In a recent article from the magazine, Relevant, Tim Keller offers insightful thoughts about the challenge of facing difficult seasons in life. This post is adapted from that article, which was reprinted from his most recent book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Tim is an author and Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
Do you want to know who you are—your strengths and weaknesses? Do you want to be a compassionate person who skillfully helps people who are hurting? Do you want to have such a profound trust in God that you are fortified against the disappointments of life? Do you want simply to be wise about how life goes?
Those are four crucial things to have—but none of them are readily achievable without suffering. There is no way to know who you really are until you are tested. There is no way to really empathize and sympathize with other suffering people unless you have suffered yourself. There is no way to really learn how to trust in God until you are drowning.
But God is with us in the fire. He knows what it’s like to live through the miseries of this world—He understands. He is near, available to be known and depended upon within the hardship. He walks with us, but the real question is—will we walk with Him? If we have created a false God-of-my-program, then when life falls apart we will simply assume He has abandoned us and we won’t seek Him. However in order to grow through our suffering, we must walk with God.
And what is that? Walking is something nondramatic, rhythmic—it consists of steady, repeated actions you can keep up in a sustained way for a long time.
Many people think of spiritual growth as something like high diving. They say, “I am going to give my life to the Lord! I am going to change all these terrible habits, and I am really going to transform! Give me another six months and I am going to be a new man or new woman!”
That is not what a walk is. A walk is day in and day out praying; day in and day out Bible reading; day in and day out obeying, talking to Christian friends and going to corporate worship, fully participating in the life of a church. It is rhythmic, on and on and on. To walk with God is a metaphor that symbolizes slow and steady progress.
So walking with God through suffering means that, in general, you will not experience some kind of instant deliverance from your questions, your sorrow, your fears. There can be times in which you receive a surprising, inexplicable “peace that passes understanding.” There will be days in which some new insight comes to you like a ray of light in a dark room. There will certainly be progress—that is part of the metaphor of walking—but in general it will be slow and steady progress that comes only if you stick to the regular, daily activities of the walking itself.
Walking with God through suffering means preeminently to see with the eyes of your heart how Jesus plunged into the fire for you when He went to the cross. This is what you need to know so you will trust Him, stick with Him and thus turn into purer gold in the heat.
This means remembering the Gospel. He was thrown into the ultimate fire, the fire we deserve. And that is how we are saved: If we believe in Him, then none of that wrath comes to us.
What if, however, you believe that God saves only those who live a very good life? If that is your belief when suffering hits, you are going to hate either God or yourself. Either you will say, “I lived a good enough life. I deserve better. God has done me wrong.” Or you will say, “Oh, I must have failed to live as I should. I am a loser.” Either way, you go into despair. A heart, then, forgetting the Gospel, will be torn between anger and guilt.
But if you say to yourself when you get thrown into the furnace, “This is my furnace. I am not being punished for my sins, because Jesus was thrown into that ultimate fire for me. And so if He went through that greatest fire steadfastly for me, I can go through this smaller furnace steadfastly for Him. And I also know it means that if I trust in Him, this furnace will only make me better.”
How has your steadfast faith taken you through your life’s challenges? Share some of your story in the comments.