My Faith: The danger of asking God ‘Why me?'
August 4th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Faith: The danger of asking God ‘Why me?'

Editor’s note: Timothy Keller is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and author of The New York Times best-selling book "The Reason for God." His book for church leaders, "Center Church," will be published in September.

By Timothy Keller, Special to CNN

(CNN)–When I was diagnosed with cancer, the question “Why me?” was a natural one.

Later, when I survived but others with the same kind of cancer died, I also had to ask, “Why me?”

Suffering and death seem random, senseless.

The recent Aurora, Colorado, shootings — in which some people were spared and others lost — is the latest, vivid example of this, but there are plenty of others every day: from casualties in the Syria uprising to victims of accidents on American roads. Tsunamis, tornadoes, household accidents - the list is long.

As a minister, I’ve spent countless hours with suffering people crying: “Why did God let this happen?” In general I hear four answers to this question. Each is wrong, or at least inadequate.

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The first answer is “I guess this proves there is no God.” The problem with this thinking is that the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that if there was no higher divine law, there would be no way to tell if any particular human law was unjust. Likewise, if there is no God, then why do we have a sense of outrage and horror when suffering and tragedy occur? The strong eat the weak, there is no meaning, so why not?

Friedrich Nietzsche exemplified that idea. When the atheist Nietzsche heard that a natural disaster had destroyed Java in 1883, he wrote a friend: “Two-hundred-thousand wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!”

Because there is no God, Nietzsche said, all value judgments are arbitrary. All definitions of justice are just the results of your culture or temperament.

My Take: This is where God was in Aurora

As different as they were, King and Nietzsche agreed on this point. If there is no God or higher divine law then violence is perfectly natural.

So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all.

The second response to suffering is: “While there is a God, he’s not completely in control of everything. He couldn’t stop this.”

But that kind of God doesn’t really fit our definition of “God.” So that thinking hardly helps us with reconciling God and suffering.

The third answer to the worst kind of suffering – seemingly senseless death – is: “God saves some people and lets others die because he favors and rewards good people.”

But the Bible forcefully rejects the idea that people who suffer more are worse people than those who are spared suffering.

This was the self-righteous premise of Job’s friends in that great Old Testament book. They sat around Job, who was experiencing one sorrow after another, and said “The reason this is happening to you and not us is because we are living right and you are not.”

At the end of the book, God expresses his fury at Job’s ”miserable comforters.” The world is too fallen and deeply broken to fall into neat patterns of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives.

The fourth answer to suffering in the face of an all-powerful God is that God knows what he’s doing, so be quiet and trust him.

This is partly right, but inadequate. It is inadequate because it is cold and because the Bible gives us more with which to face the terrors of life.

God did not create a world with death and evil in it. It is the result of humankind turning away from him. We were put into this world to live wholly for him, and when instead we began to live for ourselves everything in our created reality began to fall apart, physically, socially and spiritually. Everything became subject to decay.

But God did not abandon us. Only Christianity of all the world’s major religions teaches that God came to Earth in Jesus Christ and became subject to suffering and death himself, dying on the cross to take the punishment our sins deserved, so that someday he can return to Earth to end all suffering without ending us.

Do you see what this means? We don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be.

It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.

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Someone might say, “But that’s only half an answer to the question ‘Why?'” Yes, but it is the half that we need. If God actually explained all the reasons why he allows things to happen as they do, it would be too much for our finite brains.

What we truly need is what little children need. They can’t understand most of what their parents allow and disallow for them. They need to know their parents love them and can be trusted. We need to know the same thing about God.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Keller.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • God

soundoff (3,664 Responses)
  1. Dyslexic doG

    Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.

    Isaac Asimov

    August 5, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Nietodarwin

      Sic 'em doG Sic 'em. A bite in the butt from some academic teeth is just the medicine for these folks, but be gentle.
      FANTASY quote here, from a fantasy song, so you bite gently. (Author unknown, but a songwriters song that makes me feel patriotic)
      "On the BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN all the cops have wooden legs, and the Bulldogs Have Rubber Teeth, and the hens lay soft boiled eggs" You tube it, and have a "blessedly intellectual" Sunday "doG" 🙂

      August 5, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  2. Steve

    God is like have an imaginary friend. And people use religion to ridicule people who do not believe exactly what they believe. Religion has also been used to explain slavery and many other terrible things. Why don't we just let it go and grow up. There is no god and I have proof. I was legally dead for about 5 minutes during a heart surgery. I didn't see anything. So I just settled the argument. You are all welcome.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Who me?

