As he battles pancreatic cancer, Pastor Tim Keller said his “greatest fear” is returning to the spiritual state he was in prior to his diagnosis, as he’s learned to truly depend on God amid his illness.
“I'm not just saying this: Our greatest fear is that if I get a really good diagnosis, a really good response to the cancer, and I really do well and I really am able to live for a number more years, we never want to go back spiritually where we were before the cancer diagnosis,” Keller said in a recent interview with HTB Pastor Nick Gumbel.
“We never want to go back to that because in spite of all the things I've already preached, I wasn't a hypocrite exactly, but the reality is that most of us say we need to depend on God but we actually think we've got it sorted,” Keller explained.
"We feel like we've got everything under control because we've thought this out, we've got savings, we've got these people [in our life]."
Despite believing that God is in control, people often don’t fully embrace that belief "until life gets beyond your ability to control it,” the bestselling author said. It is in those moments of pain when people acknowledge that God “really is there” and that He is “enough.”
Keller noted that he is “actually happier” than he ever has been.
“I enjoy the things around me in a way that I've never enjoyed them before — I see them as gifts of God — and I enjoy my prayer life more than I ever have in my life, and we just don't want to go back to that.”
The now-retired pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition is also a survivor of thyroid cancer, which he had in 2002.
Keller admitted to Gumbel that compared to pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer was “a walk in the park.” When his doctor informed him of his diagnosis earlier this year, they told him, “there's virtually no cure for this.”
“It’s a very difficult cancer to treat,” Keller said, adding that there has been a “bit of a role reversal” between him and his wife, Kathy, as she struggles with Crohn’s disease.
“Now God has just decided well, we're going to reverse the roles here and you're both going to have to get used to what it means to trust me in this new role,” Keller said.
Though about 80% of “people who get diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within a year of diagnosis,” the bestselling author said “God was very kind” in his situation, as his cancer was discovered while he was in the hospital for another ailment.
“So by treating it rather early, and some of the early treatments look good, therefore the possibility of keeping it at bay for a longer period of time is pretty good,” he said. “It's not likely right now that I would be dying within a year, but I would have longer.”
When asked if he had any fear surrounding his prognosis, Keller confessed that he and Kathy “cry just about every day” fearing that she could possibly end up living without him someday.
Keller told Gumbel, “My fear isn't dying. My fear is actually leaving her behind and that's her biggest fear as well. It's a terrible fear.”
Nevertheless, the Kellers believe that if it happens, it’s because “there's things that God has for her to do.”
Since announcing his cancer diagnosis in June, the 70-year-old Keller has continued to write, preach, and engage with current events.
He revealed to Gumbel that at the time of his diagnosis, he was working on a book about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“The evidence for the fact that Jesus rose ... is incredibly strong,” Keller said. “This really happened. There is no way to explain the early church. There's no way to explain how all these Jews started worshiping a human being immediately. There is no way to explain the witnesses, all these eyewitnesses.”
“It just took down the fears because I was just saying, ‘This really happened. There is no historically plausible alternate explanation for the birth of the Christian Church and the resurrection the real physical resurrection of Jesus Christ,’” he continued. “This really happened, and now I'm going to be OK and so is Kathy. We're all going to be OK.”