THE QUESTION is as old as time, and has been grappled with by minds far greater than most of us can claim to possess. The psalmist asked it in Psalm 22:1 when he wrote “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” About a thousand years later, Jesus asked it when he quoted those words while hanging on the cross. C.S. Lewis dealt with it in The Problem of Pain. Phillip Yancey did too in Where is God When it Hurts? And now, thankfully, so does Timothy Keller, American writer and pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. How do we simultaneously hold in our heads such seemingly opposed realities as a loving God and a suffering world?
How can belief in a loving God and an awareness of human suffering coexist? Rabbi Harold Kushner attempted to answer the question in his 1981 bestselling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, written after the death of his young son. Kushner arrived at the conclusion that there were limitations to God’s power, and that he would intervene if he could, but he just isn’t as omnipotent as we’ve mistakenly believed. Buddhism explains that to live is to suffer, and presents the means by which we can escape it, by rising above the desperate clinging to impermanence. Though there have been different conclusions in this search for explanation, meaning and liberation, what all the thinkers of all eras and stripes seem to agree upon is the inevitability of human suffering.
If you know Timothy Keller’s work, you know that you can expect Walking with God through Pain and Suffering to present a solid theological argument rooted firmly in Scripture. Just as in his previous celebrated works, The Reason for God (2007) and The Prodigal Son (2008), Keller writes with words that fly swiftly and directly to the heart. In Walking with God, his writing once again pierces through the confusion, bitterness, grief and arrogance that have allowed us to avoid coming to terms with who God is, and what he wants from us. Few wordsmiths can present wisdom as Keller can. In Walking with God, he triggers a quiet internal recognition of truth that binds the wounds of those seeking meaning and relief in suffering. In short, his book resonates with us, even when it forces us to acknowledge our own failures, immaturity and self-centeredness.
Keller wants us to ditch Kushner’s impotent God, and abandon any hope of escaping pain. Our God, says he, is indeed all-powerful and in fact will accompany us through the suffering and ultimately will redeem it. Keller tackles this subject matter with tremendous depth, clarity and insight.
Abraham, when he negotiated with God to spare the lives of the righteous in Sodom, was motivated by his conviction that the good people should not have to suffer along with the wicked. If you play by the rules, you should be safe; if not, you should be punished. When our suffering appears random – disease, tragedy, or what the insurance industry calls “acts of God” – we direct our anger at the One whom we feel ought to have protected us from suffering. Keller urges us to surrender our need to know the reason for our suffering and to cast off the expectation that the events of our lives should follow our script and go the way we think best. God has his own script and if we, as mere humans, could understand his reasoning, how grand a creator could he really be?
Keller explains that when our suffering comes from abandonment, betrayal or persecution, our instinct is to channel our rage and pain into exacting justice. But, he says, we must surrender that need for vengeance through forgiveness.
Keller distils gems from the narratives of Christians coming to terms with pain. His recounting of the 2006 murder of five Amish school children in Pennsylvania by a deeply troubled gunman provides a glimpse of how God can bring good out of terrible suffering. When the world witnessed Amish community members attending the funeral of the gunman (who’d subsequently shot himself), secular journalists and broadcasters announced that we could learn from how the Amish dealt with suffering. Fifty years earlier when five missionaries were speared to death in the Amazonian rainforest by the indigenous Waodani, the world surely marvelled when the wife and the sister of two of the men remained in the Amazon, eventually living amongst the very men who had killed their loved ones.
Still, says Keller, we are not to limit our conceptualization of human suffering to its being the catalyst which can unleash God’s redemptive power. He tells us that Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of one of the murdered missionaries, cautions us to avoid the trap of trying to determine God’s formula or plan. Instead we are to trust him and walk with him through our suffering, because it re-directs us to a glorious God and frees us from our endless attempts to ‘keep God on board with our agendas.’
Suffering then is not God’s betrayal of his children, but rather his invitation to walk more closely with him, to walk with feet that are more certain that God (not a mere mortal) is in control of the direction and the pace. By nature, our response to suffering is to flee from it, but it catches up with us eventually. God invites us not to run away, but to step forward into the pain and walk alongside him… not an easy first step to take, but certainly the step that speaks of Christian maturity – and the only one guaranteed to bring us peace. TAP