The week before Easter, I read this Tish Harrison Warren interview (it may be behind a paywall) with Tim Keller, the well known founder of Redeemer Church in New York City. Keller has spent two years suffering from pancreatic cancer. I found this interview to be a perfect example of what the Grown Up life looks like and the lessons to be learned in getting to that level of maturity. I have included portions of the interview along with my reflections below.
The day after my diagnosis, one of the words I put down in my journal was “focus.” What are the most important things for you to be spending your time doing? I had not been focused.
The finite aspect of time means that we can’t do or even worry about everything. We can only focus on a few things. An Easter meme has Jesus answering the age old question, “What if you knew you only had 24 hours to live?” He knew he had only hours to live and he spent it washing his friends’ feet and serving them a meal. That is a distinct focus and not the kind of focus that makes any sense to most people.
The second change was you realize that there’s one sense in which if you believe in God, it’s a mental abstraction. You believe with your head. I came to realize that the experiential side of my faith really needed to strengthen or I wasn’t going to be able to handle this.
I love this. Keller made his mark as being someone who was excellent at the mental aspect of faith. He says, “You believe with your head,” and that was his comfort spot with God. His cancer showed him that mere head knowledge was not enough. He still needed to Grow Up. I love seeing positive change in my own life and am always surprised by it. To see it in someone with the reputation and standing of Keller is inspiring.
It’s one thing to believe God loves you, another thing to actually feel his love. It’s one thing to believe he’s present with you. It’s another to actually experience his presence. So the two things I wrote down in my journal: one was focus and the other one was “Know the Lord.” My experience of his presence and his love was going to have to double, triple, quintuple or I wouldn’t make it.
Keller’s motivation to experience more of God wasn’t just a chance to add on something great to his life, it was a way to emotionally and even physically manage his cancer. He needed God to show up in ways he hadn’t experienced before and God has.
Right after the cancer was diagnosed, we realized it wasn’t right to come to the end of our lives without improving our marriage in places where it could be better. There were some things that she felt that she could not talk to me about because I didn’t respond well and she had given up trying to do it. But now we’re finding breakthroughs and being able to talk about certain things and deal with them in a way we were never able to before.
Like Jesus turning his pain and suffering outward in service to the disciples, Keller has chosen to turn his suffering outward to his wife and their marriage. He could mope and feel sorry for himself and make the cancer journey a selfish thing but he chose something different and loving. Cancer humbled him enough to make the necessary changes to be a better husband. Again, the work of Growing Up.
Meditation is not the same as either reading the Bible or prayer. If you want an example of meditation, go to Psalms 103, and you’ll see the Psalmist is not addressing God. And he’s not addressing his listeners. He says, Bless the Lord, oh my soul and all that is within me.” He’s addressing himself. And that’s not prayer, but that’s also not just reading the Bible, that is learning how to take what he’s read in the Bible and screw it down into his heart till it catches fire.
I shouldn’t be surprised that Keller, a great communicator, would be able to explain meditation in a brilliant way.
I pray more often, but I also do it more longingly. And what’s really amazing is that when you know you’ve got to have more of God — because there’s really no alternative — to our surprise, there is more of God to be gotten. And you say, why didn’t I find this before? And the answer is, you didn’t feel the same sense of need.
This reminds me of a Dallas Willard quote, “your faith of desperation will meet the fullness of God, and you will taste the life without lack as you discover the depths of the faith of sufficiency.” To be reminded of our finiteness and then to know there is nowhere else to turn except to God is a great formula for experiencing a new richness to our faith. God likes to hangout at the end of our desperation.
But I do. And these last few months, as we’ve gotten in touch with these great parts of our faith, Kathy and I would both say we’ve never been happier in our lives, even though I’m living under the shadow of cancer.
Why do we make our lives so cluttered and complicated and stressful? Keller and his wife have discovered happiness through a deepening faith, a thoughtful focus, and a stronger relational bond. They have Grown Up in their experience with God, Grown Up in their priorities, and Grown Up in their relationship. This is what brings fulfillment.
Essentially, the death/resurrection motif or pattern is absolutely at the heart of what it means to live a Christian life. And actually everything in life is like that. With any kind of suffering, if I respond to it by looking to God in faith, suffering drives me like a nail deeper into God’s love, which is what cancer has done for me.
For Keller, hope is found in the reality of the resurrection of Christ but death is necessary to discover that resurrection is possible. The heaviness of suffering means that the joy of resurrection hope will be that much deeper and wonderful.
Keller has shown that there are lessons that only suffering can teach. Scripture demonstrates this over and over. When it comes to suffering, if you don’t have God as your focus then the suffering will destroy you. But if you do have God at the center of all things then even suffering can be redeemed and open us up to a rich and free existence.