Yesterday I posted a link to an interview between Matt Smethurst and Tim Keller, which originated from The Gospel Coalition. My inspiration for posting this interview dealt with the importance of the topic of suffering well from a biblical perspective. I haven’t read Tim Keller’s new book called Walking with God through Suffering, but it’s on my ever increasing list of books to read. In this blogpost series, I’ll be confining my observations solely to two of Keller’s responses from the article.
Now, it’s time to tackle Keller’s responses. Here’s the question from Smethurst and Keller’s answer:
Smethurst: “One of the themes pervading the book is the idea that suffering ought not be avoided or denied. Why should we embrace the experiences in “God’s gymnasium” that he sends our way?”
Keller: “Secularism sees suffering as completely useless, while many ancient religions see suffering as useful to your character growth and spiritual attainments. While Christianity certainly acknowledges the outrageous, mysterious injustice of much suffering (as does the West)—and while it also points to the ways it serves as a “gymnasium” to help us grow stronger spiritually (as does the East)—I don’t think the Bible sees the main use of suffering to be our benefit. I think the main reason we should be patient under suffering is that it glorifies God and that, for Christians, doing so is our greatest pleasure and duty. When we endure suffering with all the patience we can muster, we treat God as God, and that glorifies him, regardless of any other results we can discern.”
I like that Keller begins his reply by illustrating how modern secularism’s perception of suffering contrasts with the ancient (non-Christian) religions of the past. This illustrates how real the avoidance and denial of suffering has become within secularism. There’s a strong tendency within post-modernity to despise the notion that the past has anything to offer by way instruction. What I deduce from the first part of Keller’s reply is that these ancient religions contained beliefs and practices that addressed the reality of suffering. It takes courage to face life head on, especially when it comes to suffering. This is a good segue to Keller’s second part of his response.
After making the distinction between secularism and ancient religions, Keller develops his answer to illustrate the further differences between Christianity and secularism and the ancient religions. It’s here that Keller nails it. I agree with his assertion that the believer’s patient endurance through suffering gives God the glory. This is what the bible teaches in James 1, 1 Peter 3-5, and in the letters of the apostle Paul. Of course, churches and believers aren’t exempt from the pull of secularist notions of avoiding and denying the reality of suffering. There are streams of doctrine in the church that downplay the reality of suffering in the believer’s life.
One of those teachings is the prosperity gospel, sometimes called the health and wealth gospel. Hear these words from the apostle Paul to the Philippians: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:27-30, ESV).
Here’s the thing about Paul’s words to the Philippians. First, Paul states that believing in faith that Christ is who he is unto salvation is a gift from God. Second, the corresponding suffering due to one’s belief in Christ and subsequent proclamation of that salvation, is also a gift from God. No believer would object to viewing her or his salvation as a gift from God. The question posed to us by Paul, and the question that rumbles underneath Keller’s reply is this: “Do I see my suffering for Christ’s sake as a gift from God?” In fact, asking myself that question precedes the notion of giving God the glory in the midst of the suffering. In other words, when I reject God’s gift to suffer for Christ’s sake, I’m refusing to give him the glory.
It’s easy to fill churches and stadiums with teaching that places too much emphasis on being blessed in practical ways through money, health, career, you name it. It’s much harder to attract people with a message that says you are blessed precisely because you are suffering for Christ’s sake. In part 2, I’ll address Keller’s response to suffering well in light of the Day of Judgment.