laughter)
Kathy: No, actually, it’s a hard place to visit. You don’t know how to do the subway or—
Jim: Yeah, that’s for sure.
Kathy: –the restaurants. And when you live here, it’s much easier.
Tim: We’d say it’s a great place to live and not as easy a place to visit, as well.
Jim: Being a little late getting here from the train station, I can attest to that.
Tim: Yes, we noticed. (Laughter)
Jim: I’ll bet you did. Hey, let’s start right there. You called this book, The Songs of Jesus and a lot of people won’t understand that connection to the Psalms. Why The Songs of Jesus?
Tim: First of all, the Psalms were sung, not just read the way we might do them today. The first century Jews would’ve have sung the Psalms. They would have been Jesus’ hymn book. And He would’ve been raised on it and He would’ve known it every bit as well as you would know your hymn book if you were raised, you know, from the time you were little on the same 150 hymns. So, they were definitely the songs of Jesus in that sense.
Jim: That is really, I’ve not heard that before, but it makes perfect sense that it would’ve been culturally appropriate to be singing to the Lord, in His case—
Kathy: And so many of the—
Jim: –to His Father.
Kathy: –the Psalms are about Jesus. They are really only true in the mouth of Jesus and sometimes you get to Psalms about judgment and you think, gosh, I can’t really pray that. But then you say, well, this was actually today’s Psalm. It was what, Psalm 21? (Laughter) You know, I have to go look. I might be wrong about that, but about the king taking vengeance on his enemies and yet, that would never be something I would feel comfortable praying, but yet, if I know that Jesus is the One Who’s going to make all the accounts balance, then I can let go of my grudges. I can let go of my revenge and I can say, “Jesus will square it all.” And—
Tim: So, and then …
Kathy: –therefore, it’s a Psalm that you can hear in Jesus’ mouth—
Kathy: –if you can’t put it in your own.
Jim: Right, that is good. Hey, you believe that if people just dedicate one year to reading the Psalms, it would, I think, in many ways transform them and help them change perhaps core behaviors. Is that fair?
Tim: Yes, at least—
Kathy: And no.
Tim: –at least go through the Psalms in a year. But when you consider, for example, Jesus is the moment of greatest pain and agony in His life, which is, He’s dying on the cross. And when He cries out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” He’s quoting a Psalm. That’s Psalm 22, verse 1, which shows that Jesus was so immersed and saturated with the Psalms that He actually processed every part of His life, the worst times, disappointments, betrayals.
Kathy: He quoted the Psalms more than any other—
Kathy: –Old Testament book.
Tim: He, yes and so, what you see is, He actually used the Psalms to help Him know how to handle every situation. And therefore, you shouldn’t just go through the Psalms once in a year to do that. You have to be going through them constantly if they’re going to play the same role in your life they played in His.
John: What started that journey, Tim? Why did you start reading the Psalms with such regularity?
Jim: Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?
Tim: Yeah, at a certain point you realize I think as you get older, you really lose your confidence that without God you’re gonna be able to survive. And as time goes on, you say, “Well, how do I get God here? I mean, how do I take hold of God?
And I came to see that Jesus used the Psalms that way and it’s the only part of the Bible that actually gives you inspired examples of prayer. I shouldn’t say that. I mean, obviously, you’ve got prayers everywhere else. Paul gives you prayers. But to have a single book that basically says, this is God’s divinely inspired practical manual on how to pray, that’s what made me turn to it.
John: So, is it desperation because the church was growing at the time and you felt a burden, what exactly was goin’ on?
Tim: Well, all of the above. In other words, it was, you know, Kathy had health challenges. She’s had that. It’s a whole lot of things, I mean, as the years go by.
Kathy: Life makes you desperate. I mean, if you haven’t run into something that forces you to your knees in desperation, you’re very young. (Laughing)
Tim: Yes or you’re leading a charmed life and at some point you will realize that you can’t do it without God. I mean, I think most Christians say that, but they don’t know what to do. I guess, to me, that was a way forward, was to say, I’m gonna immerse myself in the Psalms, because the Psalms give you every condition, every human condition—betrayal, disappointment, happiness, sadness, anger, every possible human si[tuation].
Kathy: Bitterness with God.
