September 23, 2017

Addicted to “Answers”

By Chaplain Mike

Christians are addicted to “answers.” For some reason, we think the ultimate favor we can do for the world is to explain the ways of God.

I humbly disagree.

This issue came up again recently when John Piper wrote a blog post on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Of course, you knew he would.

Now, I happen to have a lot of respect for John Piper. Though I differ substantially on his approach to the Christian life, I have always considered him a brother who is serious about Christ and the Gospel, pastoral ministry and the church. But when things like this happen, he just can’t seem to keep from speaking up. And I happen to think that speaking as he does leads to more problems than solutions. There are times to simply keep your mouth shut, and an occasion like this is one of them.

However, John Piper didn’t keep quiet, and here is his rationale:

When Christians see suffering, they feel empathy. We too have bodies (Hebrews 13:3). Therefore, love commands, “Weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

Then comes aid. We want to help relieve human suffering—all of it, especially eternal suffering.

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)

And that includes enemies.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (Romans 12:20)

But sooner or later people want more than empathy and aid—they want answers.

When love has wept and worked it must have something to say about God.

The sentence I’ve underlined above is where I strongly disagree with Dr. Piper. I assert that he is dead wrong when he writes, “But sooner or later people want more than empathy and aid—they want answers.” That is just plain incorrect.

People ultimately want love, not answers. Answers are not the capstone; love is. Most can do without specific explanations. No one can do without love. Even when sufferers cry out, “Why?” they are not asking for answers. They are expressing pain and hoping someone is there to hear their cries. Above all, they want to know they are not alone, not abandoned, not rejected. They want love. They want the presence of someone who cares. They want reassurance that someone is there to embrace them, listen to them, hold their hand, be their friend.

To believe that “answers” are the ultimate solution is to take the position of Job’s comforters.

Job in Despair, Chagall

We have not learned the lesson of the Book of Job.

Many of us have been taught to think that Job is a book of answers to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” If that is your perspective, all I can say is, read the Book of Job. You will discover that it doesn’t do that. You won’t find your answers in this book.

What will you find?

  • You will find two sections of narrative—at the beginning and end, that tell Job’s story of suffering and ultimate reversal of fortune.
  • In between, you will find 38 chapters of speeches, some of them by Job, some by his friends, and ultimately, a speech from God’s own mouth.

When Job speaks, he protests. He doesn’t understand why he, a righteous man, has had so much trouble in his life.

In the speeches by Job’s friends, you will find plenty of answers, wise answers, all designed to “help” Job, but none of them ring true. Their words don’t help Job, even when they represent legitimate “chapter and verse” wisdom.

A key to understanding this book is to recognize that Job’s friends, for the most part, are not offering false counsel, but the very best that “wisdom” has to offer. They very often speak truth. But it does not help, and in the end, God condemns their approach (42.7-9).

In the Book of Job, when God ultimately steps onto the stage and speaks, he sweeps away all of Job’s friends’ answers and all of Job’s protestations. He presents himself simply as God. In the light of his immeasurable greatness and inscrutable sagacity, all human “answers” and rationalizations are overwhelmed. Job shuts his mouth. The friends slink away, embarrassed and ashamed.

The Book of Job is about the limits of wisdom. This book shows the insufficiency of “answers” in the face of human suffering. It is a critique of the approach we are always tempted to take—thinking that talking and teaching and reasoning and giving divine “answers” to life’s mysteries and problems are our greatest gift to the world.

There is a reason I have not written anything on Internet Monk about the earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. I don’t have anything to say. Even if I had memorized the Bible from cover to cover, I would still have nothing to say. Nor do people who are suffering because of this tragic event, or those who are looking on need me to say anything. They need my prayers, my support, and my love; nothing else. Nothing else.

Note to John Piper and to anyone else who thinks “answers” are the answer: Take a lesson from Job’s friends at the beginning of the book (Job 2:11-13). They simply came and sat with their suffering friend. And they accomplished more in those seven days than in 38 chapters of speeches trying to explain the mysteries of God.

People don’t ultimately need answers from their friends. They need love. Before God, they need the faith and humility to know that he is bigger than any explanations, and that all humans are so limited that we can never figure out the mysteries of his ways. It is best simply to clasp one’s hands over one’s mouth. If he didn’t answer Job, chances are we won’t get the secrets of the universe either. And if God won’t give us answers, what makes us think we should focus so much on giving them to others? Be present. Be quiet. Be a friend.

To John Piper and all other pastors who might be tempted to do more: Please don’t.

No one needs or wants our “answers.”

Comments

  1. all of us have the unanswered “Why?” question in one form or another. many of us have more than just one of them…

    [sigh]

    in my particular circumstances, i wanted to be comforted more than have an answer from God’s perspective. some equate full disclosure with comfort. maybe we mistakenly think that rationale will assuage the pangs of loss. they try to make sense of tragic events in hopes of minimizing the stark impact of such brutal circumstances, but to no avail…

    sit with me. let me cry aloud & vent & mourn. listen to my heart. know that i am hurting. let me pour out my confusion & pain & loss without analysis, correction or commentary…

    pour me another drink & just be my friend “who sticks closer than a brother…”

    • Yes. As the saying goes, “People don’t care what you know. They want to know that you care.”

