Death Can Only Make Me Better: Remembering Tim Keller (1950–2023)
Today we say farewell to our friend, pastor and author Tim Keller. Tim passed away in New York City at the age of 72. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020.
Over the years, Dr. Keller graciously appeared as a guest on this podcast, leaving us with nine rich APJ episodes on topics like vocation (or work) and on the themes of prayer and solitude. I’m thankful for the time he invested with us.
Cancer, for Dr. Keller, was an old nemesis. Back in 2002, he was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer, a battle he would fight between 2003 and 2004. God would heal and restore Keller, but not before thyroid surgery knocked him out of the pulpit for three months. A decade later, Keller preached a sermon on boldness in the face of death and recounted what he learned during that first cancer battle, opening up about his fears as he was rolled into the operating room. In that moment, he caught a glimpse of something otherworldly. He saw the sheer magnitude of God’s glory and God’s joy beyond this world of pain and suffering and cancer and death.
I want to play for you a sermon clip that comes to my mind on this day, celebrating his life, knowing he has passed into the presence of God and into God’s incredible, unspeakable joy that the rest of us are left longing for. Here’s Tim Keller, in 2013, answering this question: Where do we find courage for life’s scariest moments?
To me, my favorite version of this example of what real courage is comes out of this little passage near the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you’re one of the three or four people in the world who has never heard of The Lord of the Rings, it’s a story. There are these two little heroes. One is the master, and one is the servant of the master. Sam is the servant, and he loves his master. They’re on this terrible quest, and at one point, his master is imprisoned in a tower. Sam rescues Frodo, his master, largely by screwing himself up and saying, “You are not going to hurt him. I’m going to do this. You can’t stop me. I’m the great . . . here I come.” He does rescue him.
After that, they’re still on their terrible quest, and the danger is still very real. One night, Sam looks up into the sky and sees a star. This is in the book, not the movie. This is what the passage says:
Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart. . . . For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now . . . his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him . . . [and he fell] into a deep untroubled sleep. (922)
The author, Tolkien, is trying to say there’s a difference between defiance, in which you screw yourself up (“I can do it!”) — that’s still, in the end, not the courage you need, because you’re looking at yourself. Courage, on the one hand, is not looking at yourself and banishing fear. No, it’s just letting the fears play their role, and not letting the fears play too much of a role by looking away from yourself. “Okay,” you say, “but then to what?” It’s even in the text I just read. It was defiance, not hope. Hope.
When Paul met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, “‘Who are you, Lord?’ [I asked.] ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 22:8 NIV) — the resurrected Jesus. When we were going through Acts 9, the first account of Paul’s conversion, we talked a little bit about this. When Paul realized that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, suddenly everything broke open. Suddenly the meaning of his death made sense, and the hope for the future made sense.
If Jesus Christ really died on the cross, taking our punishment, and he’s now raised from the dead, now when we believe in him, not only are our sins forgiven, but now we have an incredible hope about the future. We’re going to be raised, and everything in this world is going to be put right, and there is not going to be any suffering or death. That is an astonishing hope.
As I said, the first part of courage is looking away from yourself. The world tells you, “Look at yourself and banish fear.” The second part of courage is looking toward hope, getting a hope. Real courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the presence of joy — so much joy that the fear plays its proper role. Well, how do you get that joy?
“Real courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the presence of joy.”
Before we get to that, let me just tell you there is a second way out there in the world that people are counseling each other to get courage. I think the primary way is this sort of “self-esteemism.” The primary way the world tries to tell you to get courage is this: “Just tell yourself, ‘No fear — you can do it!’ Summon up the blood and go do it.”
I do think there’s an alternate discourse out there, and it’s older. It’s more ancient. It goes back to the East. It goes back to the Greeks. Cicero, for example, who was one of the Roman Stoics, wrote a very famous couple of treatises on why you shouldn’t be afraid of anything, especially not death. You shouldn’t be afraid of death. He says, “Courage makes light of death, for the dead are only as they were before they were born. It encounters pain by recollecting that the great pains are ended by death. Others we can usually control, if they are endurable, but if they are not, we can serenely quit life’s theater when the play has ceased to please us.”
What he’s saying here is, “There is no reason to be afraid of anything, including not of death. Why? Because when you die, that’s it. It’s like before. You’re just not there.” What is he saying? You shouldn’t be afraid of anything, because you tell yourself, “I’m going to lose it all anyway. There’s no use crying over spilled milk. When you die, that’s it. I’m enjoying things, but everybody loses things.”
What are they doing? You’re still deadening your heart, aren’t you? There is a way of getting courage, not by deadening your heart to fear, but by deadening your heart to love. And it’s not just Cicero — I’ve read it in the New Yorker. So many smart secular people today say the same thing. “There’s no reason to be afraid of things. There’s no reason to be afraid of death. When you’re dead, that’s it. There’s no reason to be afraid of death.” Oh no?
What is it that makes your life meaningful? Is it your health? Partly. Is it your wealth? Partly. Is it your success? Partly. But what if you had those things and you didn’t have love? What if you had nobody in your life to love you, nobody in your life for you to love? It would be meaningless. What makes your life meaningful are the people you love and the people who love you. That’s what makes your life meaningful.
Now you’re going to stand there, Cicero (or whoever), and you’re going to tell me I should not fear a future state in which the one thing that makes life meaningful is taken away? All love and all loved ones are taken away. That’s the state. And you’re telling me I shouldn’t be afraid of that? Are you crazy? Of course we should be afraid of that. I’m sorry, but deadening your heart to love is just like deadening your heart to fear. It kind of works, partly, but I don’t know. It’s certainly not good for your heart.
