In a recent interview, pastor, author, and theologian Tim Keller reflected on his prayer life in the two and a half years since his terminal cancer diagnosis, saying that while he often prays for complete healing, the knowledge that death is certain has actually caused him to grow into more of the person God intends him to be.
Keller is a well known figure in American evangelicalism, having authored multiple best selling books and serving as the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City for three decades. He co-founded Redeemer City to City, which trains pastors for service around the world, and he was also a co-founder of The Gospel Coalition.
His remarks came in the context of a live interview with apologetics show “Premier Unbelievable?”
Keller, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer in May 2020, said that despite the pain and fear associated with cancer, he and his wife, Kathy, “would never want to go back to the kind of prayer life and spiritual life we had before the cancer. Never.”
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“I spent all of my life saying that communion with God, the real presence of God, can ‘satisfy us every morning with your steadfast love,’” Keller explained. “So what does it mean to ‘satisfy us every morning with your steadfast love’? That can’t mean ‘remind me.’ It means ‘satisfy me with your love.’”
Keller continued, “And I spent all of my career telling people that it was available—and experiencing some of it—but, actually, every so often, Kathy and I will say, ‘We’re having a much better life now.’”
“When it comes to prayer, I, you know, really thought that I had a good prayer life. And when I broke through into another dimension, I realized, my goodness, I was much, much, much less—frankly, my prayer life wasn’t very good,” Keller said. “But the other thing I would say is, everyone knows they’re going to die…and everyone knows that they really, in some ways, repress that and live as if they’re never going to die.”
Recounting when he first received his terminal diagnosis, Keller expressed, “I realized, I never really did believe I was going to die. At some deep level, I just didn’t…Looking back on it, I just don’t think there’s any way to go through the change that happens in you when you know that you really are going to die: the way you look at your time, the way you look at God, the way you look at your spouse—the way you look at everything just changes when you actually realize time is limited and ‘I’m mortal.’”
Keller added that, “frankly, I would have lived a better life” if he had come to this realization sooner, further reflecting, “I’m closer to where I should have been most of my life.”
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“I wish I’d been able, without getting cancer, to just know how mortal I am,” Keller said later in the conversation. “And Psalm 90 says, ‘Teach us to number our days that we get a heart for wisdom.’ What does that mean? I know what it means now. But I don’t know how you do that before you have something like this. I just don’t know. There’s just a breakthrough in the way in which I look at everything once I realize, ‘My goodness, I’ve been in denial.’”