Don’t Waste the Point

In the ruckus following Rachel Held Evan’s attack on various and sundry, at least three important things have been going on in the barrage of comments at various sites.

The first has to do with the alleged abuse case at Sovereign Grace Ministries. That is a situation about which I know next to nothing, and so I will content myself with the praiseworthy policy of saying nothing about it. But I will say something about a related matter. In my day, I have been the recipient of the tender ministrations of various discernment bloggers, the kind who have the discernment of a particularly dimwitted and goggle-eyed goldfish, peering out of a particularly curved bowl, to know that certain kinds of cases are best not tried in venues like this one. When I see a lynch mob outside the courthouse, yelling and waving a rope, it does not tell me if the man inside is innocent or guilty. But it does tell me something.

The second point has to do with whether or not John Piper is a “miserable comforter,” as Internet Monk put it. With all the perspective that Monday morning quarterbacks enjoy, I think it is possible that the original tweets would have been better placed had they been sent out a day or two later. So I understand why John took them down — it was precisely because he is not a miserable comforter, and was trying to be reasonable with regard to the feelings and responses of others. But notice how such accommodations make no difference at all to the fellowship of the grievance. For those who are theologically tweaked, their problem with you is that you still think it, and that God is still sovereign, and that the world is still the way it is. The problem is that the world (the way God governs it) is still resented, and especially resented are those who have made their peace with God’s majesty — a majesty on terrible display in tornadoes like this one. John Piper is among those who understand this, but anyone who believes that this makes him calloused or insensitive or unfeeling towards the sufferings of men, are huntsmen who do not know their quarry. It is like saying that Jeremiah didn’t love Jerusalem.

Related to this, whenever a dispute like this breaks out, ostensibly over the “timeliness” of the comments, this is frequently just a proxy for the real issue — in this case, distaste of Calvinism. If you don’t share that distaste, as I do not, then it will be harder to see the problem, if indeed there was a problem. We can illustrate this easily by flipping it around. If you do not share RHE’s peculiar theological approach, it is much easier to see her post as opportunistic ambulance-chasing. A Calvinist lecturing tornado victims in the rubble is an easy caricature to draw, but that’s not the only one. How about the pharmaceutical rep who says something like “our hearts are broken over the devastation caused by this tornado. It reminds me, in fact, of the heartbreak of psoriasis. I happen to have a bottle here . . .”

RHE has a theological agenda, just like everybody else, and she used this tragedy to advance it. This would have been okay if her theology were correct, and if she had done it in sensitivity and wisdom. Unfortunately, neither of those two criteria apply.

But last, I want to return to a central point in all this, one I tried to make in this interview here. These situations are emotionally complex, but they are not theologically complex. Neither are they logically complex. With that in mind, I wanted to respond to this comment, one that was made deep in the thread at my blog.

“To defend,at least, the emotion behind RHE’s response – certainly not the logic – she’s expressing something that myself and several others have felt for years, and the reason why I at last left the faith. And that is that all attempts to rationally deal with evil and with an all-powerful, loving God at the same time ultimately fail, at least if we accept that God does not act because he won’t act, not because he can’t. I’m left with two options – believe that God is evil, or believe that God is good, but that I don’t understand good, or evil, or certainly not God. And calling God “good” when I’ve written off understanding what Good is in the first place is hardly complimentary to God. I mean no offense.”

The problem is a straightforward one — on the intellectual level. God either had the power to do something about the tornado, or He did not. God either had the inclination to do something about the tornado, or He did not. And if there is no God, then He has neither the power nor the inclination.

“And that is that all attempts to rationally deal with evil and with an all-powerful, loving God at the same time ultimately fail . . .”

There is a difference between saying that God did it, and we will see all His good reasons for it eventually, which is orthodoxy, and claiming to know all those good reasons now, which would be hubris.

One of the reasons this is emotionally complex is that we do not know our own hearts. We do not know the depths of human complicity in sin and evil. As a result we do not see an obvious line of thought — and which John Piper does see.

To see a mile-wide tornado bearing down on your people is a terrible thing. Some see this and ask, “What must God be like!?” Others look at it and ask, “What must we be like!?”

