The first part of Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, is focused on apologetics: showing how Christianity has better and more complete answers regarding pain and suffering than any other way of looking at the world. The 2nd part of the book is called Facing the Furnace. It is about how Christianity looks at suffering, preparing us to enter the furnace. What does our theology say about suffering? That is an important thing.
“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.”
He begins with the challenge to faith. Christianity does not look at suffering simplistically like Job’s counselors. There must be answers that satisfy the heart and not just the mind.
Keller starts in a surprising place, the Day of Judgment. Not all of God’s justice is dispensed in this life. Sometimes the righteous suffer and sometimes the wicked prosper. Appearances can be deceiving and can’t be used to determine the character of any person, or their destiny. We have neither the knowledge nor the wisdom to properly dispense justice. But God does, and will in a day that He has set apart to judge the world by Jesus Christ. We know that God works all things for good, even evil things, but we don’t always know how.
“And apart from sin and evil, we would never have seen the courage of God, or the astonishing extent of his love, or the glory of a deity who lays aside his glory and goes to the cross.”
The heart can also find solace in the suffering of the Savior. God is not some ivory tower deity, but Jesus took on flesh in order to suffer. We have committed ourselves, our futures, into the hands of One who knows greater suffering than we have known ourselves. While sovereign, He didn’t use His power and authority to remain above the fray. While committed to His glory, He’s also committed to our good and ultimate happiness and plunged himself into suffering.
Keller picks up those two themes more exhaustively in the next 2 chapters: God’s sovereignty and suffering. Some times our suffering is justice and judgment. All suffering flows out of the sin of Adam but not all of our suffering is a result of our particular sins. This is an important distinction we need to keep in mind. The world, as a result of Adam’s sin, has been subjected to frustration by God in the curse (Genesis 3; Romans 8). Since not all of our suffering is not a result of our sins, it can be either injustice (at the hands of other men, not God) or mysterious. So we see the Bible offering us complementary views of our suffering. We are wise not to jump to conclusions regarding our suffering. While God is sovereign over suffering and can use it for His purposes, it is ultimately viewed as the enemy of God. This is seen as Jesus weeps outside Lazarus’ grave.
“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.”
I noticed at least one weakness here. He said “God’s plan works through our choices, not around or despite them.” He must have momentarily forgotten the wisdom of the Westminster Confession of Faith on providence.
III. God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.
So, God does work despite them, without them, against them and above them. Them being our choices.
“Because God is both sovereign and suffering, we know our suffering always has meaning even though we cannot see it. We can trust him without understanding it all.”
He ties all this together so to speak in returning to the final restoration. At the resurrection, His people enter a glorified state and environment. Not only are we restored in resurrection but we are perfected in our character and no longer want to sin. The world we will occupy will no longer be subject to frustration. There will be no more tears as a result. There will come a day when suffering is no more.
He then moves into the reasons for suffering. Any experience of suffering may have more than one reason behind it. For instance, all of them glorify God though often in ways we cannot yet see. The man born blind suffered, not for his or his parents’ sin, but that Christ might be glorified as the One who restores sight. Keller takes an interesting turn here in discussing Elizabeth Elliot’s book No Graven Image. We often create false images of God and therefore false expectations of God. He works to glorify Himself by removing those graven images from our minds.
We can also suffer to bring glory to God in the eyes of others. This happens when we suffer well, with the eyes of faith even if we don’t understand. I have experienced this a few times, and was very surprised when people told my how encouraged they were by how I suffered faithfully. From my perspective there was plenty of whining, anger and unbelief. But they saw, deeper perhaps, in the perseverance a faith that wouldn’t let God or that at least kept begging God to hang on to me. Suffering well is one way we communicate the reality of the Christ and the gospel to others.
He then talks about Learning to Walk. Wisdom is not received, but learned through painful experience. Our suffering prepares for us a greater glory in the future. Our suffering is also productive in transforming our hearts when we submit to it. Suffering is used by God to sanctify us. Keller notes that it transforms our attitude toward ourselves, changes our relationship to the good things in our lives and strengthens our relationship with God. Suffering brings us into God’s gymnasium where our weaknesses are revealed and God begins to work to rectify them.
As Peter reminds us, we should not be surprised by the suffering we experience or will experience. The health & wealth gospel does people a great disservice by failing to prepare them for suffering. The real gospel calls us to prepare for suffering. We must gain sound theology before we enter the furnace because once we are there it is too late. In the furnace we are able to draw upon the spiritual resources (sound theology, the Spirit, the community of faith, the means of grace) that we have received prior to entering the furnace. We need to know the story of creation, fall, atonement & resurrection and restoration. Here our heart can find rest in the furnace.
Keller ends the section with the varieties of suffering and sufferers. Sometimes we suffer because our own actions bring it upon ourselves. Jonah suffered greatly because he didn’t go to Ninevah. David brought suffering in his life because of his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah to cover up his indiscretion. The pain of our circumstances is amplified as we struggle with guilt and shame. Sometimes we sin for doing well, experiencing betrayal or persecution. In those times we often struggle with forgiving those who have wronged us. See, the dynamics of the suffering are quite different and require a different “medicine.” We can also suffer loss through death or transition. We will often wrestle with anger toward God in those hours. The book of Job teaches us that sometimes our suffering is mysterious. Job never knew why he suffered. We experience great confusion, doubt and the temptation toward unbelief.
The person in the midst of the suffering is also different. We each have different dispositions and therefore may experience it differently. We may need to hear something differently. There are no stock, one-size fits all, kind of answer. Some of us isolate ourselves. Some explode while other implode. Some struggle with a sense of condemnation or abandonment. All of us are tempted to find ways to end the pain illegitimately.
Overall, this is a good section that covers plenty of ground and draws on a variety of resources. It is a good way to prepare for the furnace.