In a recent interview, pastor and theologian Tim Keller gave an update on his health. Keller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this summer. While he doesn’t know how long he has yet to live, Keller says he is happier than he has been before and “I enjoy my prayer life more than I ever have in my life.” Still, there is one thing Keller fears.
In the interview, Pastor Gumbel asked the Christian theologian about his current battle with pancreatic cancer. Keller recently celebrated his 70th birthday in September, and this is his second bout with cancer, the first time was back in 2002 when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and from which he later recovered.
The Prodigal God author said “thyroid cancer is a walk in the park compared to (pancreatic cancer),” and stated that his doctor told him that this type of cancer is very difficult to treat.
“God was very kind,” Keller said, because they found the cancer at a very early stage while he was in the hospital for something else. Because of the early diagnosis, some of the early treatments are looking “really good, and the possibility of keeping it at bay for a longer period of time is pretty good. I won’t go beyond that,” he revealed.
“It’s not likely, right now that I would be dying within a year, but I would have longer.”
Disease Makes One Ask: Is God’s Will Good?
The Christian apologist, known for his best-selling book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, commented that all of his life he has been telling people “Is God’s will good or not?” Keller then elaborated that on the first day of his cancer diagnosis his teaching took on a more tangible meaning for him. Keller explained that we all can say God is available experientially, but it’s not until you realize you’re not going to be able to get through the day unless you experience God by seeking Him in prayer that you really understand that truth. Keller said one realizes: “oh my goodness He is there and He’s real…communion with Him is really available…not every single day, but far more often than I would have thought.”
Keller revealed that more than being afraid to die, he and his wife Kathy are most fearful about regressing spiritually. “If I get a really good diagnosis…a really good response to the cancer, and I really do well…live for a number of more years. We never want to go back spiritually where we were before the cancer diagnosis…we never want to go back to that.”
As a Pastor for many years, Keller has preached that dependence on God is what Christian should demonstrate. And while he doesn’t think he was being hypocritical while he preached that message, “the reality is that most of say that we need to depend on God, but we actually think we got it sorted…we feel like we’ve got everything under control because we’ve thought this out.” However, we often don’t depend on God like we should: “We know technically that we’re mortal…we know technically that God is in charge of everything, but we actually experientially don’t believe it until life gets beyond your ability to control it.”
When you realize you have no control you are then able to turn God and say, “Oh my goodness He really is there. He is enough. I’m actually happier than I’ve ever been on a given day…I enjoy my prayer life more than I ever have in my life.”
“I enjoy the things around in a way that I have never enjoyed them before. I see them as gifts of God.”
I don’t fear dying, Keller told host Gumbel, “My fear is leaving [my wife] behind, and that’s her biggest fear as well.” Keller said that he and his wife are clinging to the words of late Presbyterian Pastor James Montgomery Boice from his last call to worship in front of the congregation of the church before he died of liver cancer. “God’s will is always good and perfect, if you change God’s will one day it would be one day less good,” Keller recalled. “If you could live one more day longer than God had planned for you, your will would be less good than His will.” He explained that his wife and he are resting in the assurance that whoever out lives the other is because God isn’t done with them. His timing is perfect, Keller says, paraphrasing Boice: “I don’t know what day I’m supposed to die, but it’s good and it’s perfect.”
The author revealed that he had been working on a new book about the resurrection of Jesus when he found out that about his pancreatic cancer. Keller explained that writing the book helped at a rational level to take down any fears that he had because, “It really happened (the resurrection). There is no historically plausible alternate explanation for the birth of the Christian church than the resurrection…the real physical resurrection of Jesus Christ…and as I was working on that I was saying ‘this really happened’…if this really happened, I’m going to be ok and so is Kathy. We’re all going to be ok…so that’s how we dealt with the fears.”