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A Conversation with Tim Keller

On cancer, forgiveness, mentorship, and legacy

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Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the author of several New York Times bestselling books, including The Reason For God.

To hear the audio version of this interview, click here.

Warren Smith: I’ve got so many questions I want to ask you about, I almost don’t know where to start. But I think it probably makes the most sense to start with your new book on forgiveness. Why this book? Why now?

Tim Keller: In the last 15 years, I started writing books. I was in my late 50s. I wanted to write books on things that I had been teaching about for years in my pastoral ministry.

So I just put them into book form. I felt like it preserved stuff, the wisdom that God had given me through the scriptures.

Why, at this time? Because I tried to find something I’ve done a lot of teaching on, but also seems to be relevant for the moment. I do think our society is a lot more combative, a lot more harsh, denunciatory, I guess you could call it. There’s a lot more questioning of whether we should even do forgiveness.

So I thought: Okay, here’s something I’ve been teaching about forever. You can’t do marriage counseling as the pastor without talking about forgiveness. You can’t do anything in the pastoral word without talking about forgiveness.  But it felt like we were losing our grip on forgiveness as a society. So that’s the reason I wrote the book.

WS: In some ways, I think maybe, especially to the 21st century mind, forgiveness is one of those ideas that you might say is “hiding in plain sight” when you look at Scripture. It’s not one of those ideas we talk about as much as we should, but you really can’t avoid it if you carefully read Scripture.

TK: And you can make the case, which I do in the book, that the prominence of forgiveness in human thought comes from the Bible. For the Greeks and the Romans, for example, forgiveness was not one of the virtues. When you get to the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, you have a lot of emphasis on forgiveness, such as in Psalm 143, Psalm 130. If you were to mark sins, who would stand? No one is righteous before us. The idea that we need God’s forgiveness is very strong in the Old Testament, and the New Testament is just as strong, though there’s a little more emphasis on giving forgiveness to other people.

In the Old Testament, you don’t have as quite as much emphasis, though Joseph forgives his brothers. But in the New Testament, it becomes very strong that the forgiveness you’ve gotten from God now you give to other people.

It’s all through this scripture. Scripture is pretty much the source of the idea that forgiveness is important.

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WS: The world sometimes has a definition for a word, and scripture has a definition for a word that may or may not be the same. So why don’t we just talk about the definition of forgiveness?

You say that false understandings of repentance and forgiveness are spiritually and socially fatal. The other side of that coin is that true definitions, biblical definitions, are life giving.

So what is the biblical definition of forgiveness?

TK: I do think a biblical definition is that I decide I’m not going to take vengeance on a person. Either externally by trying to make them suffer as much as I’ve suffered, or internally by constantly beating up on them in my heart. I’m going to forego vengeance. I’m not going to do that.

And I’m going to do that by reminding myself that I’m a sinner who needs forgiveness too.

That doesn’t mean you can’t pursue justice — for future victims’ sake, for God’s sake, for justice, even for the perpetrators’ sake.

It doesn’t mean you can’t say, “Look, some restitution has to be done here.” Or “The law was broken, and justice has to be done.”

You can do that, but if you do not forgive, you will not be pursuing justice. You will be pursuing vengeance and vengeance is always excessive, and vengeance always eats you up while you’re going after it.

I would say that if you properly understand what forgiveness is, then you will be able to forgive and still pursue justice.

WS: You spend a good bit of time talking about how forgiveness and justice are not opposite ends of a spectrum or a continuum. That is a false dichotomy. And likewise, you say the same thing about God’s love and God’s wrath. When we separate those two – love and wrath — and put them on opposite ends of the spectrum, we’ve departed from the way of truth, we’ve departed from Scripture. Can you say more about that?

TK: From our point of view, love and wrath seem to be contradictory. But I believe God can’t have contradictory attributes. In fact, there’s a doctrine. It’s called the simplicity of God.

The best way I’ve ever heard anybody explain this was in a sermon by Dr. David Martin Lloyd Jones. He said, God is good. He is so good that he wants to forgive you. But he’s so good that he can’t just not punish sin. Not to punish sin would mean he’s not very good. If you’re really good, you have to punish sin. But if you’re really good, you don’t want to punish people who, you want to forgive them.

So how can his goodness be fully expressed? The answer is: on the cross. The wrath of God was satisfied. That is, the punishment of sin happened, but it fell on Jesus so that God could forgive.

It’s an apparent contradiction, but not a true contradiction.

WS: One of the things I love about your book, Tim, is that you used some real life examples of people who engage in radical forgiveness.  Desmond Tutu, Rachel Denhollander, Corrie ten Boom, the Amish community who survived the Nickel Mines slaughter a few years ago.

