As I stared at a blank computer screen in January 2021, a distressing thought overwhelmed me.
Never meet your heroes.
I’d just contracted to write about the spiritual and intellectual formation of Timothy Keller. I’d worked with Tim since 2008. But now I’d be talking to his oldest friends, his closest colleagues. What would they say about him? What would I learn? What skeletons would I find in his closet?
What felt like an enormous privilege suddenly struck me as likely disillusionment.
Two and a half years later, I’m mourning the death of this hero. In his final years, I got to see Tim through the eyes of family and friends who knew him almost his entire life, even before he became a Christian in 1970. And I got to know him not as a distant hero but as a personal friend who helped me love Jesus.
I never heard Tim Keller speak a cross word about anyone else. Maybe that’s what you should expect from someone who spoke so many words about the cross. But that’s not the norm in my ministry experience. I know I’ve wasted more words on criticism than I’d like to confess. Unfortunately, if you want to complain, you can always find a willing ear.
I never heard Tim Keller speak a cross word about anyone else.
But that wasn’t Tim Keller. He never picked up the phone to call me in anger about how he’d been slandered. He never fired off a frustrated text when I published something that embarrassed him as the cofounder of The Gospel Coalition. He never composed long emails full of criticism of my writing or my leadership as executive director of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics.
I’m ashamed to remember how I raised my voice at him in frustration during one of our last phone conversations. I was upset about a decision he made. All he did was listen to my concerns and promise to help in ways only he could. He followed through and blessed my work with a gift I could never repay. He did this while suffering with cancer, as he lay dying of this terrible disease. I watched him live out Romans 12:17–18: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Maybe you could say Tim acted peaceably because he hated confrontation, because he wanted to be liked. I worked with him long enough to know he sometimes caused confusion when he avoided hard conversations. After I wrote the book, I didn’t know how he’d respond when he read about former staff members who complained about his poor management skills. I don’t know many pastors or other ministry leaders who allow such criticism to enter the public record, if they can help it.
Tim allowed it. He even owned his responsibility for frustrating his staff. I thought of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
You know you’re in trouble when you meet leaders who are quick to criticize others and slow to admit their own faults. And yet that’s a common approach across church leadership. Not with Tim. He practiced what he preached. He often referred to the advice from John Newton in the letter “On Controversy.” Tim tried to find truth even in the barbs of his harshest critics:
There is usually such a kernel when the criticism comes from friends, and there is often such truth when the disapproval comes from people who actually know you. So even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong. Perhaps you simply acted or spoke in a way that was not circumspect. Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own short-comings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you. It will then be possible to learn from the criticism and stay gracious to the critic even if you have to disagree with what he or she has said.
Tim wrote this reflection before social media peaked, before he became a popular target for criticism from Christians across the political and theological spectrum. But I didn’t notice any change in his views or attitude. When Christians react this way to criticism, you have a good idea that the grace of God is operating in their hearts. As Newton taught us, God’s amazing grace helps the lost find their way home. It helps the blind see. It saves a wretch like you and me.
Call to Ministry
Tim didn’t like criticizing others. And he didn’t like talking about himself. But he did enjoy talking. So what did he enjoy talking about? His wife of nearly 50 years, Kathy. The latest book or doctoral dissertation he’d read. And Jesus. Above all, he loved to talk about Jesus. If you listened to a sermon by Tim, or read one of his many books, then you encountered Jesus.
One reviewer of my book about Tim made a point I’m embarrassed to say I never even considered. How could I have overlooked such a basic, important question? I didn’t write about Tim’s call to ministry. I didn’t ask him about it. I didn’t ask anyone else about it.
But I think I know why. Once Tim experienced the grace of God in 1970, there was never any question how he would spend his life, all the way until his dying breath. Grace transformed an alienated, awkward teenager into one of the most beloved preachers of the last century. Tim couldn’t help but testify to the God who knew him completely and loved him perfectly.
I want to spend my life the same way. I want to die the same way, trying to help everyone see their desperate need for Jesus, how the Savior offers us a better life than we could have ever imagined.
He couldn’t help but testify to the God who knew him completely and loved him perfectly.
I met my hero, Tim Keller. In the last three years, as I knew him better, I respected him more. He was my hero because when I read or listened to him, I loved Jesus more. When Tim and I catch up someday in the new heavens and the new earth, I can’t wait to hear all he’s learned. But for now, Tim’s death leaves a void I can never fill. I’ll miss his encouragement. I’ll miss his teaching. I’ll miss the books he never got to write. I’ll miss his friendship, the long conversations about anything and everything in ministry. For many in my generation, even if they only grew up listening to his sermons or reading his books, Tim Keller became a spiritual father.
I’m sad for us. But I can’t be sad for him. Now, he sees his Savior face to face.