Tim Keller, a pastor theologian who was one of the great American evangelists of his time, died on Friday morning, May 19, with his wife, Kathy, by his side. He was an imperfect man, as both he and his theology would demand I point out, but faithfulness pervaded his life.
He was full of paradoxes, and this comes through in the many obituaries and tributes that have honoured him in recent days. I knew him for over a decade, and he never stopped surprising me. The surprise of him was a large measure of the joy of knowing him.
I was first surprised by Keller in 2011. I was working in the White House, and Keller was set to read a passage of Scripture at the Easter Prayer Breakfast held in the East Room. In planning for the event, I had the ridiculous, embarrassing job of prompting Keller to send us the Scripture he planned to read by sending him some suggestions of my own. I would not have blamed him had he dismissed the email out of hand. Surely Timothy Keller did not need some twenty-two-year-old government employee to remind him of some biblical passages that relate to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Surely Keller would have some learned explanation for why the passages I selected were not the right fit for the moment. I hardly knew him at the time, so I was half-expecting a rebuke—if only to serve his own self-regard—which I would have respected. So many of us think there is a need to protect our reputation in this way.
It turns out that Keller did not think too highly of self-regard. Less than a year later, he would write The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy, one of my favourite of his many works. Over the last several days, I have read seemingly countless stories of people who have been surprised by Keller in the way I was in 2011. I was particularly moved by the story of Tim Cox, who accompanied Tim on a trip to South Korea:
I traveled with Tim to Seoul. Tim was speaking at a conference for pastors, and Tim kept saying “Look at what Jesus has done for you! If you see that, you will be changed!”
At one point I asked Tim if even that could be a legalistic thing. That I’m not looking hard enough at Jesus so I just need to pull up my socks and try harder. When in reality, the Holy Spirit does that for me.
Tim told me, “Yes, of course, only the Holy Spirit can do that!”
That was the end of our conversation.
The next day, Tim got to the part of his talk where he said “if you look at what Jesus did for you . . .” and he looks straight at me, “then by the power of the Holy Spirit, you’ll change!”
This is how I felt when Keller responded to my email, as if he was oblivious to all the atmospherics, all the power, his own ego and self-regard, and as if his response to me was fine-tuned for my good. He replied that he liked the passage I had selected from 2 Corinthians, and that he would read that one. I think this might be the highest use of becoming a well-known authority on Scripture: not to always stand above others with corrections and judgments but to affirm from the place of authority so that others might approach Scripture with confidence. I have spent much time over these past days thinking about my experiences with Tim in group settings when my instinct would have been to offer bold correction, and Tim’s response was to offer a story or ask a question. He was always looking to redirect, or spur on, but hesitant to cut off or shut down. This is part of the paradox of Tim Keller: he was esteemed and well-regarded, yet self-forgetful, lowly in service.
Keller was also an intellectual and a popularizer, an orthodox Christian who was widely read and cosmopolitan. Although I do believe he was aware of the effect it had on people when he cited surprising intellectual sources and obscure academic works, his eye seemed to always be on what would actually be helpful to those he was encountering. It was just apparent that his aim was not to puff himself up. Whereas so much of evangelicalism seeks to instill confidence among believers through judgmental exclusion and cultural favouritism, Tim suggested through his life and work that the gospel was credible everywhere, in every circumstance. In the city, in the workplace, in culture, Keller insisted that God’s kingdom was relevant there too, not as a result of efforts to make it so, but because of its very nature. His life and ministry constituted one of the dominant forces of conscientious objection to those who sought to relegate Christianity to ever-diminishing realms of relevancy.
In the city, in the workplace, in culture, Keller insisted that God’s kingdom was relevant there too, not as a result of efforts to make it so, but because of its very nature.
Why did Tim ever speak about politics? To insist that it was subject to the will and judgment of God. Why was Tim never consumed by politics? Because he knew politics was subject to God, not God to politics.
Tim once told me about his consideration of a high-level request from the US State Department on a long-standing issue of global importance. Tim cared about the issue, and the State Department wanted him to affirm a principles-level statement of the US approach to the issue. The secretary of state (it’s immaterial which secretary and what administration) argued that it was a pivotal moment and that the issue could be on the verge of a breakthrough. Tim, though, declined. His reasoning? The State Department didn’t want him because he was an authority on the issue at hand, but because of his influence as the pastor of a significant church in New York City. The source of his influence and the object of the influence did not match.
