Tim Keller on Suffering and Evil

26 June 2023

7.5 MINS

Some incisive and comforting thoughts from Keller.

New York pastor Tim Keller died recently following a lengthy battle with cancer. He not only knew about suffering in a very personal way, but as a minister of the Gospel, he dealt with countless individuals who struggled with their own pain, grief, suffering and loss.

So Keller was well-placed to deal with these matters from a biblical, theological and pastoral perspective. He spoke on these matters often, but let me draw from just one of his writings on this: Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013). Although it has been around for a decade now, it still is worth revisiting this important volume. Here are some key quotes from it:

“I learned that just as many people find God through affliction and suffering. They find that adversity moves them toward God rather than away. Troubled times awaken them out of their haunted sleep of spiritual self-sufficiency into a serious search for the divine. Suffering ‘plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.’ It is an exaggeration to say that no one finds God unless suffering comes into their lives—but it is not a big one. When pain and suffering come upon us, we finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives but that we never were. Over the years, I also came to realize that adversity did not merely lead people to believe in God’s existence. It pulled those who already believed into a deeper experience of God’s reality, love, and grace. One of the main ways we move from abstract knowledge about God to a personal encounter with Him as a living reality is through the furnace of affliction.” p. 5

Walking with God

“Suffering can refine us rather than destroy us, because God Himself walks with us in the fire.” p. 9

“[Daniel’s three friends] walk through the furnace of suffering and are not consumed. From the vantage of the New Testament, Christians know that this was the Son of God Himself, one who faced His own, infinitely greater furnace of affliction centuries later when He went to the cross. This raises the concept of God ‘walking with us’ to a whole new level. 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.” p. 10

“Only through weakness and pain did God save us and show us, in the deepest way possible, the infinite depths of His grace and love for us. For indeed, here was infinite wisdom—in one stroke, the just requirement of the law was fulfilled and the forgiveness of lawbreakers secured. In one moment, God’s love and justice were fully satisfied. This Messiah came to die in order to put an end to death itself. Only through weakness and suffering could sin be atoned—it was the only way to end evil without ending us.” p. 51

“The first relevant Christian belief is in a personal, wise, infinite, and therefore inscrutable God who controls the affairs of the world—and that is far more comforting than the belief that our lives are in the hands of fickle fate or random choice. The second crucial tenet is that, in Jesus Christ, God came to earth and suffered with and for us sacrificially—and that is far more comforting than the idea that God is remote and uninvolved. The cross also proves that, despite all the inscrutability, God is for us. The third doctrine is that through faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we can have assurance of our salvation—that is far more comforting than the karmic systems of thought. We are assured that the difficulties of life are not payment for past sins, since Jesus has paid for them. … The fourth great doctrine is that of the bodily resurrection from the dead for all who believe.” p. 58

Justice and Mercy

“The world is too fallen and deeply broken to divide into a neat pattern of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives. The brokenness of the world is inherited by the entire human race. As Jesus says, the sun shines and the rain falls on both the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). The individual sufferer is not necessarily receiving a due payment for specific wrongdoings. But on the other hand, while we must never say that every particular instance of suffering is caused by a particular sin, it is fair to say that suffering and death in general is a natural consequence and just judgment of God on our sin. Therefore we cannot protest that the human race, considering our record, deserves a better life than the one we have now.” pp. 114-115Walking with God through Pain and Suffering book

“Do you see what would have happened at Jesus’ first coming to earth if He’d come with a sword in His hand and a power to destroy all sources of suffering and evil? It would have meant there would be no human beings left. If you don’t think that is fair, I would argue that you don’t know your own capabilities, your own heart. But Jesus did not come to earth the first time to bring justice, but rather to bear it. He came not with a sword in His hands, but with nails through His hands. Christian teaching for centuries has been this: Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment our sins deserve, so that someday He can return to earth to end evil without destroying us all.” pp. 123-124

“Jesus is furious at evil, death, and suffering and, even though He is God, he is not mad at Himself. This means that evil is the enemy of God’s good creation, and of God Himself. And Jesus’ entire mission was to take evil on and end it. But, as we have seen, evil is so deeply rooted in the human heart that if Christ had come in power to destroy it everywhere He found it, He would have had to destroy us too. Instead of coming as a general at the head of an army, He went in weakness to the cross in order to pay for our sins, so that someday He will return to wipe out evil without having to judge us as well. He will be able to receive us to Himself because He bore our judgment Himself on Calvary.” pp. 137-138