Tim: Every human situation is in the Psalms and it shows you how to pray through it, how to get through it, how to process it in prayer. And there’s no other book in the Bible like that. So, if you immerse yourself in it, it becomes second nature.
Jim: Let me ask you, in terms of the origins of the Psalms, about half written by David—
Tim: About half.
Jim: –talk about that human pain. I hear what you’re saying, Kathy, this idea that sometimes we don’t feel we can argue with God, but David I often say—
Jim: –he’s the archetype of humanity. He went through so much, committed the big sins and there he was at high highs and low lows right there in the Psalms.
Tim: Yeah, the Psalms are great at this. Not only do you see the psalmist—David is one of them–but the psalmists are willing to complain. They’re able to complain. So, on the one hand they’re actually more candid I think than our modern piety allows us to be. They’re more willing to say, “I’m mad. This is what I’m suffering.” And I think modern piety says, “Oh, no, you don’t talk to God like that.” So, you either hold it back or actually, you don’t even admit how upset and angry you are, which is very spiritually and psychologically unhealthy.
But on the other hand in the end, they trust, So nobody’s ever in the Psalms saying, “You know, I’m suffering so much, I don’t know if there is a God.”
I mean, so on the one hand, they’re not as skeptical as modern people are and they’re not as pious as modern Christians are. They’re both more realistic about their own suffering and their own confusion, but at the same time, in the end they say, “You are God. Why would I think I know better than you?”
I mean, modern people tend to say, “Well, I can’t think of a good reason why God would let this happen, so there can’t be one.” There’s a hubris there. Ancient people were more likely to say, “Well, if there’s a God, well, how would I know?” So, there’s both a greater candor and greater trust and we need both.
Jim: Huh, we do. We do and especially in our culture today. Talk about the marriage factor. I mean, marriage can hit a spot where it seems dry in all kinds of ways—emotionally, spiritually, physically. But you, I think, indicate in the book that doing the Psalms together really brings you together and it creates more of a spirit of unity. Is that fair?
Kathy: Well, writing the book certainly did. (Laughter)
Jim: Good. (Laughter)
Tim: So, that’s another thing.
Jim: Which part? The argument part or the unity part? (Laughter)
Tim: We really do recommend [that] everyone, every married couple write a book on Psalms. (Laughter)
Jim: It’s kind of like—
Tim: It would really help.
Jim: –renovating your home, right?
Tim: That’s right, it would really help. (Laughter)
Kathy: Working on the Psalms, on the book together was really a very intense experience and it came at a really good time for both of us spiritually, 15 hours a day under a deadline that went past two months ago. We really did spend that time talking to each other about the Psalms and reading them and comparing insights, challenging one another. That’s sort of a more intense experience–
Kathy: –than most people will have.
Tim: Right, right.
Kathy: But if you’re reading a Psalm or a part of a Psalm every day and discussing it with one another, you’ll still get the benefit of saying, “This is a piece of Scripture that I can actually talk about, that I can have an opinion about and I can share it with my spouse. Otherwise, I think what stops a lot of people, I know it stopped us, is you have this grandiose vision of what your spiritual life together as a married couple should be and it’s so vast, you just feel like I can never get started on that. It’s like someone says, “Well, you have to climb Mount Everest.” And you think, oh, my goodness, you know, I can’t even begin to think of all the training and the equipment and everything that I would need to do that.
And somebody says, “No, no, no, you just need to take a walk down the street, holding hands and then come back. And you know, oh, we could do that. We could do that. So, reading a Psalm together, reading through this devotional book together, unfortunately it means, you both have to buy a book (Laughing) unfortunately. It’s not easy to share it when you’re both trying to do your devotions in it. I think it’s something that will get people started on studying Scripture together, if they haven’t done it yet.
John: Well, maybe you can stagger your devotional times, as we do in our home. My wife tends to wake up earlier and she has her time and I really am looking forward to being able to have this book just kinda sitting out there in our sun room, so that we can share it and work through it.
If you’d like to do that, Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller have written this book, The Songs of Jesus and we’ve got that and a CD or download of this conversation and our mobile app, as well, at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. And we’ll be happy to send that book to you when you make a contribution of any amount to Focus on the Family today. It’s our way of saying thank you for joining our support team.
Jim: Tim and Kathy, let me ask you if I may, when you had kids in the home—
Kathy: (Chuckling) We still—
Jim: –this is the honest factor.
