Saturday, May 25, 2013

Inappropriate Bible Passages?

I actually thought about titling this post "The Book of Job: What is is Good For?"

I've been away from the internet most of the week, but one of the big stories of the week has been the terrible death & destruction caused by the recent tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma.  By what I've read, seven Elementary School children were numbered among the cumulative death toll of twenty-four.  When I hear news like that, I rarely feel that I have anything appropriate to say to the situation, especially when I'm hundreds of miles away and can't do anything direct and immediate to aid the people suffering.  And this is one of those times.

Other Christian folks have tried to process their grief and offer their sympathy to the people of Moore, OK with some public statements on their social media accounts.  One such response was a tweet posted by John Piper, the recently retired long-time pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota. His original two tweets (posted on the day of the storms) were simply quotation from Job 1:19-20, and it elicited quite a bit of internet backlash:
Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead. Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. (Job 1:19-20)

He later deleted both tweets and offered some clarifying remarks on his intentions behind the quotes from Job:
The reason I pulled my tweets from Job is that it became clear that what I feel as comfort was not affecting others the same. When tragedy strikes my life, I find it stabilizing and hope-giving to see the stories of the sheer factuality of other’s losses, especially when they endured them the way Job did. Job really grieved. He really agonized. He collapsed to the ground. He wept. He shaved his head. This was, in my mind, a pattern of what must surely happen in Oklahoma. I thought it would help. But when I saw how so many were not experiencing it that way, I took them down.

Even though I already stated that I'm the person who tries to keep quiet in the immediate wake of tragedies that don't affect me directly, if I were pressed to quote a Bible verse to sum up my feelings on a tornado's wake, I probably wouldn't go immediately to Job 1:19-20.  There are a number of Scripture passages that I tend to focus on when adversity comes to my life and the people I care about, but those two verses in Job just aren't among them.  For John Piper, however, those verses might mean almost everything for persevering through tribulation.

By my count, I own about ten of John Piper's books, and I read large portions of just about all of them to edify my soul and challenge my thinking.  One of those books is The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God, which I think was given to me as a gift by my old friend Ian Miller.  Piper dedicated that book "to those who suffer loss and pain along the path that leads to life" (page 7), and the book's thesis is that the 42 chapters of Job testify that "God governs all things for his good purposes" (page 8).  I really appreciate the fact that Piper doesn't try to explain away the weight of Job 42:11, where the inspired biblical author attributes the ultimate cause of all Job's afflictions to the sovereign decision of God himself. Piper embraces the truth that God's sovereignty can be both painful and sweet throughout the course of life.

I believe that John Piper lives in the book of Job more than most of us do; I know he certainly lives there more than I do. I think he sees the mercy and love of God clearly in afflictions that might come upon him. When Piper was diagnosed with cancer a few years back, he held firm to the spiritual realities that he recognizes in the book of Job.
In the wake of this week's tornadoes, Piper tried to apply the same comfort that he derives from Job to the Oklahoma victims and their families. Most of us, however, probably have a harder time finding immediate comfort in the verses he decided to quote on his Twitter. And I think he probably made a mistake in assuming how the words might be received by most people.

As much as I respect John Piper, I certainly don't agree with him on everything, and on some past occasions, he has given the appearance of attributing specific human sinfulness as the cause for why God might send tornadoes upon people.  I wish he wouldn't entertain such speculations, especially not in such a public forum.  But even if he might sometimes fall into the error to which the friends of Job eventually succumbed, Piper's interpretation of the events shouldn't be compared to other irresponsible and egregious uses of Scripture as seen by folks like Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.  Those are very different men with very different agendas.

When I was a freshman college student at Union University trying to make sense of the 9-11 terror attacks, Dr. Paul Jackson, my Intro. to Bible Studies professor, encouraged us not to try and attribute such atrocity to any particular sin of our nation, as other public Christian figures had done.  Rather, Dr. J. drew our attention to
Jesus' words in Luke 13:1-5 where he rebuked those who assumed they knew the specific reasons why God would bring calamity upon people (and then called upon all to repent).  All these years later, and I've never forgotten that advice.  Rarely do we have all the answers for what God brings upon us and rarely do we say the right things at just the right time to the right people (or at least I don't).

In conclusion, I don't begrudge John Piper or anyone else for turning to the harder passages in Job for spiritual comfort in the midst of suffering.  But I think the subsequent controversy over his tweets is probably a good lesson for all of us who hope to comfort others.  The Bible passages that have taught us the most wisdom for enduring suffering may not always be so apparent to other folks who might be dealing with the raw pain of present loss and affliction.  We should carefully and humbly consider the wisdom of how people might interpret intent whenever we resolve to try and speak to the pain of others.  I think John Piper made a mistake in this instance, and it's a mistake that I have also made many times in the past.  Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply assure people we are praying for them and offer to help in any way that we can.

Also, I really hate the culture that Twitter creates, but that's a whole 'nother subject.