    • Why is one of the more difficult questions to ask, and its even harder to get an answer from. I’m stuck on the “why” when I look back at what happened spiritually.

      • @Eagle: I know this will sound like I’m one of Job’s counselors, but I’ll venture this anyway:

        there might not be a “why” for you, only JESUS….. I’m aware that this sounds like a cliche, but I’ll stand by it.

        Pax,
        GregR

  2. Chaplain Mike,

    I think those prone to give the “answers” probably won’t ever learn this until they find themselves in Job’s position, having to endure the “answers” of others.

    • Yes, I used to have all the answers, not any more. I know nothing.

    • Thirded! Our knee jerk reaction to any particular kind of tragedy seems to be stupidity, until we’re on the other side. Then we realize what we said those many times and wonder why our friends still like us at all.

    • Adrienne says:

      Yes Scott I agree. When I was going through a time of deep suffering I was BLESSED to have friends who did not offer answers. Just love in tangible form. From meals to tears to let’s go for a walk etc. Now, it is so strange but I literally cannot listne to “Christian radio” or “Christian experts”. I cannot bear there absolute certainty. I think “just wait” and then come back and talk to me – or keep silent with me. Now I go to church to worship, not to get answers. Now the bottom line is “Jesus loves this I know”.

    • Words of great wisdom, my friend.

      AND….it goes in triplicate for those who believe that they live charmed lives free of pain because of their own greatness of faith and special, protected friendship with God……and that those suffering somehow, somewhere, “deserved it.”

      When the” Mack Truck of Pain” eventually hits them on their blind side, they are left without any more answers.

      Or faith.

  3. Whether you offer it to someone or not is your business, but we Christians do know the answer.

    As each of us are fallen and broken, the world is also. The world (and our lives ) is not progressing…we are moving closer to an end.

    That’s the honest truth of it. And of course, the good news is that Christ will usher in His new creation, in His own time.

  4. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    A friend of mine taught a church course on Job and he summed up the message of Job as follows: the right theology applied at the wrong time in the wrong situation to the wrong person for the wrong reason is still ultimately bad theology. Job’s friends had the traditional and right theodicy but they made the mistake of assuming that Job’s suffering was the result of his sin.

    I’ve found it fascinating to reflect over the years on how we have one book of Proverbs with no less than two books correcting a misappropriation of its contents in the form of Job and Ecclesiastes. Job tells us that the suffering of Job was not because of his sin and Ecclesiastes warns us that a person with all material success and repute in public life is not necessarily truly content for that. God could give you more than you can possibly want but not give you the ability to enjoy it, which leaves you envying the never-born. Clearly in Jewish and Christian traditions Proverbs was seen as so apt to be abused there needed to be not one but two correctives to the misappropriation of Proverbs.

    • Good stuff. I think we can over generalize on what people want or need. I agree that love and understanding are ultimately our best way of showing Christ. I do think that some people require an answer or at least a reasonable explanation of the Christian view of suffering.

      • Tom, in my experience, especially as a hospice chaplain, some people do have some intellectual blocks that they need to get past. But most of the time, a simple, reasonable response is adequate. One does not have to answer all questions or solve all mysteries. At heart, most people recognize that their “intellectual” difficulties are either an expression of their woundedness or a defense mechanism.

        • Thanks, I appreciate your insight.

        • I believe that there is an answer that we provide, though it’s not necessarily a verbal response. It’s the answer that Christ gave to Mary and Martha, and ultimately to every one of us who are marked by His sacrifice. It’s to be a co-sufferer with those who suffer. It’s to give our lives for those who are desperate. For “this is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Js. 1:27) It’s only the trust that results from such actions that will enable us to hopefully be the conduit of godly wisdom, but His wisdom is not in and of itself the answer. So, I agree: love is the answer.

    • But Job was written first, long before Proverbs….

      • Bob, we don’t know that. Furthermore, it was placed among the books of wisdom in the third and final part of the Hebrew canon, the Writings. These books spoke to those who had returned from exile. Their experiences and questions are reflected in Job.

  5. As much as we might know God, or about God, we are in no way qualified to explain His thinking about anything unless He tells us directly, or unless there’s a very close parallel in the bible. Unless Dr. Piper is making any claim that he’s received special revelation, he (and we all) need to do as Job did and place his hand over his mouth.

    We don’t know God’s ways, and all we’re going to do, in our attempts to explain Him, is defame Him, and cause people to mock Him instead of our pathetic apologetics.

  6. I was just talking about this to my mom yesterday.

    It seems as humans, and most believers (ouch), we have an issue with broken people. We want to wrap up their mess with a clean towel and tell them they need Jesus and this is why God does these things, etc.

    Our pride has all the answers and don’t we feel so good when we can enter into a crisis with that answer.

    When, in all reality, it is our hand on the shoulder/knee/hand of the messy broken person and allowing them the freedom and space to vent, cry, seethe, doubt, question, etc. that helps.

    Love. Silently. Pray the same way.

    Good post! Thank you!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      It seems as humans, and most believers (ouch), we have an issue with broken people. We want to wrap up their mess with a clean towel and tell them they need Jesus and this is why God does these things, etc.

      I call this the “Five Fast Praise-the-LORDs” answer. Or the “Say the Magic Words” answer. And it comes across as smugly quoting The Party Line.

