With his high volume of writing in recent years, it is easy to wonder when Tim Keller will become trite and repetitious. That time has not yet come. As long as there remains a pronounced gap in understanding between Christians and the culture around them, Keller will help remedy the need. In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, he not only helps explain the present cultural moment but also furnishes Christians with a great tool for engaging the culture.
Keller helpfully divides this book into three sections. The first deals more with the greater philosophical picture. As Keller frequently acknowledges, however, such theoretical discussions are not particularly helpful for sufferers on the ground level. Consequently, the second section of the book deals with a more constructive, biblical approach to suffering, while the third section deals practically with Christian disciplines in the face of suffering.
In terms of originality and usefulness, the first section could be its own book. While Keller has written other books that broadly deal with culture, he hones in on a particularly important issue for believers and unbelievers alike in this section—the problem of suffering. He doesn’t give a typical list of apologetic arguments but flips the script in order to show the vacuity of the broader culture and its impotency in the face of suffering.
First, the brazen assertion: American culture is the least prepared in modern history to deal with suffering. Most every culture throughout history has tried to make suffering meaningful or redemptive. With our present-day obsession with happiness in America, however, suffering can be viewed as nothing but adversarial to our way of life. It must be avoided at all costs. We are a people who can’t abide even the thought of suffering and death, and when it does come, must find something other than a broken world to blame.
I read this book while training in an austere environment with soldiers and without communication with the outside world. When we got our phones back, the world was seemingly on fire with COVID-19 and we returned to a society we didn’t recognize. And just like that, Keller’s assertions moved from prescient to prophetic. The pandemic hasn’t proven nearly as frightening as the fear which has captivated the hearts of people across the country. It was once said that the spines of the Greatest Generation were steeled in the Great Depression. Let us hope that such is the outcome for our generation having come through the pandemic.
Amidst the present conflagration, one thing we are not hearing: A call for a Christian response to the suffering. In general, people don’t really care what we think. We are now firmly relegated to the margins. Perhaps it is best that we don’t waste time providing a theodicy—a defense of God—when people aren’t asking for it and are simultaneously grappling with their own inability to explain suffering.
This leads to Keller’s second most valuable contribution with this book (and Greg Koukl does this as well). You think the problem of evil is a problem for Christians? Try addressing it with any other—any other—worldview. Where does it fit? How is it accounted for? How can hope be sustained in the face of it? Only the Bible has a place for suffering in its theology that is neither naïve nor callous. You may not like how the Bible handles suffering, but the Bible alone provides a historical narrative that explains why we sin and suffer and how God has dealt, is dealing, and plans to deal with it. This line of reasoning—that suffering does not coherently fit in any worldview but Christianity—makes this book supremely helpful.
What makes this first section of the book so strong is also what would make it inaccessible to many of my soldiers. Keller’s careful and charitable interaction with an array of scholarship makes for great fodder when dealing with a college-educated metropolitan audience. For the rest of society, it must be re-interpreted in experiential terms in order to be effective.
Yet Keller doesn’t leave us in the ivory tower. His latter two sections provide the material with which we would regularly feed the sheep and comfort the suffering. Perhaps Keller’s most helpful contribution in these latter portions is his distinction between different types of suffering. He writes:
The Bible forbids us to use a single template for handling pain and grief, but modern people tend to be more reductionist. We live in a technological society and we want simple “how to” formulations. Yet there is nothing less practical for sufferers than to think there is just one set of practical steps for “fixing” their situation. (205)
As Keller often does, he simultaneously chastises clumsy approaches to Scripture and a modern worldview that prefers easy answers to satisfying explanations. He then provides a host of biblical examples to show different types of suffering and how they are handled by God and His people. This level of nuance allows for a more careful and helpful mode of counseling our fellow sufferers.
With the foundation laid, Keller uses the final section to equip Christians to deal with their own suffering. A small but significant detail: Each chapter has a one world title, such as “Walking” and “Weeping.” There is something especially pastoral—at this intimate part of the book—to offering sparse, simple language. In the face of suffering, simplicity trumps sophistication.
Here, Keller is at home in biblical narratives and psalmody—simultaneously showing their poignancy and their redemptive hope in Christ. And this is what the struggling Christian needs most. Keller has shown the vacuity of the broader cultural worldview, given us tools to engage it, provided a nuanced look at suffering from the Bible, and now he offers the pastoral care. He has led the reader from the marketplace to the prayer closet.
One final note: At the close of each chapter, Keller provides stories of sufferers written in their own words. This adds an emotional hue throughout the book that makes it both more readable and more meaningful. It is a practical demonstration of Keller’s desire to keep the matter of suffering from the realm of abstractions and clichés. As Christians race to understand the culture as it seemingly falls apart around them, there are few better authors—or better books—to read right now than Keller and Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. You will come away more competent in God’s Word, confident in God’s sovereign grace and power, and more equipped to enter the fray—wherever the Lord may so lead us.
Stephen Roberts is a US Army chaplain and has written for The Washington Times and The Federalist.