Timothy Keller: Experiencing the Reality of God’s Presence—Part 2

“A hopeful church is a church that comes around people experiencing tragedy and gives themselves away for those people.”

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Timothy Keller talks about pursuing hope in a culture filled with anxiety, the importance of our eternal perspective, and how his cancer diagnosis has deepened his understanding of the resurrection.

Are you experiencing a difference between hope as an abstract belief and as a lived reality?

There are two parts to it. To begin, our faith is “the faith of the book.” We have to grasp it with our mind. We read and process that it says Jesus was raised from the dead—that Jesus lives and so shall I, that death, thy sting is gone forever.

But to experience that in the heart is a matter of prayer and worship. It is in prayer and worship that the things I believe with my head become real to me. As Jonathan Edwards would say, it’s one thing to believe that honey is sweet, it’s another thing to taste it. And the tasting of honey brings you a sweetness that the mind could never have.

I am finding this to be true. Belief is wonderful. But it is different from the experience of hope. I think the difference is mainly the presence of God. There is a place in Romans 8 where it says, “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” When the Spirit bears witness with your spirit, your inner voice—I am a child of God—harmonizes with his. Yes, you are. There is a sense of his presence that is more than the rational—it is relational.

The Puritan theologian and preacher, Thomas Goodwin, tells the story of walking behind a man and his son. At one point, the man picked the little boy up and gave him a huge hug. The little boy returned the embrace. And they both said, “I love you.” Then the man put the boy back down and they kept on walking.

Was the little boy more a son of his father when he was up in his father’s arms than when he was on the ground? No, he was not. But he was experiencing his sonship when in his father’s arms. And sometimes through the Holy Spirit in prayer, the reality of the resurrection and the reality of God’s love become real to your heart. It is not enough to read great theological books or think your way through faith. It’s helpful, of course, but there has to be a regular, actual experience of God’s reality to go along with that.

Otherwise, you really do not live in hope.

Do dark or fearful times make our hope more profound or poignant by contrast?

It is hard, but yes. John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” wrote once about what he called his “inordinate attachment to the things of time.” He said that when dark times came they were good for him because his heart tended to cling to things that are going to be taken away from him anyway.

I am finding this to be personally true. For example, there have been two beautiful places to which Kathy and I have traveled in summer for many years. Places where we have friends, like homes away from home. But that has changed this year. Partly because of the virus and maybe because of my cancer, we have realized that we may never get back to those beautiful and familiar places that have been so renewing and full of restorative joy for us.

In letting that go, we also realized to a great degree we were probably resting in those things the way we were supposed to be resting in the resurrection. There is nothing wrong with such attachments. They are gifts, meant to encourage us and bring joy. But when a deep consolation is taken away, the goodbye can ultimately help us. The darkness of this pandemic time, the feeling of being cut off from my children and grandchildren—it drives me into prayer, it drives me to God. And guess what? When we find that now we are going to God for these things, he has them. And, of course, what he has is better for me than what I was resting in before. But it is the darkness that drives me toward him.

“It would be very difficult for me to imagine that I would have the same closeness to God I feel now if everything had been going beautifully.”

Even with the hardship and change and grief, Kathy and I would say that our spiritual lives have never been better. Even if I were healed of the cancer—which my doctors say is unlikely—we would never want to go back to where we were before spiritually. We are praying that we would receive the miracle of healing. But even if it comes, we are also praying that somehow God would keep us as close as he has recently. I am not sure that those things go together. (That’s how ornery the human heart is.)

I am not afraid. The Lord knows, and he is going to take me where he wants me to go. But speaking honestly, it would be very difficult for me to imagine that I would have the same closeness to God I feel now if everything had been going beautifully. I would be resting in the “things of time” in a different way. That is how the human heart works.

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Let’s return to how this applies to the life of the local church. Tell us more about preaching or community life in light of this hope.

To begin, pastors tend not to preach much on hope. That needs to change.

Kathy has Crohn’s disease. Years ago, she was much sicker than she is now. During that time, she asked me to preach a series on hope. In it, we talked about hope as it related to many of the most important or difficult aspects of our lives: suffering, death, fear, money. That series was important both for me and for the life of our church. In preaching it, I realized how little we pastors often say about hope; even though it is something the Bible talks about a lot.

Besides that, and very simply, I think that the main way to teach hope is to bring people up in front of their church and have them give their testimonies. The stories of believers bear witness to real, vital Christian hope. This usually means living without fear and into self-sacrificing generosity.

“A hopeful church is a church that comes around people experiencing tragedy and gives themselves away for those people.”

This hope can be so simple. I know people with law degrees from Harvard, who work for little nonprofits in service to the poor. Anybody in New York with a law degree from Harvard could be making seven figures. However, when you see people moving in the opposite direction, with joy and freedom, that is a sign of hope. Often in the Bible the idea of hope means that because I anticipate my inheritance, I have a new freedom in this world to give myself away, to other things and to other people. In that spirit, quietly highlighting generosity with wealth, time and talent enhances hope.

A hopeful church is a church that comes around people experiencing tragedy and gives themselves away for those people. Churches that walk with people through difficulty demonstrate that they have a terrific amount of hope. It is remarkably telling—people without hope seem almost afraid when they encounter misfortune. Are they afraid of somehow being sucked in? I’m not sure, but they act like it’s bad luck to be around the suffering or needy. But a hope-filled church is willing to take the people who have been beaten up by life, to come around them, to hug them and support them. Examples of welcoming care to those most in need of it are signs of a hope-filled community.