      • the bible answer folks can feel compelled to give a ready answer according to the religious indoctrination they have accepted+believed. and when those that believe a certain way believe it is the most right or the most comprehensive, then the answers are themselves a regurgitation of a ‘truth’ they have been fed…

        disengage heart & let mind take over. there are a few categories of ‘answers’ that could be Piper’s concern for those suffering in Japan. could be there are why questions that he as well as others cherry pick to bring right answers for. somehow though, the manner which he presented the consideration in his blog seems more like a self-righteous reaction as in, “hey, i’ve got the Ultimate answer” if only you would acknowledge my incredible biblical education & immense theological insight & my God-given pastoral calling & divine authority & the most accurate Reformist perspective on everything under the sun…”

        he makes it out to be a response devoid of compassion or sensitivity or even the minimum Christian reaction. he mentions correct scriptural principle, but he himself lacking in putting such charity in action. speaking up about a terrible situation not the same as living out the gospel by first being there in person & helping those in need. he certainly has the luxury of being able to go there unlike most of us. shouldn’t he put his faith-in-action where his mouth/blog preaching is? at least to show the Japanese people he is willing to share in their suffering regardless of his doctrinal correctness???

  7. joel hunter says:

    Just today I posted on my fb this quote from Simone Weil: “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.” (See Paul Wallace’s blog for more.)

    I submit that what you are calling love is roughly equivalent to what Weil calls attention (a term that has a particular sense in her work). Love is certainly not “warmth of heart” or empathy. Offering “answers” is a mechanism to keep one’s distance from the sufferer, to adopt a posture that is outside and above the suffering, and ultimately to escape one’s responsibility to love. The quote from Piper suggests that once you’ve given the proper “answer” you’ve fulfilled your highest duty to the sufferer. The underlined quote would be more accurate if it read: “But sooner or later the Christian wants to give more than empathy and aid—they want to give answers.”

    • Joel—“Offering “answers” is a mechanism to keep one’s distance from the sufferer, to adopt a posture that is outside and above the suffering, and ultimately to escape one’s responsibility to love.”

      Brilliant and well said and, unfortunately, too often true.

      Our quickness to speak is usually a sign of our own discomfort with the suffering of others more than it is a genuine act of giving attention. We’re afraid. We don’t know what to do. We don’t like what we see. So we talk.

  8. Piper may deserve a pass. He may be thinking of that one question that most Christians dread: why would a loving, all-powerful God allow any suffering? I think your post last year addressed this well, where the woman whose mother was in the hospital really wasn’t looking for answers to such questions, but was looking for compassion.

    I don’t think there’s any escape from this question on our lenten journey, especially when reach the raising of Lazarus (if you were here, he wouldn’t have died.

    I just don’t think a Christian can answer the question, because the premise is not Christian. Perhaps another religion, which believes God brings about good fortune if we perform the proper ritual or recite the correct incantation. Or another religion can promise that suffering in this life is paid back in the life to come. Another religion can blame suffering on our sin or Karma. Christianity, which worships the God of the cross cannot.

    • As much as I’d like to give Piper a pass here, I cannot. His responses to these kinds of events has been too consistent. For some reason, he needs to explain, as if to justify the ways of God. Even so, many Christians feel the need to speak, perhaps to work it through in their own minds, how such terrible events can take place under the oversight of a loving God. God needs no defense. Of all people, we ought to be able to express humility and confess our limited understanding.

      • CM, I think you are correct in this case. Having read Piper’s response, the glib answer appears to be, “God had a purpose in it all and we just have to figure it out.” I know he means well, but her perpetuates only half a truth. The book of Job begins with a cosmic conflict that makes the purpose of the book of Job both abundantly clear to us the reader and hopelessly irrelevant to Job the sufferer. Somehow I don’t think if Job knew that he was part a wager between God and Satan that he would find comfort in the loss of his children, his life’s work, and his health. Just sayin’

        To illustrate, what if we were able to explain to laboratory mice that the reason we are injecting them with cancerous cells is so that we can ultimately save the lives of thousands of human beings that they will never see or even know existed, what would the mice think of this? Would they consider it a sufficient explanation for the pain and suffering they are enduring? Likewise, if God were to explain to us the purpose for his actions (if indeed the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster are of God’s immediate and consequent personal action), would we be able to comprehend or sympathize with it? I suspect not.

        I think this is reflected in the controversy of Rob Bell’s new book. Those who believe in eternal conscious torment have a hard time explaining it in terms that Bell and others can accept. Is this the fault of God for inadequate explanation or is the frailty of human perspective that makes us incapable of completely understanding God?

      • I agree. In light of his statements, he went too far. I’m wondering if under the surface this is still Piper’s feud with Bell (i.e. providing compassion alone is what a universalist would do).

        Perhaps I could have agreed with him had he said that people need answers – not regarding why earthquakes happen but ultimate, ontological answers to the question of life in general. Having been a missionary in Japan, I know that Piper’s approach will not work. Unfortunately, I know this somewhat first-hand. Compassion may still not open a door to share the four spiritual laws, but it may build trust which over time will open doors. I pray no church sends people over there who are going to tell the Japanese people that God sent an earthquake in order to make them repent and believe in the good news. Do not send missionaries who are going to freak out at the site of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines on almost every corner – with no sense of reverence for these religious symbols of the Japanese people. (The Buddhist temple in Nara is breath-taking). God is already in the midst of the Japanese people; He is not sending earthquakes as a way to knock on the door to gain admittance.

