- @JohnPiper: “Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19
- @JohnPiper: “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Job 1:20
* * *
As expected, John Piper, retired pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN, weighed in on the destructive tornadoes in Oklahoma. That same night, while first responders were heroically combing through the damage trying to find survivors, Piper sat comfortably at his computer and posted two theological tweets, texts from the book of Job (see above).
Most of the folks that I read who responded to Piper’s musings mentioned only the first tweet. This was not good, and not fair to John Piper. It gave an incomplete picture of his thoughts. It is bad form and improper when critics give partial quotes out of context and then pass judgment. In a follow-up piece at Desiring God, Tony Reinke defended Piper, explained why he put up the tweets in the first place, and why he subsequently took them down. Reinke correctly criticizes the unfortunate selectivity by those who blasted the outspoken pastor and the wrong impression it created.
The impression given by online sources is that only Job 1:19 was posted, an isolated tweet some critics have thought “crude” and “insensitive,” thereby neglecting the most important point made in the second tweet, of Job’s response, and why our sovereign God is still worthy of worship even in the midst of the most unimaginable suffering and personal tragedy.
Problem not solved.
Even with both tweets, perhaps especially because of both tweets, Piper represents a “miserable comforter” who, remarkably, still has not learned the wisdom of Qoheleth: there is “…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7).
I have heard many such things;
miserable comforters are you all.
Have windy words no limit?
Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?
- Job 16:2-3 (NRSV)
By steadfastly refusing to be silent, to take his place by the side of those who are suffering with mouth shut and heart open wide, he misses the point of the very Bible book he cites in a misguided attempt to bring theological perspective to the Oklahoma disaster.
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
- Job 2:11-13 (NRSV)
This is the high point of the three companions’ friendship and ministry to Job. Silence. Tears. Presence. Symbolic expressions of solidarity and mutual grief.
Once they opened their mouths, it was all downhill. They became “miserable comforters.” It is not simply a matter of timing. The friends’ words came after the accepted period of silent mourning. Their words were wrong. And so it is with John Piper. It is not as though Piper’s words, inappropriate in the tender moment, would be appropriate once wounds have healed somewhat, once things have calmed down and we have time to gain perspective on the tragedy. No, his understanding and application of the book of Job is wrong. He has taken his place with Job’s friends, not with the argument of the text.
From the point when Job’s friends open their mouths, the Book of Job becomes a protest against their “miserable comfort,” particularly by challenging all theologies of explanation.
The Theory of Moral Explanation
To be sure, John Piper does not fall into exactly the same trap as Job’s friends did. What came out of their mouths in the central section of the Book of Job was a traditional theology of explanation for life’s troubles that was based on Israel’s covenant with God. This was expressed most fully in the Torah in Deuteronomy and by her Wisdom teachers in the Book of Proverbs. We might call it a theory of moral explanation.
Simply put, obedience leads to God’s blessing and disobedience brings deprivation and suffering through God’s judgment. If Job is suffering, he must have sinned.
In a series of speeches, Job and the three friends pontificate on Job’s sufferings and argue about this conventional viewpoint. The friends insist that Job must be guilty and urge him to ‘fess up. Job argues that he is innocent, and challenges God and his “comforters” repeatedly to show him where he has sinned. The friends represent a Biblical, theological system of explanation which insists that life and its vicissitudes can be understood and explicated.
Clearly, the Book of Job is a protest against this paradigm. At the end of the book, God says to Job’s friends, “you have not spoken of me what is right,” (42:7), and this despite the fact that their speeches accurately articulate Deuteronomistic and Wisdom perspectives. They knew the Bible. God said their “Biblical” teaching was dead wrong.
This is one of those instances when we catch the Bible in the midst of an argument against itself. As Michael Spencer put it, Scripture (especially in the First Testament) is a lively “conversation in God’s kitchen.”
The conversational model allows for a number of helpful ways of approaching scripture. For instance, it allows a variety of viewpoints on a single subject, such as the problem of evil. Job argues with Proverbs. It encourages us to hear all sides of the conversation as contributing something, and doesn’t say only one voice can be heard as right. Leviticus has something important to say that Psalms may not say. This approach sees the development of understanding as a natural part of the conversation, and isn’t disturbed when a subject appears to evolve and change over time. This model allows some parts of the conversation to be wrong, so that others can be right, and the Bible isn’t diminished as a result.
It is my view that the story of Job, perhaps an old folk tale in Israel, took on new resonance in the light of the Exile. Those who sought to bring Wisdom to God’s people during that tumultuous time turned to it to counter the easy answers that some were giving as to why Israel was suffering in captivity. The argument of the book is that the approach of Deuteronomy and Proverbs is too simplistic, too pat. God is bigger than the sovereign, retributive monarch that those traditions made him out to be. His ways are more complex, mysterious, and unexplainable than obedience – blessing/disobedience – curse.
The moral explanation theory can’t cover all the evidence. Job is never discovered to have sinned, he never admits to having sinned, and God never accuses him of sinning. Those who take this line of reasoning end up at a dead end, and their words result in “miserable comfort.”
The Theory of “Meticulous Sovereignty” as an Explanation
As for John Piper, he is to be commended for avoiding the theory of moral explanation, at least on this occasion. However, for some reason he cannot relinquish the position that there must be some accessible explanation for tragedies like the one our neighbors endured this past week. For him, the “answer” lies in what Scot McKnight calls a theology of “meticulous sovereignty” — the idea that God directly determines or causes all things.
