Sitting outside and silhouetted against a sunny, bright blue sky and gleaming skyscrapers along the East River in New York City, Dr. Timothy Keller discussed with Focus on the Family president Jim Daly his remarkable two-plus-years-and-counting battle with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
“It’s nice to be able to be here,” a smiling Dr. Keller said. “I’m not sure a year ago I would have thought I could have kept an appointment like this, so I’m really delighted.”
According to Johns Hopkins Medical, the average patient with Tim Keller’s diagnosis will survive less than a year. If caught early, outcomes for pancreatic cancer can be promising – but when discovered later on, which is far more common due to the insidious and quiet nature of the disease, treatment becomes far more challenging.
Having stepped down as senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City back in the summer of 2017, the eastern Pennsylvania native has remained a one-man publishing juggernaut, living up to his reputation as a modern-day C.S. Lewis. Since retiring from day-to-day pastoral responsibilities, Dr. Keller has continued to speak and write, releasing three books recently on the subjects of suffering, dying and his latest, “Forgive: Why Should I And How Can I?”
Since arriving in New York City in 1989 to start Redeemer, Dr. Keller has presented and modeled the Gospel of Jesus Christ to several generations of congregants, many of whom came to his church out of curiosity – and sometimes just to get out of a small apartment and have something to do. Despite leading a ministry in the middle of arguably one of the world’s most secular cities, the bald and bespectacled preacher has remained unapologetically orthodox when it comes to the Bible. He’s preached truth – but not pontificated. And he’s made a difference without somehow making many enemies.
When Dr. Tim Keller speaks, even non-believers tend to listen – which is why his current and very public ordeal with cancer may serve as one of his most impactful lessons yet.
“I had two years of chemotherapy, which kept the cancer at bay, and everyone said that all by itself, that was remarkably good,” he told Jim Daly on this sunny afternoon. “[That] already put me in the top 5% of responders, I guess, so we were very grateful to God for that.”
But Keller wasn’t cured, and not by a lot. He described how despite the chemotherapy, the cancer predictably broke out – leading him to enroll in an “immunotherapy trial” with 2,000 other patients at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. The goal there is to get your body’s natural immune system to fight the cancer instead of relying on the chemo.
“They have successes and failures, and I was very happy to get into it,” he said. “And so far, it’s working, even though the jury’s still out. Remission for pancreatic cancer is extraordinarily rare, and if I actually got remission through this trial, I was told, ‘You’d probably be in some medical journal.’”
Dr. Keller then drew down to the practical.
“If it beats it back for a longer time, it gives me more time with my wife, my children, my grandchildren … So I don’t know how long, but here I am and able to do a lot of things.”
Is he bitter with the diagnosis and the long odds he faces with the illness? This is where Tim Keller begins to really teach, offering his trademark perspective and wisdom the world so desperately needs to hear.
“It’s more understandable, and I would be very patient with somebody who is in their 40s or 50s, [who] haven’t seen their grandchildren, or their children grow up. It’s much more understandable for them to say, ‘God, what in the world are You doing, and this just doesn’t seem fair.’”
But Tim Keller isn’t in his 40s or 50s. He’s 72. And so how does he personally react?
“Psalm 90 says, ‘If we live threescore and 10 years, or by strength fourscore…’ In other words, you get past 70, I think you’re not supposed to complain.”
Married to Kathy since 1975, the Kellers enjoy a strong ministry partnership. Like her husband, Kathy writes, teaches and speaks at various events. Their book, “The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God,” was a bestseller.
“Kathy and I have talked a lot about [death and expectations]. Even though we don’t feel old enough to die, the reality is God’s given us 70 years, plenty of other people not. I think you need to say, ‘Hey, you know, you’ve got to go sometime. God knows when the right time is. Teach us to number our days that we get a heart for wisdom.’ It’s wise to know your time is up, and in my case, what Kathy and I realized is that we’re very grateful for knowing I might die anytime, because it’s been enormously helpful for sanctification and prayer.”
Dr. Keller went on to discuss how the acuity of the diagnosis compelled him to narrow his focus and make the very most of the time he has left.
Of course, we don’t need a terminal diagnosis to reprioritize and recommit ourselves to God’s call on our lives. Even for a seemingly healthy person, there are no guarantees for tomorrow. We’re all living on borrowed time this side of eternity.
“I know I’m dying too, at some point,” Tim Keller acknowledged. “[And] from what I understand theologically, God does not want this world to be this way. He didn’t create us to die to start with. In some ways, the suffering is not God’s will, but in other ways, it’s part of His plan between now and when Jesus comes back.”
Teach and preach on, Dr. Timothy Keller.