Last week I finished a book that I think many of you might appreciate. You won’t find it in the “history” section of your local bookstore. Amazon categorizes it as a “Bible study,” but it’s a work that also wonderfully models the value of historical consciousness. The book is Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, by Tim Keller.
You may already be familiar with Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of works like The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and Every Good Endeavor. I knew of him but had read nothing by him until my wife encouraged me to read Keller’s meditation on the meaning of suffering. I am thankful that I did, and I am glad to recommend it, whether you are trying to make sense of your own suffering or looking for ways to support someone else in the midst of affliction. And if you really haven’t experienced deep pain in your life yet, this book is also for you. Jesus taught that the wise man built his house on the rock before the flood waters rose, so it’s prudent to lay a biblical foundation for your understanding of suffering now, not when the trial comes.
In fairness to the bean counters at Amazon, most of Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is a Bible study. Keller devotes the latter two thirds of the book to a careful examination of what the Scriptures would teach us about the meaning of suffering. But the author clearly wants to do more than offer a biblical answer to the problem of suffering. More than simply console or encourage us, he wants to equip us, to help us think more deeply and see more clearly so that we can live more faithfully.
And so Keller doesn’t immediately open his Bible and start taking us to proof texts. He wants us to think about the assumptions of contemporary western culture and alert us to the ways that we—and here I mean twenty-first century American Christians—have gradually let the world squeeze us into its mold. The first third of the book is all about putting our own views (whatever they are) in a larger context.
Keller does this in part by comparing orthodox Christian teaching on suffering to that of five other broad, non-Christian views, but he also devotes an entire chapter to tracing how the predominant view among Christians has evolved across the past five hundred years. That view has changed dramatically. The early reformers began with the bedrock truth that humanity exists for the glory of God, not the other way round. As the Westminster Confession phrased it in the 1640s, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” To this they added three attributes of God that framed their approach to pain and suffering: First, God is sovereign, so when we suffer it is not because God is too weak to protect us. Second, God is loving, so when we suffer it is never because God doesn’t care. Finally, God is incomprehensible, which means not that God is wholly beyond human comprehension, but that humans can never wholly comprehend Him. When it comes to suffering, this attribute meant that there was no reason to expect (much less demand) that God’s purposes in each instance of suffering should be clear to us. “His ways are above our ways,” as the prophet Isaiah declared. When pain and suffering didn’t make sense, this wasn’t an argument against the existence of God, but rather a reminder that “His thoughts are not our thoughts.” God is God and we are not.
Then in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Enlightenment began to fashion a new approach to suffering grounded in a new understanding of both God and humanity. Keller offers a quick, effective sketch of Deism, which began to make inroads during this time. Deists advanced two axioms irreconcilable with Christian orthodoxy: Reason, not revelation, should be our highest authority, they taught. Happiness, not the glory of God, should be our ultimate aim. This meant that suffering was never a blessing, but by definition an obstacle to the fulfillment of our highest purpose. In a word, suffering now made less sense.
Unfortunately, deism is alive and well in America today. To underscore this point, Keller summarizes the seminal research of sociologist Christian Smith, now of the University of Notre Dame. In a series of detailed studies of teens and twenty-somethings, Smith determined that the beliefs of the rising generation—even those who identify themselves as Christian—bear far less resemblance to historic, orthodox Christianity than to what Smith styles “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” Like the deists of three centuries ago, the typical respondent to Smith’s surveys thinks of God as a remote abstraction who wants us to be good and happy but asks nothing of us and has little practical impact on our world. Smith goes on to note that the young people he interviewed were not consciously rejecting or modifying the orthodox teaching of their parents. If anything, they had learned all too well the watered-down doctrine their parents had passed on to them.
At bottom, Smith’s research suggests that many American Christians have been shaped by the Enlightenment far more than by the Gospel. And these assumptions about God and the human condition have immediate, tangible implications for how contemporary believers respond to pain or affliction. Keller points out that, because we tend to exalt the primacy of reason and to assume that the chief end of life is personal happiness, we are also likely to conclude that, whenever we “can see no good reason for a particular instance of suffering, God could not have any justifiable reasons for it either.”
In summary, because we implicitly assume that God exists for our happiness and insist that His ways be wholly intelligible to us, apparently senseless suffering automatically becomes evidence against the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God. Do you get Keller’s point? What Keller wants us to recognize is that we inhabit a culture that “stacks the deck” against robustly Christian contemplation of suffering. But without a sense of how our world differs from earlier times, we will be very unlikely to see this.
Without that historical perspective, we might never know that we are already socially conditioned to approach the problem of evil in a way that leads predictably to skepticism. To think about suffering clearly, Keller concludes, to be as “thoughtful, balanced, and unprejudiced as possible,” requires that you “be highly aware of your cultural biases.” And one of the best ways to be aware of our cultural biases, as the entire structure of Keller’s argument drives home, is through knowledge of the past.
What Keller is calling us to is historical consciousness. When students enroll in my classes, I hope that they leave with historical knowledge, some sense of what the past was like. I want them to acquire skills of historical analysis, the ability to evaluate historical evidence and construct historical arguments. But my highest goal is that they develop a sense of historical consciousness. To have a well-developed sense of historical consciousness means to be consciously and constantly aware that we live in the flow of change across time, just like the men and women from earlier ages that we study. It means that we are mindful that our lives are influenced—not determined, but strongly influenced—by everything that has gone before us. Finally, it means we recognize the poverty of insight that is the cost of historical ignorance, for above all, historical consciousness is the realization that history’s greatest value lies in illuminating not the past, but the present.