      ..Finally,PROOF(there is no god).I guess we can stop the debate now.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  3. In Reason I Trust

    Keller's excuse why 'no god' is wrong is a joke. I'm an atheist and I'm also a concious being-I dont want other concious beings to suffer, is that really so difficult to understand? Do we really need an imaginary parent to tell us suffering is bad?

    August 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  4. Bible just a theory

    OF COURSE, if you invent the existence of a MAGIC WHITE GUY WITH A BEARD who lives in the sky, runs the world, and likes to KILL PEOPLE with horrible painful diseases, then you will have plenty of trouble making sense of it all. If you drop the God nonsense, then disease is easily understood as simply a natural consequence of our chemically complicated and fragile bodies. Leave it to a bunch of nasty preachers to claim that people get cancer because they "sinned".

    August 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  5. heywaitaminit

    "The problem with this thinking is that the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God."

    It also doesn't go away if you abandon or keep your belief in Satan, the dread lord Cthulu or Katy Perry, either. Bad things happen, and it's actually easier to get to the root of the problems (like the biological causes and medical treatments for cancer) if you remove God from the equation.

    Finally, there's Epicurus: Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

    August 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  6. Nietodarwin

    Faith means "I don't have a logical answer" It sure shows up in our test scores.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  7. Larry L

    Why woulod you be shocked to see "god" be nice to some and not others? The whole concept of prayer is begging a diety with an enormous ego so he'll spare you and send all of those other folks to hell. According to the religious dogma those who don't make the cut will be tortured for all eternity. If this god is willing to "torture for all eternity" for people who just didn't beg enough, what would stop him/her from giving some of them cancer? Yeah, yeah, "personal choice... Satan's fault... etc". That's a cop-out and perfectly illogical. The diety either has the power to make it happen or he doesn't. If he does he's a jerk... if he doesn't he's not the "god" of all power.

    Let it go folks – it's all mythology. Everybody has a holy book and all of them are filled with mythology. Look at the damage they've done! Live a good life, be a good person, and accept the unknown graciously. Nobody is sending you to hell or heaven. If some spiritual reality exists beyond death, you'll discover the truth like the rest of us.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  8. Alan

    Aside from each side taking cracks at each other, there is a lot of great comments here about this story. What I ultimately conclude from it and the comments I read.

    That the Bible does serve a really good purpose. it's a guidebook for people who need one to be a decent human being. Without it, we would not be where we are now, including in the fields of science, technology, and medicine. How so? By creating the society that we live in that allowed the time for men and women of science to flourish.

    I am not religious, I don't need the guidebook. A book that was written in a time where people thought outer space was made of water. I do think we are connected in more ways than we realize, and that our brains are more powerful also. That sense of knowing when something bad is happening to someone, or is about to happen. Or that feeling when you feel like someone is starring at you, and you look up, and someone is. Or when you think of someone at random and the phone rings, and it's him or her. Science will eventually figure this out.

    The worst thing about the Bible and the religion is that it asks you to believe in something that you don't understand and to be okay with that. My logical mind cannot accept that. I need proof.
    Whenever I talk to someone who is religious, I always ask "what made them believe?" Besides growing up in that environment, what event, or what thought process took place in their mind, that they decided that they believed in God. The most honest answer I ever heard was "Because I needed to. Because I cannot exist without it. I need to believe that all things happen for a reason and that I have a purpose in this life." Answer accepted. I looked at my friend and accepted his fears in life and the needs of a god in heaven. Everybody is different, especially in how they handle stress. Am I a bad friend to allow him to believe in something that isn't realistic? Would I be a worse friend for taking that coping mechanism away from him(if I even could)?
    Or when he succeeds at something and thanks God. God didn't help him, but his belief in God certainly did.

    A person's value to society cannot be measured by what they believe in, but by how they conduct themselves.

    So I guess what I am saying is that we should respect one another no matter what we believe in. Telling the religious guy to go back under his rock is just as unfair as them telling us that we would not be allowed in the kingdom of heaven even though we don't believe in their god. We will all know for sure what exists when we die.