God brings to pass all things — I mean all things. There are no maverick molecules, R. C. Sproul said. And that is right. Or Spurgeon said, every dust mote that flies in the air, or every little globule of spray in every harbor in the wake of every boat in the world, is guided on its path through the air by God.
John Piper believes this so strongly and has identified his ministry so closely with this doctrine that every time something happens which people do not understand, especially natural disasters and tragedies such as the Oklahoma tornadoes, he feels compelled to proclaim the meticulous sovereignty of God over the situation and urge that a primary response should be submission and worship.
To be fair to him, he does recognize that there are other aspects involved as well, and when forced to explain himself more fully, Piper will admit that compassion and care must be part of the response too. But — and notice this move carefully! — he still will only commend such actions within the paradigm of God’s meticulous sovereignty. This is how he puts it:
I think part of God’s will in permitting or ordaining a calamity is that we weep with those who weep. That is part of the plan.
He simply cannot admit to what the book of Job actually teaches — that all explanations are inadequate. The point of Yahweh’s overwhelming theophany at the end of the book is that we cannot hope to analyze the hidden counsels of God or translate the mysteries of life into systematic terms. To attempt to do so is to become “miserable comforters.”
Furthermore, on a pastoral and practical level, we don’t need such an explanation to exercise Christ-like love. We love others and respond to their pain and distress because we are brothers and sisters and neighbors to those who suffer, and our hearts break for them. It is the truly human thing to do. It grows out of the way God created us. It bespeaks the divine image we bear. It need not be explained as part of a system of meticulous sovereignty lest we somehow steal glory from the Almighty!
I think John Piper badly misunderstands Job’s ultimate position as portrayed in the Book of Job. Job does not simply submit to the sovereignty of God.
- Absolute submission is the appropriate response of Muslims to Allah — “submission” is the meaning of the word “Islam;” to be a “Muslim” is to be a Submitter. This is not Biblical Judaism or Christianity.
- Submission is not the ultimate response of Jews before the God of “Israel” — the name means “he who wrestles with God and prevails.”
- Nor is it the perspective of Christians before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ — we look at life through the paradigm of death and resurrection.
The One before whom Job bows and repents in the end of the book of Job is not the God who explains everything, either in moral terms or in terms of meticulous sovereignty. God does not explain himself, he refuses to explain himself, indeed, he goes far beyond explaining himself. He overwhelms Job with the mystery, he does not give him “answers.” There is no theology of explanation.
In fact, one might say that the book of Job ends with a stand-off.
- God displays his glorious power but reveals nothing specific about his ways. Nor does he accuse Job of sin or wrongdoing.
- Neither does Job back down. He readily admits his limitations before the hidden counsels of the Creator, but does not confess that his own ways have been sinful or deserving of punishment.
Job proves himself a true son of Israel — he has wrestled with the Almighty and prevailed. Like Jacob, he clings to the One who remains mysterious to him.
As Walter Brueggemann puts it, in the end Job and God are “permanently linked in an unequal relationship.” Job confesses that God can do anything he likes. God acknowledges that Job spoke what was right concerning him (42:7).
The God of Job is the God who encourages us to wrestle, not settle for explanations.
The End of Explanations and the True Comfort of Love
Any attempt at explaining “Job’s troubles” falls short. The moment we as Job’s neighbors open our mouths, we become “miserable comforters,” especially in the immediate aftermath of tragedy.
The book of Job teaches us that the one good thing Job’s friends did was to be present and shut up, to sit down and silently express their solidarity in suffering.
And if we are “Job” — the ones suffering — we must not buy in to the view that mystery can be explained.
Of course, to live like this does not come naturally or easily. More than likely, it will involve an ongoing, agonizing process like the one portrayed in the book. This process will sometimes look pious (like Job in the early chapters) but more often than not I suggest it will put us in an adversarial relationship with Almighty (like Job in the central part of the book) — arguing, complaining, lamenting, and processing our thoughts and feelings before God. To be sure, many times we will also find ourselves in conflict with those who represent conventional religion and its theologies of explanation.
The Job we see at the beginning of the book, the person John Piper tweets that we should imitate, is not the Job at the end of the book. His initial pious responses of humble worship may reflect the commendable reflexes of a righteous man, but he did not live that way for long. The reflexive worshiper became a wrangling wrestler who refused to be satisfied by conventional wisdom or doctrine, no matter how sound it seemed. And whatever “rewards” Job received in the end had nothing to do with simply bowing in worship or confessing that “there are no maverick molecules.”
Indeed, the high point for Job comes at the end of the book and at the end of the wrestling match. First of all, he achieved a hard-fought stand-off with Yahweh. Secondly, he was moved to show selfless love to his “friends” (his spiritually misguided and, it might be said, even abusive friends) by praying for them. God answered Job’s prayers and they experienced forgiveness and restoration.
And so we must pray for one another, that God will not allow us to remain in our status as “miserable comforters,” settling for theologies of explanation when the true and living God is so much more complex, mysterious, and glorious.
Furthermore, the text goes on to mention the loving acts of Job’s brothers and sisters: “Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring” (42:11).
What we have in the end of the book of Job is love. It is in the context of that love — divine and human together — that “the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (42:12).
That doesn’t mean, by the way, that Job forgot the tragedy that marked his life or ever stopped grieving for his lost children. Whatever God gave him did not “replace” what he had lost. But in addition to the material blessings and new brood of children that God provided, Job received a most wonderful gift — a community of people who would come and “eat bread with him in his house,” who showed a spirit of sympathy and comfort that would not settle for trying to explain life’s conundrums.
No more miserable comforters. That may be the greatest blessing of all.