Audio Series: A Conversation with Tim Keller
Tim Keller answers questions on how Christians can express their faith through public education.
Dr. Tim Keller is the founding paster of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.
The audio recording shared on this site has been edited for time. The full transcript of the conversation between MTR Executive Director David Montague and Tim Keller is below for full context and reference.
DM: Dr. Keller, thanks so much for your time. Looking forward to having this conversation with you. We’ve picked four questions that end up being significant concerns for our teachers and would love to ask these to you.
DM: Begin with, first, how do teachers and Memphis Teacher Residency, in particular, maintain a devotion to the traditional gospel within public urban schools, where public display of faith is not allowed? Or said differently, how does God get glory in Christian’s involvement in urban ed when they can’t share Christ explicitly in their actions or seemingly no different than non-Christians?
TK: Yeah. Well, I think there’s two ways. One is indirectly. The indirect way is just to let people know by just being somewhat personal, to let them know that you go to church, or to let them know that you do identify as a Christian. I don’t think that’s wrong. I don’t think that’s impossible. I certainly wouldn’t think that they… A Jewish person couldn’t identify themselves as Jewish or a Muslim as Muslim. So, I don’t see any reason why you can’t identify yourself as a Christian. There are all sorts of indirect ways, which is the way I would witness… I would tell my people to witness to their neighbors, is not by saying, “Oh, here’s the gospel. Can I tell you what it is?” You may get there if somebody calls you up and asks you, but generally, you would just say… Just make sure it’s publicly known that you do go to church, that you are a Christian. Just let that be known. That’s the indirect way.
TK: But here’s the direct way. If you’re ever in a situation… As a public school teacher, I do think it’s not right for you to be on, you might say on company time, evangelizing your students. But it’s absolutely all right to, at certain points, outline what a Muslim say, what a Hindu say, what a Christian say, what a Jew say, what a secular people say, because actually one of the big problems in talking… If you keep religion out completely, then it’s a little difficult sometimes to explain to students why anything. For example, why be honest? Why do we care about justice?
TK: Now, what you could say is, different people have different reasons for that. You say, “Christians would say this, Muslims would say this, secular people would say this.” And as long as you give them all equal time, as long you don’t do any straw man, that is, if you’re fair in the way in which you represent the different views, as long as you always give the non-Christian views equal time and you’re extremely fair in your depiction of them, then, A, nobody can say that you’re proselytizing, but, B, Christianity always looks good when it’s compared. It always looks good when it’s compared. Those are the two ways I would suggest going. One is indirectly, just letting them know that you are a believer. But then, secondly, if you do talk about Christianity, always give the alternatives equal airtime and then assume that Christianity can hold its own.
DM: And organizationally, how does a city honor and glorify God more through an organization, even though we’re not doing that corporately and publicly?
TK: What you mean? What do you mean?
DM: Well, if our intent is that God’s name would be known, that all the nations would know the glory and character of God, yet our work is simply to be the very best teachers we can possibly be…
TK: Yeah. But are you not allowed to publicly say you’re a Christian agent?
DM: No, we do. We do.
TK: Okay. Well, then you are. Listen, if you’re the best teachers, and you happen to be Christian teachers, then you’re glorifying God, even though you’re not saying, “By the way, you’re a sinner, you’re going to hell, Jesus died for your sins.” Honestly, you’re giving your witness.
DM: Great. Thank you. Second question. Gregory Boyle, author of “Tattoos On The Heart,” writes that, “We seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment of how they carry it.” Over time, this can become a real issue for teachers, in that they can become bitter and resentful in the scenario, in the situation they’re in. How would you encourage a teacher, who struggles with resenting the very people they’ve been called to serve, maybe the students or the families or the administration, in hating the very job that they’ve been called to do?
TK: Well, I think, at a certain… By the way, everybody is different. Sometimes I wonder about calling. I’ve had people who are in the pastoral ministry, who found it very difficult to love the people they are working with. At one point, you start by saying, “Well, you just need to become more like Jesus. You need to pray more so and ask God to give you more love.” And by the way, I would suggest that to start. [chuckle] I would say, “When you find it difficult to love a family member or if you find it difficult to love the people you’re working with, whether or not students or whether it’s pastors dealing with people who are constantly just never get better, they’re always having problems, the first thing you can do is to pray that God would make you a more loving person.”
