In his excellent and highly practical book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton, 2014), Tim Keller uses a great analogy to show that on their own, our prayers do not have power to make God listen to us or to earn us favor with him. Those who have trusted in Christ already have these things, and so prayer is more of the mechanism by which we connect our hearts to God and avail ourselves of the access to him that has been purchased by Christ, our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16).
“When you flick on the light switch, the bulbs illuminate. Does the light switch provide the power for the bulbs? No – that comes from the electricity. The switch has no power in itself, but rather it connects the bulbs to the power. In the same way, our prayers have no virtue to procure us access to the Father. Christ has done that. Prayers that are in accord with a gracious God, however, can connect us to him.” (104)
We’ve all heard the well-intentioned exhortation: “Just listen to your heart.” In one sense, we should listen to our heart, by which I mean, pay attention to your mind and soul. It’s helpful to regularly take stock of the movements of your soul in response to the events and people you interact with. This is what Socrates meant when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” However, Scripture teaches that the heart is “deceitful above all things,” so it’s foolish to simply follow your heart and live according to what you feel it tells you without regard for wisdom, love, and duty to guide you to what is good for yourself and others.
The passage below, from Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013), shows us that we should not only listen to our hearts, but turn this listening into prayer – honest, real conversation with God – by pouring them out before him. This is encouraging, for it means that we’re not left to ourselves to plumb the depths of our heart and then wonder what to do with the mess that we find, but we can offer our naked soul before the God who hears our every cry, notices our every tear, and promises to be with us through it all.
“Psalm 42 is an intense, sustained, and eloquent prayer. He is ‘pouring out his soul’ to God. What does that mean? First, to ‘pour out your soul’ means to get into one’s own heart. It is an ancient and healthier version of what is sometimes now called getting in touch with your feelings. It means to look honestly at your doubts, desires, fears, and hopes. But notice that this is not abstract self-examination but, rather, something he does before God. This man is not over in a corner looking at himself, he is exposing his inner being to God. This is crying, longing, reflecting, remembering – all before God.”
In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013), Tim Keller says that one reason we can trust God when we suffer, and don’t understand how he’s in control in that suffering or how it fits into a bigger and better plan, is that there really are no coincidences. Sometimes we are able to look back on discrete life events and make sense of how they fit into a bigger scheme, but sometimes we can’t. He offers a fascinating and compelling personal example of how a series of events led to the founding of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan:
“Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were sent to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.
“This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications. What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.
“What if the security guard had not noticed that door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction? In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidence’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.
“Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is, and therefore you can be assured he will not abandon you” (265-266).
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), pastor and author Tim Keller says that at the heart of marriage is friendship. So if we’re ultimately pursuing marriage, he says, we shouldn’t put such a high value on things like sex, chemistry, and attraction, which will change over time, but rather we should look for a companion – the kind of person we can walk alongside for decades in a mutually satisfying and meaningful relationship.
So how do we find this kind of companion? I like how Keller puts it:
“It often happens that you have a good friend of the opposite sex with whom you share common commitments. You trust this person’s wisdom and you find you can open up and share many intimate things without fear. He or she understands you well and listens to you and gives you great advice. But the person doesn’t attract you romantically. Maybe he or she doesn’t have the body type that you find appealing. You feel no sexual chemistry at all. Then imagine that you meet someone else to whom you feel very attracted. This person has the physical and social attributes you have been looking for and is interested in you, too. So you start seeing each other and you have a lot of fun together and things are moving along into more and more romantic intimacy. But if you are honest with yourself, this person you say you are falling in love with does not make nearly as good a friend as the one you already have, nor is that likely to change.
“You are in trouble. Your spouse has got to be your best friend, or be on the way to becoming your best friend, or you won’t have a strong, rich marriage that endures and that makes you both vastly better persons for having been it” (125).
“Look for someone who understands you better than you do yourself, who makes you a better person just by being around them. And then explore whether that friendship could become a romance and a marriage” (126).
