Making Sense of Suffering

The following is a review of the most helpful book I’ve found on the Christian perspective of suffering. I highly recommend it to you. 

In Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, author and pastor Timothy Keller guides the reader through a Biblical understanding of suffering. He does so using multiple approaches: by examining our cultural responses to suffering, by taking a close look at the philosophical responses over the years, and by looking closely at the Bible to see how God addresses our suffering.

Keller is a conservative presbyterian minister, and is widely known as a compelling author. Before he began to author books such as The Reason for God (which became a bestseller), he was, and remains, the founding pastor of a large church in New York City. Many of his books originated as sermon series, so they are all Biblically based, and, as he likes to say “gospel-centered.” He takes on issues such as vocation, marriage, and justice, and tends to look at both the liberal side and the conservative side, finds the strengths and weaknesses of both, and then ultimately offers what he sees in the scriptures. He is clearly well-read, offering perspectives from a wide range of voices from ancient to contemporary, and yet he weaves in practical illustrations and personal examples. He writes from an unapologetically Christian perspective, holding up what he sees as the truth and grace found in the Christian faith, thereby comforting those who share his Christian beliefs, and exhorting those who do not share his beliefs to consider what they may be missing. All of these characteristics are present here in Walking with God.

He divides the book into three major parts. First, he looks at the “phenomenon of human suffering” from a cultural and philosophical perspective. Second, he looks closely at what “the Bible says about the character of suffering” (8). He concludes the book with a section on practical material on “how do we actually walk with God in such times” (9). Much of the book is framed in terms of the Biblical story of the three men thrown into the fiery furnace, which Keller uses as an overarching metaphor for suffering, and God walking with us in our suffering, as Keller states: “In Jesus Christ we see that God actually experiences the pain of the fire as we do. He truly is God with us, in love and understanding, in our anguish” (10).

Keller begins the first part of his book with a bold claim: “Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity” (13). He then proceeds to examine how our culture, and other cultures, equip us to handle suffering. Unsurprisingly, he finds that our current culture has not equipped us well: “In modern Western culture…the meaning of life is to have the freedom to choose the life that makes you most happy. However, in that view of things, suffering can have no meaningful part” (16). Keller then examines other cultures and finds that each has something  to offer: “Buddhism says accept [suffering], karma says pay it, fatalism says heroically endure it, secularism says avoid or fix it” (30). But then he shows that “from the Christian view of things, all of these approaches are too simple and reductionist and therefore are half-truths. The example and redemptive work of Jesus Christ incorporates all these insights into a coherent whole and yet transcends them.” (30)

Keller then gets down to the business of examining the history of philosophies and cultures. He shows how early Christianity stood out from ancient Stoic and other philosophies, and indeed was one of its greatest attractions: “In ancient times, Christianity was widely recognized as having superior resources for facing evil, suffering, and death.” (58) He claims the same is true for modern times and gives four reasons: 1. Belief in a “personal, wise, infinite, and therefore inscrutable God who controls the affairs of the world…is far more comforting than belief that our lives are in the hands of fickle fate or random chance.” 2. Belief that “God came to earth and suffered with us and for us sacrificially is far more comforting than the idea that God is remote and uninvolved.” 3. Belief that “through faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we can have assurance of our salvation is far more comforting than the karmic systems of thought.” 4. Belief that “the bodily resurrection from the dead for all who believe…completes the spectrum of our joys and consolations.” Keller also answers the challenge of modern secularism and atheism. First he says that religions in general “give sufferers explanations of life that make sense of suffering and help them find meaning in their pain.” (66). Later he shines the spotlight on Christianity specifically: “The story of late modern culture…has no place for suffering. But the Christian story…is utterly different. Suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story.” (77) Most of the rest of the book brings this idea into focus.

Before moving on to looking closely at what the Bible says about suffering, Keller stops to answer the common objection that is often called “the problem of evil” which can be summarized as: “If God is powerful and good, how could he allow suffering in the world?” Keller answers at length, but he ultimately comes down to humility: “If God is infinitely knowledgeable–why couldn’t he have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil that you can’t think of?” (98, emphasis original). Yet Keller recognizes this philosophical talk is hardly what the vast majority of us are interested in when we’re experiencing pain and suffering. The rest of the book, then, is for the rest of us.

