A few caveats to begin. Although I have known of John Piper for years, I am just now coming to read his teachings on suffering and the sovereignty of God. The book by that name is graciously made available for free download on his “Desiring God” site and is worth reading; there are multiple authors with thought-provoking comments. It was published in 2006. Finally, I know that he and the other contributors are motivated by the desire to bring healing to others and strengthen the church. I do not doubt his motivation. That being said…
In Chapter 3, “The Suffering of Christ and the Sovereignty of God,” John Piper sets out “to venture the ultimate biblical explanation for the existence of suffering.” A bold mission for anyone, to be sure, and JP gets right to it saying,
“I believe the entire universe exists to display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God.” (p. 81, emphasis is by the author.)
The question of “why did God create the universe” is challenging, deep, and I do not have an answer, other than to suggest, we cannot know. It is a question which is never directly posed in Scripture and I would argue is not even indirectly hinted at (as opposed to why humanity or the Earth were created, there are hints and statements about that). So while I do not think we can say with any assurance why God created the universe, I question the proposition that God did so in order to revel in his own glory. Piper is effectively saying that God vainly created a giant mirror in order to preen in front of it, demonstrating to Godself how awesome God is. Yet Piper offers even greater specificity.
“This coming [of Jesus] to suffer and die is the supreme manifestation of the greatness of the glory of the grace of God. … a stunning truth is revealed, namely, suffering is an essential part of the created universe in which the greatness of the glory of God can be most fully revealed.” (p. 82)
The pinnacle of God’s glory and grace is found in the sacrifice of Jesus for our salvation and, JP argues, since that was the purpose of Creation, it was ordained from the beginning of all things that Adam and Eve should sin so that Jesus would need to die so that “the greatness of the glory of God can be most fully revealed.” Jesus and we have to suffer so that God can look good. Lest you think I am reshaping his words to make it sounds worse than it is, here are a few more quotes (italics are Piper’s and bold is mine).
“This was the moment—Good Friday—for which everything in the universe was planned. In conceiving a universe in which to display the glory of his grace, God did not choose plan B. There could be no greater display of the glory of the grace of God than what happened at Calvary.” (p. 82)
“Therefore, the suffering of Jesus was not an afterthought, as though the work of creation did not go the way God planed. Before the foundation of the world God had a book called the book of the Lamb that was slain. The slaying of the Lamb was in view before the work of creation began.” (p. 83)
“Do you see what this implies about sin and suffering in the universe? According to this divine plan, God permits sin to enter the world. God ordains that what he hates will come to pass. It is not sin in God to will that there be sin.” (p. 85)
[Using as an analogy Joseph’s comments to his brothers in Gen. 50:20] “As for you, Adam and Eve, you meant evil against God as you rejected him as your Father and Treasure, but oh what an infinite good he planned through your fall!” (p. 85)
“You have fallen, and now the stage is set for the perfect display of greatness of the glory of the grace of God.” (p. 85)
It boils down to this: JP argues that God created the universe to exhibit his glory ⟹ that is best exhibited in Jesus’ suffering ⟹ humanity must sin so that Jesus must suffer therefore it was part of God’s plan all along that Adam and Eve should sin so that Jesus would die so that God’s glorious grace would be know.
What a torturous train of thought! He tells Adam and Eve “you meant evil against God as you rejected him as your Father and Treasure, but oh what an infinite good he planned through your fall!” Yet it was an “infinite good” only made necessary by God’s need for self-aggrandizement.
JP argues that Jesus/we must suffer so that God’s gracious glory might be known. But if God is God surely there are other ways that he could make his glory known. And if God is the God JP describes he is an incredible narcissistic and vain God.
I understand the motivation: to provide comfort and a sense of purpose to our suffering, to encourage us that it is not in vain, but rather a part of God’s plan for us and the universe. Yet this has led JP to described a twisted and warped vision of God who is self-centered and vain, who “will sins” (yet “it is not sin in God to will that there be sin”), and who needs Jesus’ consequential suffering and death just so that this God might be glorified.
What damage can be done by the best of intentions.
There are many other concerns, comments, and critiques that I would explore. Such as the assertion that “everything that we will ever enjoy will come to us because of suffering” (so his teachings and example of life is meaningless?). My concern is not with proving an obscure theological point, but with encouraging and building up the faithful through a compassionate embrace of the full biblical testimony and their personal experience.