        But this a situation where Japanese people – out of duty and honor rooted in their Shinto and Buddhist heritage – compel them to heroically and sacrificially give their lives to save people and prevent a nuclear disaster. Christians staying at a safe distance and writing checks seems to pale in comparison. There are a few stories of American missionaries staying in the country despite the personal risk. Perhaps we need to ask the question: how urgently do we think the Japanese people need Jesus? At what personal cost or risk are we willing to sacrifice to accomplish this? We should have been asking this question long before the earthquake ever happened.

        • But this a situation where Japanese people – out of duty and honor rooted in their Shinto and Buddhist heritage – compel them to heroically and sacrificially give their lives to save people and prevent a nuclear disaster. Christians staying at a safe distance and writing checks seems to pale in comparison.

          Brilliant, and I saw this myself and remarked the same to my wife weeks ago…

    • I agree with dumb ox. I used to think God did all the good things and the Devil did all the bad things. Then we studied Hosea and Amos in our discipleship class and my pat answers were blown to smithereens.

      Overwhelmed by the images of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami and their aftermath, I have been thinking how I would answer the question, “Why would a loving, all-powerful God allow any suffering?” and the only reply I can come up with that doesn’t sound smug and patronizing is this: I’m sure He has His reasons.

      Disaster doesn’t make me hate God. It makes me cling to Him the more. As the old song goes, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.”

  9. The best we can do is pray, help and weep with them. That would seem best in any grief experience IMHO.

  10. Well put, CM. My favorite line from Job in this context is
    Job 13:5
    “If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom.”

  11. Dude, how could love be love if it fails to minister truth? Can love really be complete if it says absolutely nothing about God?

    The very fact that you are saying something about God makes it seem to me that you agree with Piper. Why split hairs?

    • Mike S: “…how could love be love if it fails to minister truth?”

      The same way Job’s friends did the best thing possible when they sat silently with their friend in his grief. Love does not need to “minister truth” to be love. Love needs to embody truth by being present.

      • Bang! That’s it right there. Nuff said…

        DSY

      • Yeah, but when Job’s friends started speaking, they were wrong (un-true). And at the end of the book, God teaches Job truth about his character and his un-know-ability. God reminds Job of his sovereignty. Piper is saying that we need to do that, but not before we “weep with those who weep”. Once the temporal mourning has run its course, we need to point to a Savior from eternal mourning.

        Indeed, we need to take the lesson from the book of Job that we should not be trying to explain the “reasons” for suffering. But we should not think that Piper is saying such a thing. He is saying that the ultimately important thing is to preach Christ crucified to carry out the Great Commission.

        I think you are reading too much of our church-y culture into what Piper is saying. I don’t think you have to shun the man in order to remind Christians to shut up and mourn with those who mourn, and to be patient with people while they mourn without quoting bible verses and shoving our human philosophies down their throats and telling them to stop being sad. I think Piper would agree with that. The bit you quoted seems to indicate that to me, when I read it carefully.

        • Elizabeth says:

          I agree, Mike S; I have just been to a seminar about peer counseling, where they always advise you that being a friend and listening is the most important thing you can do for a person in crisis. I agree that it’s the FIRST thing. But sometimes we do want answers.

          I want love, and I want answers. Why are they in conflict? A good earthly father can explain to his children why he does the things he does. He may not tell his kids the whole story if they are not old enough to really “get it,” but he will give them some sort of reply.

          God could explain His reasons for things, but He often doesn’t. It is natural to want answers to why He does things, and difficult to learn the lesson of Job, who had to accept that God in His wisdom had hidden some/many of His purposes from Job’s sight.

          I have the song “Love is the answer” in my head now 🙂

        • Did you read, Piper’s post, Mike S? He is not saying what you are saying.

        • Oh, and Mike S., you missed something else. Job’s friends, for the most part, did not speak “untruth.” One of the main points of my post is that they were giving Job advice from the wisdom tradition of Israel, a tradition spelled out in books like Proverbs. They were nearly quoting chapter and verse. The problem was not that they said things that were “wrong.” The problem was that they thought wisdom had the answer to Job’s situation.

    • Mike, when my parents died (my mother four years ago and my father a little over a year after her), nothing anyone could say would have consoled my pain.

      I believe what I say in the Creed: in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. However, I’m still human and it hurt to lose them.

      If some well-meaning person had rushed over to me and told me “Rejoice! I will reveal God’s purpose to you in permitting these deaths!”, well, I’m afraid they might have required medical attention for their bleeding nose after getting a punch in the snoot.

      If the first reaction of any Christian is to pop up on a disaster site and tell the people who are homeless, lacking food and water, at risk of disease and – in the case of Japan – also at risk of radiation exposure “Hey, the reason this happened is so that I could fly in and convert you all to Christ!”, then I would not blame the people if they decided to worship Thor, Zeus or *anyone* else rather than this person’s god.

      Bind up the wounds first, then talk of the Lord. And don’t talk of God’s purpose for other people’s misfortunes unless and until the Holy Spirit has descended upon you in tongues of fire and a rushing wind to give you a golden tablet inscribed with “My Reasons, signed God”.