Can you say more about your strategy there? Was your strategy there to help people see that these are not abstract ideas, but they are ideas that we can truly give legs and feet to?

TK: Yeah. I don’t think you can teach any theological principle without the stories. How does this flesh out in real life? We are not brains in vats. We’re not just ideas. We’re embodied beings. To be embodied means we don’t really understand abstract principle unless we see it in a story.

By the way, Jonathan Edwards was vilified by many and idolized by others, but Edwards says that truth isn’t real until you can put it in a sensory experience. He would say, “Our God is a consuming fire” is a biblical statement, of course. Edwards says that to say “Our God is holy” doesn’t really, completely grab us. We’ve actually experienced fire through our bodies. So suddenly, the whole idea of holiness is real. A fire is both wonderful and beautiful. At the same time, it is dangerous and it can’t be trifled with.

So I think the same thing with forgiveness. Forgiveness is just a wonderful concept, but until you actually see it fleshed out in, in real stories, I just don’t think people grasp it.

WS: Tim, you mentioned two significant cultural moments in your book.

One is the anti-sexual abuse movement, the MeToo movement and the ChurchToo movement. Rachel Denhollander, who you mentioned, has been a leader in that movement, bringing a Christian understanding to that that movement.

The other big issue is racial healing, racial reconciliation.

Would you say more about these movements? How would the principles of forgiveness that you outline in your book help here? Specifically, regarding racial matter, do we need a truth and reconciliation commission in the 21st century in America around these issues?

TK: Wow, that’s a great question because these are two places where the questioning of forgiveness is coming up.

I mentioned that relatives of Charleston shooting victim forgave the shooter, Dylan Roof, an avowed white supremacist. There were people who said black people have to stop doing this. This is why we keep getting shot. We’re just letting them walk all over us, we shouldn’t forgive.

And the Me Too movement is questioning forgiveness, partly because forgiveness has been used against women. Women are called to forgive their perpetrators and just put the perpetrators back in power right away.

So you’re right to put them together.

On the other hand, I feel like they’re awfully different. Forgiveness applies, but very differently, I think.

African Americans are asking the question: how do we deal with oppressive white people as a group? I think when you are asking one group of people to be more conciliatory and forgiving toward another group of people, that’s much more complicated.

The place I would go for a further discussion would be Miroslav Volf’s book, Exclusion and Embrace. He’s a Croatian and he originally developed it when he was talking about terrible violence going on between the Croatians and the Bosnians, and the Serbians.  How does one group of people not just fold your hands like this, but actually open their hands and say, “We want to be reconciled.”

That’s very complicated. I have to admit that as an older white American, I’m not really sure I’m the best person to go there. But it’s a great book.

The Me Too movement is different because, generally speaking, I know that has happened in churches and I have seen it happen. Women were abused by male leaders of some kind, and the leadership of the church came together and said, “You need to forgive him because he’s repented. And that’s what the Bible says. And that means don’t go to the police. That means don’t don’t talk about anymore. You just have to forgive him. And we’re going to restore him because you have to restore repenting people.”

That is a real abuse of what the Bible says. To forgive the man does mean you do have to work on your own heart. And it’s not going to be easy, by the way. You can’t ask an abused woman just to do it like that. But you do need to work on your own heart. So you don’t hate the person. And you don’t have vengeance in your heart for years, which is going to distort all your relationships. Yes, you do need to work on that. But be kind to the woman.

And then when it comes to actually doing justice, you ought to be doing justice. There should be consequences for this man. And I see those as so different. The application, I try to lay out some of that in the book.

WS: Tim, I’d like to pivot in our conversation about could and step back from the book. And talk about some of the other things that you’ve been involved with in your life.

As you know, my sister and brother-in-law, Jackie and Lane Arthur, were in grad school in New York right about the time that you started Redeemer Church. I would visit them in New York and attend your church when there were no more than 300 people in the church at that time. It struck me, at that time, that you didn’t have a plan to be a movement or a megachurch. You were trying to be faithful in that place in that moment. God prospered it and things obviously have gone from there.

But that’s just my perception.  Am I right in that?

TK: Well, yeah, I’m a Presbyterian. So because of that, I did not go there saying, “I think the Lord is going to bring revival through what we’re doing here, I see a whole movement. I see that we’re gonna be doing all this stuff. And we’re gonna change the city.”

I just didn’t go that way. I did not go with that kind of confidence. Frankly, when I first got there people said, “Are you sure God’s called you here?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “So you really expect a lot of growth?” I said, “No. I don’t know about that.”