This book begins with a quote from David Wells stating, in the aftermath of 9/11, that “Evangelicalism…is simply not very serious anymore” (p. 17). I agree wholeheartedly. When JP says that “our vision of God in relation to evil and suffering was shown [by recent catastrophes] to be frivolous,” (p. 18) I say, “Amen!” Sadly, his theological approach does not show a serious and deep reading of the Bible, but rather a rigid and fragile human construct that will not hold up to serious examination. It is crystalline, seemingly perfect and very attractive and yet unable to withstand the stress of real life or even logical thought.
That being said, I know that this view brings comfort to many and I do not want to take that from them. But I also know that it has brought great grief to many, even to the extent of driving them from the church. It cannot stand unexamined.
This world of God’s creation is “full of beautiful and terrible things” and in the midst of this Life God meets us. That is the message of Scripture and God’s grace.
13 thoughts on “John Piper’s Warped & Harmful Teaching on Suffering”
It is genuinely sad to see that you have such little thought of God or recognition of Who he is – that you would even suggest He can preen in front of a mirror or does things for self aggrandizement. That suggestion and yes, twisting of Piper’s statements, underscores you think of God not much more than an elevated mortal.
Derek, you have misunderstood both me and John Piper. I, in fact, have a very “high” view of God, far beyond our mortal visions of determining history and justice. It is *Piper* who depicts God as nothing more than a preening peacock. He writes, “I believe the entire universe exists to display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God.” The entire universe exists, according to Piper, solely for the purpose of showing off how gracious God is, how great God is. This is the definition of virtue signaling; God created the world (and sin according to Piper) just so that God could come in and save humanity to show what a great and gracious God he is.
I agree with you, this is a sad view of God, the has such little thought and recognition of who God is and why God created this universe and humanity. (I tend to go with the old catechism, so that we, humanity, might live in relation with God and “enjoy him forever,” but that’s me. Entirely too orthodox in my theology.) I hope you are following these replies, because this is really important, to see that it is Piper himself who is limiting and framing God into the shape of an egotistical monster, who introduces sin into the world, allowing the death of billions, solely so that God can swoop in and literally be the savior. Warped indeed.
I just came across this article while doing a search for a specific sermon preached by John Piper on glorifying God in the midst of suffering. I noticed that you wrote this almost two years ago and was just curious if you have continued reading any more of Piper’s works, such as The Pleasures of God. Based on your quotes above, it seems to me that you misunderstood the full context of the author’s statements. If you have reached a different conclusion, it would be worth adding an addendum to this article.
Thank you Eric. I have continued to read Piper’s work and while I appreciated (and agreed with) his comments before the election regarding what sort of leaders Christians should be praying for, voting for, and calling for in our country, his theological teachings have not changed. At least not in so far as I can see.
As I stated two years ago, this is a distillation of Piper’s teachings, but it is all his words. It seems that rather than accept that this is, in fact, Piper’s teaching, people regularly tell me that I have misunderstood him or have not read him carefully enough. Not so. I have read him and I understand him clearly. I have not misunderstood either those statements or the context and I urge those who think I have misunderstood him to read his work again, particularly this one.
Piper says quite clearly that, God “ordained” that sin should enter into the world, that suffering should exist all so that His glory might be “most fully revealed.” Now, I do not deny that God’s glory *and* grace IS fully revealed on Calvary, it surely is!, but it is quite another thing to say that God ordained and designed this universe with the intent purpose to cause all this suffering just so that his grace and glory might be displayed.
Again, this was the whole point of this post, to show in Piper’s own words, and I urge everyone to go back and read his chapter, exactly what his theology of suffering is. After all, that was the goal of that chapter, “to venture the ultimate biblical explanation for the existence of suffering.”
Now, if he has changed his mind and has written something new, retracting these teachings, then I am eager to read it and glad to hear of it.
I’ll admit I have not yet read the book you reference in this article. But from the sections you’ve quoted and your general paraphrase of the point he is trying to make, this feels like yet another Calvinistic attempt to force the mysteries of God into a tidy 5-point construct that neatly makes sense of it all.
