October 19, 2015 / Praxis
The unlikely route to joy involves entering the stories of suffering that have marked our lives.
March 23, 2011
John Piper didn’t waste any time. Six days after the devastating earthquake in Japan, he published a post on his Desiring God blog entitled “Japan: After Empathy and Aid, People Want Answers.” Here the revered Reformed Baptist theologian and pastor plunges (as he has done on many occasions before) boldly into the field of theodicy. For those who wonder why disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear meltdowns occur, Piper provides exactly what he believes is wanted—answers: clear, direct, and free of nuance.
Thankfully, Dr. Piper knows that answers aren’t all people want and need. They want empathy, and some aid would be good too, and he strikes a note of compassion in asserting (he didn’t have to do this) that our empathy and aid should extend not just to allies but to enemies. (Piper’s doctoral dissertation dealt with the issue of loving enemies.) He also strikes a welcome note of humility, acknowledging that our loving response to tragedy “doesn’t need to have all the answers. Only God does.” Our job as human beings, Piper implies, is simply and faithfully to proclaim the answers the Bible gives us about tragedies. And that’s what he attempts to do. He writes, “No earthquakes in the Bible are attributed to Satan. Many are attributed to God. This is because God is Lord of heaven and earth,” and “Earthquakes are ultimately from God. Nature does not have a will of its own [. . . .] God has reasons for what he permits. His permissions are purposes.”
In this way, then, Dr. Piper depicts the earthquake and tsunami as “God’s unilateral taking of thousands of lives.” If you wanted an answer, now you have it; one free of sentimentality and equivocation. And on a more specific level, he applies this generalization to Japan, explaining that “God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heart-rending calamity in Japan on March 11, 2011, that appears to have cost tens of thousands of lives [. . . .] Indeed, he has hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age.”
Dr. Piper then turns from answers to exhortations, recommending we pray for some specific purposes to be fulfilled through the tragedy. He recommends we pray that unbelievers would come to repentance and that believers and unbelievers alike receive a wake-up call that we are in the end times. He recommends we pray for a widespread acknowledgment that our lives are a loan from God that may be recalled as quickly and inexplicably as they were dispensed, for a deeper fear of the Lord, and for a desire to flee from this unstable world to the safe shelter of God’s stable power. He recommends we pray that Christians repent of worldliness and that Christians in Japan and around the world would demonstrate that just as Jesus stepped in to shield us from God’s ultimate “unilateral taking of thousands of lives,” we should try to relieve people from the consequences of God’s most recent action in that department. Through us, then, people can receive answers along with our empathy and aid.
This response will no doubt be deeply satisfying for many people of a certain theological bent, those who want simple answers to go along with their aid and empathy. This clean and clear theodicy, an explanation for how evil and suffering can exist, resonates well with the old saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
But as I’ve suggested elsewhere, for all its air of confident piety, that axiom is more than a little misleading. I think the underlying meaning of the saying could be more accurately rendered like this: “The Bible says something which I interpret in a certain way, and I believe that interpretation, and that settles it!” Yes, acknowledging the complexities of the interpretive process has a way of reducing the simplicity of one’s answers. But in the interest of truth and honesty, we often have to let black-and-white, open-and-shut simplicity at least temporarily dissolve into the grays of complexity and even the darkness of perplexity. Sometimes, a greater, deeper, richer, and more harmonious simplicity emerges on the other side, but getting there isn’t fast or easy. In between lies “the valley of the shadow of death.”
Attempts like Dr. Piper’s to explain suffering and evil bring great comfort and security to some. But in the end, the practice of theodicy often adds to the evil and suffering that it attempts to explain. In arguing for God’s power, theodicies often depict him—this powerful God is almost always masculinized—as heartless. In defending God’s compassion, theodicies often depict God as inept at universe management or deficient in universe planning. Either way, the speaker leaves the stage (or the writer leaves the keyboard) feeling he has confidently defended the reputation of the Lord, but the hearers (or readers) feel the Lord has been somehow reduced in the process. And when you’re traumatized, a reduced but well-defended deity isn’t what you need. Yes, answers like Piper’s may help some keep faith, but speaking personally, if my only option for Christian faith required me to be satisfied with the explanations given by Piper, I would be driven away.
Evil and suffering, I suspect, aren’t properly responded to by simple explanations. They certainly demand our empathy and our aid, but they also demand much more: our ongoing presence in shared agony and our passionate self-giving to our neighbors in pain. That ministry of presence and self-giving also includes serious reflection—going beyond simple answers. And it invites dedicated research to understand why catastrophes occur and how they can be better prevented or anticipated and avoided in the future.
Dr. Piper inhabits a religious universe where it must be deeply satisfying to respond to catastrophes in the way he has, for he has done so on a number of occasions—an earthquake in Turkey, a bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and a tornado that seemed to him to single out liberal, gay-friendly Lutherans. I doubt he, or many like him, will ever change course because this kind of explanation, for them, is fidelity—to their way of reading the Bible, to their understanding of God, to their tradition of strict Calvinism. To propose another way of thinking about the issues must seem like proposing infidelity.
