“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4) At the end of the Bible we find the ultimate hope. But to whom was John writing? To people who were suffering terrible things. Christians were being inflicted with large scale persecutions by emperor Domitian. They were losing their homes, torn to pieces by wild animals in the arenas and being impaled on stakes and covered with pitch and lit afire. To face such overwhelming pain and suffering, he gave them the hope of a new heavens and a new earth, and it is a simple fact of history that it worked. The early Christians took their suffering with great poise, singing hymns and forgiving those who were killing them. And the more they were killed, the more Christianity grew. Why? Because those watching saw that the Christians had something they did not, a living hope.
“The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future.” Do you believe that when you die that is the end? That this is all the happiness you’re ever going to get? That the sun will eventually die and the universe will suffer heat death and that human civilization will be forgotten? Or do you believe there will be a new heavens and a new earth? That there will be a judgement where every evil and injustice will be addressed? That you have a future of endless joy? Which of these you believe will determine how you handle your own suffering.
Howard Thurman gave a response to the criticism that Negro spiritual songs were too “otherworldly.” He said, “The facts make clear that [this sung faith] did serve to deepen the capacity of endurance and the absorption of suffering…It taught a people how to ride high in life, to look squarely in the face those facts that argue most dramatically against all hope and to use those facts as raw material out of which they fashioned hope that the environment, with all its cruelty could not crush…This…enabled them to reject annihilation and to affirm a terrible right to live.” The slaves believed the Christian faith and knew of the new heavens and earth and the judgement. They knew the perpetrators of their injustice were not going to get away with it, that their desires would be fulfilled and that no amount of oppression could extinguish it because their hope was not in the present, but in the future. To those who responded that these songs were wonderful symbols but couldn’t be taken literally, he argued that if you can’t take them literally, then they cannot be a real hope. “In the end to reject the literal truth is to deny life itself of its dignity and man the right or necessity of dimensional fulfillment. In such a [secular] view the present moment is all there is – man…becomes a prisoner in a tight world of momentary events – no more and no less.” Imagine telling a slave that if they could go to school, they would learn that this life is all there is. There’s no heaven to make up for their suffering. There’s no judgement to address injustice and put things right. And then tell them to still live with hope and fearlessness.
We all have our own pain and suffering to walk through, but few can compare to the tortures of the early Christians or American slaves. Yet if this great hope helped so many of them, shouldn’t it help us with what we face? How can we know this future is for us? Because it is based on God’s action, not ours. Believe, trust in and rely on Jesus, who took what we deserve so we could have the heaven and glory he deserves.
Dr. Keller closes the book with these words of C.S. Lewis, “For if we take the Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.”
“If we know the biblical theology of suffering and have our hearts and minds engaged by it, then when grief, pain, and loss come, we will not be surprised…” Dr. Keller gives us a list of ten things we should do.
1. Recognize the varieties of suffering and the feelings associated with each: wrong behavior – guilt and shame, betrayals and attacks from others – anger and resentment, universal forms of loss – grief and fear, and the horrendous – confusion and perhaps anger with God.
2. Recognize the distinctions in temperament between yourself and other sufferers. How God helps you is probably not how he will help others. The experience of affliction as consisting of isolation, self-absorption, condemnation, and complicity with pain will vary depending on the causes of the suffering, the person’s emotional temperament and spiritual maturity.
3.There is weeping. Be brutally honest with yourself and God about your pain and sorrow. He is very patient with us when we are desperate.
4. We must trust. Despite your grief, you must wrestle with it until you can come to say as Jesus did, “Thy will be done.”
5. We must pray. Though Job did a lot of complaining and cursed the day he was born – he did it all in prayer. It was to God he complained; it was before God that he struggled.
6. We must be disciplined in our thinking.
7. We must be willing to do some self-examining.
8. We must be about re-ordering our lives. Suffering reveals that there are things we love too much, or we love God too little in proportion to them.
9. We should not shirk community. Suffering can be very isolating. Where is God when it hurts? The answer to that question should be, where is the church when it hurts? The church is to be a place of unparalleled sympathy and support. Find a church where sufferers are loved and supported, or where you can provide love and support. As I was walking with my wife through her cancer diagnosis and treatments, I learned that when we asked God where he was in the midst of our pain, the answer was that he was right there with us holding her in my arms.
10. Suffering from wrong behavior requires skill at receiving grace and forgiveness from God. Suffering from betrayal and attacks from others requires skill at giving grace and forgiveness to others.
I hope you have found this review to be helpful. As always, don’t take my word for it, read the book – don’t wait for the movie,
and have a little hope on me,
To learn more about Timothy Keller and his work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, you can check out his personal website, his Facebook page or the church homepage.
Keller, Timothy (2013), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-525-95245-9