Following the death of Tim Keller, we remind ourselves what he said about cancer, prayer and living in hope

On Friday 19th May, Christians around the world took to social media to express their gratitude for Tim Keller and the impact of his work on their faith and ministries. The death of the 72-year-old evangelist, apologist and author prompted tributes from across the theological spectrum. You can see some of these comments on the Premier Christian News website and on Premier Christianity

 However, we thought the best way to pay tribute to this wonderful man was to remind ourselves of his own words. In a live webinar earlier this year, Justin Brierley, Ruth Jackson and hundreds of other live viewers listened to Tim Keller share vulnerably about suffering and death. Using the word ‘scanxiety’, he spoke of the tangible fear of waiting for results. Yet, he was also so full of hope and his call to prayer can continue to inspire and challenge us all.


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Below is an extract from Unbelievable? Tim Keller Q&A on cancer, prayer and forgiveness.

A changed prayer life

This is going to sound like an exaggeration, but my wife and I would never want to go back to the kind of prayer life and spiritual life we had before the cancer. I really thought I had a good prayer life. And when I broke through into another dimension, I realised frankly, my prayer life wasn’t very good. 

The change came in two stages. When I was in my 50s, I had thyroid cancer. And there was a period there where, you know, “he maketh me to lie down”. And during that time, I actually did have something of a renaissance in how I prayed. That’s where I got into the Psalms at a much deeper level, and when I started praying them more often. 

I also started to do a better job of learning how to meditate. Martin Luther’s barber asked him, “Master Luther, how should I pray?” He wrote a 40 page letter to him about prayer, and he talks about a way of meditating so that it warms your heart up. You don’t go from Bible study, to prayer, you go from Bible study into meditation to prayer.

The difference between meditation and prayer is very simple. If you take a look at Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, oh, my soul. And all that is within me, bless his holy name, Bless the Lord, oh, my soul and forget not all his benefits.” Now, who’s he talking to? It’s not a prayer. The Psalmist is talking to himself and saying: do you really understand what this means? Do you see the benefits?

I usually tell people who are going through anxiety, discouragement, that sort of thing: immerse yourself in the Psalms, because you’ll find ways to process that particular emotion before God.

That all happened 20 years ago. Then when I got cancer this time, it turbo charged all of those things. 


Praying for healing

I pray at least twice a day for complete healing, even though my doctor told me there is no cure for stage four pancreatic cancer. God can do it or he doesn’t have to do it.  

When I got this cancer diagnosis, I was 69 years old. Kathy and I thought we’d feel a lot older when we got to 69. Ultimately, I’m praying for healing. And the fact that I may not get that is something I have say: “OK, God knows.”

We’re all going to die  

Everyone knows they’re going to die and everyone, in some ways, represses that and lives as if they’re never going to die.

When I had thyroid cancer, the doctor said it was very treatable. When I had pancreatic cancer, my doctor said: “You’re going to die of this, sooner or later, because we don’t have a cure for it.” And I realised I never really did believe I was going to die. At some deep level, I just didn’t. There is some kind of denial that’s there, that just will not go away until you actually have a doctor saying you’re going to die of this and you could die within weeks.

The way you look at God, the way you look at your spouse, the way you look at your time – the way you look at everything – changes when you realise time is limited and you are mortal. 

Comforting our relatives  

Joe Bayly was an old InterVarsity Fellowship staff worker here in the United States long ago. He wrote a book called ‘A View From The Hearse’ in the 1960s because three of his seven children died. He was at a funeral or a wake and a friend came and sat down next to him and said: “I know, the Lord’s working in this, and I’m praying for you, and I know that, all things work together for good, and we just don’t understand his ways. And we really have to trust in him, and he’s compassionate. It’s so hard, but you know, we can really trust him…” And Joe said: “I couldn’t wait for him to leave.”

And then he said: “Another friend came by and sat down next to me. He never said anything until I said something. He was economical with his words, basically followed my lead and just showed a tremendous amount of support. I hated to see him go.” 

I’ve never forgotten that story.

When it comes to someone that doesn’t share your faith, I think the most important thing is to just show up for them and not push faith down their throat, unless they ask questions or say: “Hey, put in a prayer for me with the guy upstairs. Not that I believe in him. But I wouldn’t mind…” Then you have an open door. But you need to let that person open the door to talking about faith. Otherwise just be incredibly loving and supportive. 


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What I wish I’d known earlier 

I wish I’d been able to understand how mortal I was without getting cancer. Psalm 90 says: “Teach us to number our days that we get a heart of wisdom.” I know what that means now. I don’t know how you gain that understanding before you have something like this, there’s a breakthrough in the way in which I look at everything.

Kathy’s mother had five children. She used to say to Kathy: “I want to write a book someday, ‘How to Raise the First Child Like the Fifth’, which meant not so worried, really relaxed. And Kathy said: “That’s impossible, Mum. There’s no way you can possibly raise the first child like the fifth, because you just have to go through things like having that first injection and being worried about it. And by the time you get to the third, fourth, fifth child, you realise they’re resilient.”

It’s the same with me. There’s no way to get to where I am now, without going through the doctor saying: “You’re going to die from this.” I wish there had been, but there isn’t. But I’m glad I’m where I am.


This was an extract from Unbelievable? Tim Keller Q&A on cancer, prayer and forgiveness. To watch the whole show, click here.