Review: Timothy Keller’s Walking with God in Pain and Suffering

By the time summer arrived this year, the shock over the premature passing of one of my best friends had gradually subsided, though not the grief. It had taken a couple of months after her death in early April for my appetite to return, my willingness to dabble in adventure to revive, and my crying to find its way back to hearty laughter.

I am trying to understand the place I am in right now. The first tragedy that strikes in your life, you learn quickly that life does not stop for you because you are sad. You have to study or go to work, you have to tend to the children, the dishes still need to be done. If you are fortunate enough to have good friends or a genuinely sacrificial and compassionate church community–moments of recovery are possible as blessed individuals fly by your side and love you as best as they can (I count myself among the fortunate ones).

Where am I five months after the fact?

Not long ago, I was going about my usual routine–assisting my youngest in washing his hands–and momentarily froze at the sight of the vanishing drops of our citrus coconut foaming hand wash. Unexpectedly, I erupted into tears. How could my friend be gone from this world but the Christmas gift of hand soap she gave me last winter still be in my bathroom? And just like that, my disposition had changed that week.

In moments of stolen solitude, I pondered over my emotional and psychological state. Shortly after my friend’s passing, I was in the middle of preparing my tribute for her funeral, so I began rummaging through the letters in our youth to each other. In fact, stored in the furnace room of my parents’ house for the past two decades was a box of letters from friends who had written to me during this bygone period. Arbitrarily skimming one letter after the other, I breathlessly grappled with the fact that, as of this year, three of the friends captured in that box are no longer here. Though two of them had passed away many years ago, memories of them still overtake me now and then.

Perhaps the mourning of the death of a dear friend is like a bruise. The felt loss remains ever present in all its tender blues and purples–but can be concealed by the garment of daily duty and dizzying distraction. All that needs to take place is for the lifting of the garment and some pressure to be applied for the reminder: Oh right, it still hurts.

And that is why my faithful reading of Tim Keller’s book Walking with God in Pain and Suffering at the start of this summer was the nightly companion I needed. This summer of rest has been delightful, days of sun and relaxation; but when my beloveds were all asleep, a sadness sometimes fell upon me in that quiet darkness and I found solace in turning to Keller’s book, in which I really was present-continuous-tense WALKING with God in my not-fully-scrutable pain.

Keller’s book reminded me that I can be faithful yet still wrestle with my trust in God as I questioned the suffering. He reminded me of the beautiful freedom I have before God to be me: weak, with partial understanding, and a wobbly step. Furthermore, he urged the sufferer to not hide out in the sheer activity of life but to intentionally reflect on the hardship until Kingdom truths gradually come into view. And finally, I was enlightened when he pointed out that my weeping can be wrapped up inside my joy, that the two can co-exist, to the glory of God.

The following counsel and insight are a taste of the spiritual nourishment Keller offers to the sufferer:

Note: I also appreciated the many chapters that conclude with personal testimonies of Christ-followers who have endured all kinds of suffering, displaying examples of Christians who have witnessed and applied the principles described, which puts Keller’s insights into an even more relatable context. (Keller’s Epilogue provides a general outline and summary of the book).

“Why would God be so affirming of Job? Job cursed the day he was born, challenged God’s wisdom, cried out and complained bitterly, expressed deep thoughts. It didn’t seem that Job was a paragon of steady faith throughout. Why would God vindicate him like that? …God is gracious and forgiving… Through it all, Job never stopped praying. Yes, he complained, but he complained to God. He doubted, but he doubted to God. He screamed and yelled, but he did it in God’s presence. No matter how much in agony he was, he continued to address God. He kept seeking him. And in the end, God said Job triumphed. How wonderful that our God sees the grief and anger and questioning, and is still willing to say ‘you triumphed’–not because it was all fine, not because Job’s heart and motives were always right, but because Job’s doggedness in seeking the face and presence of God meant that the suffering did not drive him away from God but toward him” (Keller’s commentary on Job 42:7-9).

“Today, when you read books or websites on overcoming anxiety and handling fear, they usually talk about removing thoughts. They say…Control your thoughts, expel the negative ones. But here we see the peace of God is not the absence of negative thoughts, it is the presence of God himself. ‘The God of peace will be with you’ (Phil. 4:9).

   Christian peace does not start with the ousting of negative thinking. If you do that, you may simply be refusing to face how bad things are. That is one way to calm yourself–by refusing to admit the facts… Christian peace doesn’t start that way. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them… It is a sense that no matter what happens, everything will be all right, even though it may not be at all right at the moment. In my experience, people usually break through to this kind of peace only in tragic situations, often in the valley of the shadow of death” (Keller’s commentary on Philppians 4:4-12).

“If you are a Christian today and you have little or no peace, it may be because you are not thinking. Peace comes from a disciplined thinking out of the implications of what you believe…There is nothing more thrilling than climbing up to some high point on a mountain and then turning around and viewing from there all the terrain you have just traversed. Suddenly, you see the relationships–you see the creek you crossed, the foothills, the town from which you have journeyed. Your high vantage point gives you perspective, clarity, and a sense of beauty… Think big and high. Realize who God is, what he has done, who you are in Christ, where history is going. Put your troubles in perspective by remembering Christ’s troubles on your behalf, and all his promises to you, and what he is accomplishing” (Keller’s commentary on Philippians 4:8-9).

“Our bad things will turn out for good, our good things cannot be taken away, and the best is yet to come.”

“A believer can live right and still remain in darkness. Darkness may symbolize either outside difficult circumstances or an inner spiritual state of pain… times of darkness–while they continue–can reveal God’s grace in new depths… God understands… God is patient and gracious with us–he is present with us in all our mixed motives. Salvation is by grace… It is perhaps when we are still in unrelenting darkness that we have the greatest opportunity to defeat the forces of evil. In the darkness we have a choice that is not really there in better times. We can choose to serve God just because he is God” (Keller’s commentary on Psalm 88:1-6, 10-18; end of Job).

“And when the darkness lifts or lessens, we will find that our dependence on other things besides God for our happiness has shrunk, and that we have new strength and contentment in God himself.”

“We must not define rejoicing as something that precludes feelings of grief, or doubt, weakness, and pain. Rejoicing in suffering happens within sorrow… The grief and sorrow drive you more into God. It is just as when it gets colder outside, the temperature kicks the furnace higher through the thermostat… Yes, feel the grief. There is a tendency for us to say, ‘I am afraid of the grief, I am afraid of the sorrow. I don’t want to feel that way. I want to rejoice in the Lord.’ But look at Jesus. He was perfect, right? And yet he goes around crying all the time. He is always weeping, a man of sorrows… Because when you are not all absorbed in yourself, you can feel the sadness of the world… what you actually have is that the joy of the Lord happens inside the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the uncontrollable weeping. The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you” (Keller’s commentary on 1 Peter 1:6-7).

As Keller notes early on–it is one thing to believe God’s truths and another to wholeheartedly trust them. Suffering is often the realm in which the latter is tried and tested. Grounded in the biblical and theological, Keller’s book on suffering marries truth with tender sensitivity toward the reader as sufferer.