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God’s Angry Again…

Yesterday a tornado unexpectedly touched down in Minneapolis.  Apparently, according to pastor John Piper—a champion and defender of God’s specific sovereignty over all things—the reason for this ordinary (and, relatively minor—no loss of life or even injury) event has to do with God’s anger at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ECLA) for considering the ordination of homosexuals at their annual convention in the same city that the tornado touched down in.  Here is Piper’s conclusion about the “meaning” of this event:

The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners.

Whenever I read something this bizarre, a few obvious questions inevitably come to mind:

  1. Why do only certain kinds of sin—sexual ones, namely (as understood by those making the pronouncements)—seem worthy of a weather warning from the hand of God?  I’ve yet to read (from Piper or anyone else) about God devoting an earthquake or a monsoon to economic injustice… or human greed and over-consumption… or envy… or sloth… or fill in the blank.  Maybe I just haven’t read enough of Piper.  Maybe his God really does have enough disasters to dispense for all sins, even if he saves his “best” (or at least most public) ones for those of a sexual nature…
  2. What about storms/disasters that strike where denominations are not plotting to maliciously corrupt the pure truth of the gospel (as understood by Piper)?  There are, after all, plenty of nasty events taking place around the globe on a daily basis.  Are they all because of God’s anger at sin?  How do we tell if we are being punished or not?  How might we discern what we are being punished for?  To cite just one example, last month a storm in Camrose, AB claimed one life and injured 75 more at an outdoor music festival.  What was the object of God’s ire in this case?  Does God hate country music (an understandable, although perhaps not tornado-worthy offense)?
  3. Are we supposed to be snooping around for specific sins behind every tragedy in nature?  Piper quotes Jesus’ discussion of the tragedy of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4-5) as evidence that what may seem like random tragedies are meant to evoke repentance.  But Jesus also said that sunshine and rain fall on the just and the unjust—a statement I take to mean that both blessing and misfortune will simply be part and parcel of human experience on this planet.  I don’t get the sense from Jesus that we ought to be too preoccupied with ferreting out moral lessons (to be applied primarily to others, usually) from specific instances of tragedy (John 9:1-12 comes to mind).

I try not to read John Piper very much, but when I do I almost invariably come away from the experience asking myself if God can really be that angry with that many people that often.  I don’t rule out the possibility that the God who made and sustains heaven and earth can use nature to instruct, bless, and even correct human beings (albeit, not in the highly specific sense Piper seems convinced of).  But I think pronouncements like the ones Piper is fond of making do a disservice to both the character of God and the witness of his church.

Anne Lamott famously remarked that one sure way to tell if you’ve created God in your image is when he ends up hating the same people you do (I think we could safely substitute “doctrines,” “perspectives,” “denominational drifts,” and so on for “people”).  While I certainly don’t think John Piper hates the ELCA,  I do think he is a lot angrier at them than God is.

h/t: Notes from Off Center

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. As an ELCA Lutheran, I would agree with your conclusion about Piper’s comments.

    August 20, 2009
  2. J #

    A tornado touched down close to the city of Winnipeg on the same day that one touched down in Minneapolis. (Winnipeg is roughly 8 hours north of Minneapolis.)

    So if I’m reading Piper correctly, it’s obvious that God is still angry at the city for having allowed the Winnipeg Jets hockey club to relocate to Phoenix in 1996.

    By the same token, it’s also obvious that God has been punishing the city of Phoenix with 13 years of terrible hockey (if you can actually call what the Coyotes do hockey) because he’s angry at them, too.

    Interesting.

    Looks like Winnipeg got the better deal…

    August 20, 2009
    • I think you are reading Piper 100% correctly :).

      There were tornadoes in southern Ontario yesterday as well. God must be angry at Jim Balsillie for trying to move Phoenix there instead ending their exile and returning them to Winnipeg.

      August 21, 2009
  3. “Does God hate country music (an understandable, although perhaps not tornado-worthy offense)?”

    You are confused here Ryan – Country music IS the punishment.

    August 20, 2009
    • Ah, yes. Thanks for the clarification Tyler!

