I remember once being asked by a person with a physical disability, “Did God do this to me?”
My answer was quick and single-minded. “No! God didn’t do this to you. He grieves with you.”
…As I thought about that conversation though, I wasn’t so sure about my answer. Had I given the right one? How could I know what God had done for certain?
I’ve always been interested in just how “in control” of events God is, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading, thinking, and changing my mind. In recent years, I’ve become a lot more comfortable with saying, “I don’t know,” and living within the tension of what I do know of God. That in mind, Walking With God Through Pain & Suffering has to be the best, most comprehensive book on the subject of suffering that I’ve ever read. Timothy Keller (who has at this point become the most influential author in my life) has written a nuanced, empathetic and profoundly biblical book which has become my go-to on the subject. I’ve already started recommending it.
Keller’s refreshing suggestion is that while certain theodicies (systems which attempt to make sense of the question of why God allows suffering) can be helpful, overall none is totally sufficient. In fact, Keller believes we should not try to formulate theodicies, but instead mount a defence of God’s goodness, and show that the argument against God from evil is not a consistent one (p95).
What I like about Keller’s position, is that he advocates a complete and childlike trust in God, even when situations go beyond our understanding. He writes, “Three-year-olds cannot understand most of why their parents allow and disallow what they do. But though they aren’t capable of comprehending their parents’ reasons, they are capable of knowing their parents’ love and therefore are capable of trusting them and living securely. That is what they really need. Now, the difference between God and human beings is infinitely greater than the difference between a thirty-year-old parent and their three-year-old child. So we should not expect to be able to grasp all of God’s purposes, but through the cross and gospel of Jesus Christ, we can know his love. And that is what we need most.” (p122).
This is not a book of elegant solutions and easy answers, but instead, Keller embraces what I have heard described as truths in tension or two stakes theology. This is the idea that two things can be equally true, while not seeming to logically fit. And indeed, we need to live in the midst of that tension, if we’re to be faithful to the bible. An example might be the idea that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
Keller applies this to the concept of God’s control of events. He argues that biblically, God is completely in control of history, but that he exercises this control in a way that works in and through our freely chosen actions. Much like the divine/human dynamic of Christ, Keller believes that history is 100% under God’s purposeful direction, but that humans are also 100% responsible for their choices. Ultimately, he says, “God’s plan works through our choices, not around or despite them… God works out his will through our willing actions.” (p140).
This kind of tension-thinking surfaces again when Keller spends a chapter looking at the sovereignty of God, quickly followed by a chapter exploring the suffering of God. God is in control, yes, but he has suffered in Christ. Indeed he grieves and is with us in suffering. He says that these truths need to be held together, not contradicting but instead complimenting one another. He suggests it’s a Platonic error to see God as incapable of emotions or suffering, but also an equally dangerous error to believe God is incapable of stopping all suffering. Still, “We should trust him because he’s earned our trust on the Cross. So we can trust him even when he hasn’t yet shown us the reason why. He is good for it.” (p154).
Again, Keller advocates for the double dynamic of lament and trust in the midst of suffering. He points out that some Christian writers gravitate towards the complaints of Job, or the laments of the Psalms as the right way to process pain, while others (usually traditionalists) argue that we should always trust God’s unfathomable wisdom and sovereignty. “The fact is both sets of texts are in the Bible and they are both important. We should not interpret one group in such a way that it contradicts or weakens the assertions of the other.” (p255).
I’m sure I’m making this book sound abstract and philosophical, but it’s not. It’s quite empathetic and practically useful. One very helpful feature is that most of the chapters end with a personal testimony from someone who’s experienced deep suffering. These are all incredibly moving.
While parts of the book do tackle the “big questions”, the last third (entitled Walking With God in the Furnace) is full of practical wisdom. Keller knows what suffering looks like; he has survived cancer, as well as losing a younger, gay brother to AIDS. He acknowledges the reality of suffering, and the need to express lament, confusion and even anger. Still, even in the midst of that, God is there, and he knows what it is to have suffered.
But what I love about this book, is that Keller doesn’t hold up one truth at the expense of another. He is determined to live in the biblical tension. So he advocates trust in a God who will somehow weave even suffering into his perfect plan. And most especially, a God who has suffered for us in Jesus.
I think that my answer to the question of, “Did God cause me to suffer like this?” would be a little bit different now. Perhaps it would look a bit more like this…
“I don’t know. But here’s what I know: God has suffered, and he is with you and for you in your suffering. He knows what it’s like. Also, God is good. He’s shown us what he’s like on the cross. Sometimes his ways are beyond our understanding, but we can trust him. And lastly, he is powerful. As hard as it might be to see right now, he can use even this for good. One day you will be healed and whole, every bad thing will come untrue, and we’ll see that God knew what he was doing all along.”