Kathy: –have kids in the home. (Laughter)
Jim: You do. You have.
Kathy: We have our adult son and a daughter-in-law and our grandson in the home.
Jim: Which is a blessing, but back then when things were busy, the church was getting off the ground, the kids were here, were you able to commit that time, even though it doesn’t seem like it would take a lot of time, maybe I’m trying to relieve my own guilt here with my (Laughter) boys, but I mean, did you find it more difficult in that environment?
Tim: I’ll grant half of your relief. I actually do talk like this with people all the time. After talking about prayer and devotional life, I always say that when you have little children at home, it is much harder. And you cannot either give up and just say, “Well, you know, five, six years from now, I’ll get back to praying.” You just can’t do that. You can’t give up. You can’t.
Kathy: And I had a sister who said she took maternity leave from God.
Tim: Yeah. (Laughter) You can’t do that. On the other hand, at the same time, I do try to relieve some guilt and say, it’s not gonna be much better later and you can’t beat yourself up. Actually I think sometimes if you feel a little guilty about things, sometimes the guilt keeps you from even getting into it at all. So, I would just say, it’s not gonna be as good as it could be. And it’s not gonna be as good as it will be, but you just can’t give up. Even if it’s sporadic, get something. So, I’m halfway with you on (Laughter) helping you, but not too much.
Jim: It’s sounding a little like losing weight unfortunately, (Laughter) that guilt of don’t eat the donut.
Tim: Yeah, it’s true. Well, actually it’s a lot like that to say, “Well, if I’m not actually eating the way I should eat, then what the heck, just eat this. And that’s not a good idea. The same thing with prayer. Even if you’re not getting to it every day, get to it once a week and that way you’ll survive, I think.
Jim: Do something.
Kathy: But I will say this about having children in the home is, it should be the most motivating factor for prayer of anything that you run into. I mean, people say that sickness or tragedy or something led them to look for God. Well, children are all of that rolled into one. I mean, you should be praying for your children because look at the world and you know, what they are having to face that we never had to face. So, praying for your children is something that you can do even if you can’t think of anything else to pray for.
Tim: One additional thought and that is, when you do feel time starved for yourself, ’cause you’re always with your children, you always do get some time. I mean, you know, they’re in bed, that kind of thing. That’s the place where you can get pretty indulgent. You can say, “Instead of praying or instead of taking some time to read the Scripture and praying, I want my ‘me time.’ I want to surf the Web. I want to do this or that. I want to veg.” But you do need to make sure some of that me time turns into God time and not all me time.
Jim: Let me ask you this when it comes to the Psalms, ’cause I hadn’t thought of this, spending time with your kids reading the Psalms and talking about the. It does talk about a lot of dark human behavior. Would you do that? Or age-appropriately–
Tim: Yeah, I would—
Jim: –engage your kids?
Tim: –I would say I think you’d have to be somewhat selective honestly. But on the other hand, I think there’s plenty of passages in the Psalms, especially if you get ’em into a real easy-to-understand translation. You’d have to get an accessible translation.
Jim: Tim, like weight loss, I mean, we start in January. I go to the gym. Maybe mid-February I’m not going as often. By March, I don’t have any time at all. I’ve just been consumed with all the to-do’s. Having that discipline to read the Word, to pray together, it kinda feels like that, where you start with great intentions and then over a short period of time, it breaks down.
Tim: I don’t have a formula, but I have a story to tell you and the story’s actually in the front.
Kathy: Now I know what it is.
Tim: It’s in the beginning of our book on prayer, the book on prayer, but here’s what it is. Kathy and I were constantly finding that even though I’m a minister, you know, and we’re Christian leaders, we didn’t pray together very often. Every time we said we’re gonna pray at night together, we never would get to it, we got busy; we got tired, you know, that sort of thing.
One day Kathy came up with a, we might call it a sermon illustration. She said, “If your doctor told you, have a situation, a fatal actually condition, but that there’s a drug for it and if you took that drug every night at 11 p.m., you will live a normal lifespan. But if you ever fail to take the pill at 11 p.m., you will be dead by morning.” And she said, “Would you ever not get to it? Would you forget about it? Would you say, ‘Oh, I was too tired last night to get out of bed and go to the medicine ca[binet?’ No, you’d never, ever forget.”
