Timothy Keller has died at age 72 of pancreatic cancer (Source). He was a pastor, speaker, and author of many Christian books. I enjoyed Keller’s teachings and style of writing, but he also had a massive personal impact on my life. I write this tribute to him.
I wanted to die.
I’d been depressed since I was 16, and I was now 27 years old. 11 years of wondering what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I seem to do anything right? Why did everyone else have a better grasp on life than I did?
And though I went to a great counselor and it helped for a while, the older I got, the worse my problems became. Self-harm, continued suicidal ideation, and worst of all, a constant feeling of worthlessness and inferiority. I’d had multiple jobs and hated them all. I was poor. I struggled to make friends. I didn’t seem to have any purpose in the world.
On top of it all? I was a Christian, and had been for many years. So if my life was full of misery, was God mad at me? Or was he just withholding the good life because he’s a jerk? The hope so many Christians told me about seemed to work out better for them than me. I’d obeyed God in a thousand ways, from leaving a paying job for an unpaid internship that went nowhere, and then leaving the Midwest for Colorado, then Colorado for Idaho, and I was still stuck in the same miserable rut with a crappy job and more bills than ever before, and no way out.
That’s when I found Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.
I’d read Keller before, and loved his writing style. Analytic, yet clear. Very C.S. Lewis. Not everybody’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. And hey, “Pain and Suffering”? The bite marks on my wrist and arms would probably relate to that.
And when I finished the book, the depression and worthlessness that haunted me for at least 11 years disappeared forever. While I’ve had deep darkness and horrible days since then, they have never been as powerful or lasted as long, no matter what’s hit me.
God, of course, is the ultimate answer, but Keller was the means. His book is no miracle, nor will everyone find it as helpful as I did, but there were three big reasons Walking with God through Pain and Suffering hit me in a new way, and stuck with me for years after.
First of all, Tim Keller never shies away from the reality of pain. Keller doesn’t ascribe to the “Well, if you look at it this way…” theology that ignores suffering. Even when he shares stories of victory through pain, he acknowledges the fallout of that pain. We hurt. We suffer. To deny it is to deny Christ’s death and our wounds, or to trivialize them. “Oh, at least you’re not facing serious persecution.” Just shut up.
More importantly, acknowledging pain showed me that hope and pain can coexist. You don’t have to get through pain or ignore pain to find joy and hope; you can have them at the same time. In fact, pain is one of the best ways we find hope and joy because we look for them more. At least, I certainly did. To hear that my pain was real, and that I could have help before healing? I will never forget the feeling of cool water trickling down my parched throat.
Second, Keller admits he doesn’t fully know why God allows pain. He offers suggestions, possibilities, and theoretical discussions, but he never simplifies things into Baby’s First Apologetics. Keller knows that God embodies mystery, and he doesn’t always explain himself (see the book of Job).
Instead of pat answers, Keller encourages trust. Trust that God does know what he’s doing, that he does care, and that he does know what pain feels like. The biggest brain-changer for me was realizing that it was very possible that God led people through pain because, for reasons I can’t understand, it was a better path than the painless one. I began to see that God is bigger than me. If God gave me everything I was demanding, it would somehow make me worse, not better, because I didn’t really know what was best for me. I wanted comfort, nothing more.
So, I began to imagine a better world beyond my comfort, and let God take me into the pain, instead of running from it.
Finally, Keller spoke to the gut as well as the brain. The brain wants reasons, but when the pain is fresh, we act out of our impulses, not logic. Again, it’s cruel to tell people “Stop acting out of pain and use your head” because it says their pain doesn’t matter. Keller argued that the illogical, tantrum-throwing heart needs care, love, and listening, not simply rebuke. Like how David would frequently lament his sorry state, THEN praise God. Not before. (see the Psalms)
It taught me to be kinder to my soul, and let myself hurt. Perhaps more importantly, it taught me to take that pain to God and realize that he was in there with me. God doesn’t just show himself by ending our pain; he’s right there in the pain, too. That goes back to the first point.
When people hurt, we can’t just give them answers. A broken leg doesn’t want an anatomy lesson; it wants the pain to stop. We can’t always do that, but we can sit with people and ruin our own day by letting ourselves suffer with them. Like Jesus did.
In the end…Keller’s book taught me to see God in a whole new way. Rather than merely a God who takes away pain and gives people rewards for their hard labor to prove he loves them, I began to worship a God who enters into the pain itself, who speaks to us in that moment, who touches the deep places of our soul that pain brings to the surface. And I began to wonder at a God who could used pain to shape us in ways pleasure and peace alone cannot.
I found a bigger God than the one I used to know. A God I could trust because he knows the best road, and that the path of pain is an opportunity. And that he’ll never send me somewhere he won’t go himself.
I’m 35 now. It’s been 8 years since I first read Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. It did not get me a good job right away. I’m still poor. But when I leaned into the pain and trusted that it would shape me, not end me, if I trusted God, the depression ceased almost overnight. And in that darkness, I found a path to walk as a mental health counselor. More and more, I’ve learned to lean into sorrow, both to grieve and to learn.
Yesterday, I worried about my future like I usually do. The student loan pause is about to end, and I’m just an intern. How will I pay those bills? And when I graduate with my Master’s Degree, will I make enough money to pay back a whole new set of loans? What will become of me and my family?
But then, I remembered. God’s in charge. I’ve gone into that anxious darkness so many times that the healing power of God has become almost second nature. Trust is no longer a thought, it’s a gut reaction. Not always, of course; I still have to stop and mourn or cry or beg God for help. But it’s so much easier to trust now. Hope is more of a reflex.
That’s how it works: you can’t think something true. You have to live it and trust it until the experience rewrites your brain to FEEL it. And thanks to Tim Keller, I can feel God now.
One final note: Keller’s book and style won’t help everybody. No one book can do that. Not everybody agreed with Keller’s style of addressing culture. And this blog post is not meant to be a full theology of any kind. It’s just a personal reflection, nothing more.
It’s just me saying…thanks, Mr. Keller. I know I am not Jesus, nor do I know your heart, but as far as the work you’ve done in one man’s life…well done, good and faithful servant.
2 thoughts on “How Tim Keller Saved my life”
Great testimony, Mike!! I am so pleased to hear about the new place to which your journey has taken you. I, too, have found a true and deeper relationship with Christ through my journey of pain and suffering. My crisis of faith in this regard came in my mid-30s as well. I am approaching 70 at the end of this year, and I can say that the second half of my life has been so much fuller—albeit, much more challenging—since the life lessons were so much more soul grappling! My sanctification is well in process, and I can only thank my Lord and Savior all the more for His mercy and lovingkindness through it all. Thank you for sharing your heart, Mike. It encouraged me to share mine. – Becky Benne
I’m glad it encouraged your to share your story! I think we need stories like this because the logical side of using pain to find greatness can sometimes sound overwhelming or outright cruel. But experiences are a lot harder to contradict, and they sit in a different place in our brains so that they have more impact. Thanks for sharing!