      August 21, 2009
  4. Ken #

    Eliade observed that in the ancient world people in the near east believed that suffering was either caused by the anger of a god or by sorcery initiated by other people. From the perspective of enlightenment wisdom, this is ludicrous and presents God, if there is a God, in quite a bad light. But what Eliade saw was that this is how ancient people dealt with suffering. If suffering was caused by God’s anger, then it could be overcome by doing what pleased God. If suffering was caused by sorcery, it too could be overcome. Providing assistance with these matters is what priests did in those days. Unexplained suffering represented chaos.

    I think the critique you offer here can be made against the central theme in the Bible as well as against the folks you are criticizing here. As you know, the story is that Assyria conquered Israel and Babylon conquered Judah because they had angered God. The story goes on to say that through the mysterious work of Jesus that God overcame that anger. Do you agree? Is that not as ludicrous from an enlightenment perspective as what Piper is saying?

    I also think the argument that these contemporary Christians are making God in their own image is similar to the argument so many enlightenment thinkers have made that humanity made God in its image, to meet its needs, whether the needs were pscyhological, or political.

    I think it is not possible to reconcile enlightenment ideas with ancient ideas about life and God and people. They just don’t mix. I have not read either Lamott or Piper. My impression, from what I can see about her on the internet, is that her theology, an enlightenment/theological hybrid, is as strained as his. Hers strains under the load of reason, as much as his.

    Why do you read Piper?

    August 20, 2009
    • I think the critique you offer here can be made against the central theme in the Bible as well as against the folks you are criticizing here. As you know, the story is that Assyria conquered Israel and Babylon conquered Judah because they had angered God. The story goes on to say that through the mysterious work of Jesus that God overcame that anger. Do you agree? Is that not as ludicrous from an enlightenment perspective as what Piper is saying?

      I don’t see this as the “central theme” of the Bible. As I see it, the central theme of the Bible is a God of mercy leading his world from creation to fall to redemption. I think one of the main reasons Israel and Judah were exiled was because of their lack of attention to righteousness, justice, mercy, etc. The prophets certainly present God as being angered by this (among other things—idolatry, for example, but I think this is closely bound up with the previous list), but they also present God as providing numerous warnings, of being reluctant to punish, of being long-suffering, patient, wounded by their sin, etc.

      Additionally, I certainly don’t think that the sole purpose of the work of Jesus was to overcome God’s anger. I think Jesus represents God’s giving of his own self to redeem his people. Anger might be part of the package but so is love and so is mercy.

      I think it is not possible to reconcile enlightenment ideas with ancient ideas about life and God and people. They just don’t mix.

      I think they mix well in some areas and not in others. They certainly do have two very different starting points. As I’ve said before, I don’t accept that the Enlightenment position is the default one to which all others must accommodate or justify themselves. There are many “ancient ideas about life and God and people” that are blisteringly accurate and ring as true today as they ever have. There are many “enlightenment” ideas about life and God and people that ring completely false, leaving virtually everything that many of us claim to care about out of their “explanations.” All of us navigate (cognitively, physically, spiritually) a world in which we don’t see/know as much as we would like to. In that sense, all theology—pre- or post-Enlightenment—is strained.

      Why do you read Piper?

      Good question. I don’t read his books, if that’s what you mean. I usually only read him when I am directed to his writing from somewhere else. In this case, it was because I have long been interested in questions of theodicy and hugely dissatisfied with how Christian leaders handle questions about causes/purposes of suffering. I feel it is important to offer alternative views to the ones (like Piper’s) that get the most attention due to their sheer lunacy. For whatever reason, Piper is a guy that a lot of people in the corner of Christendom I inhabit listen to (I realize this is not the case in your context). I guess I just think people need to hear other voices as well.

      August 21, 2009
      • Ken #

        I did not realize that you an inhabit a corner of Christendom that listens to Piper. I understand your resistance.

        I had not heard of Piper until I read your post. Having not read him, I am not sure how I would counter his position. It does seem to be missing an appreciation of grace. In addition, as you point out, although the Bible does describe God as having been angry at Israel and Judah, it also makes it clear that his love for Israel and Judah was much greater than his anger. In addition, the Bible does not present every storm as a sign of God’s anger. His prophetic-like statements seem uncharacteristic of God, as God is described in the Bible.