Keller begins his examination of the scriptures with a traditional big-picture framework of the Biblical story: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Renewal. He nearly skips the story of creation and moves right to the fall: “The Fall of humankind means that the original design of the world is broken…[which] gives us a remarkably nuanced understanding of suffering.” (114) He also puts a common conception of suffering on its head: “Why in light of our behavior as a human race, does God allow so much happiness?” (115, emphasis original). He then moves on to examining the possibilities of redemption and renewal, interacting with the ideas of older theologians (such as Edwards and Kuyper) as well as modern (such as Plantinga). He exhorts us to imagine when, as Tolkien wrote “everything sad is going to come untrue” when he writes: “What if, in the future, we came to see that just as Jesus could not have displayed such glory and love any other way except through his suffering, we would not have been able to experience such transcendent glory, joy, and love any other way except by going through a world of suffering?” (118) This may be hard to bear in the midst of our suffering, and Keller, as a pastor, seems to know this: “We should not expect to be able to grasp all God’s purposes, but through the cross and gospel of Jesus Christ, we can know his love. And that is what we need most.” (122)

After laying down this framework, Keller then moves on to viewing what “the Bible as a whole tells us about pain and suffering.” (130) This is a tall order, but Keller is clearly a capable and pastoral Biblical scholar. He summarizes in what he calls “two foundational balances” which are: “Suffering is both just and unjust. God is both a sovereign and a suffering God.” (130) He devotes two chapters to these themes, with various Biblical examination and nuanced thought. He sees suffering as “just” in that we all participate in the root cause of suffering, namely human sin. But suffering is “unjust” in that the effects of sin are not distributed proportionately. An understanding of this will help us avoid unnecessary hatred toward God, and unnecessary hatred toward ourselves. In one of the most powerful chapters, Keller then moves on to displaying God as a sufferer himself. He quotes Ronald Rittgers to summarize: “the main reason that Christians insist that God can be trusted in the midst of suffering is that…God himself has firsthand experience of suffering.” (147, emphasis original). In the story of the gospel, Jesus experienced suffering in order to end suffering: “It is only Jesus’ suffering that makes it possible to end suffering–to judge and renew the world–without having to destroy us.” (156) Also, Keller examines the scriptures and shows that “while Christianity never claims to be able to offer a full explanation of all God’s reasons behind every instance of evil and suffering–it does have a final answer to it.” (158, emphasis original). This final answer will be when Jesus returns to make all things right.

Keller gets more and more practical as the book proceeds. In the chapter entitled “The Reason for Suffering” he offers some down-to-earth advice on “not wasting your suffering” to perhaps help us see how God shapes our character through suffering, such as: “people who endure and get through suffering become more resilient…it strengthens relationships…and most significant–suffering changes priorities and philosophies.” (165) Keller assures us that “No suffering is for nothing” (180) because our character is being shaped to be more like Jesus Christ, who “suffered not so that we would never suffer but so that when we suffer we would be like him.” (181) With yet more practicalities, Keller shows that “suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves” and “changes our relationship to the good things in our lives” (i.e. we understand what is truly important) and ultimately “strengthens our relationship to God as nothing else can.” (191) It also “makes us far more compassionate than we could have been otherwise.” (192)

As the book increases in practicality, and just before Keller maps out a path for walking with God through suffering, he pauses to consider the variety of suffering that we experience. He examines both Biblical narratives and contemporary experiences to reveal major categories of suffering: 1. Suffering that is “directly caused by our own failures” (207) such as a marriage failing due to infidelity; 2. Suffering that is “caused by good and brave behavior” (209) such as persecution of the prophets; 3. Suffering that is “grief and loss in the face of mortality, decay, and death” (210) which is often called “universal suffering” because everyone experiences it in some way; 4. Suffering that is “mysterious, horrendous suffering that people most often call ‘senseless.’” (211) Keller also recognizes that each person is distinct in how she or he deals with suffering, so “every affliction is virtually unique.” (216) At this he comforts the reader, saying “there is more than one path in ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ (Ps. 23:4), and the Lord, the perfect Guide, will help you find the best way through.” (220)

The final section of the book is the most practical of all, offering a guide for through the process of walking with God through suffering. He does this in 8 steps, which are helpfully summarized in the epilogue of the book:

  1. Weeping: “It is crucial to be brutally honest with yourself and God about your pain and sorrow.” (321). He points the reader to the Psalms and Job for examples of this.
  2. Trusting: “We are also summoned to trust God’s wisdom (since he is sovereign) and also trust his love (since he has been through what you’ve been through)” (321).
  3. Praying: “If you can’t love God, you must want to love God, or at least ask him to help you love him.” (321).
  4. Thinking: “You must meditate on the truth and gain the perspective that comes from remembering all God has done for you and is going to do.” (321)
  5. Self-Examining: “Every time of adversity is an opportunity to look at ourselves and ask–how do I need to grow?” (322)
  6. Reordering our loves: “Suffering reveals that there are things we love too much, or we love God too little in proportion to them.” (322)
  7. Community: “The Christian gospel accounts for and assigns meaning to the experience of suffering as secular society cannot. Find a Christian church where sufferers are loved and supported.” (322)
  8. Forgiveness: “Some forms of suffering require skill at receiving grace and forgiveness from God, and giving grace and forgiveness to others.” (322)

It is clear that we will all be subject to suffering in our lives. What Keller has held out for us is the ability to walk in it with God himself.