Here’s a better way. George Herbert, a seventeenth-century Anglican priest — incredible poet. One of my favorite poems in the history of the world is his little poem called “A Dialogue-Anthem.” It’s a dialogue between a Christian and Death. Christian starts.
Alas, poor Death! where is thy glory?
Where is thy famous force, thy ancient sting?
Alas, poor mortal, void of story!
Go spell and read how I have killed thy King.
Poor Death! and who was hurt thereby?
Thy curse being laid on Him makes thee accursed.
Let losers talk: yet thou shalt die;
These arms shall crush thee.
Spare not, do thy worst.
I shall be one day better than before;
Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more.
Do you want to be fearless? Do you want to look out there and say, “Nothing can really hurt me because of my infallible hope”? Do you want to look out there, saying, “Even the worst thing that can happen to me — death — can only make me better”? “Spare not, Death! Come on. All you could do is make me better than I am now.”
George Herbert has a great line where he says, “Death used to be an executioner, but the gospel has made him just a gardener.” All he can do is plant you, and you finally come up into the beautiful flower that you were meant to be. You’re just a seed, and death just plants you, and then you finally become who you were meant to be. That’s not courage the Ciceronian way. “Just kill your heart. Just say, ‘Well, we’re going to lose everything anyway.’ Just deaden it.” This isn’t Hercules. This isn’t King Arthur. This is Jesus.
“Christianity is the only religion that even claims our God has the attribute of courage.”
How can you be utterly, utterly sure you have that hope? How can you say to even death itself, “Spare not, do thy worst”? I can tell you how. You have to believe in the only God. There are a lot of religions out there, and they all claim “God, God, God,” but Christianity is the only religion that even claims our God has the attribute of courage. Why? Because when God became Jesus Christ, he became vulnerable. He became human. When he was in the garden of Gethsemane, when everybody was asleep and it was dark and there was nobody there and he realized what he was about to face.
I actually think the garden of Gethsemane is the place where you see the greatest act of courage in the history of the world, because by the time he got nailed to the cross, even if he wanted to turn around, it would have been too late. There he was, nailed to the cross. But that night, he could have left. In fact, he even thought about it. He says, “My soul is overwhelmed . . . to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38 NIV). What do you see in Jesus Christ? You see courage.
You don’t see him saying, “Bring it on.” The bloody sweat showed he was feeling fear. He wasn’t saying, “Come on.” What was he doing? We’re told all about it in Hebrews 12:1–3 (NIV):
Therefore . . . let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
There it is. He looked away from himself, and what did he look toward? Joy. What was the joy? The joy of pleasing his Father and redeeming his friends. The joy of that enabled him to have courage. Listen: if you see him courageously dying for you like that so you can say to death, “Spare not, do thy worst,” then you can have courage.
One of the few times I needed courage, God was very happy to give it to me, and it was very nice. When I was going under, being wheeled in for my only cancer surgery — I had thyroid cancer years ago — I do remember (it was so nice) I suddenly had this sense that the world is wonderful and the universe is this big ball of the glory of God, and we’re just trapped in this little tiny speck of darkness. And even that’s going to be taken away eventually. Therefore, no matter what happens now, whatever happens with the surgery, I’m going to be all right. My family is going to be all right. The world is going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right. It was very nice to have a moment of courage.
“By looking at the joy of what is now there for you, you’ll face whatever you have to face.”
I have to tell you, I haven’t had many of those moments. I can’t hold on to them. But guess what? The courageous Jesus Christ holds on to me and holds on to you. And if you look at him and the joy of what he accomplished through his courageous act — by looking at the joy of what is now there for you, you’ll face whatever you have to face.
“Real courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the presence of joy.” A moving testimony of the sheer magnitude of God’s glory. A clip from Tim Keller’s sermon titled “The Gospel and Courage,” preached on May 26, 2013.
A couple of years later, Dr. Keller took this story and wrote it into his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (2015). I want to read his published version.
There have not been many times in my life when I felt “the peace that passes understanding.” But there was one time for which I am very grateful. . . . It was just before my cancer surgery. My thyroid was about to be removed, and after that, I faced a treatment with radioactive iodine to destroy any residual cancerous thyroid tissue in my body. Of course my whole family and I were shaken by it all, and deeply anxious. On the morning of my surgery, after I said my good-byes to my wife and sons, I was wheeled into a room to be prepped. And in the moments before they gave me the anesthetic, I prayed. To my surprise, I got a sudden, clear new perspective on everything. It seemed to me that the universe was an enormous realm of joy, mirth, and high beauty. Of course it was — didn’t the triune God make it to be filled with his own boundless joy, wisdom, love, and delight? And within this great globe of glory was only one little speck of darkness — our world — where there was temporarily pain and suffering. But it was only one speck, and soon that speck would fade away and everything would be light. And I thought, “It doesn’t really matter how the surgery goes. Everything will be all right. Me — my wife, my children, my church — will all be all right.” I went to sleep with a bright peace on my heart. (318)
I trust that in his last days Tim was given this courage and this vision again of the magnitude of God’s joy enveloping everything else.
Dr. Keller escaped this speck of darkness for the high beauty forever beyond the Shadow’s reach and entered into the boundless joy of his master at the age of 72. Farewell for now, Dr. Keller.