  12. It seems that many of the christian voices who are somehow officially endorsed as being the spokepeople for Christianity are so compelled to have everything wrapped up in a neat and tidy theological box. To make everything fit. If the bible is the inspired, inerrant and perfect word of God, no conradictions are to be tolerated. Concepts discussed or alluded to in the bible that can be multiple shades of gray are polarized into either black or white.

    I suppose they do this out of a need to “protect” God’s reputation.

    Perhaps also to keep the fascination of biblical study going — finding ways to solve the unsolveanle, answers for the unanswerable–afterall, what fun is there in solving a riddle for which there is no answer?

    Perhaps out of refusal to have their intellectual prowess outwitted by the material they are supposed to be the masters of.

    Perhaps also to justify theri jobs??

    • I’m crip, so I listen to a lot of online sermons when I can’t make it to church. That’s included John Piper and many others. One thing that they don’t talk about directly, but crops up a lot, is that they get a ton of emails with questions and challenges like “why does God allow suffering?” and other difficult ones.

      So instead of an old time pastor being challenged by a congregant here and there, they are dealing with hundreds or thousands every year… that’s going to have an effect. Those questions often have hard personal stories attached. They are bearing up under that challenge, and sometimes this stuff comes out.

  13. I met a Christian who thought that his struggles to find a job was God’s way of purging a sin or inperfection from his life. I was so shocked by this that I didn’t respond with the good news that the cross made that unnecessary. Maybe it’s easier to blame suffering on ourselves, as do children of alcoholic or abusive parents.

    But can one believe in an omnipotent God who neither dictates suffering nor is powerless to stop it? Can things just happen?

    • I don’t believe things just happen. Nor do most people that I have met. All I know is that I will communicate more of God’s character to them through quiet, consistent, loving acts than I will by trying to explain why he does this or that. Again, in my experience, the intellectual questions, while real, are not the big issue for suffering people.

    • I believe, for the most part, that things just happen. What I mean by that is that there are some many factors at play in the events that happen, that it’s simply not within our grasp to understand them. I also don’t believe that God causes everything to happen, and I don’t believe this is saying anything about His omnipotence.

  14. Maybe I’m missing something. He said ‘people want answers’, he didn’t say people need or deserve answers. You seem to be saying that is what Piper is meaning, but he didn’t actually say that in the blurb you showed.

    To me, he is saying that to weep with those who are weeping and provide aid to them and it provides comfort, then love has worked and you’re doing what God wants.

    • No, the majority of the post was devoted to “giving answers.” He mentioned empathizing and giving aid, but the focus was on the fact that this is not enough. People require answers, and it is the Christian’s job to give them. Well, ok, maybe sometimes. However, as I’ve said, I would respect JP and others a lot more if I never read another post like that again. For some reason, Christians don’t think we’ve finished the job until we’ve preached.

      • Elizabeth says:

        I think John Piper may have a sense that since he is John Piper, he needs to speak up and say *something* when a big disaster happens. He’s a public figure, for good and for ill, and that comes with a certain sense of responsibility.

        I think as a pastor you DO need to say *something* when something catastrophic happens in the world. If my pastor had said nothing from the pulpit on the Sundays after this Japan disaster, I would have wondered why he stayed silent. He didn’t preach about it, he just told us what we could do as a church (pray; send money) to help.

        Whether Piper really needs to BLOG after each natural disaster and say the same kinds of things about each one, I don’t know. But we are still learning how to use blogs/the Internet effectively for the Gospel, and many times failing. Christians are allowed to learn from their mistakes in this regard. Hope Piper reads some of this and gets it.

  15. I would have more respect for Piper if his answers weren’t simply a repeat of the standard Calvinist auto-reply – “it’s all for God’s glory”. Perhaps a simple, honest “I don’t know” would be better.

    • That’s not his auto-reply to calamities; his auto-reply to calamities is to quote John 13: “Repent, lest ye likewise perish”. That’s why news people never quote him when catastrophic events happen like they quote other religious leaders. He doesn’t even hide behind the “it’s all for God’s glory” shield.

  16. i have always said, that the answers that one gets along the way are not necessarily as important as the questions that one is asking.

  17. Pardon my cheese here, but maybe love vs. answers is a false dichotomy, because love IS the answer 😛
    Seriously, though, it’s not that deep down inside our deepest need is for war feelings or a compassionate hand to relieve our physical suffering. What we really want, I propose, is to know that God cares when we suffer. It IS a good thing to be given bread when you are hungry. But after treating symptoms for so long, it’s easy to become bitter when hunger keeps recurring. The quest then becomes, why is God allowing hunger? How can God allow this and still be good? Piper is right, I think, to point this out. However, Chaplain Mike is right as far as, when the goodness of God comes into question, an intellectual formula does not satisfy the heart. I know God is love even when I suffer. But do I truly believe it, enough for it to be my comfort? Do I really experience his love and understand his grace in a way that it becomes my strength in weakness? Neither data or handouts are enough here. Only the bread of life can satisfy. This involves BOTH data and a handout. The law is the data, and the gospel is a handout. The law tells you how much you need what you don’t have, and grace gives it to you through faith for Jesus sake. I believe Piper in this case would be dispensing law. But humanitarian aid by itself is also treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease.
    Let’s not split the message. Mercy and Justice have met in the cross, and one without the other is bad news for all.