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), Tim Keller explains how rather than limiting your freedom, promising can expand and deepen it. Promising, he writes, is the “means to freedom” because “in promising, you limit options now, in order to have wonderful, fuller options later. You curb your freedom now, so that you can be free to be there in the future for people who trust you” (93).
Keller quotes Christian theologian and ethicist Lewis Smedes:
“When I make a promise, I bear witness that my future with you is not locked into a bionic beam by which I was stuck with the fateful combinations of X’s and Y’s in the hand I was dealt out of my parent’s genetic deck. When I make a promise, I testify that I was not routed along some unalterable itinerary by the psychic conditioning visited on me by my slightly wacky parents. When I make a promise, I declare that my future with people who depend on me is not predetermined by the mixed-up culture of my tender years.
“I am not fated, I am not determined, I am not a lump of human dough whipped into shape by the contingent reinforcement and aversive conditioning of my past…when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me. No German Shepherd ever promised to be there with me. No hom computer ever promised to be a loyal help…Only a person can make a promise. And when he does, he is most free” (94).
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), Tim Keller argues that at the core of marriage is the covenant – a binding promise of lifelong faithfulness. He then explains that the very act of making this promise helps the couple keep that promise. He shows this by quoting Christian theologian and ethicist Lewis Smedes, who offers these words on how our identity is shaped by the promises we make:
“Some people ask who they are and expect their feelings to tell them. But feelings are flickering flames that fade after every fitful stimulus. Some people ask who they are and expect their achievements to tell them. But the things we accomplish always leave a core of character unrevealed. Some people ask who they are and expect visions of their ideal self to tell them. But our visions can only tell us what we want to be, not what we are” (90).
Keller then connects identity to marital love, and even quotes the great political theorist Hannah Arendt (confirming that he is an intellectual’s intellectual):
“It is our promises that give us a stable identity, and without a stable identity, it is impossible to have stable relationships. Hannah Arendt wrote, ‘Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wanter helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.'” (91)
Earlier in the book he notes that unlike in ancient cultures and in every major religion, modern Western society is often unable to adequately deal with human suffering. Many see it as an accident or inconvenience of life that simply gets in the way of our comforts and happiness.
I share this excerpt because as someone who’s been influenced by this world, I’ve sometimes viewed suffering in this superficial way, especially my own. But we should be equipped to wrestle with it so as to learn from it and through it grow stronger. This isn’t the same thing as glorifying suffering and claiming that it is good in and of itself, but it is meant as a perspective that I believe is often missing but which is at the center of the Christian faith – where the greatest triumph over evil was achieved through the great suffering of a Perfect Man on a cross. As Keller writes: “Trials and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same” (190). Below are his points. His explanations for each point are worthwhile, so I encourage you to read them:
1. Suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves.
It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows us how fragile we are…average people in Western society have extremely unrealistic ideas of how much control they have over how their lives go. Suffering removes the blinders.
2. Suffering will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives.
We will see that some things have become too important to us. [Here he gives the example of someone who’s invested too much of their hopes in their career, which when this is lost or threatened, is devastated.]
3. Suffering can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can.
When times are good, how do you know if you love God or just love the things he is giving you or doing for you? You don’t, really. In times of health and prosperity, it is easy to think you have a loving relationship to God. You pray and do your religious duties since it is comforting and seems to be paying off. But it is only in suffering that we can hear God ‘shouting’ a set of questions at us: ‘Were things all right between us as long as I waited on you hand and foot? Did you get into this relationship for me to serve you or for you to serve me? Were you loving me before, or only loving the things I was giving you?’
4. Suffering is almost a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go through their own trials.
Adversity makes us far more compassionate than we would have been otherwise. Before, when we saw others in grief, we may have secretly wondered what all the blubbering was about, why people can’t just suck it up and go on. Then it comes to us – and ever after, we understand. When we have suffered, we become more tenderhearted and able to help others in suffering. Suffering creates wisdom in people, if they handle it and it doesn’t make them hard.