I am relatively new to the Christian faith and don't usually read books as "academic" as this, so this book was on my bookshelf for a few months before I could start reading it from cover to cover. Read the introduction. It helpfully explains that the author has set the book out in three sections - the first is a philosophical analysis of the approach different religions and cultures take to suffering, and why Christians bear suffering better than those of any other faith and philosophy, using examples such as the Stoics, Buddhists, Western secular society, etc. Unlike Stoics and Buddhists, who mitigate suffering by detachment from the world, Christians suffer better not because they love the world less, but because they love God more - God is with them in their suffering. His comments on Luther's view of suffering were most helpful. The second part of the book moves from the philosophical to the personal, through examples from the Bible and the third section provides the most practical material. I have yet to read these two sections. Keller says that if you are in the midst of adversity, you may want to read the second and third sections first. The central metaphor for all three sections is that of the Fiery Furnace, a place where, with skill, matter is refined and made more beautiful and useful, and also, in the Bible, a place where the Son of God was present along with the three men. The book is academic in format, uses material from a wide range of authors and philosophers as well as from the Bible, and is well-referenced with excellent footnotes BUT at the end of most chapters there is a real life story. These stories, like colourful illustrations, speak directly and almost miraculously of God's presence in the midst of suffering. For someone like me, who has lived most of my life in a secular, materialistic world, these stories offer amazing evidence of God's presence with us in times of suffering. If the book gets too deep, go to the end of one of the chapters and find one of these stories.
Tim Keller has written lots of excellent books, the best of which I think is "The Reason for God" which is the main book I give to non Christian friends who are interested in finding out more about the Christian faith. While this book on suffering is of course written using Christian arguments based on the bible, it is extremely accessible for anyone of any belief or none.Keller looks at a wide range of views on suffering and how to deal with it, starting from ancient Greek philosophers and ending up with modern secularists.
I realize that the question of suffering for some of us is not an academic issue but an intensely painful and hurtful, even overpowering reality. If you are suffering, Christian or not but interested in learning more about the Christian approach to suffering, this is the book for you. Its also written in a very sympathetic and compassionate way. This is a topic to be approached with the greatest sensitivity and kindness.
Keller's book looks at "Why do we suffer?" and then "What should we do when we are suffering?" The book splits into two parts, the longer first addressing the first question and the shorter and particularly strong second half looking at what we should do as Christians when in "the furnace." The furnace comes from the story some of us may remember from Sunday school of three men in ancient Babylon, Shadrach Meshach and Abednego. Its in the book of Daniel. They were thrown into the furnace for refusing to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's idol. In the fire Nebuchadnezzar is amazed to see that they have been joined by a fourth person, whom Christians believe was the pre incarnate Jesus Christ. They come out unhurt. But Keller points out that very often Christians don't get rescued from "the furnace." And in fact the three men recognise this as they say to the King that if God wants to save them from suffering and death he can, but he may not. "Even if he doesn't though, King, we are still not going to bow down to the idol." Being a Christian Keller underlines is emphatically not an insurance policy against all the sadness and suffering of life. Many Christians, he argues, are "practical Deists" that is they see God as a divine being whose job it is to meet their needs. Surveys show that many Christians see God owing all but the most villainous people a comfortable life. That is emphatically not what the bible teaches. In fact, Keller points out God may well remove from us his blessings to teach us painfully to love him for his own sake and not what he gives us.
The strongest section is dealing with this in the personal response to suffering. Keller looks at various people in the bible and how they deal with it. Most famously in the oldest and in some ways the most mysterious book in the bible, Job. If you are not so familiar with the story, Job suffers the loss of his entire family and wealth, his health, everything. He was then visited by three friends, so called "comforters" who were worse than useless. They told him his suffering was his own fault. The book is very real in that Job is no "plaster saint" but rages against God and verges on telling God he is wrong. Then in the end of the book God himself speaks to Job essentially saying "I am God and you are not". He then restores Jobs life. Interestingly he doesn't rebuke Job for his profound crying out to God. God invites us to cry to him in our pain.
The reader of Job as Keller points out knows why this evil is fallen on Job - it's the devil who has been allowed by God to make Job suffer. Job himself though is never told that. we will often (though not always - see the story of Joseph) only see how God has used our suffering for his glory when we meet God face to face. The book of Job, Keller points out, therefore rightly points to a complete surrender to Gods sovereignty. This is very important truth but its not enough. For there's more in the New Testament which comes filled with an "an unimaginable comfort for those who are trusting in God. The sovereign God himself has come down into this world and has experience its darkness...He did it not to justify himself but to justify us....so that someday he can return and end all evil without having to condemn us".
Suffering can either drive us to God or away from him. Thinking about, reading about and praying to the Lord Jesus is rightly pointed out by Keller as the way to do the former. The Lord asks us to follow him through the furnace into which he, the only sinless man, voluntarily entered. He will abide with us and bring us out of the other side. He proves to us how much he loves us by suffering for us first. "Herein is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us".
Keller has a great quote which someone once said to him. This is perhaps the best summary of the book."I always knew, in principle, that 'Jesus is all you need' to get through. But you don't really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have". Or, as Keller himself writes the bible does not really answer finally the question as to where suffering comes from. But "for reasons past our finding out, even Christ did not bring salvation and grace apart from infinite suffering on the cross, as he loved us enough to face the suffering with patience and courage, so we must learn to trust in him enough to do the same."
This book really compliments "Where is God When it Hurts" by Philip Yancey. I recommend both books on this VERY important subject. Suffering is one of the biggest battles Christians will face in their walk with God AND one of the main reasons non-Christians struggle with believing in God. So, Christians need to have answers on this subject for evangelism. AND, Christians need proper answers on this subject to minister to others who are suffering.
In the last four years, there are many books I have read all the way through. But this past Sunday May 11th marks one of the only times that I have read through a book twice. That book is Walking With God Through Pain And Suffering by Timothy Keller.
The first time I read it, I started on October 16, 2013 and finished on November 15. It impacted me so profoundly, I knew I had to pick it up again soon. The second time, I read more slowly, starting on February 6th, 2014 and finishing on May 11.It is simply a wonderful book. The whole idea behind it is, everyone suffers. As Keller says, “No one is immune.” Therefore, it is important to know a thing or two about pain and suffering.
In the book, Tim Keller offers a helpful survey of different cultural and religious approaches to suffering—and how, interestingly, secular Western culture is perhaps the weakest in providing resources for its sufferers. He then addresses each view of suffering in light of the very nuanced Biblical approach—an approach that turns out to capture the strengths of the many cultural approaches to suffering, while also performing strongly in the areas where the other approaches are weak.
Keller closes with a set of chapters on how to get through suffering in everyday life in light of what the Bible offers. This section is probably the one I will most often return to. Keller is a Christian minister of many decades of pastoring and much wisdom, and it is here where his pastoral sensibilities shine in a special way. He offers a sensitive and well-written series of practices and disciplines such as Hoping, Praying, Weeping, and Trusting that overlap and inter-penetrate one another to form a strong, true-to-human-complexity approach to dealing with suffering.
In summary, I recommend this book very highly. As said, it is one of the few books I have read twice, and I am looking forward to reading it even a third time very soon. God has used Keller’s words to very dramatically alter how I suffer, and I can now say that the suffering I have experienced in my young life no longer holds the kind of sting it once did, and also that I feel my spirit buoyed and my skin thickened for the suffering that I, my wife, and our children will encounter in the years to come.
With a full heart, I recommend Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering to you.