Timothy Keller’s How to Find God series is a set of three books that tackles life’s most important events: birth, marriage, and death. These books, which Keller refers to as sort-of “pocket pastors,” explain how you can find God in times of transition or trials, and place your hope and trust in Him.
You focus on birth, marriage, and death. What is the importance of these three events in our lives?
They force you to think bigger. We are very busy, doing things day to day, reaching our goals, but those three things make you stand back and look at the big questions of what am I really doing here? What’s my life for? Every one of those moments makes you ask bigger questions, and it’s one of the reasons why a lot of people turn to God. Even if they’ve had a church background, and they were not really observing their faith very often, it’s during times of trial or times of transition that people start to either re-engage their faith or even come back to church. When these big transitions happen, and you start to ask these bigger questions about your meaning in life, your purpose, what you are living for, these pastoral booklets say here’s how to process that.
You talk about the difference between conversion and new birth, and that the Bible doesn’t tell us to give ourselves the new birth. Can you discuss that?
The new birth is not something you pull off. You see, you turn and trust. If you define conversion, the Bible does tell you that you must repent, and you must believe that means you turn away from what you’re living for. That’s repentance, and you turn toward God in trust. But the inner change that happens—in theological terms called regeneration—the Holy Spirit comes in and brings spiritual life where there was spiritual deadness. So as you convert, the new birth happens.
It’s really the work of God. Regeneration is not something that [Christians] actually have to pull off. I think that’s the opposite of the Gospel. The Gospel says that you’re saved by grace. This is not your work, it’s Christ’s work, and you simply rest in Him and you ask Him for it. Technically, and theologically, you must convert, but it is God who actually brings about the new birth.
With marriage, you mentioned diversify in your “wisdom portfolio.” How does marriage change our perspective?
I believe that there’s some pretty deep gender differences, and therefore I do think that males and females look at life differently. On top of that, of course there’s temperament differences. Then you also have just experience differences. One spouse may have had a pretty hard life and maybe had a lot of rejection and the other person did not. In some ways, one spouse actually sees things in the world the other one doesn’t see.
In marriage, you are so, so intimately connected, more so than say, parents and children. You’re forced to do things together and forced to discuss things together, make decisions together. In that process, you have for the first time in your life another human being who really sees life differently. It brings another person’s eyes, their wisdom, their temperament, their gender, their experience right into the center of your life. You’ve got more than one way of responding and looking at life and it just makes you wiser. This happens over years.
Why do we as a culture struggle with the concept of death?
200 years ago, 300 years ago, probably one out of every three children would die. For the adults, the lifespan was into their forties. Nobody died in the hospital. They died at home. So everybody saw dead bodies and they saw the dead bodies of loved ones. Most parents saw dead children. Most children saw dead parents, and so death was just very much a real part of life. People knew that death could happen, and so they lived accordingly. And when death was approaching, they didn’t panic. Obviously they were afraid—of course everybody gets afraid—but they took it in stride.
And now, that’s just not true. Now, I’m partly glad for hospitals; we live a lot longer because of medicine, but it also means we die out of sight. And because we die out of sight, death is a little more mysterious and it’s scarier. Also, as we have a increasingly secular psyche of a world in which the idea of Heaven and going to be with God has become less and less of a reality in our cultural life, we don’t talk about it. Fewer people even believe in it. So you put all that together, and then death is just much more terrifying to the average person today and in our culture today than it was years ago.
What is your heart for readers as they engage with these books?
One of the reasons I’ve made [the books] short was partly because you want people to not only read them once, but when they read them, they’re not intimidating. I think you would be able to read each one of them in one sitting. I’m hoping that people would read them more than once because they’re the sort of thing I would say to somebody at their bedside. It was the sort of thing I’d say to somebody in the counseling office if they’re getting married. These are less like books and more like conversations. And I would hope that they would be like having a kind of pocket pastor. They’re like pastoral letters in which they’re talking very directly to somebody who’s in a certain situation and how to look to God.