TK: And one of the ways you can do that is ask yourself, “Would I really be better if I was in that person’s shoes?” Do a little thought experiment and say, “If I had been born in those circumstances, would I really be twice as self-controlled as that person? I don’t think so.” You can work on your heart through prayer, and you can work on your heart through trying to be empathetic. At a certain point, you wonder, maybe this isn’t the job for you. I wouldn’t go there very quickly, I certainly wouldn’t. Any pastor who’s always said, “I don’t really love my people because they just drive me crazy.” I wouldn’t say, “Just quit.” That wouldn’t be the first thing. But after a while, I might say, “Maybe that’s not your calling.”
TK: But that would be a last resort. I think the first resort is to say, “Loving your students and your parents isn’t really a lot different than people who are put into extended families filled with very hard to love people.” And it’s not that much different than us pastors, who are very often put in the midst of a lot of people, some of whom we love, but some of whom we really don’t like frankly, because they’re not likeable. And yet, as pastors, we’re supposed to be loving. So, I know what you’re talking about. I would say, “God can help you with that.” But at a certain point, if it doesn’t seem like it’s working, you might actually say, “Maybe this isn’t my calling.”
DM: Helpful. Thank you. Question three. In a recent Q conference talk that was posted in the fall of 2017, you discussed the contrast of justice people and justification people.
DM: And in it you said, “Justice people who walk away from the traditional gospel are walking away from tremendous resources for getting justice.” Would you discuss both what you see those gospel resources to be?
DM: And then how are they best cultivated and applied in the life of a Christian teacher?
TK: Well, the resources are… Let’s talk about what the gospel is. I’d say traditional religion is… Or even secularism is just try your best to be a good person and love people and make the world a better place. That’s all God wants from you. The gospel is much more radical. It’s like, “You’re a sinner, but you cannot save yourself. But through what Jesus Christ did on the cross, you are absolutely pardoned and you’re completely accepted.” So, you’re a terrible sinner, but you’re absolutely loved in Christ. It’s very radical. You’re not saved by your good works. It’s not enough just to go out and try to make the world a better place. It’s not enough just to be as good a person as you can be. You gotta repent, you gotta trust in Christ, and then you have to see that you are actually not a good person, you’re a sinner, but in Christ you’re absolutely loved.
TK: Now, the Gospel has terrific resources for you to care about the poor. Number one, It’s this idea that you’re a sinner and you deserve to go to hell, which means, if you really keep that in mind, how could you ever feel superior to anybody? And I do think a big part of the disdain we often have for hurting broken people, why we just wanna walk away from them, is we actually do feel better than they are. We feel like, “I would never do that.” This person… I just wouldn’t. If you feel superior to them, you’re not gonna be able to love them. You’re just not. You’re gonna give up on them. And if you know you’re a sinner, which is the traditional gospel, which a lot of more liberal people, they walk away, they don’t like that. But then they don’t have that radical self-knowledge. And that’s a huge resource for doing justice.
TK: The other is… The other is hope. If you believe that… There’s a tendency for us Christians to look at certain people and say, “That person is not the kind of person that will ever become a Christian,” and he says, “Oh, so you are? Oh, how wonderful… You’re good material. Thank goodness that God got a hold of you. Not like those people.” No. See, once you know you’re a sinner saved by grace, you realize that you’re a miracle. You’re not just a good person who decided to follow Jesus. You’re a miracle. And therefore, anybody could be changed. There is nobody out there that you shouldn’t have hope for.
TK: And since we do know, in the end, the world will be renewed and poverty will be taken away, and justice will be done, that even if we actually happen to live in a fairly bad patch someday, the resurrection and everything… So you’ve got the hope of the resurrection. You’ve got the hope of the miracle of your own salvation. You’ve got the humbling that comes with the gospel… There’s a verse in James 1:6, and you say, “How do you apply that?” I just think that you’re… You need to be in a church that’s actually constantly applying the Gospel, not just to non-Christians to call them to faith, but applying the Gospel to Christians to show them it helps them how to live. So, in James Chapter 1, Verse 6, is a really interesting verse that says, “Let rich Christians remember their humblest state and let poor Christians remember their exalted state,” which is terrific.