The past year has seen many challenges to this resurrection-fueled hope. One of them has been the public failure of many leaders. Can you help us understand this?

Every failure of leadership puts more pressure on each of us leaders. And in our difficult culture, unless a leader has a truly living relationship with God in which the deepest intimacy comes from him, then a leader may feel as if they’re not living up, never being as good as they ought to be. Pressure leads to self-pity. That is deadly.

When David saw Bathsheba, I bet I can tell you the reason he went after her. He thought, Nobody knows what I have to go through to be king of Israel. Nobody knows how much I have to sacrifice. I deserve this. Self-pity.

What runs through the leader’s secret heart is this: I am doing a lot of good. But nobody understands the pressure. Nobody. I just need something. And unless you’re getting your consolation from God, you’re going to try to get it somewhere else.

The two things that recur are sexual failures, of course, but the other, more socially acceptable but still colossally destructive, is relational or spiritual abuse. We have seen many leaders disqualified not because they were sexually unfaithful, but because they became personally abusive to other people. They are still trying to cope, unconsoled, with the pressures they face. And the answer is still a deepening relationship with God.

“Everybody says we need more accountability. That might fix some outward issues of a runaway authoritarian leader, but it will miss the heart.”

I had a church of 6,000 people. I preached four times every Sunday. The pressures were ridiculous. It is difficult, frankly, to find yourself in a place of being well-known, high profile, where people are praising you all the time and you are supposed to be keeping up. There is pressure to hit a home run every time you preach. You have to be great every time somebody asks you a question. You have to be wise. And you either deal with that by leaning into a living relationship with God in which he consoles you with his love, or you’re going to find some way to try to feel better about yourself. I am never surprised when I see these leadership failures. But I am always sad.

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Everybody says we need more accountability. That might fix some outward issues of a runaway authoritarian leader, but it will miss the heart. If you want to have a secret life, there is no level of accountability that can keep you from it. Yes, there has to be accountability. We must ask leaders hard questions. But in the end, if we are not cultivating our relationship with God through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves in a dangerous state.

If we as a church live into the realities of the resurrection, what will be the influence of our Christian life on the church? On wider culture?

In the book, I observe that the resurrection actually means two things for us. One is hope for the future. But the other thing is a great reversal. And this is really the whole point.

That reversal changes every aspect of human life. The resurrection comes through the cross. Because of this, we know that Jesus Christ does not save us in spite of his weakness but through his weakness. The resurrection, with all its hope and glory, is the result of weakness. Think about that for a moment: Christian strength is result of weakness. The way Jesus Christ came into the world to save us is not through strength but through weakness.

The cross and resurrection mean that God tends to work through those people we would not expect to be the heroes. Jesus didn’t come to be a general. He was not an academic. He was … a wandering preacher? In Christianity, we are taught that the way up is down. The way to rule is to serve. The way to be happy is to seek the happiness of others. The way to become truly rich is to give it all away. And the only way to real power is by willingness to give up your power. That’s what Jesus did. It’s how the cross led to the resurrection.

“The cross and resurrection mean that God tends to work through those people we would not expect to be the heroes.”

Christians ought to be people who are famous for giving up power and privilege to serve others. The example I always think of here is from Alan Jacobs at Baylor University. Jacobs has said—he calls it “The Gandalf Option”—that he believes Christians ought to be like the good wizard Gandalf from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There’s one place in the books where Gandalf is arguing with Denethor, the steward of Gondor, and observes that in his role as wizard, he is a steward of everything but a ruler of nothing.

It is how I see the Christian’s role in the world. I have the responsibility to steward everything, but at the same time, it is not my call to control it. What would happen if this were the case? What would it feel like for Christians to be known as good stewards of everything, but at the same time not trying to control anything—because our hope was truly elsewhere?

If we lived as a community of hope, we would not be so desperate to get political power. That is not how Jesus Christ saved the world. In fact, that is the reason he was rejected. This does not mean that Christians should not be involved in politics. But to try to take political power in the name of Jesus and to marginalize the people who don’t have our morality or our doctrine, every time that’s happened in history, it has backfired. It undermines the health and the growth of the church in that particular society. Let’s just leave it at that.

You dedicated the book to two friends with “supernatural gifts of hospitality.” I’m sure that is not coincidental with the subject of the book. Would you link hope and hospitality for us?

Let me answer by way of asking something: Do you realize how often the resurrection is connected to food? For example, at the very end of the Bible’s story, we find ourselves at a wedding feast. Or if you go to Luke 12, it hints at the fact that when Christ comes back, he will gird himself to serve us. The phrase refers to the way someone would serve a meal.

It is trying to get across the fact that the resurrected Jesus Christ, with all of his power, is going to meet all of our needs. That is what hospitality does—it meets needs. It is the place where service and hope blend into a gift. Jesus says, “In my father’s house there are many rooms.”

In the end, the resurrection itself is the ultimate hospitality. We are being brought into God’s home. We are given God’s life. Our very world is being made God’s home again. And in becoming so, it will truly be our home. That is my hope.

That is our hope.

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