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Tim Keller’s cancer update: Hopeful lessons in hard places

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A close-up of a thumbs-up from a patient on a hospital bed
© chinnarach/stock.adobe.com

Bestselling author and pastor Tim Keller recently shared an update on his battle with pancreatic cancer. As a result of the prayers of many and his chemotherapy treatments, he has seen a “significant decrease in [the] size and number of tumors.” He stated, “I still have cancer, but this is excellent news,” and added, “What the future holds I do not know, but we will continue to trust his plan and allow him to shepherd us along his chosen path.”

Keller especially learned to trust God in hard places when he was battling thyroid cancer a few years ago. He explained, “It was both an intellectual and emotional experience: You’re facing death, you’re not sure you’re going to get over the cancer. And the rigorous intellectual process of going through all the alternative explanations for how the Christian Church started. Except the resurrection, none of them are even tenable. It was quite an experience.” 

That experience inspired his bestseller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, enabling millions of people to profit from his pain and make his hope their own. 

Beware “contempt for misfortune” 

We can learn from the pain of others, or we can ignore it to our loss. 

Following former President Trump’s impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate, 58 percent of Americans say he should have been convicted. This number reflects the sharp partisan divide in our nation: 88 percent of Democrats agreed, as did only 14 percent of Republicans. 

People in other countries probably watched news of the proceedings with the same detachment Americans watch the political travails of other countries. Brexit, for instance, was of passing interest to me but compellingly urgent to the British. By contrast, the below-zero temperatures we are battling in Texas are undoubtedly more urgent for me than for those in the UK. 

It is human nature to care less about problems that don’t affect us than those that do. In reading through the book of Job, I recently found this remarkable observation: “In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune” (Job 12:5a). This is true of us all. 

A lesson for every church and ministry 

However, if we fail to learn from the challenges of others, we are far more likely to fail when we meet similar challenges ourselves. The verse we just cited continues to warn us that misfortune “is ready for those whose feet slip” (v. 5b). No exceptions or qualifications are noted. 

This fact is especially relevant in light of the unfolding scandal involving Ravi Zacharias and the ministry he founded. Yesterday, we identified three ways we should respond personally to disclosures that the world-famous apologist engaged in horrific acts of sexual abuse. 

Today, let’s focus on a key lesson we need to learn for the sake of our churches, ministries, and cultural influence: we must respond immediately and objectively to claims of impropriety. 

David French’s article on Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) and its response to allegations against their founder is heartbreaking. It describes a pattern of denial on the part of the board and other ministry leaders. At times, those who sought to investigate charges against Zacharias were reportedly ostracized and marginalized. 

Tragically, such a response is unsurprising. Zacharias had built an international reputation for brilliance and integrity. Those who felt they knew him best deceived themselves into believing that they knew him better than those who brought allegations against him. We have seen the same pattern repeated in churches and ministries across denominational lines and around the world. 

How Jesus taught us to handle conflict 

This is why Jesus’ four-stage prescription for resolving conflict is so vital. 

First, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). We are not permitted to speak about people before we speak to them. When we become aware of an issue, we are to go directly to the person. (In instances of abuse, a person may not feel safe confronting their abuser. If you have suffered abuse, please report it to a counselor or other trusted professional.)

Second, “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (v. 16). This step requires investigation by objective parties and must be thorough. 

Third, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (v. 17a). This step requires public exposure of the issue and a call for repentance and resolution. 

Fourth, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17b). This step requires excluding the person from the church or ministry. 

Practical questions we must answer now 

Let’s apply Jesus’ prescription by asking some practical questions:

  • Does your church or ministry have a system whereby employees and others can safely report allegations of abuse or other improprieties?
  • Are the electronic devices of your leaders and employees open to screening at any time? (This was a major problem with RZIM.) I recommend Covenant Eyes for technology accountability; it is important that your church or ministry utilizes a system for transparency.
  • What commitments to personal integrity do you require of your leaders? For example, are they permitted to be alone with a person who is not their spouse or family? Are their calendars accountable to others?
  • Is someone in your church or ministry holding leaders accountable for personal integrity? As the great Howard Hendricks warned, sin thrives in isolation. Mark Turman, our senior fellow for leadership, recommends giving the leaders of your church permission to interview the pastor’s spouse two to three times a year regarding the pastor’s health. These and other regular steps are vital for leaders and those they lead.
  • Are your leaders accountable and transparent with regard to their use of ministry funds? Travel? Personal finances?
  • Are your church or ministry members praying regularly for the spiritual health of their leaders?

I often note that God redeems all he allows. One way he wants to redeem the Ravi Zacharias scandal is by using it to lead churches and ministries around the world to greater accountability and integrity.

But the time to act is now. Once a scandal erupts, it will be too late to prevent it. 

Let’s close with this declaration by the psalmist to the king of his day: “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Psalm 45:7). 

May Christians everywhere be able to say the same of their leaders, to the glory of God.

NOTE: Is Lent relevant? Can Christians gamble? Are Bible stories allegorical? These are three of the ten questions I seek biblical answers to in my newest book, Biblical Insight to Tough Questions, Vol. 7. Please request your copy of our new book today.