If you know you have to do it, you do it. You don’t say, “Oh, I don’t know why I don’t have it.” You do it. And she said, “Well, we gotta do this. We have to pray together. We’re just not gonna make it.” And the penny dropped for me. It’s exactly what a sermon illustration’s supposed to do, something I knew in my head, had never really penetrated my heart. And I said, “If I really believe there’s a God and if I really believe I’m dependent on God, then I will do it.”
And actually, weirdly enough, we think that, that was back in 2001. We don’t think we’ve missed since then any night, even when I’m somewhere else. You know, you get on the phone. And the fact that we were able to make that kind of sea change in our praying together, made us both actually find that our own individual prayer lives, our excuses started to look stupid. And we actually got, not perfect, but we actually got a lot better at our individual lives. So, it’s kind of a heart resolution that is necessary. There’s no just technique that is gonna somehow get you through it.
Jim: Positive conviction.
Jim: The other aspect of this is the Scripture generally will speak to you differently at a different time and place. At least that’s been my experience.
Kathy: Every time you go—
Jim: I think that’s–
Kathy: –through, you see something different.
Jim: –right, something will grab your attention. From a theological standpoint and specifically with what you’ve learned reading the Psalms over the last 15, 20 years, how does the Lord use that? And what have you seen in your own journaling and pattern there that the Lord illuminates different thing? A lot of non-believers don’t grab this very easily. They don’t understand that it’ll hit you differently, almost each time you read it.
Jim: Yeah. Well, because we think it’s a divinely inspired book, that explains it. In fact, it reminds me of an account I read some years ago of a philosophy professor who became a Christian. He was an atheist for many years. He was French, I think, French-Swiss man.
And he had at one point, decided to, every time he read something, not in the Bible, but in some part of literature that really hit him, really spoke to him, he would write it down. And so, he created himself a, what he would actually, he thought was going to be the book that would understand him. That’s what he called it. It was a book that would really hit me, so anytime I could sit under a tree and open it up and it would just inspire me and convict me.
And he accumulated the stuff over the years, over about a year. One day he sat down to read it, thinking it would really mean as much to him as all the passages meant the first time and he found out he’d changed, but the passages didn’t speak to him the same way. And in fact, they didn’t seem interesting anymore.
And after, not too long after that, he became a Christian and he discovered, unlike any other book, even when you change, the Bible’s always got you in its sights, that there’s no passage that starts getting boring as the years go by. In a sense it’s an arrow and aimed at your heart to really help you, to move you and to convict you. And the bow and arrow moves. If you move over here, the Bible still always has you in its sights.
And he found other books weren’t like that. Other books kind of came and went. Sometimes they helped and sometimes they didn’t. The Psalms, of course, are like that, in that it doesn’t matter how many times you go through them you’ll see things you never saw before, usually because you’re new. You’re different. You’ve never hurt like this or you’ve never had been betrayed like this. You go to the same Psalm and you see a verse that before, you’d seen it before, but it never grabbed you.
Jim: You know, let me ask you about that, because it intrigues me. It’s almost as if the Psalms capture the Achilles Heel of humanity, as we’ve described it—bitterness, anger. And then those good things like joy and happiness are also in there.
Tim: They’re all there.
Jim: But it’s almost like the Lord only gave us a handful of these things and that’s why in our limited humanity, this is what we have to work with and these are the emotions that God has given us and we can go to a document that’s thousands of years old and see ourselves in it.
Kathy: And that’s one of the things that I think is a real, well, we don’t talk about the “proofs of God” anymore, but someone ought to sit down and say, a thinking agnostic or an atheist oughta sit down and say, “You know, when I read the Psalms,” or really when you read something by Augustine or if you read something by the old, old saints, “these people are going through the same things I’m going through.”
Now you try reading medicine from first century or you try reading politics from the first century, it’s like what? I have no clue what any of this is.
Jim: That’s a—
Kathy: It’s a whole different—
Jim: –great analogy.
Kathy: –world. But when you read the Scripture or you read a great saint who has been steeped in the Scripture, you find that they are actually experiencing the same emotions, going through the same experience of God that you are yourself. So, God is immutable. He doesn’t change and He is the same yesterday, for all of the people you’re reading, today for you and He will be the same forever. And I think that is a wonderful proof for the existence of God, that you can read something written thousands of years ago and say, “Yep, that’s exactly me. That’s my situation exactly.”