        I have known Christians who fear that God is as angry with them as Piper says. They feel very bad about themselves. Their suffer greatly from terror and guilt.

        Unfortunately, the left corner has this problem too. It has its own Pipers.

        August 21, 2009
      • Ken #

        One other thing: I too have the found poor treatment of suffering among Christian leaders. I think that the best course from the pulpit is to emphasis mercy, rather than theodicy or justifying the ways of God. It is a dreadful approach to use the pulpit, or theodicy in any context, to condemn people.

        In my experience, people who are suffering deal with it in different ways. I think we have to find out how a particular person is dealing with it before we speak of it theologically and must be very careful when we do speak theologically to do no harm. We must start where the suffering person is and let our hearts guide our words.

        There is a passage in Sarah Orne Jewett’s novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs, that will be with me forever. A pastor and Mrs. Todd visited a woman who lived alone on an “Shell Island” in a self-imposed exile because she had committed, in her words, “an unpardonable sin.” The pastor who really did not not know what to say, spoke anyway and said the wrong thing. At that point, the exiled woman withdrew into herself. Mrs. Todd, who was more sensitive, and who prepared herbal remedies for all kinds of ailments and sufferings of her neighbors, thought to herself about the pastor, “he has no remedies.” I fear that none of us has any remedies. I think if theology has any remedy, it is located in our hearts.

        August 21, 2009
      • I think pastors definitely have a responsibility to exercise extreme care and caution when dealing with real life instances of suffering. The only problem is that often it is precisely by following their “hearts” that some end up in trouble. They want to do too much or feel like their position somehow requires them to have just the “remedies” people are after. I think a pastoral response to suffering will involve our hearts, certainly, but also our minds and our wills. Not doing harm is certainly a crucial baseline assumption.

        August 21, 2009
      • Ken #

        I looked again at Piper’s words this morning and read another entry that he has added to his blog on this topic.

        My impression is that his understanding of suffering and catastrophe has quite strong ancient and Biblical precedents. It is clearly different from the view of suffering and catastrophe that many of us have in modernity that the bad things that happen lack purpose, whether divine or not. It is that modern view that contemporary theodicy attempts to reconcile with traditional faith in God and with the idea that the universe we believe has evolved and is evolving has, nevertheless, purpose. I think the reconcilement is impossible. At the same time, the old ways still resonate with us. I think in modernity we are forced to live with this conflict. Personally, I prefer the conflict to peace founded on one pole or the other.

        I have found Mircea Eliade’s book “The Myth of the Eternal Return” particularly helpful in understanding the ancient world from which the Bible came and for understanding our own time in contrast. I think you would find it interesting too, considering your interest in theodicy. Have you read it?

        August 22, 2009
      • I read Piper’s second post—he seems to be trying to soften the effect of his words by personalizing them. I suppose there’s something to be said for his efforts, but I’ve read enough of his views about evil and God’s sovereignty to remain skeptical. He always strikes me as a guy who is more concerned to defend God’s sovereignty than God himself is.

        I did read bits and pieces of Eliade’s book during my thesis research, but not nearly enough to feel qualified to comment on his thought.

        August 22, 2009
      • Ken #

        I wonder why Piper feels so compelled to defend God’s sovereignty. That can indicate that he is worried that God is not sovereign and that chaos governs the universe, life and death. The modern narrative is that a kind of chaos explains the universe and life. The evolution narrative reflects this – life has been founded on one accident after another, rather than on purposeful kindness.

        His writing reminds me of a woman who told me that she and her husband suffered a significant financial setback the day after they decided to not pay all they had pledged to a former church. She was convinced that the setback was a sign that God did not approve of not paying the pledge. She convinced her husband to pay the pledge in full before more calamities happened to them. (Like, but not as severe as the similar incident in Acts.) I remember another woman who told me that she feared God would smite her if she were to believe in evolution – which is to say, to not believe in the sovereignty of God over the origin of the species. I think of a highly educated friend, a Harvard graduate, a wealthy and generous man, who believes that his wealth depends on his generosity to other people. He fears that if he is not sufficiently generous he will lose his wealth. I think of the interest in Feng Shui over the last twenty years among the upper middle class in the U.S. – the idea that one’s well-being depends on arranging furniture correctly, among other things.