  18. Who wants answers again?

    I SO do not want to play “The Grass is Greener” game with other cultures, philosophies, and Christian perspectives, but are we getting a lot of “why?” questions from Japanese people? Aren’t they assuming, like many of us, that Earthquakes happen on fault lines, and Japan has had massive earthquakes for all of its history?

    I’m reading that, yes, Japanese people are going to the Christian missions groups to hear about Christ and for prayer — and for that I am thankful. Yet does this start with “Why does God allow painful earthquakes”?

    I’m actually curious on this, because from what I can tell this theodicy isn’t even in the questions for people at this moment in Japan.

    • This is such an interesting question that you’re posing, I really appreciate it. Maybe the people who need the answers are us, not them. And by us & them (ug, not words I like to use) I don’t know if I mean Japanese/Western(can’t say American as I’m English), or Christian/non-Christian, those-who-live-in-disaster-prone-areas/those-who-don’t, or a bit of all three.
      If given the choice between answers or comfort right now – in the midst of an unexpected faith/mental health meltdown after my beloved Mum’s death from cancer – I think the comfort of a big experience of God’s goodness & love would provide the answer. But I’d like to it to be a big all-singing, all -dancing subjective experience that’d leave me unable to doubt God’s goodness. If experience makes up for lack of answers, what happens if you have neither?

      I’m more than happy, Chaplain Mike, to agree with you at never seeing those kind of pronouncements again. I feel an almost perverse interest in those who come from this sector of the Christian world as they appear to be emotionally ‘other’ in a way I envy, but have never managed to emulate. I sometimes wonder if it’s a work of the Holy Spirit I’ve missed out on, because there seems to be nothing – no experience, no puzzling Bible passage, nothing that really throws them emotionally. It would be such a lovely place to be.

  19. Is it possible that there is a difference between worldly wisdom (the kind that Job’s friends offered) and revelation? It seems to me that Jesus does give us some answers – he gives us himself. Eugene Peterson wrote that the Bible does not invite us to see God in our stories, but our stories in God. Perhaps the “answers” that we give do not so much answer the question of “Why did this happen to me?” but more “How does this fit into the revelation of God in Jesus Christ?”

    I’m not comfortable, like you, giving neat and tidy theological answers. But I do want to offer a measure of hope and move towards faith that leads to understanding.

    • See the paragraph in bold in the middle of my post. Job’s friends were speaking “wisdom” to Job, wisdom that reflects revelation like the book of Proverbs.

  20. ‘Our quickness to speak is usually a sign of our own discomfort with the suffering of others more than it is a genuine act of giving attention. We’re afraid. We don’t know what to do. We don’t like what we see. So we talk.’

    This speaks volumes for me. When I’m with a person suffering through some painful event in their lives, I try to remember that Job’s friends did their best work before they opened their mouths to speak. It’s probably the most important thing I learned in our hospital chaplaincy course.

    Thanks, Chaplain Mike.

  21. Disasters and calamities that people like Piper and others seem compelled to exploit in their preaching are nothing more than instantaneous versions of what happens to a far greater extent everyday. Unknown thousands die every day, one-by-one, with an equally devastating impact on those that love them. It is our own sensationalist appetite with the “big” events, happily fed by the news media (a for profit organization BTW) that brings these things to the forefront. Shame on us if we fail to see the individual needs.

    • I think this compulsion to provide answers is out of fear – fear that if they can’t trot out a neatly wrapped up explanation, festooned in the appropriate Bible verses and a carefully worked out exposition of theology, that it is somehow going to be a surrender to the kinds of atheists who like to say “So why did this happen if there is a God like you say, huh?”

      In other words, it’s not so much answers for the people suffering as answers in an ongoing apologetics war.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        With all the rest of us as collateral damage.

      • Martha that was well stated. None of this is about the person who has yet to hear of Christ; it is an on-going war concerning the different camps within Christianity that argue with one another.

      • Adrienne says:

        Yes Martha I agree but even more – are we so quick to answer so that we don’t hear the question within ourselves?? Are we afraid to question? I know Christians who would be absolutley aghast to admit that they have questions. Lack of faith and all that.

      • very well said, Martha….ya must have had a FINE St. Paddy’s day, and still feelin’ it..

        GregR

        • greg r, I’m positively overflowing with the grace of our national apostle.

          Either that, or it was the four-day weekend (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday off – woo-hoo! Hail, glorious St. Patrick!)

          🙂

      • Martha, thank you for expressing an impression that has been bouncing around my brain like a ping-pong ball this morning, while reading and praying over this post.

        This is how seems to me for many Christians: If they cannot explain away tragedy, death, poverty and suffering, it can only be for two reasons (both unacceptable to these Chrisitan “explainers”)

        The first reason for an inability to explain suffering away would be that they are not-good-enough followers of Christ, who don’t know Him well enough to speak for His actions……or……….

        The second reason why they would be unable to supply answers about God is that He really does NOT exist.

        A third option…that God is God and I am not, so I do not know, but I will sit here with you anyway…………………..is apparently not a sufficient reply to the question.