If there is no God, then there is no such thing as evil, and there most certainly is not such a thing as natural evil. A tornado is just matter in motion, and we are just matter in motion, and some matter moves faster than other matter — and too bad for the slow matter.

If there is a God, then by definition He is all-powerful and all-good, which means that this tornado struck in this place and this time because God freely and unalterably decided before the foundation of the world that this is just what it would do. The hairs of our head are numbered. A sparrow cannot fall to the ground apart from the will of the Father. The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. If disaster befalls a city, the Lord God Almighty is the one who decreed that it would happen. Deal with it.

We also know that because He is holy there is a good and holy reason for why He has done this. The theodicy that He gives us is three-fold — the first is in His majestic sovereignty, spoken to Job out the whirlwind, and which every thinking man has recognized from the beginning of the world. The second is the majesty of His compassion for us, displayed for us in the twisted body of Christ on the cross. The God who spoke the world into existence, and apart from whose sovereign word every tornado would disappear with an anemic puff, is the same one who was willingly pierced — there, on that cross — for my transgressions. This means that we have better things to do than to lobby for Heaven to get a complaint department already. And the third provides us with material for our faith. On the basis of the first two, we know now by faith that all such dilemmas will eventually be answered, and when that day comes we will have the actual answers in hand. All things will be put to rights, and we will see how it was done. If you don’t believe that, fine, but the name for unbelief is unbelief.

So weak sister theology can sob all it wants, but it doesn’t alter the reality of the situation. Tornadoes will still happen. In the aftermath of a disaster like this, people need answers as much as they need shelter, food, water, and medical care. One of the answers offered by the gospel is the need for repentance so that sin may give way to faith. But it is not always an answer that is necessarily well-received.

“And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds” (Rev. 19:10-11).

Contrary to the suggestions offered by openness theology, nobody in the history of the world ever needed pointless suffering. And so when there is a great reaction (as we have had here) to someone who indicated what the biblical point was, this simply tells us that a lot of people want suffering to be pointless so that their sins and pleasures (and lives) can remain pointless in the same way.

So if I could borrow a phrase from John. Don’t waste the point.

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24 comments on “Don’t Waste the Point

  1. Something that I have been finding curiouser and curiouser (to quote a certain blonde protagonist) is your point that those who disagree with Piper and yourself on these issues use the apparent poor timing qualm as a proxy for something that you claim needs no apology: that is, Calvinism.

    RHE may very well be guilty of this. But your concession that Piper’s tweets should have been at least postponed shows that there is is value in the proxy’s suggestion: “Job’s friends waited 7 days to speak, just give us a few more. While you’re at it, would you mind manning the wheelbarrow?” The problem, of course is that Piper is not an Oklahoman, which as the proxy’s argument goes, makes a significant difference. That Jeremiah was a citizen of Jerusalem and not a Syrian is an important distinction. It surely made no difference to those false teachers who had already decided on validity of Jeremiah’s prophecies, but it seems to have mattered to God. Jeremiah was to have his portion of his own prophecies. And, I think Internet Monk was right on this point: Piper may sounded a lot like the Edomites.

  2. It always comes back to the fact that we want to worship ourselves rather than the creator God. I have to wonder how RHE would treat Luke 13:1-5.

    On another level, I don’t understand how those in her theological camp deal with suffering at all. The only consolation I can take is that, because God is holy and sovereign, all will be made right in the end—in the most glorious way imaginable. In that light, I take comfort that the “evil” of a tornado is not the final say in someone’s life. To RHE, it seems, all she can say “I don’t know why all these things happen, but God loves you.” Well, God may love you, but is he just?

    Pastor Wilson, thanks for doing the intellectual heavy lifting for simpletons like me. It’s a great encouragement.

  3. I think Piper deserves the benefit of the doubt considering the context. Were Piper on the ground in Moore, OK, on the front lawn of a man who had just lost his home and his wife, I would have a higher standard for him in the realm of compassion and comfort. As it were, he was tweeting to an audience much larger than the residents of Moore, most unaffected by the actual storm. I welcomed his reminder of the words in Job.

    RHE is already backpedaling and admitting to possibly jumping the gun when blasting Piper.

    Thank you, Douglas Wilson, for posting these things.

  4. One book I found helpful in contemplating these issues is Kent Annan’s “After Shock”.

    Not because it gives answers to the questions. But it does a good job of showing how difficult and misplaced these pat answers can be in times of real suffering.