    When I die, my guess is that an Alien spaceship is going to steal my soul and dump it into a volcano on a far and distant planet! 😛

    August 5, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Alan

      correction –
      Or when he succeeds at something and thanks God. God didn't help him(at least I don't think God helped him), but his belief in God certainly did.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      The Bible is a guidebook, all right. I call it the Big Book o'Horrors. Have you actually READ it? You may also be familiar with one of its many sequels, the Malleus Maleficorum, AKA the further adventures of the Great Sadist in the Sky.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  9. jazzzmman

    I think the reason God doesn't explain the reason to us fully is NOT because of our finite brains. I believe he expects us to trust and have faith in him. Faith not scientific proof and logic.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Who me?


      August 5, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  10. alphacheck

    Why in the world is this on the front page of CNN?

    August 5, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • jazzzmman

      Because God is relevant. Even if you don't think so.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • RichardSRussell


      August 5, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  11. Lori Green

    Wow. I can't believe all the haters on this page. I am dying with a terminal illness. I have Lou Gehrig's disease. I know there is God. He is with me every day. That is how I get through this. I am sorry for all of you haters.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      And I'm sorry for anyone whose miseries in life drive them to alcohol, drugs, or religion as a way to cope, but I guess you do what you think you gotta.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  12. organically

    religion is the biggest scam in the history of humanity

    August 5, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Joe

      The question is...Why do humans persist in believing and god or gods? Religion is clearly a delusion. There is no evidence of god. Just observe the world around you. The empirical evidence points to no god. Religious belief is a mental illness in my view. You believe because you need/want to. To quote the rock band Rush. "Why are we here? Because we're here." Life is tough for a lot of us, brutal for many,but it is what it is. Believing in a non existent sky fairy will not, HAS NOT helped us build a better world.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  13. Nik

    I always enjoy Tim Keller. He's one of the best communicators in making logic seem very simple. I wish he had mentioned that people who ask this question rarely mean it though. They really ask, "Why does God allow these things that I have personally ordained as bad?" No one is happy to think of all the things in their own life that are also crimes against God, the king of all creation. If God, who is perfectly good and just, destroyed all that is evil, that would have to include us. Through faith in Christ alone, we are made right before God. When God does destroy all evil, it is through Christ alone that we will not be destroyed wih it.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • NoTheism

      It seems that my reply did not post... which is unfortunate.
      Nik, what you're saying is that we shouldn't worry about any evil because it is possible that in your god's mind, it's all good.
      That's amazing but no thanks....
      My previous response was much better but I'm not about to write it again.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      NoTheism, I compose off line, in a window in a database I've created that pops up any of CNN's forbidden character strings. Then I copy and paste. If for some reason it doesn't go thru, I've still got the original and can revise and resubmit.
      There are also tricks you can use, like the option-1 that gets you the inverted exclamation point, ideal for replacing that female breast in the middle of the Const¡tution or an att¡tude, or the option-4 that lets you refer to s¢x without fear of censorship. (I don't know the Windows equivalents, sorry.)

      August 5, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  14. joebob

    The Good Rev. Keller writes, "We were put into this world to live wholly for [the Christian God]". My question is, what kind of psychotic, tyrannical super-being would create sentient life with free will, and then demand that those creatures obey his every command, totally and completely and without question or deviation? And what kind of psychotic, narcissistic super-being would demand that these creatures praise, thank, and worship him constantly and without reservation? The Christian God (and pretty much every other god I've ever heard of) is profoundly evil.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Nik

      I wonder if you think the same thing about every government in the world demanding obedience to its law or giving out punishment. Are parents equally evil for not allowing children to misbehave.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • jazzzmman

      Just because you believe as you do does not make it true. The real God loves us and also disciplines us when needed. I've seen God work in my life in many ways. You probably havent't

      August 5, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • joebob

      "I wonder if you think the same thing about every government in the world demanding obedience to its law or giving out punishment. Are parents equally evil for not allowing children to misbehave." - yes, but only in regard to those governments that aren't democratic. And this is the essence of the Christian God: if he does exist, he's a tyrant.

      "Are parents equally evil for not allowing children to misbehave." - no, because children need to be under parents' control in order to be fed, be prevented from walking into traffic, etc. Humans don't need a god (especially ones that don't really exist, i.e. all of them) to do these things for them. Furthermore, for children to obey adults makes more sense than for adults to obey gods - because parents actually exist, and gods do not.