I remember reading a copy of a magazine from Piper’s theological tribe a couple of months after September 11, 2001, and the articles were all asking the same question: why did God purposefully, unilaterally choose to take these lives in this way? What wasn’t questioned was an assumed view of God as the controller and mastermind behind all events. If one were to ask, “What is God’s relationship with the universe?” the only answer from Piper and his colleagues would be “Sovereignty,” and sovereignty would mean absolute, unilateral control.
That, I think, is not the only option for a faithful believer in God. Especially for a faithful believer in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This, to me, is part of the scandal of the Incarnation and the scandal of the cross: that God, when God shows up in Christ, doesn’t take control. God in Christ doesn’t institute “martial law.” Nor does God in Christ unilaterally eliminate all that we call suffering and evil. Nor does God in Christ cause any additional suffering and evil. He doesn’t fly into Jerusalem on angel’s wings or a fighter jet, nor does he ride in on a white steed or tank, nor does he enter with well-armed guards or even sticks and stones.
Instead, we see Jesus going quietly from town to town, confronting suffering and evil, calling people to repentance for inflicting suffering and evil on one another, and healing and liberating people from suffering and evil at every turn. He doesn’t unilaterally impose even this healing on them though: he allows their faith, whether great or small, to make room for it. Finally, in Christ on the cross we see God’s ultimate way of dealing with suffering and evil: to bear it with endurance, to suffer it with tears and agony, to take it into God’s own heart, and to heal it utterly, not by avenging it, but by forgiving it. The kingdom or sovereignty of God that Jesus proclaims, then, doesn’t come with the power of unilateral control but with a radically different kind of power: the gentle power (Paul dares call it “weakness”) of love.
I think it is fair to suggest that Dr. Piper sees Jesus’s suffering on the cross in the same light he sees the suffering of the Japanese in the wake of their triple catastrophe: God has inflicted this suffering and so we must accept it as God’s will and that trust God had a good reason for choosing to do it this way. I suppose for some that is more hopeful than saying evil and suffering occur with no reason, no purpose, or no meaning at all.
To me, as I reflect on the Scriptures and on the jagged history of our planet, it is better to say that God’s sovereignty is not totalitarian. God isn’t the kind of king interested in absolute control. God wouldn’t create that kind of relationship with the universe because God isn’t that kind of God. Instead, God creates space and time for a universe to be, to become, to unfold in its own story, its own evolution. God’s kingship is God’s absolute commitment to be with us, whatever happens, always working to bring good from evil, healing from suffering, reconciliation from conflict, and hope from despair. This is the God I see imaged in Jesus, born as a vulnerable baby, growing as a vulnerable boy, living as an unarmed man with courage and kindness. This is the God imaged as a king who washes the feet of his subjects, a king whose power is revealed not by killing and conquering but by suffering and dying . . . and rising again.
Like Dr. Piper, I see a certain commonality between Christ on the cross and the people suffering in Japan. But it is not that God is unilaterally taking life in both cases: it is that God, incarnated in Jesus, is present in the suffering and evil of life, feeling our pain, weeping with us in solidarity, sharing our losses and bearing our scars, moving with and in us to provide empathy and aid and much, much more. That is not an answer in the sense of an explanation, I suppose, but it is something precious: it’s the kingdom that cannot be shaken.
This approach evokes from us a spiritual practice that isn’t often talked about. I tried to describe it in Naked Spirituality as the practice of rage and refusal, captured in the simple, agonized word no:
We don’t deny the reality of suffering, on the one hand, nor the possibility of God, on the other. Again, this acknowledgment certainly doesn’t constitute an answer to the intellectual problem of pain. I believe there are answers on a certain level. But even the best answers are terribly unsatisfying, and they work better in a classroom than in a hospital room, beneath a pile of earthquake rubble, or at a crime scene. They provide only cold comfort to a person in agony, and often, as they solve one intellectual quandary, they create twenty-two more. As C. S. Lewis famously and wisely stated, the best answers don’t do as much good for a person in pain as a dose of courage does. So to pray on in the face of outrageous suffering, it seems to me, is at heart a choice of courage and hope, even if the prayers sound like blasphemies to observers.
So we shout, “No, no—I will not reject God! But no, no, no—neither will I deny my questions either! No, I will not cave in to despair, but no, neither will I be pacified with unsatisfying answers or superficial comfort. No!”
Indonesia, Haiti, Chile, Japan—nobody knows where the next catastrophe will strike. Thank God for people like John Piper who will urge others to respond with empathy and aid, and whatever answers they can muster. But thank God too for the freedom to find those answers unhelpful and to find comfort in faith and action beyond all answers.
 McLaren, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 260.
Brian D. McLaren
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists. He is a frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs and was listed in Time magazine as one of America’s twenty-five most influential evangelicals. The author of numerous books and articles, his most recent offering is the book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. Brian is married to Grace, and they have four young adult children. His personal interests include ecology, fishing, hiking, music, art, and literature.