TK: It means, on the one hand… I wanna just say, if you’re a Christian, you’re a sinner, that’s your exalted state, your humble state, but you’re accepted in Christ. And so what we’re being told is, if you are a well-off Christian, a pretty successful, wealthy person and you’re a Christian, you ought to think more about the fact that you’re just a sinner. But if you’re a poor person, you become a Christian. And you’ve been told all your life, you’re a failure, you need to realize that you’re a king, you’re a queen. So, the Gospel has these incredible resources, and honestly we, ministers, have got to give it to our people. So, you need to go a place where the Gospel isn’t just used to convert people. It’s actually used to encourage the Christians and help them do justice. So, there’s a couple ideas.
DM: Yeah. Very helpful. Thank you. Question number four. How can the teacher live urgently but sustainably working in a place of such overwhelming need? How do we not personally carry the trauma of those we work so closely with? And so there’s this tension between, we have do this fast and we have to be very close to the need, but that’s very draining. How do we handle the tension between that and this need for having distance and protection to be sustainable?
TK: Well, I already mentioned this. Again, I’m gonna say, as a pastor, I don’t feel that what you’re talking about is all that different. It sounds to me… The way you describe what many teachers in the public schools are experiencing is an awful lot like what ministers experience, which is overwhelmed with the need. And it’s different than being a counselor. See, here’s the thing. If you’re a counselor, you have these… You might have six or seven people a day come in for 50 minutes, and they’re just a mess. And it’s really gut-wrenching. But they only see you in the office. In a way, it’s more clinical. But when you’re a teacher or you’re a pastor, you’re out there with the people, you see what a mess their lives are. What do you do?
TK: Okay. The answer is actually two things. The first thing is, there’s a place where… When Philip Melanchthon, who is a friend of Martin Luther, when Melanchthon used to… He used to get very anxious and stressed. And every so often, they say, Luther would take him and say, “Let Philip cease to rule the world.” And it was his way of saying, ultimately being totally stressed out and totally anxious, and like I can’t bear this anymore. You cannot save the world. My wife, Kathy, often says, when she would see me getting stressed, she says, “You’re trying to be the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make people better. It’s not yours.”
TK: And so what you do is you put in all of your time, you put in more hours than probably most people do, and then you hit the boundary, and you say, “If they are not better and things are not better within this boundary of time that I have in a given day or in a given week, then this is all I can do.” God could not give you more than you can do in a day. Other people might give you more than you can do in a day, and you might give yourself more than you can do in a day, but God would never expect you to do more than you can do in a day. If you’re just being totally crushed, then it’s because you’re trying to either be the Holy Spirit, or you’re actually imagining things that you’ve gotta do that God actually does not think that you need to do.
TK: There’s this thing called Sabbath. It means cutting it off on a given day, cutting it off in a given week, cutting it off and getting time away in a given year, and you just have to be rigid about that, set the boundaries and realize you do what you can inside. And if you can’t leave it behind, it means you’re trying to be the Holy Spirit. It’s tough. It’s tough. We can say more, but there’s a few ideas to start with.
DM: Thank you. And last, in a sentence…
TK: In a sentence?
DM: Or two.
TK: For a minister, in a sentence? What are you doing?
DM: Why should the church care about urban education?
TK: Can it be a long, three-point sentence? No. [chuckle] Well, the church needs to care about urban education, whoever does it, they ought to care that the government does it well, the public schools do it well. They ought to care that there are other kinds of schools that are trying to come alongside the public schools and not compete. There’s always some competition, but supplement what they’re doing. Because we’re supposed to care about the least of these. The very last thing Paul said, before he left the Ephesian elders, last thing, he was never gonna see them, they were never gonna see his face again, and he says, “We need to care for the weak.” Generally… I know this, that the social location of a lot of kids… There’s a lot of kids that are just born into these fairly needy neighborhoods, and families that are difficult. And I know the Democrats say the reason for that, “It’s the system’s fault. It’s social systems that is the fault.” And the Republicans say, “It’s the family’s fault, because the family is broken down.” But here’s one thing I do know, it’s not the kids’ fault. It is not the kids’ fault that they were born there, in that family, in that neighborhood. And if you care about the weak, and the needy, then you got to do everything you possibly can, private, public, every way possible, to care for the weak. And I think the Gospel makes you wanna care for the weak, so that’s the reason why you should care.
DM: Thank you so much for your time.
TK: That wasn’t a sentence.
DM: But a great one.
TK: Thank you.