Years ago I got into a “healthy” debate with a group of Christian friends who were on opposite sides of the Calvinist vs. Arminian debate about salvation. The Calvinist accused me of being Arminian. And the Arminian accused me of being Calvinist. When I asserted that I was neither, both of their heads almost exploded, and they both insisted I must be one or the other. What I asserted then is what I still believe — there are aspects of theology that simply cannot be known for sure. This is what separates the limited human intellect from the omniscience of God. Do I believe that God is sovereign and predestined the elect to be saved? Yes. The Bible clearly says so. Do I also believe that God offered salvation freely to all and that He gave us a will to either accept or reject that offer? Yes. The Bible clearly says so. So why would I be so arrogant as to try to explain away that paradox? The best I can do is to say that to the extent I am able, I will try to conform my will to His. And whether I truly had any say in the matter is not something I will ever know. Perhaps he compelled me and gave me the faith that I then exercised like a cog in a machine. If so, I’ll be grateful and praise Him for choosing to save me. But if He instead gave me the ability to choose salvation or damnation, I will praise him for giving me the will and opportunity to choose salvation. Either way, I don’t need Him to fit into my theological box.
To me, this is what Piper seems to be doing. He needs to make suffering fit within his theological understanding of God’s sovereignty and how that applies to things like free will. So he seems to go off on this logical crusade to fill all the gaps and make it all make sense within that construct. The only way to do so is to assume that God “willed” sin to exist. But this seems clearly contradictory to Scripture — most notably James 1:13-14: “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” The message here is pretty clear. Just because God is sovereign and His hand is at work in history and in our personal lives, that doesn’t mean that the temptation that faces us is His doing. So if God is not at work in the temptation I face today, what would lead me to believe He was at work in the first temptation of Adam and Eve that introduced sin into the universe?
Why not let the mysteries of God remain mysteries and instead say that a sovereign God allows suffering for reasons we do not fully understand, but we can be confident from Scripture that in the end he will wipe away all tears and end the suffering of all those whom He has redeemed?
hi. this is months later and you probably won’t see this but i wholeheartedly am of the same position of you. i think when it comes to suffering, so many Christians have tried to poorly explain it – whether it be the free will argument of perhaps Piper’s book in itself depending on your opinion. I genuinely think that as Christians AND humans in general, there are just some things we will never understand, with suffering being the prime example. Suffering is awful, but we don’t know the reason and I don’t think we will ever find out. Countless theologians have tried to frame one of the biggest questions in the world into their own take on the issue (evidenced with the Bible in many cases) yet, the bible never explicitly states such reasoning.
It sucks that it’s one of the biggest unanswered questions. In fact, this exact issue is what is stopping some of my friends and people in general from becoming Christian. However, I tend to tell my friends that I want them to pretend that their assertion is correct – God isn’t real because suffering exists and how could a loving God create suffering right? But then I ask them “ok, so we’ve acknowledged your hypothesis, but what other religions/world views actually answer this question too?”. The answer is none. Even the belief in absence of God doesn’t answer why there is suffering. Islam doesn’t answer it. Buddhism doesn’t answer it – the list continues.
Even if they don’t understand how God could exist in a world full of suffering, I think it’s actually interesting to ask them where else they would find this answer, which is nowhere.
However, I then tell them that whilst there is no clear answer on why suffering exists because we can’t know everything about God, I reassure them that what Christianity does do is reassure us in suffering of a greater hope. A greater hope that means we can be bold and joyful in suffering.
I am totally with you on your perspective. It is my firm belief that the reasoning behind suffering is something that will never be revealed to us here on earth. God may well have created suffering for free will, or even to Glorify his presence as noted by Piper. However, we truly do not know and I think instead of focusing on trying to answer this question, theologians should instead focus on showing others how being a Christian gives us a greater hope in suffering. Love your comment – very insightful!
Thank you Elanor! I did see your comment and I thought I had replied, I apologize for the delay in acknowledging it. I appreciate your candor and perspective.
I don’t think you’re misunderstanding Piper; I think you’re misunderstanding God. Pride is a result of trying to steal God’s “giant mirror.” In Romans 1, Paul tells us that all creation shows us the attributes of God. In Genesis 2, Moses tells us that God created us in His likeness—that we reflect who God is. Us and all of creation are God’s “giant mirror” because that’s the way God made things.
The Bible tells us what Satan’s sin was. It says that Satan used to be “the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty (Ez. 28:12).” Proverbs 2 tells us that wisdom comes from God. God gave wisdom to Satan, and the wisdom that God originally gave to Satan was a reflection of His own wisdom. But Satan wanted to steal God’s mirror and say that God’s reflection was his reflection. Then he sinned, and it says, speaking directly to Satan, “you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor (Ez. 28:17).” That’s what pride is. Stealing what is rightfully God’s (BTW, all things are rightfully God’s). Satan is “nothing more than a preening peacock.”