Jim: Kathy, this became personal for you, because you went through some struggles physically and—
Kathy: Oh, that’s—
Jim: –many, many—
Kathy: –nothing new.
Jim: –people, many people listening are probably in somewhat of a—
Tim: Yeah, they’re right there.
Jim: –similar circumstance. How did the Psalms speak to your heart, maybe in the quiet of the night when you were saying, “Lord, why me?”
Kathy: Oh, absolutely. Tim’s been reading them for many years, as you know and in 2014 I had surgery and almost died and had a very large ‘unhealing’ wound that took a whole year to heal and so, I was bedridden and “house ridden” for a very long time.
And I would, I would wait until the lights were out at night and then I would cry out to God, not loudly so I didn’t wake up Tim (Laughing), but I was reading the Psalms as the only thing that I could actually manage to read. I mean, anything else took too much brain power and I didn’t have the band width. I was just stretched as far as I could just handling what I was trying to deal with.
But with the Psalms, I was able to say, “God, You promised!” I mean, the Psalm tells us to actually hold. God to His promises. You promised. You promised You would give me Your face. That’s all I want. Just look at me. Just give me Your face and tell me that You see what I’m going through and it’s what you want me to go through and I’ll be all right. That was the language that my heart wanted to speak and the Psalms really gave me in a sense, permission to do that.
Jim: Tim, that expression that Kathy has there, is that the essence of faith, when you can trust, when you cry out to God, that God is looking at you? And it is an expression of faith, I think, that you believe He is looking when you’re calling our His name and crying out to Him.
Tim: Yeah, it’s one of most, oh, I don’t know, fundamental, almost childlike and simple expressions of faith. There’s both an expression of weakness and yet, the cry of weakness to Him is essentially an act of faith and trust that You’re hearing me.
John: God does want us to cry out to Him in prayer and that concludes the first portion of our conversation we had with Dr. Tim and Kathy Keller. We recorded that in New York City and we have more with him next time.
Jim: I loved what the Kellers have shared, that God wants an intimate relationship with us and you know what? We can grow in that relationship by reading and praying through the Psalms and that is a good thing to do as often as you can do it. Kathy shared transparently how she struggled through a health crisis and cried out to God. I mean, some of you may be in that very same place, that tough spot in your life or maybe it’s your marriage and it feels like God is far away and you don’t know where to turn. If that’s the case, we want to be here for you. We have caring Christian counselors available on staff to talk with you about this moment of your journey.
John: And they can have an initial consultation with you and then they’ll refer you to someone in your local area for ongoing counseling. And the number to call is 800-A-FAMILY.
Jim: And today’s program highlights one of the core reasons we’re here at Focus on the Family, John and that is to provide you with biblical advice to help strengthen your marriage. In the last 12 months, 790,000 couples credit Focus on the Family with helping them build stronger marriages–790,000 couples! One listener named Leslie recently shared this with us. She says, “I’ve bought, read and loaned countless Focus on the Family resources for over two decades. My husband and I both came from chronic divorce families and we’re passionate about being the couple who changes the tide of our heritage. There’s not enough time and space to express how Focus is my go-to ministry. Thanks for everything you do.”
And that really puts a smile on my face. We love being your go-to ministry and if you believe in what we’re doing here at Focus, would you help us help others? Currently we’re experiencing a bit of a summer shortfall and we need to hear from you. For a limited time, you can double your gift to help save and strengthen families through a matching challenge provided by a few generous friends of the ministry. Every dollar you gift today will be doubled to help one family at a time, so please donate now.
John: Make your generous donation today at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-A-FAMILY. And when you get in touch, do ask for a copy of The Songs of Jesus. This daily devotional is really, really good. My wife and I have been using it every day and it’s gonna give you a deeper, more intimate understanding of who God is. And in fact, when you make a generous donation of any amount today, we’ll send a copy of that book, The Songs of Jesus to you. It’s our way of enriching your spiritual life and saying thanks for your partnership.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back next time, as we hear more from Dr. Tim and Kathy Keller about finding comfort and relief in the book of Psalms, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.