    I was part of a Reformed church ministering in an impoverished Asian country for one year. And though the church had been there for over a decade, it was still 40% missionaries at every Sunday service. Only a couple dozen locals attended, mostly fairly well-off college students. The Reformed faith has made extremely little headway outside of the richest parts of the world, because the pat intellectual answers simply don’t carry any sway when people see real suffering in their lives.

    Yes, we’re all sinful. Yes, there is great evil in our own hearts. But are people born into poor countries especially sinful? Or does God have especially great grace and love for people born into wealthy families? The Gospels suggest that the opposite is true. And if that is so, there there is something deeper going on than our pat answers to these questions.

    Those of us who have spent significant time in these places of suffering just don’t see how the “they are not theologically complex. Neither are they logically complex” claim is possible. And we certainly don’t see someone speaking from outside of those situations as one who can speak into them with such certainty.

  5. All of this does make me glad about one thing in particular: that I’m not “Evans.”

  6. @Johnathon

    Well, I’m not Asian, nor am I poor, but I do remember how I felt when I watched them carry my son’s body out of the room to take him to the morgue, and I will tell you that these answers only seem pat when you don’t have a large enough view of God. I knew, when I was on my knees, sobbing and praying for my son’s life, that God was big enough and powerful enough to change the course of the surgery. But he didn’t. And I had to walk away not only knowing he was sovereign, but that he was also good. I still don’t know what he had planned with that, but I trust that he is both sovereign and good and that will be good enough for me.

    I am far from a monument to the faith. I sin all the time and I fail all the time. I trust in the pleasures of the world over and above the pleasures and promises of God, but I have the smallest inkling of how big he is, and I’ll trust him with my son.

    These answers truly are simple, but we can’t give them out simplistically (to steal a phrase from David Powlison).

    In Christ,

    Zack

  7. I’m in the UK – who or what is RHE?

  8. Hi Jonathan,

    Do you have any data to suggest that the Reformed faith doesn’t do well in poor countries? The Presbyterian Church grew huge in Korea (which admittedly is not a poor country anymore but was when the PCK was growing). The Anglican Church (at least ostensibly Reformed in the 39 articles) is huge in Africa and Asia. I am friends with a Presbyterian pastor in Kenya that has a fairly large church. Your one data point (that you were part of a mission church that didn’t grow as fast as you thought it should with the locals) is hardly proof that the reformed faith couldn’t connect with the poor. I think the history of the Reformed faith shows you to be wrong.

    Further, what the heck kind of argument is that? Truth is truth. If the Reformed faith is right, we should hardly set it aside for pragmatic reasons (‘hey, if we want to reach the poor let’s bring Benny Hinn in’).

    And regarding the suffering of the poor, are you saying you think that Reformed folk think that God is punishing them for their poverty?

  9. Robert, RHE is Rachel Held Evans.

  10. Willis – that was not my only data point. I have spent the last nine years engaging with the missional community, and the rest of my experience involves the lack of a Reformed community in every single community I’ve been a part of. The one data point I shared was actually the most positive one.

    If you really believe that the Reformed faith has grown strongly among the world’s poorest and most suffering, then my all means, find the data. All of my experience in these countries and in studying missional literature makes me quite assured that you are incorrect. The fact that you have to bring up the Anglican Church (there because it was the British State Church of imperialism, and not preaching these views we are speaking about to its congregations) and South Korea (as you point out, not a nation that is among the poor or that is undergoing heavy suffering) sort of show that you are already have an inkling of the point.

  11. Jonathan,
    I truly have no interest in piling on, especially to any or all who have recently felt pain, but the admonition that “we certainly don’t see someone speaking from outside of those situations as one who can speak into them with such certainty” seems to leave the determinate of truth in the self admittedly broken hearts of the suffering.
    since we all know what God through His word has to say about that heart in the best of times, I cannot imagine that we want to trust it when it is broken.
    we humans are very good at creating conciliatory self indulgent phraseology to cover our pain as well as our sins, that does not ever make them true, and therefore of any real value eternally.
    the Church is called to care for the temperate by caring for its eternal. therefore that spoon full of sugar, sweet as it may be this moment, will not effect the cure that the patient truly needs.