You also need to understand that “the LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble (Pro. 16:4).” And that even evil things God uses for good: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Gen. 50:20).” And, maybe most importantly, that God is worthy of glory. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created (Rev. 4:11).”
You said that you “question the proposition that God did so [created the universe] in order to revel in his own glory.” Well, that’s exactly what the twenty-four elders were doing to God in Revelation 4 and it was BECAUSE of His creation of the universe. They were just pouring worship upon Him. It’s like they were saying: “You’re so great God! You’re so wonderful!” again and again. Do you think God was unaware before he created the universe that his creatures might think that he deserves honor and glory because of that creation? No! God made everything for a purpose. He gets to define what purpose is!
“The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you (2 Tim. 4:22).”
Thank you for your reply, but your citation of Scripture did not actually counter my arguments or assertion. Yes, pride is seeking to be not like God (we are all called to be Christ-like, after all), but to usurp God’s position, to be very gods ourselves. And yes, God IS worthy of glory and not only the Elders but ALL of Creation should and will declare the glory of God. Amen, amen!
But it is quite another statement about the character of God to say that God made this Creation *and caused it to fall into sin and suffer* (that is the key bit of Piper’s teaching) just so that it could see “the full glory of the grace of God.” This is hubris and vanity, to cause the suffering of all things, just so that they might see God’s full glory and grace and worship him. After all, this good and great God could have conceived of a Creation where this could occur without suffering.
I understand what Piper is wrestling with, all of us who take seriously both the suffering of the world and believe in a God of omnipotent power, presence, and knowledge. It is theodicy, it is the challenge that since we know and experience suffering in evil in the world, what does that say about the justice of God? Piper chooses to say that God did not simply allow suffering (while providing a means of salvation from it), but rather that God causes all suffering. I do not agree with that position, however I understand how he arrived at it. What I strongly disagree with is Piper’s arguments for WHY God caused this suffering. God did so, according to Piper, simply so that we could all see the glory of God’s grace. That is a view I do not find supported in Scripture, at all, and one that is continuing to harm so many who follow his teachings.
And to you also, “may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)
I take courage to write some thoughts, even if with my limits (stemming both from my mother-tongue, italian, and from my background, I’m an engineer who at the age of 40 is studying theology). So, I beg pardon in advance both for my poor english (but, I’m not using any translator, like Google or the like) and for my basic understanding of things.
It dawned on me, after thinking through your post and the various interactions I read of, that the question of “prolegomena” is fundamental. John Piper has a preconception of things (like everyone), but it seems to me that his neo-calvinism (very popular in the USA, especially in certain circles; by the way: it has few point of contact with Calvin itself: I think he would be horrified to see what has been done in his name!) is driving him toward an eisegesis which cause more troubles and questions than the basic question posed. Moreover, he is too precise: reading the great Theologians of the past it seems to me that they all leave (at least the best and greatest – I would add the humblest too) space to Mistery (which I think it is one of the opening in which we can penetrate difficult stuff like Job or some parts of the Prophets, etc). It is the story of many heretics: being too precise (I am not saying JP is a kind of heretics, even if personally I find difficult to agree with him on many topics). Thus: prolegomena are so crucial. Before saying something it is better to think on the way we think, what are the preconceptions that are leading us toward a certain interpretation, to put them under the light of the reality (complex!) affirmed in the Bible and to make a tremendous effort to change our way of thinking forced by three powers: the Holy Spirit (Bonhoeffer has some beautiful words on the topic), the complexity of the world depicted in the Bible and the complexity of our experience of the world.
Second thought. Shortly: JP lacks a solid theology of relation/relationship.
His God seems to me a sort of trinitarian monolith who touches the world out of his self-referential love. I got the feelings of an aseptic love. I think it is more promising and more true to the biblical world (and theology) to stress out and underline strongly how the language of relationship is at the center of almost every book of the Bible itself. Without entering the world of speculation (which is so fascinating, at least to me) God has limited is absolute freedom in entering this loving relationship with the world and with His creatures: He, who is eternal relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit (a family!), is taking part to the suffering of the world and He his touched by suffering itself (what about Paul speaking of the one who has not spared His only Son, what about the author of Hebrew speaking of the Son learning things through the things he suffered, what about the God of Exodus 3 and 4, what about the God of Isaiah, of Jeremiah, of Hosea, etc?). Being a God of relationship, He takes on himself the weight of love: which his both joy and suffering, both touching and being touched. I have always in mind the while we are praying in this “astheneia” mode of existing, the Spirit groans within us. How God can continue to be an all-powerful God and a “fragile” God (again Bonhoeffer) it is a Mistery. Mystery:it is not a way to cover some holes in the ground of our faith; it is a faithful ans wise way to affirm a creative tension between two truths which, besides being a reality in God, are also a great comfort and the way God enters in relation with us.
