This is undoubtedly one of the most helpful books I have read on the subject of pain and suffering.
I say that as a pastor who would recommend this book to other pastors, but also, when I was about a third of the way through we suffered a bereavement in our immediate family. That brought a certain added intensity to how I read the book.
It is written in three parts. Keller acknowledges that the first part, ‘Understanding the Furnace’, is not for those in the midst of suffering. It is a more philosophical look at the subject. In many ways this is the best part. Keller displays an impressive breadth of reading as he gives a very good overview of how different societies have responded to suffering. It is the very best of Keller: he explains secular views and those of other faiths, he concedes when they make a good point, yet he persuasively argues that the Christian worldview is more coherent and appealing. It is not just good apologetics, it is helpful for believers to understand the cultural assumption that God should arrange everything for our comfort: that underlying philosophy is in part why we in the West find suffering so hard.
In part two, ‘Facing the Furnace’, Keller brings major doctrines of sin, judgment, new creation and sovereignty to bear on the topic of suffering. There are some gems in here and I would recommend the chapter called ‘The Varieties of Suffering’ to everyone – it is brilliant on what is, and what is not, helpful to say to someone going through a tough time. My one complaint here is that I felt that Keller is a little sloppy on his use of the phrase, ‘God suffered’. He is very happy to say numerous times ‘God suffered for us and with us’ without any nuance to that statement. At one point he defines the doctrine of impassibility as God being incapable of emotions and then dismisses that as unbiblical. Well, so would I. However, impassibility is not a denial that God has emotions, but rather a claim that God alone is responsible for them. There is great comfort in knowing that God is not remote. Yet in suffering, the Bible tells us also that God is strong to save, not weakened by our infirmities.
Part three, ‘Walking with God in the Furnace’, is a series of chapters that are expository thoughts on Daniel 3, Psalm 88, Joseph, Job and Philippians 4. There is real gold in here for the sufferer, even if it is not truly pulled from the texts themselves.
Overall, anyone would benefit from reading this. You could give it to a thinking agnostic friend, and there is much to gain yourself. It did me and our grieving family no end of good.
Matt Fuller, Senior Pastor, Christ Church Mayfair
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057