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The nature of pain and suffering

A conversation on understanding the nature of suffering and pain with Presbyterian Rev. Tim Keller.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

A conversation on understanding the nature of suffering and pain with Presbyterian Rev. Tim Keller.

Tim Keller, the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City talks with Morning Joe producer Laura Kim on Friday, October 04, 2013. (Photo by Nathan Congleton/Morning Joe)

Rev. Tim Keller is no stranger to suffering. He shepherded Redeemer Presbyterian Church during the 9/11 tragedy as more and more congregants turned closer to their faith. Since then, the church ballooned to a flock of 5,000 and is tackling pains of the modern age with traditional ideas from the Bible. On a more personal level, the senior pastor also lost both of his parents this year. His father passed away in February, his mother just this week. After his discussion today on the show, I sat down with Rev. Keller, who serves as my pastor, to talk about his recent losses, his job, and his latest book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

Rev. Tim Keller: The suffering book is dedicated to my sister. The caregivers of the sufferers are sufferers. Nobody knows basically. Very often, they kind of get missed.

Laura Kim: What is the one big takeaway from your own book that you can apply to your own life right now during this period – or for your sister?

TK: The main thing is that suffering makes you stronger or worse, stronger or weaker. It’s not the suffering itself. It’s how your process it. People tend to say, suffering did this to me or suffering did that to me. But actually – for example, most people, who say they lost faith in God, say, “It’s because of suffering.” But most people who say that they found  faith in God almost always say, “It’s because of suffering.” So, it can’t be the suffering so much. Suffering doesn’t automatically do anything to you. It’s how you understand it and process it. And therefore, to a great degree, it’s up to you what happens.

And I think that means, instead of feeling completely passive in front of suffering, saying, “Well, this is kind of happening to me.” Actually, you’re not. You’ve got quite a lot you can do. You talk to yourself about it. How you understand it. How you process it makes all the difference on whether it makes you a humbler person or a more self-absorbed person. For example, suffering can make you more self-absorbed than you’ve ever been because you say, “Oh, nobody suffered like me.” You feel noble. You feel better than other people. … You start to despise other people who have easier lives, and you don’t understand.

So, you get more self-absorbed or humbler. You can get more isolated from people or closer to other people. You can get compassionate and understand what people are going through, or else, more cynical… It’s all up to you. I mean, that’s to me actually the main takeaway. You have a lot of control. And you tend to feel passive when suffering hits you. You feel like, “I can’t do anything.” It’s just overwhelming you.

LK: So, what’s the inherent problem in asking, “Why me?” Because that’s the first question that people often ask.

TK: Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. No, of course not…

But, the “Why me?” doesn’t, in any way, tell you the suffering upon you, and how you respond to it won’t determine whether you become a stronger or weaker person. Or whether you become a self-absorbed person. Or a more compassionate person. Answering the question, “Why?” doesn’t help a bit. So, it’s part of the process, I think.

And I think, some people, because they don’t get an answer, just decide…”I’m just not going to respond in kindness. I’m not going to respond with patience. I’m not going to try to help other people.” In other words, some people feel, “Because I don’t get an answer to that question, I can really just melt down.” Other people say, “I don’t have an answer to this question, but I’ve got things I’ve got to do.”

But, you’re not going to get an answer to that question. The specific answer to the question.

Now, the general answer is in the Bible, if you’re a Christian. The general answer is: God loves you. He’s got purposes you don’t know. He came to the cross and died, and therefore, experiences suffering. Therefore, he does care about you and understand. In Resurrection, He’s going to put everything right. Those are broad answers. You’re looking for specific answers. Why did this bad thing happen to me right here? And the answer is – you don’t get that answer.

LK: In your book, you talk about addressing suffering head on. Do you find that our culture is a culture of avoidance?

TK: Oh yeah … Western cultures are terrible at it. Actually, Eastern cultures are way better. Pico Iyer, who’s married to a Japanese woman, was born and raised in Britain. … He’s lived in Japan for 20 years. He wrote an article, The Value of Suffering, in The New York Times recently, and he said, when the tsunami hit, and thousands of people died… there was more lamentation and panic in California than there was in Kyoto. Eastern people are more likely to say, “Okay, we have to handle this. We have to just get through it.” Western people melt down, and so, our culture is the worst at facing suffering in the history of the world.

LK: Comedian Louis C.K. recently made this brilliant observation about how people immediately go to their smartphones or iPads, the moment they feel any inkling of despair… They resort to their technology to avoid even a second of that.

TK: Yeah, because actually… traditionally, you deal with suffering with some solitude. Thinking. Reordering your priorities. Praying. You know, that kind of thing. And we don’t do that.

LK: As a pastor, you hear about people suffering everyday. What do you do to make sure you don’t become inured to that kind of pain?

TK: That’s a good question. It would be the same with doctors, I would think. Or other people that work with suffering folks. I think you basically have to split the difference. You have to find the middle ground. Imagine a doctor, every time a patient died, he or she had to take the rest of the day off. It wouldn’t work very well. On the other hand, if you completely start to look at them as numbers, objects, that’s terrible too. And I think there is a way to basically attaching your heart but not too much because you have to. Here’s your motivation. Your motivation is not for self-protection. If I start to detach my heart a little bit, just so that I don’t get sad, that’s actually a selfish motive, and that’s not very good. But, if I say, “Look, I want to have some capital for other people.” This is what my wife used to say, ”If you expend yourself emotionally on every single person, thinking about them at night and worrying about them, you won’t have anything for anybody else or your family.” So basically, I think the thing to do is when you’re with them, you should be as engaged as you can be, and when you’re not with them, you should pray for them at the stated times, but not think about them all the time and worry about them. If you got a father who’s sick, you do think about him and worry about him. And that’s right. But if you do that with everybody you engage with, it’ll just crush you. So with the people who you say it’s your business to care for them, you have to be with them and engage. Pray for them and engage. But you can’t have them on your mind all the time the way you do with family members. You actually have to discipline yourself. It’s actually not that easy. … It’s another reason, by the way to have at least two times a day of prayer – or even three. … You worry about them in front of God.

LK: You are a cancer survivor. Do you think a la 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 you went through that affliction so that you can pastor other people?

TK: Yeah, of course. Yes. Yes. A good example is when you get a cancer diagnosis, and it’s very startling. And someone goes to you and starts to spout Bible verses at you, you realize that it doesn’t work. And then, you start to realize, “Gee, I guess I’ve done that in the past, myself.” So, just going through the problem, going through the difficulty yourself, even in tiny ways, helps you do a better job of helping other people.

Follow Tim Keller: @timkellernyc