Third thought. A person I know experienced a tragedy in his life some years ago (as you stated beautifully in your book, it is our common lot of human beings to experience “beautiful and terrible things”).I wrote to him some lines to express my condolences. This man answered me: “Thank you. I want to inform you that nonetheless the doctrine of God stays firm in me”. Even if I understood what he was willing to convey I thought: “It is not the doctrine that must endure, it is the relationship with God”. I’m still convinced of this thought. I mean: theological basics are important and I do not want to relativize their importance. At the same time they are to be put on the anvil to be tested by the reality of God (who is not a statue to be admired but a living being to have relationship with) and of the world (which is the real life we are living intellectually, emotionally, physically, etc). This is another opening which is given to enter the same books I mentioned before: Job, prophets, etc. Job wanted explanations: God gave himself as (a mysterious but present) explanation. As Roland the Pury masterfully put it in his Job ou l’homme révolté “the foundation has resisted the test” (my translation of the italian version, sorry I wasn’t able to see if in English there’s a translation of this awesome book). The foundation is the relationship between God and Job.
I conclude by pointing to what I consider the epitome of what I tried to say: God wrestling in the dust with Jacob (if we assume with the tradition that it is God who is fighting in the ring with this man – I’m convinced of that because it is so aligned with the God of the Bible and the God of Jesus and the Holy Spirit). This is the epitome of relationship: a God who has “steaming skin” (Luther) because He enters our reality. This doesn’t explain suffering, nor takes away the pain, the fear, the anxiety, the rage we experience: but, it gives a glimpse of a basic truth: we are not alone, He is with us both in good and bad times.
Warm regards and thank you beyond words. In sharing your experience and your thoughts you blessed many, myself included.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you (2 Cor 13, 14)
Jonathan S. Benatti
p.s. I submit these thoughts with modesty. As I said, I’m not a scholar. Just a Christian who tries to make sense of his faith (with much trembling and fear!).
Thank you so much for a wonderful, thoughtful, and gracious reply! Your English is exceptional and your remarks and observations, I suspect in no small part due to your humility are thoughtful and, I believe, accurate. If I may recapitulate what you said, leaving aside the assessment of JP:
Mystery – we must leave room for the mystery of God. This desire to answer every question that *we* may have at any one time (a particularly post-enlightenment, Protestant phenomenon) does indeed lead us into hubris and error. As you wrote, “Mystery:it is not a way to cover some holes in the ground of our faith; it is a faithful ans wise way to affirm a creative tension between two truths which, besides being a reality in God, are also a great comfort and the way God enters in relation with us.”
Relationship – Which leads to the second main encouragement and insight I found in your remarks. We must remember that God seeks to be in relationship with us and *that* is the essence of the Gospel and the biblical accounts. Again to cite you, you wrote, “This is the epitome of relationship: a God who has “steaming skin” (Luther) because He enters our reality. This doesn’t explain suffering, nor takes away the pain, the fear, the anxiety, the rage we experience: but, it gives a glimpse of a basic truth: we are not alone, He is with us both in good and bad times.”
So, scholar or not, you clearly have a very faithful and discerning heart! Thank you for sharing and encouraging me this day. God bless you!
PS – I am not familiar with the work on Job that you mentioned. Do you have any further bibliographic information?
thank you for your kind words. I am deeply humbled and honored.
You summed up my thoughts perfectly. Mystery and Relationship are two important pillars, if not the main ones, of how I try to live out faith.
Regarding the work on Job i quoted, as far as I know, there is an old Swiss edition by Labor et Fides – Job ou l’homme révolté; Editions LABOR ET FIDES. Colección LES CAHIERS DU RENOUVEAU, Volumen XII. There is also an Italian edition (I have this one) published by Claudiana (the historical Waldensian publishing house) – R. De Pury, Giobbe, L’uomo in Rivolta, Claudiana, Torino 1962.
I’m not aware of any English translation.
It is a tiny book but as it happens sometimes, very dense and thought-provoking.
Again, thank you. My day has been blessed by this exchange of thought. May God give you a bright day.