    Proverbs 14:12

    There is a way that seems right to a man,
    but its end is the way to death.

  12. Willis, regarding the suffering of the poor, I do not think that most Reformed folk think that God is punishing them for their poverty. I am dialoging with this particular statement of Wilson’s, which is a statement that I often find Reformed folk speaking in such situations:

    “One of the reasons this is emotionally complex is that we do not know our own hearts. We do not know the depths of human complicity in sin and evil. As a result we do not see an obvious line of thought — and which John Piper does see.

    To see a mile-wide tornado bearing down on your people is a terrible thing. Some see this and ask, “What must God be like!?” Others look at it and ask, “What must we be like!?””

    Pastor Wilson is clearly tying the suffering of the tornado to one’s own sin and evil. It’s hard to see his point as anything but either punishment or judgment.

    Now, when dealing with the terrible and random suffering such as a rich community being hit by a tornado, or a family losing a child to a circumstance that couldn’t be prevented, such an argument can take on one type of understanding.

    But my point is that when EVERYONE is your neighborhood has been suffering seriously, and suffering for generations, and you see that other communities do not suffer as yours does and never suffer as yours does, the argument takes on a different meaning.

    From our experience as the privileged, it might be easy to say, “The grace that God has on us for not including us among those suffering is unearned!” And even if you are among the suffering, but only as one person within your community, or at one instant in your community’s life, then maybe that argument can still hold and be a comfort.

    But when you experience that suffering as a constant presence, when all of your community experiences it, and when it goes on for generations, every part of you that is in any way connected with the Father and the movement of the Holy Spirit shout, “NO! This is not what God desires for us!” And you have to come up with a different, much more complex or mysterious understanding of suffering. Or you lose your faith.

  13. Zack – I have never lost a child, and I cannot pretend to say I know what it would be like or how I would react. As Kent Annan states in his book, I have to believe that it would not change anything about my faith, since I already know that it happens, have seen it happen in the lives of my friends, and having it happen to me would not change anything I know about God. But I know that nothing can be compared to personal experience.

    I only ask that you see that for those people whose entire lives have included suffering, whose entire communities face such suffering, and who see so much tragedy only lead to more and more tragedy, the answer takes on a different meaning. My Cambodian friends especially have pressed this upon me, as they go through what their country has gone through for over 60 years now, all at the hands of other men. To say that you know that what God has planned is sovereign and good and you just don’t know what he has planned when generation after generation of your friends, both Christian and non-Christian, fall by the sword, by starvation, and by disease, when the Christian witness was destroyed for a generation and when no end to the suffering is in sight, does become a pat answer.

    I believe that God is sovereign. I believe that God is good. And I do not believe that he wants the horrific suffering I see in the lives of my community and my friends’ communities to happen. And I do not believe that combining those three statements is at all simple. The simple answer, which holds onto the first two statements and mostly drops the third, is not a belief that my friends can hold onto in the slums. And to a person, EVERY single Christian I know who lives in and ministers to the slums feels the same way.

  14. @Willis: without getting too deeply into the arguments about the Reformed churches, I would note that, yes, Anglicanism is growing in the third world, but that arguably, it’s not the same animal as the Anglican church in the first world, which is watering itself down just as fast as it can. Churches of all stripes are growing i n the third world precisely because they’re more faithful to their beliefs and history than the mother churches in Europe and the US. Reformed or not, an Anglican in Africa has much more in common theologically with a Southern Baptist from Montgomery Alabama than an Anglican from London.

  15. Mike Daniels – I believe that Jesus has taught us that wealth and luxury are a far greater deceiver of the heart than poverty and suffering.

  16. Willis and Doug,

    In fact, the African Anglicans are sending missionaries to us. Rwanda and Nigeria are just two of the countries who have established missionary efforts here. Check out CANA and AMiA.

  17. With respect to the point that distaste is frequently a cover for disagreement with Calvinism, there yet remains the issue of the terrible lack of tact that many Calvinists demonstrate in the face of the tragic. When we speak, we should speak truth. But most of us don’t grasp the fundamental fact that the existence of truth and the fact that when we speak we should speak truth does not mean it is *always* necessary to speak.

