Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic of 50 years, said in a review on Keller’s book that, “like pickles in a jar, our minds are soaked with all sorts of secular subtleties.” It was Job who said, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42.3b, 5-6).
Timothy Keller, former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (though he was pastoring there when he wrote this book), gives his reader a few steps with which to climb out of that pickle jar. His book contains three units: (1) philosophical, (2) theological, and (3) practical answers to the problem of evil. He helps us to (1) understand the furnace, (2) to face the furnace, and (3) to walk with God in the furnace.
Outline and Content
In Understanding the Furnace, Keller takes the philosophical route to talk about pain. He examines how other cultures have viewed suffering, how Christianity is better, and how our view should challenge the secular view. This is not to say that the wisest Christian will not be troubled by suffering, but they will not be debilitated by it. We are not to look for instant gratification. Through sacrificing for others, gain we a love, appreciation, and even a joy with them in the long-term. For many, “words like ‘suffering’ are unbelievably negative” (78). “The belief—that because we cannot think of something, God cannot think of it either—is more than a fallacy. It is a mark of great pride and faith in one’s own mind” (99).
Facing the Furnace offers the Christian a chance to grow in their ideas of suffering. Do we deserve the good life? Is God sovereign? Is he just? Is suffering just? We are self-centered beings. We want our independence and the ability to do whatever we want to do. But suffering shatters our false gods. Suffering shows us that we are not in command. But Keller remarks, “Suffering is both just and unjust” (130). Keller later adds, “This balance—that God is just and will bring final justice, but life in the meantime is often deeply unfair—keeps us from many deadly errors” (130). “God is both a sovereign and a suffering God” (130). The psalmist proclaims that it is this God who “fulfills his purpose for me” (Ps 57.2), but our God suffers and reigns. It was the wounded Lamb who was worthy to open the scrolls (Rev 5.6-7) of judgment against evil. “And so it is a wounded lamb who now is able not simply to judge wrongdoing but actually to undo the damage that evil has wreaked on creation” (156).
Walking with God in the Furnace brings along practices that we ought to grow into. It’s not enough to have a right mindset about God during suffering. We must show that correct thinking by doing; we need to so that we don’t revert back to our old ways of thinking. We learn to walk with God in daily prayer, Bible reading, loving our Christian family, worshiping together in community as we await Christ’s return. We learn to weep. We learn to listen to those who weep. Keller emphasizes that not all people suffer in the same way. Some need to hear the logical reasons first. Some need to hear the Bible verses of God’s faithfulness. Some just need to have someone nearby, to know someone cares, to know someone is there for them. We trust in the God we can’t see. We pray honestly to him.
“You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend” (Ps. 88.18).
The Chocolate Milk
Keller uses the image of a fiery furnace because of the well-known image of torment which fire brings. However, “if used properly, it does not destroy,” but instead refines (8). Keller acknowledges that this book does not need to be read in order (9). In fact, for the one who is suffering now, they shouldn’t start with part one. They should probably begin with part three, learning how to walk with God in their torment. They can read sections of part two when they need it.
Keller rightly points out that the reason the secular world emphasizes fixing the here and now is because that is all they have. They have no other happiness to offer. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t love others and do what we can to fix the world, but we know we can’t. All it takes is one hurricane to drown Houston, one ice storm for towns to lose power for weeks, one tornado to level buildings and houses—all that we have worked for. Keller doesn’t mince words. It’s not if we will suffer, it’s when. Christians need to get into the habit of walking with God now, praying, living in community, serving one another, and being ready to love when tragedy—small, great—strikes.
A true highlight of Keller’s book is the inclusion of a true story of suffering at the end of each chapter. Some stories finish with a good ending in sight. Others don’t. But they all present the growing faith of the sufferer and their stronger relationship with Christ.
Somehow in modern-day Christian circles, we tend to see God’s faithfulness as saving us from suffering. And yes, sometimes, in His great mercy, He does save us from suffering. But that is not the mark of His faithfulness. We see in Scripture that many of those He loved deeply are also those who suffered greatly. (Gigi, 185)
It is one of the many excellences of the book that Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts of his case…. [T]he test would work only if Job did not know what it was for. God thrusts Job into an experience of dereliction to make it possible for Job to enter into a life of naked faith, to learn to love God for himself alone. God does not seem to give this privilege to many people, for they pay a terrible price of suffering for their discoveries. But part of the discovery is to see the suffering itself as one of God’s most precious gifts. To withhold the full story from Job, even after the test was over, keeps him walking by faith, not by sight. He does not say in the end, “Now I see it all.” He never sees it all. He sees God (Job 42:5). Perhaps it is better if God never tells any of us the whole story of our life. (283, from Francis Anderson’s Job [TOTC] volume, pg. 270, n1)
Keller’s book should be read by all Christians. It is a solid reservoir of biblical truth. As The Princess Bride tells us, “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” The Bible admits to our pain. It gives us no prosperity gospel, health-and-wealth, pie in the sky doctrines. Some have it easier, some just have it rough. We will walk through a furnace, but God—who hung like meat on a cross before a crowd who couldn’t stop mocking him— he will walk with you.
- Author: Timothy Keller
- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 4, 2015)
- Read a Sample here
- Read an Interview with Keller here
- 20 Quotes
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