Saturday, January 25, 2014

Book Review: Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller

Life is tragic.

With that statement, Pastor/Author Tim Keller embarks on a study of evil and its ramifications in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. As he notes, nobody can avoid troubles and it’s impossible to cope with them entirely on our own. We need help and the best help, Keller asserts, comes from God. However, while suffering drives some people to the Lord, it drives others away from him. Keller explains how and why God is trustworthy in the midst of pain.

The author presents his case in three parts. He begins with a theoretical look at the phenomenon of suffering and the variety of ways different cultures and religions throughout history have sought to deal with it. Whether moralistic in nature (Hindu), transcendent (Buddhist), fatalistic (Muslim) or dualistic (a battle between good and evil), these approaches to the subject see the world as both material and spiritual and suggest that something good can out of suffering, usually in terms of human improvement.

However, in our secular Western culture, many people today regard the universe as purely material. The goal of life is to be happy. Suffering is seen as something that prevents or impedes happiness, not as an opportunity which can bring about something positive or worthwhile. Therefore, it must be eliminated or, at least, controlled and minimized.

Keller notes that even some Christians have come to accept this stance. He explains that the Enlightenment saw a shift from the belief that people were created to serve God to the belief that God made the world for our benefit. Where our ancestors accepted suffering as part and parcel of the life God gives, now we believe that God is obligated to arrange things the way we would like them to be and that means we want him to eliminate all our pain.

We have reached the point where some consider evil to be the single strongest objection to the existence of God. After all, if there is a God and he is good as well as omnipotent, he would end all suffering, wouldn’t he? But here’s the thing, Keller says – we have a God who himself suffered and didn’t deserve the pain inflicted upon him. Yet he allowed it for our sake. This sets the Christian understanding of suffering apart from that of all other worldviews.

Keller explores a number of explanations of how and why a good God has allowed evil including the soul-making theodicy and Augustine’s free will argument, but finds them all lacking in one respect or another. Ultimately, he says, if God has good reasons for allowing suffering and evil, there is no contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil.

But when you get right down to it, Keller notes, the people who object to God’s existence in the face of suffering do not do so for philosophical reasons, but for visceral ones. Pain hurts. Therefore, we don’t like it and we don’t want to deal with it. We just want it to be gone.

Then Keller asks an intriguing question. What if our awareness of absolute evil is a clue that we know unavoidably that God actually does exist? After all, as Philosopher Alvin Plantinga and others have noted, in secularism, there is no place for moral obligation and no way to say there is such a thing as wickedness.

In Part 2, Keller explores the challenges to our faith presented by suffering and pain. He focuses on three doctrines – the creation and the fall, the final judgment of the world and its future renewal, and the incarnation and atonement. The first doctrine explains why evil exists. The second focuses on how God will deal with it ultimately. The third proves that the existence of suffering does not indicate that the Lord doesn’t love us. In fact, Keller says, Christ’s work at the cross represents the main reason we can trust God in the midst of our suffering, that is, because he suffered on our account out of love for us.

Keller notes that, if God is not in control of history, then suffering is not part of any plan, making it random and senseless. And how could we live with that? One of the greatest needs people have in the face of trials is the desire that they have some useful outcome to justify them. In God’s plan, we can see blessings born from suffering as it makes us more like Christ, changes our priorities and philosophies from those of the world to those of the Lord, and allows us to bring glory to God as we deal with our trials successfully in the power of the Holy Spirit.

However, Keller notes, we should never look at suffering as merely a means of improving ourselves. We should look at it primarily as a way to get to know God better. This, of course, is exactly what happened to Job. After his conversation with the Lord, he concluded, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). This is the greatest blessing in suffering. It deepens our relationship with God. And Keller reminds us that we should never forget in the midst of trials that everything that God allows in our lives has both a limit and a purpose.

In Part 3 of the book, Keller explains how we can successfully walk with God in the furnace of trials. He makes it clear that, while God never promised us a trouble-free life, he did promise to be with us in our challenges. He explains that walking with Christ is a long, slow process. A walk consists of day in and day out praying, day in and day out Bible-reading, day in and day out worshipping, day in and day out obeying – whether we feel like it or not. The walk may include following Biblical examples of lament (Job, Psalms and Jeremiah), emulating people like Joseph as they endured hardship, and doing what those sufferers did – trust God. And always we should be thinking of Jesus on the cross. Our darkness, Keller says, can be relativized by Christ’s darkness.

Such a walk will help us avoid despair, something that the individual without Christ is destined to experience, Keller says. As he puts it, human beings are hope-shaped creatures and the Christian’s hope rests in Jesus. Ultimately, Keller says, we need to recognize that Christ took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy us, that is, being cast away from God.

All of Tim Keller’s work, whether a sermon, a book or a lecture, is noted for one thing – it is always Christ-centred. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is no different. Jesus lives in the pages of this book. For that reason, it offers comfort and healing, something that is rare in books on this topic. Too many authors focus on the philosophical and the intellectual arguments alone while omitting its spiritual aspect. Keller includes numerous life stories from real people who show how they have lived out practically the material he presents. Their testimonies are powerful and encouraging.

Therefore, while this book can certainly be used apologetically in a discussion of evil, it can also represent a huge step in the growth and healing of believers who feel overwhelmed by trials and are angry at God because of them. For that reason, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is highly recommended.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist who has just completed her Masters in Theological Studies. She writes fiction, poetry and plays as well as non-fiction.


Unknown said...

Excellent review. I'll definitely put my very long "to read" list. Along the same lines a similar book that I've handed out to skeptics that has been very helpful and productive in conversations about God's apparent silence during difficult trials is "The Grand Weaver" by Ravi Zacharias. I highly recommend it too.

MaryLou said...

Thank you for your positive response, Neal. I appreciate it.

I picked up The Grand Weaver at a book sale recently, but haven't read it yet. Now I look forward to it.

I also like D. A Carson's How Long, O Lord? It's excellent, too.

There is an interview with Tim Keller about the book which is available from the Gospel Coalition through iTunes here:

It's #18 in the list.

One thing he talked about that I found interesting was the fact that his wife chose the personal stories that illustrated the concepts being played out in the lives of real people.

Justin Powlison said...

I wonder what the similarities and differences would be between "fatalistic" approaches to suffering in Islam and "deterministic" approaches to suffering found in Calvinism. Does Keller address this?

MaryLou said...

No, A.S.A.. Keller does not address the issue of fatalism vs. determinism in this book.

Anonymous said...


Not all Muslims are fatalistic. Islam, so far as I understand, has about as much theological variation as Christians do in regards to the question of divine causal determinism. But either way your question appears uninteresting. Let's say we have a Muslim who believes in divine causal determinism and a Christian who believes in divine causal determinism and both affirm moral responsibility. It seems obvious that any account of moral responsibility that is compatible with determinism will be available to both the Muslim and the Christian... and for the atheist who affirms physical determinism or for any indeterminist who happens to be a compatibilist, all other things being equal. So what? All other things being equal, a Muslim has access to the same resources as a Christian on many issues pertaining to other things to (e.g., arguments for classical theism or even *libertarian* theodicies).

P.S. The captcha was "Westminster" ;)

MaryLou said...

I don't know whether this is of interest to you, ASA, but Keller does talk a bit about compatibilism, noting that God is in control of history, but human beings are responsible for freely chosen actions.

Unknown said...

I'm reading Keller's book right now (although in Hungarian :)) and I was just to make notes for myself to sum up the content of the book. Then it came to my mind that I could google some book reviews on it. I think too that your review, MaryLou is excellent, and represents the content and argument of the book fair well. Thank you for it!

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