Keller, Cancer and Christ

Help and hope from the words of Tim Keller:

I have read and enjoyed a number of Tim Keller’s books over the years. And in her last months of life my wife had quite enjoyed listening to his various sermons and podcasts. He passed away from cancer in May 19 of this year, while my wife passed away from cancer almost 7 weeks later (July 5).

So I have various reasons to be interested in the late New York pastor and author. I wrote about him and his passing here:

And I offered some of his quotes on suffering here:

Here I want to look at two articles: one written about him quite recently and one written by him a few years ago. Both are worth quoting from. The first one looks at his struggle with pancreatic cancer and some new treatments he had undergone.

I refer to immunotherapy, something my wife also made use of. I have told the story before, but the oncologist had told us very early on that without it, she had a 50 per cent chance of survival – with it, perhaps a 65 per cent chance. It seemed to me that two-thirds odds were better than just one-half.

So we quickly agreed to it. But because it was still rather new here in Australia, it was not yet being subsidised – at least for the breast cancer my wife had. So we were told that each of the ten treatments (just a small bag of liquid) would cost $6000, or $60,000 all up.

Who has spare change like that floating around? But we believed God would somehow provide. And he did. Very soon after that a good friend set up a funding page for us on a Christian crowd-funding site. And in just two weeks’ time, all $60,000 came in. Wow. God is good, as are his people.

But let me get back to Keller. The first article says this in part:

Chemotherapy worked better for Tim than it often does for pancreatic cancer, providing many months of stable disease. But then in the spring of 2022, the drugs stopped working, and the beast was unleashed—dozens of liver tumors began growing rapidly. Survival appeared to be measured in just a few short weeks.


Tim and Kathy came to NIH for the experimental immunotherapy trial. Billions of his own immune cells isolated two years earlier and programmed like little “ninja warriors” to search and destroy the cancer cells, were infused. The battle was joined. It was dramatic; for several days every part of Tim’s body was wracked with the consequences. He suffered hallucinations that were terrifying, but never wavered in his determination to press on.


And bit by bit, his characteristic calmness and gratitude reappeared. As he began to heal, he wanted less to talk about cancer and more to talk about faith, love, truth, and beauty—and about the deep ache he felt for the state of the Christian church in America. If you have not read his sobering treatise on, “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church,” written in the midst of cancer treatment, you will find there a compelling diagnosis and treatment for the church’s current malaise.


Being with Tim Keller during this time was a gift of profound significance to all of us who were able to be connected. As an NIH physician, I was able to spend periods of time in his room. Tim, Kathy, and I had intense discussions about how our society seems to have lost its anchor to the truth that Jesus says will set you free, and Tim strongly encouraged me to map out a book on this topic. I told him it was too bad he had to get cancer so that I could learn more from him.

Whereas this therapy did not seem to be all that successful for my wife, it did seem to be for Keller – at least at first:

Six weeks later the scans showed a response to the immunotherapy that was much better than any of us thought possible. The tumors in the liver had just melted away. I sent an email to friends with the subject line “This will make you shout for joy.” We all shouted and gave thanks. I showed the scans anonymously to a few other docs, and they were slack-jawed in amazement. Could this be a cure?


A sweet period of several months ensued. Tim was in full productivity mode. But the beast reemerged. Of the billions of cancer cells that had been vanquished by the therapy, a few rogues had escaped. The immune system could no longer see them. They grew with wild abandon. A second cancer cell target was identified, another plan was implemented to educate the immune system to go after it. Tim and Kathy returned to NIH for another month-long admission, but this time there was no dramatic response, and Tim was growing weaker.

It was not long thereafter that he finally succumbed. The second article was penned by Keller himself a few years ago. It begins this way:

I have spent a good part of my life talking with people about the role of faith in the face of imminent death. Since I became an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1975, I have sat at countless bedsides, and occasionally even watched someone take their final breath. I recently wrote a small book, On Death, relating a lot of what I say to people in such times. But when, a little more than a month after that book was published, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was still caught unprepared.


On the way home from a conference of Asian Christians in Kuala Lumpur in February 2020, I developed an intestinal infection. A scan at the hospital showed what looked like enlarged lymph nodes in my abdomen: No cause for concern, but come back in three months just to check. My book was published. And then, while all of us in New York City were trying to protect ourselves from COVID-19, I learned that I already had an agent of death growing inside me.


I spent a few harrowing minutes looking online at the dire survival statistics for pancreatic cancer, and caught a glimpse of On Death on a table nearby. I didn’t dare open it to read what I’d written.


My wife, Kathy, and I spent much time in tears and disbelief. We were both turning 70, but felt strong, clear-minded, and capable of nearly all the things we have done for the past 50 years. “I thought we’d feel a lot older when we got to this age,” Kathy said. We had plenty of plans and lots of comforts, especially our children and grandchildren. We expected some illness to come and take us when we felt really old. But not now, not yet. This couldn’t be; what was God doing to us? The Bible, and especially the Psalms, gave voice to our feelings: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” “Wake up, O Lord. Why are you sleeping?” “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”

Image of On Death (How to Find God)
On Death (How to Find God) by Keller, Timothy (Author) Amazon logo

He discusses the struggles they went through, and concludes with these words:

As God’s reality dawns more on my heart, slowly and painfully and through many tears, the simplest pleasures of this world have become sources of daily happiness. It is only as I have become, for lack of a better term, more heavenly minded that I can see the material world for the astonishingly good divine gift that it is.