I said, “You know, God could call me here to fail, to prepare me for something else. So I’m really not sure that this church is going to be successful. I just know I’m supposed to try that that’s God called me to.”

And I have to admit that with a lot of evangelical Christians, that befuddled them. They thought, “Well, why would you move here unless God had shown you that you were going to create this great big movement.”

But then we did have a movement. What happened, Warren, was the church did grow rather large. We did plant a whole bunch of other churches in the city, we did spin out all kinds of organizations like HOPE for New York and Redeemer City to City. A counseling center. Then there were other things like Geneva school, a pregnancy center, all those things that all that kind of came out.

When I look back on the whole thing, after 33 years, it’s astounding what happened. But honestly, I had nothing at all like that in mind when I went.

WS: Was there a moment when that changed? When you said, “Wait a minute, I think this is working. I need to dig in. God has given me something larger than I had originally planned that I need to steward well?

TK: Yes. I don’t remember exactly when that was.  But my wife, Kathy, remembers, at a certain point, saying, “It looks like God’s going to let this be a go. In other words, it looks like we’re going to be able to make ends meet, pay my salary, have a growing church.

That actually happened pretty quickly, because a lot of people became Christians quickly. What was surprising more, and you probably would have seen this if you were there, is that there was a high percentage of singles. I mean,  Lane and Jackie were odd because they were married. Most of them were singles. It’s easier for singles to get other singles to come to church. It’s harder to get families to bring other families to church if they’re not already Christians.

But they just came and a lot of people became Christians, and so the growth happened. My guess is probably within nine months, I saw that we were probably going to be staying there. And somewhere, probably a year or two after that, I said, I may stay here the rest of my life.

But I just don’t remember exactly. There was no epiphany or some dramatic incident. But it probably within two years, I realized this looks like God’s going to do something pretty extensive here. And I may spend the rest of my life here.

WS: Tim, you’ve already mentioned once that you are a Presbyterian, and not only are you a Presbyterian, but you’re in a specific denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. I’m in Anglican now, but I spent years in the PCA and would go to General Assembly.

One of the things I observed about your career is that I would see you there at General Assembly. I’m sure you were speaking some of the time at General Assembly. There were probably moments where they asked you to speak. But I most vividly remember you not speaking, you sitting in the audience, among the fathers and brothers, listening to other people speak.

I wanted you to say a little bit about that, because I’ve talked to a lot of megachurch pastors. I report on a lot of megachurch pastors. One of the things I see is that pastors who ultimately get into trouble, have some scandal, are often people who are no longer under the authority of a denomination, have lost a sense of accountability and connectedness to a community.  They never sit in the pew. They are always the one behind the microphone.

Was that something you thought about?  Was it important to you to remain an active churchman within the PCA while you were building something in New York?

TK: Well, yeah, but to be honest, why wouldn’t I?

Obviously with my health right now I can’t go to General Assembly. I really wish I could. My doctors told me I’ve got pancreatic cancer and take immunotherapies. My immune system makes it impossible to go out. But I went to every General Assembly for years and years, and then probably every other one the last couple of years for various reasons. I was often traveling. But I don’t know why else I would not do that.

If and when it comes to speaking, the real point is, if I never heard anybody saying anything up there that I wanted to say, I guess I would have gotten up there. But there was always somebody saying what I would have said anyway, so why do I have to be the one to get up to say it? That’s how I always saw it.

Honestly, it didn’t ever occur to me that I wouldn’t just go just because my church got bigger. I really shouldn’t be thinking about my involvement any differently. It got harder as the church got bigger to serve on committees and things like that. It got very, very difficult. So it’s true that the big church does make it more difficult in some ways to get be as involved in the denomination as you were before. So I’m not trying to say there wasn’t any pressure. But the idea that I’m too important for this — that’s kind of what you’re hinting at – no. I’m Presbyterian, which means that my church is just one church in the presbytery. It’s not as empire.

WS: You mentioned that it was a little bit later in life when you started writing books. The Reason for God came out around 2008. And that was a big book. It was a bestseller. You were like you say in your late 50s when that happened. Did that book change your life? Did that book change your ministry?

TK: Yes. The Reason for God making the New York Times bestseller list was what shocked me. I would say it changed my life. My pastoral life, not my personal life. I think it didn’t help. That’s the nicest way to put it.

We did multiple services at Redeemer. When I was done, I would do the benediction.  I would stand, walk down front and just talk to people. I was talking to church members. I was talking to New Yorkers who have been brought by church members. And I was evangelizing and pastoring people.