      August 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • joebob

      @jazzzmman - which god are you talking about? Zeus? Vishnu? Chango Macho? Or the one that your parents taught you to believe in? Do you really think that you had the very unlikely good fortune to be born into a family that just happened to worship the one and only true God, while the overwhelming majority of humans throughout history (and in the world today, where two-thirds of humanity is non-Christian, and about half is non-Abrahamic) were unlucky enough to be worshiping false gods?

      August 5, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  15. Seyedibar

    The danger of asking God "why me?"... is that you aren't actually asking anyone anything. You're only talking to yourself because god is a character in a fictional book.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  16. G.C.

    "Only Christianity of all the world’s major religions teaches that God came to Earth in Jesus Christ and became subject to suffering and death himself, dying on the cross to take the punishment our sins deserved, so that someday he can return to Earth to end all suffering without ending us." - Timothy Keller

    "My God has a bigger d!ck than your God!" –George Carlin

    August 5, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  17. runymede

    I have had cancer, have Multiple Sclerosis and profound deafness and I was recently laid off at 60.....Why me ????

    August 5, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      a combination of genetic characteristics and pure random chance.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  18. Way Out There

    Reading many of these posts, not just today, but every Sunday when CNN decides it is time to make religious faith a news item, I think there are two major evils in this world.
    1) That everyone is so confident of their beliefs that anyone who believes otherwise deserves ridicule, scorn, insults, and must be silenced due to ignorance. And the people that are most forceful of sharing exactly what they feel are also the ones that have no desire to understand what other people feel or belief.
    2) That 99% of the people that read this post agree that it is EVERYONE ELSE that is this way, but not themselves. It is everyone else that needs to change.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • NoTheism

      I don't agree... There are many believers and non that enjoy a good discussion and do so with an open mind.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Wits end

      One can assume these 2 points apply to yourself as well?

      August 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Way Out There

      Yes, Wits End, they do apply to me as well. I never meant to suggest otherwise.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  19. citizen bob

    I'm not trying to convince anybody one way or the other about the existence of the divine. I'm just looking at the argument that since we can't explain why God allows this sadness to happen or didn't prevent that misfortune to occur, proves his in-existence.
    We can't explain why people allow this sadness to occur or don't prevent that misfortune to happen. We come up with hypothetical constructs such as "crazy", "bad upbringing", too much sugar in his frosted flakes, etc. We really don't know why. I can't explain why people do what they do. But, i do believe people exist.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Nii


      August 5, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Way Out There

      I too, deep down, know people exist. However, they do not conform to what I believe people should be. Therefore, I am not comfortable with that idea, so I work very hard to deny their existence. 🙂

      August 5, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      There are other ways of proving non-existence. All we can say based on the massive amounts of suffering in the world, is that, if there IS a God, he doesn't care.
      Stop and think about it. If you were walking along the lake and saw someone drowning and screaming for help a hundred feet offshore, would you just stand there and watch? That's what God does EVERY SINGLE DAY if you're to believe his fans.

      August 5, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • citizen bob

      I hear you Richard, it does seem like if God exists he doesn't care. I don't view God as a super hero to save that drowning person, rather as an influence for me to be a hero and save that drowning person.

      August 5, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  20. MS

    To Tim Keller,

    Very thoughtful piece. Thank you. I recommend to anyone who has serious interest to ask not only those who are hostile to the message of the bible, Jesus message, the Spirit, but to ask those who follow that way.

    To be honest in seeking answers, we need to allow for more depth, time, and complexity from the proponent of an idea as well as those who disagree. Believing Christians have very often been on both sides of the question, so give them a chance. But it's too easy to throw rocks.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • NoTheism

      MS, it is easy to debate believers, as they have no evidence for any of their claims....
      Would you like to give it a shot?

      August 5, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • NoTheism

      Allow me to correct myself, I meant to say no GOOD evidence.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • JoeAverage

      I'd like to take up the discussion with NoTheism, and rather than use theological arguments, let's use math

      August 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Nick

      Some might argue that before we could even rationally argue This idea, we would need a foundation to build it upon, In this case, historical and legitimate scientific evidence that the underlying premise, the existence of god and humans as described in the bible, actually are true. If not, isn't the argument futile seeing that arguing truths about false information? So please, spare us the philosophical arguement and disprove our genetic tree dating far beyond Jesus, god, and our species, as well as dinosaurs and a plethora of data that that is factual, and clearly rejects the foundation upon which you would like to build an arguement about the perceived wrongs of society.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:56 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.