    As a Calvinist myself, I get the feeling that intoning comfortable maxims about God’s sovereignty is a story we who aren’t directly touched by the tragedy tell ourselves not because we understand the Bible better than those who “disagree with Calvinism,” but because as Calvinists we don’t want to be uncomfortable ourselves by having to honestly grapple with our own all too human emotions and our own profound lack of understanding of God’s purposes. We love our Propositions. We love our Systematics and Confessions and Catechisms. But none of these can ever truly explain in an emotionally satisfying way why these things happen, and why the heavens so frequently seem silent. How could they? Our theology, like everyone else’s, is but the product of thinking reeds, bundles of grass here to today and thrown into the fire tomorrow.

    Maybe these things happen not because of sin and judgment, but to show the proud that no, they really don’t have God or the world figured out, after all.

  18. @Jason Kates: Yes, she is, and a rather half-assed backpedal it is.

    She apologizes to her readers, not to Piper, and freely uses “I’m sorry if you were offended” type weasel-words to excuse her vicious, unfocused, and uncharitable prior post.

    It’s clear she’s feeling a fair bit of shame for her excoriation of Piper, which is a start, but it hasn’t quite led her to attempt to make gracious amends with him.

  19. In a world without evil there would be no occasion for God to show two of his favorite things, his wrath and his mercy (Rom. 9:19-24) and that would be bad. So it’s good that there’s evil and so much for the problem of evil. This means our suffering has meaning rather than being pointless. It means our suffering has dignity. The meaning and dignity are in God however and not in us where our pride wants it. Now how do you minister that to hurting people?

  20. “In a world without evil there would be no occasion for God to show two of his favorite things, his wrath and his mercy (Rom. 9:19-24) and that would be bad. So it’s good that there’s evil and so much for the problem of evil.”

    Rob, it is certainly possible that you could live and minister in the places of great suffering around the world and still hold onto a pat answer like that. But if you did, you would be the first person I’d met to do so.

    To stand together with people who have been the victims of evil their entire lives, who are part of whole communities that have been victimized by evil for generations, and to really believe that God thinks that evil is good so he can show his wrath (to them, apparently?) and his mercy (not to them, apparently?) is something that’s really, really hard to do when you actually love those people.

  21. Jonathan, you made your point by distorting mine. I did not say God thinks evil is good.

  22. You said that, “It’s good that there’s evil.”

    Then you followed it with “and so much for the problem of evil.”

    I appreciate your correcting me if I misinterpreted what you said. But it would help if you explain what you actually meant instead of simply saying that I distorted the point. I never intentionally distort anyone’s point, and so if you can elucidate what you meant, it would help both of us.

    I do believe that the world God created was good. And I believe that it is good that he has given us the opportunity to choose good or to choose evil in this world. But I believe that whenever someone chooses evil, that is bad, and the fact that it allows God to show wrath and/or mercy does not make the existence of evil any less bad. And, like I said, when you live among people who have to be the victims of that evil over and over again throughout their lives, and when the perpetrators of that evil never seem to face wrath in this life, then it becomes very difficult to tell them that anything about that evil is good.

  23. There’s a big difference between saying “It’s good that there is evil” and confusing good and evil with each other. Evil is evil but it is good that it exist. It’s a difficult but vital distinction.

    This doesn’t mean we understand any particular evil the way Job’s comforters thought they did. It does mean we can say every particular evil really is evil and has meaning rather than being some random thing outside God’s control.

  24. Jonathan,

    I appreciate your comments and your apparent missions work around the world. But I have to disagree with some of your conclusions. An entire life of suffering in no way changes the fact that the suffering is part of God’s plan. Nor does it make the truths of scripture into a “pat” answer. God tells Abraham he is going to send his descendants into slavery for four hundred years. Psalm 105:25 tells us that God turned the hearts of the Egyptians to hate his people. Four hundred years is a long time. It is several generations to say the least. The Bible tells us that this was God’s plan all along and that he was working in it for his purposes and his glory. And in the end when we stand before him and understand we will see that the purposes of God are played out in the rich parts of the world when terrorist crash into buildings and in the slums of India when atrocities happen to children.

    And I personally support an entire missionary network that is planting Reformed Baptist churches in third world countries all over the planet.

    So I appreciate you but I would encourage you to reconsider some of your positions.

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