Anthony Sacramone, managing editor of First Things, recently interviewed Pastor Timothy Keller, senior minister at Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Keller has recently published a book, “The Reason for God, currently No. 18 on the New York Times bestseller list, Keller offers what one might call his summa: the meat of his preaching, teaching, and confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior for a world of unexamined materialist presuppositions, genetic determinisms, and endless digital cross-chatter.” I thought in light of our recent conversation of Bishop Fulton Sheen, G.K. Chesterton and the spirit of this age, the exchange between Sacramone and Keller of faith and doubt might be of interest.
Above: Icon of the Holy Prophet Job
You’ve always been very careful, both in your preaching and toward the end of The Reason for God, to remind people that they should examine their motives for embracing the Faith, to make sure that Christ is not a means to an end but that God is the end. But how many times have you had someone come up to you and say, “I tried Christianity but it didn’t work. I still felt lost, I still felt depressed, it didn’t make sense of the narrative of my life, and so I gave up on it.” What do you say to someone like that?
“Be specific.” There’s almost no good answer to that if you allow a person to stay at that level of generality: “It didn’t work. It didn’t really make sense of my life.” And, of course, that seems to contradict the book: The book says it will make sense of your life. Once I find out what the particular problems are, I can fix it. I mean, there’s no way even to answer your question because it’s so general. I can tell you the kinds of things I usually hear when I ask, “Be specific.” In many cases, it’s a short-term disappointment. Which is, “I really was sure that God was calling me to do this, and every door closed.” You can always go to the “Evil and Suffering” chapter, chapter two, which says, “If you can’t see any good reason why God let something happen, does that mean there can’t be any good reason why God let that happen? The answer is no, so why are you acting as if there can’t be any good reason? That’s the motive problem. In other words, you got into this faith in order for God to serve you, not for you to serve God.”
A second area, if I say, “Please be specific,” is that they feel that Christianity is too hard. For example, a lot of times I’ll have a young man say, “I know I’m not supposed to sleep with girls until I get married, but I don’t have any prospects and I just can’t do it. I just can’t go without sex.” Or something like that. You know, Christianity’s too hard. That’s a much better argument. But then you can always say what Lewis says about “is Christianity hard or easy,” in Mere Christianity . . . In some ways, Christianity is for sinners and for people who do fail, not for people who are good. And yet at the same time you are going to fall down. Everybody’s going to fall down at various points. But if you’re actually addicted, as it were—if you say, “Here’s something I shouldn’t do but I just can’t stop,” then there’s an addiction going on, there’s something going on. You need to get in touch with that. Even if you weren’t a Christian, you shouldn’t be violating your conscience. There’s something else going on, there’s something that’s too important to you, you have to deal with your heart. You need counseling.
It’s not something I would imagine you heard a lot in the sixteenth century, though: “It didn’t work for me.”
No. But that’s what I mean by saying, usually it’s a disappointment. And that’s where I can come back and start to say, “If there’s a God, then you should relate to him”—and I do talk about this in the last chapter—if there’s a God, you should be going to him because you ought to go to him, not because it works for you. I think, when I was a younger man, if somebody said, “It doesn’t work for me,” I think the right answer, as you just alluded, is “What do you mean ‘work for you’? You should be doing this because God is God and you’re not. And he’s the Lord and you’re his servant. What are you talking about ‘work for you’? You’re being selfish, you’re being individualistic, you’re being a consumer” Now, even though that’s probably true (laughs), I’ll try to find out what the specifics are, and usually the person’s got some real—the individualistic culture’s created this victim mentality and this feeling like God’s gotta be there to meet my needs. It’s created that and it’s the background, but many people have had real disappointments, real sadnesses, real failures, real—
There are also real promises in the gospels for the healing of one’s life.
That’s also why I don’t throw the consumerist thing at people anymore . . . Don’t forget Job. I think the point of the Book of Job was that the only way he could turn into somebody great was he had to be profoundly disappointed. The only way for God to use him was he had to suffer. So at a certain point you do have to counsel the sovereignty of God, but before you get there, you have to be pretty thoughtful, pretty sympathetic, because people see those promises and they want to be healed. I can tell people a lot of stories, but you’d have to give me specifics, and there’s no reason to go there . . .
At some point you have to get back to this consumerist problem that they have with it. But you have to be very very gentle on the way.
And the consumerist problem hasn’t been helped by certain ministries, the health-and-wealth gospel, and other bestselling authors who shall remain nameless.
Yeah. It’s the background for people’s legitimate—I think people in the sixteenth century were asking questions like, “If God really loves me, why have four of my five children died of dysentery?” Surely they were struggling with that. But the background of “if there is a God he ought to be meeting your needs”—our consumerist culture makes that almost unbearable. Almost unbearable. But it does irritate me to hear people say, “I don’t believe in God because bad things happened to me.”