I can sincerely say, without any sentimentality or exaggeration, that I’ve never been happier in my life, that I’ve never had more days filled with comfort. But it is equally true that I’ve never had so many days of grief. One of our dearest friends lost her husband to cancer six years ago. Even now, she says, she might seem fine, and then out of nowhere some reminder or thought will sideswipe her and cripple her with sorrow.


Yes. But I have come to be grateful for those sideswipes, because they remind me to reorient myself to the convictions of my head and the processes of my heart. When I take time to remember how to deal with my fears and savor my joys, the consolations are stronger and sweeter than ever.

He is now gone. As is my wife. His influence will live on for such a long time through his books, his sermons, his church. My wife is not as well known of course, but those who did know her will also long remember her and be thankful for her life.

I miss her. But God gives grace.

Some people will live a long full life, while others will die well before the normal time. My wife did not make it to her 66th birthday, but her dad – who died one month after she did – lived to be 94. Keller was 72 when he passed away.

I am 70. How much longer will I be around for? God knows. My times are in his hands – as is the case for every single one of us. We never know when our time on earth will come to an end, so we must ensure that we live it well. And that means living fully for Christ – in life and in death.

He gave his life for us, so that we might live. Keller knew full well about all this. As he once wrote:

Jesus is furious at evil, death, and suffering and, even though he is God, he is not mad at himself. This means that evil is the enemy of God’s good creation, and of God himself. And Jesus’ entire mission was to take evil on and end it. But, as we have seen, evil is so deeply rooted in the human heart that if Christ had come in power to destroy it everywhere he found it, he would have had to destroy us too. Instead of coming as a general at the head of an army, he went in weakness to the cross in order to pay for our sins, so that someday he will return to wipe out evil without having to judge us as well. He will be able to receive us to himself because he bore our judgment himself on Calvary.

Or as he put it in his book, On Death: “Everything in this life is going to be taken away from us, except one thing: God’s love, which can go into death with us and take us through it and into His arms.”

Keller is now with his Lord. So is my wife. And one day soon I will join them. That is good news indeed.

[1788 words]

2 Replies to “Keller, Cancer and Christ”

  1. May I say on behalf of your vast number of readers that however much you miss your beautiful and godly wife Averil (probably as much as I miss my beloved Ernest, which is every day and throughout my life) that you probably still have much to do, Bill. We worship a loving and faithful Lord and Saviour, which is why we need to have an active prayer life, because it is how we communicate with that Saviour and reflect on what He has given us throughout our lives. Take your burdens to Him, for He will comfort us in the time of adversity. Above all, cherish and treasure any children and grandchildren in your life, for they are truly gifts from on high and the fruits of our former partner and our love for one another. I may not agree with you on everything, but like me, I suspect you still have much to do in this life. I will keep you in my prayers.

    And thank you for sharing Tim Keller’s work with us. I shall certainly seek out this book. One idea for a future series of your articles occurred to me: How do surviving partners of great Christian figures deal with the loss of that person? I’m sure that writing about them would help with your own grief and also serve as inspiration for you and those of us who have shared the ordeal of saying farewell to the soulmate God chose for us.

  2. True we know not when our time is up. We each have a finite amount of time on earth, a certain number of grains of sand in the hourglass of our life, but we have no way to know how close we are to that time. My great grandmother lived to be 102 years and 8 months and 10 days old but her daughter, my grandmother, only lived to 83 years 1 day and was in a coma on her birthday. (Cancer took her too.) Some have lived over 110 years even around 120 others only a couple weeks or months in the womb (both abortion and miscarriage). There seems to be no rhyme or reason. George Burns smoked cigars everyday lived to be 100 and he didn’t die from lung cancer. Others had spent a few years in professions where people around them smoked though they themselves didn’t and they died of lung cancer. Sometimes it seems when it’s our time something will happen. If we’re old things can just stop but if we’re younger, 70’s on down, different things crop up. Sometimes when you’re 20-50 that most peculiar things happen to someone and the only explanation is it was their time. Sometimes the struggles the dying go through are meant also to help purify us and recommit us and to help us help others in a similar situation. There is often more at work than we can see. There is a saying can’t see the forest for the trees. Of course if you are one of the trees that can especially be true because of your vantage point nestled amongst the rest of the trees.

    Too many want to do something to be remembered by vasts numbers of people for a long time but rarely do people accomplish that. Those who do almost NEVER set out to be remembered through the centuries but simply were doing their jobs or what they believed was right. Most people will be remembered by those who know them – the people they’ve worked with, the people they’ve helped, they’re family (especially children, grandchildren, maybe even great grandchildren), and people they’ve made an impression on good or bad. If they’re lucky they will be remembered by at least some people for over 100 years after they die! But being remembered by people here isn’t that big a deal. Being remembered by God is. If he remembers you it’s because he knows you. The worst thing is for God not to remember you because you will hear “be gone I never knew you”. I take great comfort knowing that even nobodies on earth, people who no one knows or few know, are known by God. He knows me. I leave no legacy whenever death swallows my body (hopefully I have another 4 decades but as I said no one knows), no buildings with my name on them, no statues of me, no military strategies named after me, no doctrines with my name on them, my birth place won’t become a shrine, the first house I lived in won’t even be a historic place (even though I crashed the car into the garage door at the tender age of two!). Even my funeral would probably not have anyone. But it doesn’t matter because HE KNOWS ME and that is sufficient.

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