But after the book came up, more and more, I would have people say, “Well, I’m from Dallas, and I read your book, and I loved it. And when I came here, I wanted to come to church, would you sign my book.”

So it actually pushed me away from the kin d of informal pastoring and evangelism that I had been doing, and which I loved. I loved the fact that I wasn’t just preaching on Sunday, but I was actually talking to people who lived in the community. I love that. And that was taken away from me. And I was very upset about it. And the books did it. It made us a ‘destination church’ for people who were in New York City. It didn’t ruin the church. But it really was real. I found it to be grievous.

WS: Tim, since you mentioned your cancer, I will take that as an opening to ask about it. “How are you doing?” feels like to glib a question, but…well…how are you doing? How’s the cancer treatment going? And how’s your health right now?

TK: I have stage four pancreatic cancer, which was first seen in February 2020. So it’s coming up on three years. Anybody who knows anything about pancreatic cancer at all knows that God has been extraordinarily good to me because 80% of people are dead within a year of the diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer.

And so here I am, having my third Christmas with my children, my grandchildren, and so I could not be more grateful.

There’s ups and downs with the treatment. Sometimes I feel pretty sick. Sometimes I don’t. But right now, I’m actually doing pretty well. But you live from scan to scan, Warren. Anybody with active cancer, you basically know that.  My next scan is going to be a month from now. Right now I feel fine, but I don’t know what the next scan is going to show. And that’s how you live.

We probably should all live this way, spiritually. We should realize that it’s God keeping us alive every second and that our days are numbered, and we will live only as long as He wants. But before something like this comes into your life, you live with the illusion of immortality. I had it. I think everybody’s got it.

So spiritually, it’s been enormously great. Kathy and I both say to each other, that even if after the next scan, the doctors would say, “You’re cured, it’s never happened before you’re totally cured,” we would never want to go back to the kind of life we had before cancer. We would never want to lose what God has given us, which is far closer communion with Him. So spiritually, I’ve never been better. Physically, I have certainly been better. But I’m, I’m doing okay.

WS: You mentioned in a podcast I listened to in preparation for our conversation that Ray Bakke started calling people when he was near death.  That he no longer was able to have public ministry, but he developed a ministry of mentorship. Are you seeing any similar changes in your ministry?

TK: That’s actually pretty wise.  That was a good inference. Warren. I do feel that I have changed to be more of a mentor. I’m much quicker to call people, younger leaders that I know, just to encourage them. just to say, “Hey, I know you’re taking a lot of flack right now. I want you to know that I care about you.” Or even say, “Is there any way I can be of some help to you?”

Here’s just one example of this.  There’s a young guy who lives in Australia. He wrote a big book that nobody wanted to publish.

WS:  You’re talking about Christopher Watkin’s book Biblical Critical Theory. It’s a magnificent book.

TK: It is a magnificent book. But you can see why a lot of people didn’t Well, sure.

WS: Yeah, it’s very hard. It’s a difficult book.

TK: It actually is really high level academic stuff, but brought down to the place where I think the average college educated person can get it.

I knew Chris a little bit, and he had sent me some parts of it. At a certain point, he said, this is never going to see the light of day. I said, we’ve got to do something about it. I just pushed him. I was very nice. But, basically, I pushed.  I wrote the foreword, and tried to make sure it got out there.

I was 69 years old when I was diagnosed with cancer. I should have shifted into that mentorship earlier.  I should have said, “Hey, you’re almost 70 years old. Why aren’t you doing more of that?” So that’s exactly the effect it’s had.

WS: Well, Chris’s book is a magnificent book. And I do appreciate your foreword because that’s what brought it to my attention.

Tim, I know, you’ve got a limited amount of time, so I want to I want to bring this to a close. I think you know David Brooks. A few years ago he wrote about the difference between living a life that adds to your resume vs. living a life that adds to your eulogy.  I’m oversimplifying, but he said that resumes are about your accomplishments, but eulogies are about your character.

I want to use that distinction as context for asking: How do you want people to remember you? What do you want the legacy of Tim Keller to be?

TK: The only thing I want to be remembered for is that I loved my children, my grandchildren. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s my job to know, or care.

That sounds a little weird. But I mean that. That’s it. I think I’m a better father than I have been in the past. It is really hard to have your church grow really big and still be a great parent. I bet you there’s some out there, but it’s pretty difficult.

But God’s let me live long enough to be a lot better parent and to be a better grandparent. But you know, Warren, I don’t think I care, or think I should care too much, about how I’m remembered. Let the chips fall where they may. Let the chips fall where God wants them.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.