Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller: A (Short) Review

My wife miscarried in early 2013, which led us to wrestle with the question, “Where is God in the midst of suffering?” It is not easy. If anything else, however, Christianity is a religion which causes you to wrestle through such questions because at the center of the faith is the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christians have been reflecting on such tough questions through all of church history.

Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, is one of the latest contributions which grapples with that question. I purposefully used the word “grapples” because Keller doesn’t offer trite cliches you can often hear from others when you are suffering. Rather, he very honestly looks at what Scripture has to say about suffering. Rather than rehashing the book, let me give you a few takeaways.

Keller makes a very good point that “no suffering is for nothing” (180). Even if you are suffering alone with no human watching, someone is watching! From examples to the angels and demons who saw Job suffering to the angels who desire to look in salvation (1 Peter 1:12), your suffering is seen. And this can bestow great meaning on suffering. If everything we do is watched, it surely infuses great meaning and purpose into everyday life, as well as our suffering. Not only do these spiritual beings see our suffering, but more importantly, God sees it. There is no such thing as meaningless suffering.

Keller also strongly debunks the notion that people should not fear death. Many secular people believe that death shouldn’t even be given a second thought because upon death, you just cease to exist. Keller argues, however, that death should be feared. He writes, “What is it that primarily gives your life meaning? Isn’t it relationships with the people you love? Can you really honestly say that you have no dread of a future state that will strip you of everything you hold dear now? Do your loved ones mean so little to you that you don’t care about being separated from them forever?” (36). Only Christianity has the resources to fully appreciate the dread of death, but also give hope to overcome it. Because Jesus ultimately defeated death through His resurrection, His people need not fear it.  But the secular do not have that resource at their disposal. Be afraid; be very afraid.

In the midst of suffering, Keller advocates that Christian think! It might seem strange to advocate thinking deeply during difficult times. But reflecting on the core doctrines of the faith actually helps us endure suffering: “But think! Is Jesus really the Son of God? Did he really come to earth, die for you, rise again, and pass through the heavens to the right hand of God?…If so, then there is all the comfort in the world…Either Jesus is on the throne ruling all things for you or this is as good as it gets” (299). Keller even makes the point that deeper Bible study is often more useful during times of suffering than seeking out devotional “thoughts for the day.” Why? Because God’s peace comes through thinking, according to Philippians 4.

Buy, borrow, or bypass: Definitely buy this book. Having gone through a really difficult time, it helped me out a lot. This is Keller at his best: interacting with secular arguments, drawing practical application from Scripture, and ultimately pointing me back to Jesus Christ.

A Shot of Faith to the Head: A (Kind of) Review

A (kind of) review of A Shot of Faith to the Head by Mitch Stokes.

This book unnerved me. In a good way. But it still unnerved me.

Because it challenged much of what I believed about we as humans know stuff. One challenge to belief in God is “show me.” As in, show me the evidence for the belief. Many philosophers argue that for a belief to be rational it must have support evidence. This is called “evidentialism.” Mitch Stokes goes on at length to show how evidentialism is wrong.

Let’s start with conclusion: Stokes argues that if evidentialism is true, then all beliefs (even belief in evidentialism) is irrational. How so? Well, if every belief needs proper “evidence” to be rational, then the evidence (which is usually stated in the form of an argument) which verifies the belief  also require evidence. So on, so forth, for infinity. For example:

I believe Roscoe the dog stole my shoes…Why?

Because Roscoe always steals my shoes…Why?

Because I’ve seen Roscoe steal my shoes…Why?

Because I implicitly trust my sense as being reliable…Why?

Because I AM ACTUALLY LIVING BY FAITH…

 I guess there’s no escape after all.

So if evidentialism is wrong, then people can have beliefs which are rational without evidence (p. 25). Now, isn’t that unnerving? Yes. But Stokes goes on to show how rational beliefs are formed:

“A rational belief is one formed by a properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment” (25).

Here’s where things get a little sticky for the philosophical materialist, or atheist. Any notion of proper function goes out the window with naturalism (believing that there is no supernatural world, Creator, etc.). So, you want to learn something? Most of the time, you can learn a lot through mere observation. But how do you know that your eyes are not deceiving you? What we do is we assume that our eyes, and ears, and our minds, function properly. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that proper function, however, assumes a designer who intends His creation to function a certain way.

For example, the proper function of a car is to drive. But car engineers have made the car for the purpose of driving. But imagine you live a world where no cars exist, or have ever existed. And over time, a bunch of scrap metal in a pile fuses together and forms what looks like a Corvette. How would you know what this thing should do? You couldn’t know whether it should drive, or be a huge paper weight, because there is no designer, and thus no intention behind this pile of metal.

If there is no God, then the universe lacks intention. And if the universe lacks intention, then it would be impossible to say whether or not something in functioning properly. So you could never know whether your eyes or ears or your reason was ever working the right way. You could really never have any knowledge of anything.

But this actually helps us bolster our faith in God. Because belief is God is rational even though we may not have evidence for it. It can be believed in a “basic way.” In other words, belief in God can be formed “by a properly functioning cognitive faculty in an appropriate environment” (59). Often, certain experiences wake within us a belief in God, something transcendent like the birth of a child or a near-death experience.

In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to start with the foundation of belief in God. All people have these foundational beliefs. Remember, if evidentialism is true, then even our foundational beliefs need evidence or arguments. But since they are “foundational” beliefs, then no such evidence exists, and thus the whole structure of our belief system is irrational. To put a point on it: I cannot prove that the Bible is God’s Word and the highest authority. For, if I proved that belief with some piece of evidence, then that piece of evidence would be a greater authority than the Bible! So what I do is start with the Bible as a foundation and work from there.

Confused?

Maybe, I am too. But Stoke’s book is a challenging and stimulating read.

I will probably have to work out more of Stoke’s work in future blog posts.

Buy, borrow, or byass: Buy this book if you want to be challenged. Easier to read than Plantinga, but still not the easiest thing in the world to read.

A Slap to Our (Individualistic) Faces

The prevailing view of life today is that of an individual standing on his or her own, heroically juggling various responsibilities—family, friendships, career, leisure, chores, and money…From time to time the pressures overwhelm us and we drop one or more of the balls. All too often church becomes one of those balls…An alternative model is to view our various activities and responsibilities as spokes of a wheel. At the center or hub of life is not me as an individual but us as members of the Christian community. Church is not another ball for me to juggle but that which defines who I am and gives Christlike shape to my life…In our experience, people are often enthusiastic about community until it impinges on their decision-making. For all their rhetoric, they still expect to make decisions by themselves for themselves. We assume we are masters of our own lives.

Steve Timis and Tim Chester, Total Church, pp. 44-45