        I am hoping that I have communicated this thought. If not, can someone else help me put it another way?

  22. I think that sometimes, our preoccupation with answers comes from a fear of being wrong. The question of suffering certainly raises the fears that every christian experiences sometimes – that christianity isn’t really the right way to live, there is no God etc. We try and explain the difficult questions in order to remove this threat

  23. Randy Thompson says:

    You know, there’s been a lot of talk here about whether or not people want answers. Maybe a better question is, what questions might people be asking? Some of these questions might be some like these:

    Where will I live, now that my home and town are swept away?
    What will I eat, and what will I drink?
    Where do I sleep tonight?
    Who will be my family, now that my family is gone?
    Where are my neighbors, what has become of them?
    Who will now be my neighbor?
    What will I do with my time, now that I have no work to fill it?
    When will the pain of memory give way to something else?
    When will I feel something other than loss?
    When will these questions, and many, many others like them, stop being questions?

    If I’m right here (and I may not be, for all I know), there are no theological “answers” that are relevant or helpful to these questions. However, to be a listener and a presence to one who is suffering is to be the “answer.” To be present is to be Christ’s presence.

    t only (only!) presence and listening. These questions that begin with “How,” “When,” “Who”, “Where,” or “What” have no immediate answers; they are questions that need to be shared and heard.

    As others have pointed out, Job’s comforters got it very right when they simply sat silently with Job in a koinonia of suffering for seven days. It’s only when they start talking that they get into trouble. Real wisdom here is listening and loving, not talking.

    The only one Job needs or wants to hear from is God, and we must let God speak for Himself. The only One who can answer the “Why” question is God, and, seemingly, when He becomes present, the “Why” question doesn’t matter.

  24. John from Down Under says:

    Piper’s post gets even worse past the point of where your quote ends. It then launches into the Calvinist mantra of ‘God’s will of decree’ (though JP did not use those exact words). Piper doesn’t want us to forget that Earthquakes are ultimately from God. That’s very comforting John, thanks for reminding us! Imagine the ‘comfort’ when giving this answer to someone who experienced a personal tragedy; “your daughter’s rape and death sir was ‘ultimately’ from God. His permissions are purposes”. As someone pointed out on another blog, good theology at a bad time, is bad theology.

    I agree that often silence and listening is much better service to the suffering than ‘answers’. If I’m pushed for an answer by an unbeliever, I tend to keep it broad by saying that what we see today was never part of God’s original design and after the fall the world fell into disarray (as much as this makes Calvinists choke on their slurpee). What we see today is a byproduct of the fall. But God has planned to restore the fallen planet through His son etc..

    What I find interesting is that JP footnoted his post by referencing a 1999 article he wrote in response to the earthquake in Turkey. Here’s a bit of illuminating trivia about the Turkey earthquake I came across, when doing research for a project a while ago.

    The preliminary findings of a post-earthquake assessment by EQE International (a globally reputable consultancy firm specializing in catastrophe risk modeling) were that, “almost all of the damage caused by the earthquake and almost all of the deaths caused by the collapse of inadequately designed and constructed buildings was avoidable” In other words, while the root cause of the earthquake was geological, the consequences were anthropogenic (caused by humans). This trivia puts some perspective around the default hypothesis of ‘Acts of God’ blaming him for everything.

    This of course is not true of all disasters, but often a tragedy gets bigger due to human failures and greed, hence we’re back to the fall, human sinfulness etc. The GFC for example was not an act of God, but the outcome of human corruption. The fact that God can use human misery in redemptive ways is a separate argument.

    • “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven…And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

      Isn’t there a theological corollary implied here? When preaching or blogging in public, but careful what you say before men. Piper is simply preachin’ to a choir that already agrees with him & nods in sanctimonious unison. The suffering Japanese people do not care about his perspectives since he has merely published pious sounding words where his heart should be. No one is ‘blessed’ with such pronouncements. No one is edified or built up where the pain of loss the greatest. No one comforted. Is this a babbling like pagans do when expecting their profound obsturfu pronouncements meant to change another’s understanding? Is Piper’s post this just another nosy gong Christianese response to a major catastrophe?

  25. May I ask why John Piper introduced Jesus’ command for doing good to enemies in the midst of a discourse addressing Japan and the recent earthquake? I note it was originally posted in response to the Turkey earthquake many years ago. Are our enemies non-believers? And are only non-believers involved in natural disasters? Did I miss that sermon?

    My purpose is to love God and love one another. My calling is to share my faith (and enable others to share their faith) on the mission field to which God assigns me at any given time. I know my enemy is Satan and his minions. As for others, I am very reluctant to use the term of “enemy” as my own sinfulness impairs relationships as often as others’ sinfulness. And frankly, if I did liberally apply “enemy” to others, I would have a pretty hard time fulfilling my calling … in love.

  26. Fine post CM. Your thoughts on Job’s friends and their counsel as wisdom misapplied really hit a nerve. Thanks.

  27. I needed this post. I have heard too many people blame all earthquakes on the judgment of God.

  28. I believe Job’s friends would have comforted him with Jesus, had any of them had a personal relationship with him and the understanding of the Father’s love for us all. The above article is ridiculous for a Christian to write. We have the love of Christ to share. Memorizing the whole Bible does offer nothing. Knowing the One who gave it to us offers all. To read this article you would think that Christianity is no different than any other belief or group offering love out there. A travesty of an article and sounds like one written by a person who has gone along to get along so as to look and feel no differently than a humanistic world offering the same advice as this article.

