Tim Keller’s latest book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering didn’t quite begin as I anticipated. I’m not sure why I had the anticipations I had, particularly since I’ve read most of his books.
Tim doesn’t just write for the choir. He anticipates that non-Christians will read his books (what a wonderful thing!). As a result, this book begins with examining how past societies have handled pain and suffering, and why our particular society (speaking of the Western world) has struggled to deal with pain and suffering. In other words, he starts with a good does of apologetics.
His point is that secularization has diminished our capacity to deal with pain and suffering (okay, PaS). In the past, societies were influenced by their religious (and philosophical) views and looked at PaS in context with them. What they experienced, they believed, had a point though they differed on what that point actually was.
A shift took place in the West due to a variety of factors. God was removed from the picture, or minimized by those who claimed his name. To summarize things: PaS don’t fit well with our quest for personal fulfillment but are contrary to it (from our perspective). So, we tend to see PaS as bigger problems than people in the past who expected to experience PaS. It shocks us. With the rise of therapeutic moralistic theism we also don’t have a God who can actually help us in a way other than taking our PaS away.
“If you believe that the world was made for our benefit by God, then horrendous suffering and evil will shake your understanding of life.”
Secularism, which is some ways arose from the arguments against God based on PaS has actually less to say about PaS. He lays out some of the ways in which secularism provides false hope. We cannot take away all PaS precisely because we live in a fallen, unpredictable world. Our hope in government (laws & entitlements) or technology will keep being disappointed as moral and natural evil persist. There will continue to be tragic murders (moral evil) even if we take guns away. There will continue to be tsunamis and earthquakes (natural evil). There will continue to be cruel dictators who destroy their own people and aggressively encroach upon other nations. The hope for a better world, in this unrestored world, is one that will only disappoint.
What I’m saying here is that this is a book, or at least a part of the book, that must be read before or between PaS, not in the midst of PaS. He is making arguments that people in pain have no time and energy to deal with. This doesn’t mean he was wrong to do this, just that we need to keep this in mind when we read it or recommend it to others. He will get to the walking with God part. First he wants to show us that this is really our only hope.
“Because we turned from God, it was understandable that our world would be a dark and broken place, since it was under the judgment of a just God.”
In this first section of the book he begin the process of explaining why Christianity offers us the most help in dealing with PaS as well as understanding why there is PaS. So he does begin to argue how Christianity explains PaS (Adam’s sin which brought all of creation under the curse) as well as the hope we have which is radically different from the hope offered by other faiths- the resurrection!
“But resurrection is not just consolation- it is restoration.”
The section ends with a chapter on the problem of evil. In the last few hundred years this has been the source of most challenges to Christianity. Basically, if God is good and powerful why doesn’t He stop all the PaS? Keller examines these arguments briefly and then exposes their many weaknesses. The 2 prime ones are the assumption that since we can’t find a good reason for PaS (in general and particular) there must not be one. The second is that just attacks assume an external standard for justice, goodness & wisdom that does not exist if there is no God. None of these critics wonder why, if we are so messed up (moral evil), is there so much good in the world.
He notes Nietzsche’s response to learning about the death of over 200,000 people in Java in 1883. “Two hundred thousand wiped out at a stroke-how magnificent!” His philosophical convictions (atheism and existentialism) lead him to this consistency that most won’t admit. If there is no God, how can we call the Holocaust a bad thing? Without God we are merely imposing our personal or cultural moral standards on Germany. We’d have no right to do that. Moral relativism robs people of the ability to actually discern PaS.
Part 1 of the book is good. It is only the first step we must take to walk with God in our PaS. We must first believe He exists and He’s a particular God. Keller briefly makes his case that the God of Christianity is the only one who can help us understand our PaS and walk with us in it. Not just help us, but walk with us. That is very different from any other religious hope in the marketplace of ideas.