Now, the point here is not that pastors or Christian leaders should never advocate for a particular policy or political action. Indeed, Tim sometimes would do just that, given a particular set of circumstances and factors. Instead, what is notable is that he did not allow the allure of an opportunity to enlarge his influence and reputation to cloud his judgment regarding what would be most faithful to his calling. It is all too easy to use the fact that you have been asked to do something as permission to do it. Had Tim said yes, very powerful people would have hailed Keller as a global statesman, the heir to Reinhold Niebuhr, et cetera, et cetera. Tim cared about influence, but he was purposeful about it. In a time when many of us are led to believe that our calling is to influence, Tim was not prone to confuse the means with the end. His eyes were on the prize. And his self-forgetfulness allowed him to navigate Oval Office meetings with the president of the United States, negotiations with diplomats, city politics with politicians and religious leaders, and even Twitter barbs from seminary students with grace and integrity.
I want to make one final point about the paradoxes of Tim Keller. Usually, humble is the characteristic that comes after the “but.” He was brilliant but humble, some might say. This would be true. But as I reflect on my final conversations with Tim, the way he encouraged me and so many others, and what I take to be the message of his final writings and projects, I want to remind us all that Tim was humble but ambitious for the kingdom. Tim thought big. His vision was sweeping. He was not tempted by the false humility of “carving out a niche,” which, if we’re honest, is much more often about keeping others out of our claimed territory than it is a lack of self-regard. Tim was not daunted by the challenges facing American society and Christianity in this country. Tim knew those challenges better than most, and he did not answer them from a distance, like so many of the ensconced antagonists who criticized him from the antiseptic safe space of their echo chambers, lobbing bombs from their side of the wall to the applause of their compatriots without noting whether the bombs ever actually touched ground on the other side or caring to assess the damage. Tim Keller stands apart because he was driven by purpose, not grievance or resentment.
Tim spent so much of his final years investing in young leaders. So many have testified to the encouragements he offered, the calls he made, and the overwhelming nature of these remembrances is to suggest that Tim was so humble that he would spend his time encouraging someone as insignificant as them when he could surely have been doing something more important. I understand the self-effacing nature of this. It’s certainly how I often felt when I was a recipient of Tim’s attention. But we should not confuse our feelings of inadequacy with Tim’s intentions.
Tim Keller stands apart because he was driven by purpose, not grievance or resentment.
Tim was humble, but he also thought big. He was a person of kingdom purpose. Whether you knew Tim personally, or you were the beneficiary of his preaching or writings, I hope that you will not allow your regard for Tim to outshine his regard for you, and his confidence in a God who calls people to himself, who cares about their every good endeavour.
None of us who were shaped by Tim’s preaching and writing feel ready to lead, certainly not without him. He did his best to leave us with his own thoughts on the road ahead, and I encourage anyone who is reading these words to consider what your role might be in taking up the work Tim has laid out.
But it is not only to the past that we must look when we consider Tim’s life.
In his remarks at the US memorial service for John Stott—the British evangelical who had such a profound influence on him and set a model for so much of his ministry, not limited to Redeemer but including the Center for Faith and Work and much else—Keller drew out five observations from Stott’s life that he wanted others to learn from and act on, particularly next-generation Christian leaders. I urge you to watch the entire talk, but here is the last observation he shared:
The last thing I’d like you to do today is to not just be convicted in these ways, and instructed in these ways, I want you to be empowered by the knowledge of his present glory. We need to learn how to get joy and power from the knowledge of the people that we love who have passed away, and know what they’re like. Right now. Do you get any power from that? Do you get any joy from that? You should.
These paradoxes of Tim Keller, the attributes he possessed that seem so contrary, so inexplicable, make great sense now. These paradoxes are all explained by Jesus, and Jesus’s call to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Tim loved the Lord with all of his mind, and he used his mind to love people. He was an authority who used that authority to pastor people to confidence in Jesus. He held firmly enough to the faith to take it to places and settings where others doubted it could do much good at all. He engaged in culture and politics, but was never consumed by them. He was humble, but he thought big for the kingdom. He died on Friday, but he is living today.
I’ll close with Tim’s own remarks at Stott’s memorial service. What Tim said about Stott is true about Tim himself, and the call is as urgent as ever.
Tim Keller wanted to change the world for Christ. He wanted the light of Christ to flood the world. He wanted the knowledge of Christ to flood the world. And guess what? It’s going to happen. He’s escaped our shadows, and he’s in the light. But the knowledge of his present glory should empower you to know, and to realize, that he was on the right side. And the world that he was working for, and the world that we should be working for, is inevitably on its way. He’s in the light, we’re in the darkness, but this darkness is going to be overwhelmed by the light. There’s light and high beauty forever beyond the reach of the shadows of earth that are here, and that light and high beauty is going to flood the earth and wipe out the shadows someday. Tim is going to come with it. All of the people who are there now are going to come with it. Be empowered by the knowledge of his present glory.