    • Talk about adventures in missing the point, Aviano. Of course what we are advocating is sharing the love of Christ. We are talking about how we do that. How would you suggest?

      • I believe you have missed the point. I believe organizations like Samaritans Purse do a great job on the how to. Human beings are the only ones of God’s creatures who ask why, who need answers and as such are “addicted” to this need. Indeed, we are expressly made by God to seek answers. In doing so we seek Him. We do this even (perhaps especially) in times of crisis. If things always went smoothly we would not even ask the larger questions in the first place. “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. I know you know who said this and I agree. These are the times to go beyond human love to God’s Love and His answer. There are many compassionate people who can sit with a person and love. You don’t have to be Christian to do that.
        Only we have God’s love and His Answer Jesus, and although I don’t always agree with Piper, I do believe he is right to bring up the larger questions when God is shouting at us in times like these.

        • Aviano, we are talking right past each other. Sorry you’re not hearing what I’m saying.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          I believe George Orwell called this “duckspeaking”. Pure Orthodoxy, Pure INGSOC, recited without ever engaging any brain functions above the brainstem. Stimulus — > Response.

          And duckspeak with a Christian coat of paint is still duckspeak.

        • Be careful offering “Jesus is the answer” on this site – a lot of folks here don’t take kindly to that sort of thing 🙂

          I do think there is a difference between offering “answers” to situations like Japan’s earthquake (and other natural disasters) and “acknowledging” the reality of such things in a world created by God. As a pastor, I tried speak to the issue without offering easy-fix answers. In light of Scripture such as Psalm 46, for instance, I am reminded:

          1. The earth is not a “safe place” (Things happen)
          2. Life is filled with uncertainties
          3. Relatively few things are under our control
          4. Christians are not exempt from suffering
          5. Faith is not avoidance or denial
          6. It is human nature to look for assurance/answers
          7. Ultimately, whatever the situation, God is our refuge & strength. I can trust Him when I don’t
          have the “answer.”

  29. The book of Job has helped me through my husband’s long season of unemployment. I’ve had plenty of Job’s comforters try to offer “answers” as to why my husband “still doesn’t have a job.” I haven’t needed answers. I am content to realize that this is all part of spiritual growth and strengthening of my faith. THAT is all the answer I need. I felt so connected to Job through this season, feeling like I understood his real pain–which was, not so much the boils, but the undue judgment of well-meaning friends. In the end, I had to pray for and forgive my “answer givers” just like Job did.

  30. Sometimes I wish I did not have a Bible and that the Book did not exist. God would still be there. But perhaps my practical, logical engineer mentality would not be so quick to look/ask for the answers. With God, there seems to be no consistent cause and effect. I’m glad. To me, that is powerful. That builds faith. I don’t want a God that I can figure out.

    I hear stories of those in China, and I have worked with people in former Communist countries who did not have a Bible. Yet their faith was stronger, their witness more powerful, their Church more real, than any I have ever known in America. Can one be a Christian and not have a Bible? I believe yes, because they still have the Word of God. Better to inquire in His temple than to dissect answers from a book.

  31. My response to this debate can be found on my website at http://www.thedailyjourney.com
    Enjoy and God bless you!

  32. I use to think death and taxes were the only “certains” in life. Guess I can now add another, the stereotypical response from a Christian pastor concerning matters of trauma.

    For me, it’s déjà vu all over again, a replay of Hurricane Katrina. I hail from the MS Gulf Coastal area, not New Orleans, but yet suffered a loss of house, possessions, saw much of my local city destroyed as well as quite a bit of the local Coastal area I had grown up in and was accustomed to seeing each day. I’ve since moved to Texas but that’s another story for another day.

    I’ll never forget hearing the standard why do bad things happen to good people sermon the Sunday after the storm. As well as the added bonus, a power point slide show of various images of destruction, accompanied by the Newsboys singing “Blessed be His name”. Thanks for the encouragement preacher.

    But it only got worse. I was then told God had sent the hurricane to punish New Orleans for all its debauchery, as well as the MS Coast because of its allegiance to the casino industry. Ironically, and admittedly perhaps with a hint of satisfaction, I always enjoyed pointing out to those well then He really works in ways we don’t understand, as the strip clubs and bars on Bourbon street were left intact, yet the Southern Baptist Seminary while not destroyed , took an incredible amount of damage. Perhaps he was sending a message after all…..

    The reality is I don’t know why stuff happens. We live in a world that we’ve created, one full of sin and constant rejection of God. I only know He is holy and sovereign, too mysterious for me to comprehend or understand, and that He loves me and offers me the hope of salvation through Christ. During times such as this and for that matter each day my role is to love, to let my light shine, to live and share the Gospel, and to take care of the sick, the poor, etc. All to His glory!

  33. Thomas Merton said the only appropriate response in the face of suffering is silence and the sacraments. I kind of like that.

    Nate

  34. chuck lewis says:

    I prayed for God to bless and work through you today Mike. Thanks for being conduit for God, i appreciate you help.Chuck