Incarnate Deity

“God is sovereign over suffering and yet, in teaching unique to the Christian faith among the major religions, God also made Himself vulnerable and subject to suffering. The other side of the sovereignty of God is the suffering of God Himself. As Ronald Rittgers said, holding both of these together—as paradoxical as they seem at first—is crucial to grasping the unique Christian understanding of suffering. In earlier chapters, we have already learned that ‘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.’ We can’t overemphasize the importance of this.” p. 147

“The gospels show us Jesus experiencing the ordinary pressures, difficulties, and pains of normal human life. He experienced weariness and thirst (John 4:6), distress, grief, and being ‘troubled in heart’ (Mark 3:5; John 11:35; 12:27). His suffering was such that throughout His life, He offered up prayers ‘with loud cries and tears’ (Heb. 5:7; cf. Luke 22:44). He knew what it was like to be completely misunderstood by His best friends and rejected by His family and hometown (John 7:3-5; Matt. 13:57; Mark 3:31). He was also tempted and assaulted by the devil (Matt. 4:2ff). And amazingly, we are told that Jesus ‘learned’ from what He suffered (Heb. 5:8). Don Carson concludes, ‘The God on whom we rely knows what suffering is all about, not merely in the way that God knows everything, but by experience’.” pp. 149-150

“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. That answer will be given at the end of history and all who hear it and see its fulfillment will find it completely satisfying, infinitely sufficient.” p. 158

Trust in God

“So suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is not only the way Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like Him and experience His redemption. And that means that our suffering, despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.” pp. 163-164

“Trusting God in suffering also glorifies Him to others. When believers handle suffering rightly, they are not merely glorifying God to God. They are showing the world something of the greatness of our God—and perhaps nothing else can reveal Him to people in quite the same way.” p. 175

“We should trust God because He is God and not our personal assistant or life coach. We should trust Him because it is His due, He is worthy of it, not because it will get us something. If we love and obey God for His own sake, not ours, it begins to turn us into something strong and great and wise. If we don’t seek to find ourselves but to find God, we will eventually find both God and ourselves.” p. 187

“Suffering is an important way to grow. People who have not suffered much are often shallow, unacquainted with both their weakness and strengths, naive about human nature and life, and almost always fragile and unresilient. But we know that suffering does not deepen and enrich us automatically. Both images—of a furnace and of a gymnasium—reveal this. Fire in the furnaces can kill, and gymnasiums can severely injure. An old saying goes, ‘The same sun that melts wax hardens clay,’ and so the traumatic experience can ruin one person and make another stronger and even happier” p. 205

“The confidence [of Daniel’s three friends] was actually in God, not in their limited understanding of what they thought he would do. They had inner assurance that God would rescue them. However, they were not so arrogant as to be sure they were ‘reading God right.’ They knew that God was under no obligation to operate according to their limited wisdom. In other words, their confidence was in God Himself, not in some agenda that they wanted God to promote. They trusted in God, and that included trust that He knew better than they what should happen. So they were essentially saying this: ‘Even if our God does not rescue us—and that is right—we will serve Him and not you. We will serve Him whether He conforms to our wisdom or not.” pp. 230-231

“Someone reading this might say, ‘You are talking about doctrine but what I really need is comfort.’ But think! Is Jesus really the Son of God? Did He really come to earth, die for you, rise again, and pass through the heavens to the right hand of God? Did He endure infinite suffering for you, so that someday He could take you to Himself and wipe away every tear from your eyes? If so, then there is all the comfort in the world. If not—if none of these things are true—then we may be stuck here living for seventy or eighty years until we perish, and the only happiness we will ever know is in this life. And if some trouble or suffering takes that happiness away, you have lost it forever. Either Jesus is on the throne ruling all things for you, or this is as good as it gets.” p. 299


Originally published at CultureWatch. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

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  1. Ian Moncrieff 26 June 2023 at 7:41 pm - Reply

    Very insightful. Thanks for sharing this Bill.

  2. Kaylene Emery 26 June 2023 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    I have written before that your work is often prophetic in my life Bill. It’s uncanny.
    God gives me so much and – I don’t believe He loves me less because I pray silently or worship without outward signs that I do so.
    He teaches me to tolerate pain, frustration and discomfort if all kinds. I think, because He wants to grow me while He watches on, rather than zap me into permanent joy.
    Thank you Bill M.

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