        These are old and deep feelings about the way things work in life and the universe. Clearly, the enlightenment idea is that all of this stuff is silly. But even among the most educated people, these old deep feelings or intuitions still have power.

        I grew up with the enlightenment skepticism towards all these feelings, so they have no power over me. At the same time, I share the feelings of terror that the universe has no purposeful order. If Piper is worried that God has no sovereignty, then I know that worry. It is just that the enlightenment has such a hold on me that I am unable to deal with that worry by theodicy or any other defense of God or by believing that if I just do things right by God that I will be okay. I think I just keep looking for signs in nature, in natural selection, that behind all the apparent unmeaningful chaos and calamity that there is a reason for hope, that there is benevolence, if not order.

        We are all like Odysseus in the storm trying to hold onto a remnant of the raft.

        August 22, 2009
      • I think the examples you cite illustrate that all of us—pre- or post-enlightenment—have a need to locate evil and suffering within conceptual structures that help us make sense of and live in the world. In that sense, theodicy is a human need, not a peculiarly ancient or modern one.

        Piper’s approach to these questions may betray a subterranean fear of chaos. I don’t know. I’m more interested in (concerned with) the way he uses his influence as a Christian leader. I think he has a responsibility to acknowledge the complexity (moral, existential, etc) of the world we live in and that God’s ways are not always or even often transparent to us. He speaks too confidently about things he cannot know.

        August 23, 2009
  5. Check out my thoughts on his blog @ http://christophany.wordpress.com/

    August 20, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Be careful, my friend. You are free to disagree with John Piper but take care not to be dismissive of and/or affirming sin. Likewise being less than fearful of God’s providence and judgement is a very dangerous precept. Do not teach or even infer it.

    Whether or not Piper’s contention is accurate, is besides the point. What is true is that, in the end, God will destroy all that is not of Him. And that all to whom freedom of choice is given, those who choose not to be of God, choose to be destroyed.

    What matters, as your example of Siloam starkly reminds us, is that our understanding of repentance is more important than our understanding of God’s wrath.

    In context then, the questions we need to ask ourselves regard the true moral character of homosexual behavior. Is it sin, or isn’t it? And if we say it is, how do we justify affirming the activity and confirming it’s unrepentant advocates as church leaders.

    I do agree with Mr. Piper in this regard. How we answer these questions and as you wisely point out other important matters regarding our sinfulness, will significantly impact the nature of God’s judgement.

    August 21, 2009
    • How, specifically, do you see what I have written as an example of affirming or being dismissive of sin?

      Whether or not Piper’s contention is accurate, is besides the point.

      No, actually, it is precisely the point. That’s what the post is about. People like Piper who presume to draw moral lessons for others out of specific instances of calamity need to be challenged for the theological (and logical) coherence and consistency of their claims.

      August 21, 2009
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan,

    I have just read your last comment but am unable to respond at this time as I have to get ready for work. I will answer you tomorrow.

    Paul

    August 22, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Dear Ryan,

    Thank you for your patience and understanding. Particularly given the challenging nature of my comments. With regard to your response, let me share this.

    Ryan, while I understand that the point for you is the accuracy of Mr. Pipers claim, I honestly wonder if that would be the point that God would have us be concerned about.

    Does our heavenly Father desire that we conjecture among ourselves as to what are signs and what are not? Or would He rather we dialogue among ourselves as to what love means; (to look upon ourselves and others as the Lord our God looks upon us), what holiness is; ( the application of this true understanding of love) and how we are able to assist one another, through His only begotten son, Jesus Christ, in living out this Gospel?

    I don’t doubt that you are right about some of your concerns with regard to the claims of Mr. Piper, I just firmly believe that such concerns are the lesser priority.

    With regard to my concerns regarding sin, let me say this. On reflection, Ryan how do you feel about the title of this post, particularly given the post’s content. Do you not think that it could be interpreted in a way that is dismissive of God and His authority. Could it not lead to comments that make fun of and denigrate the person of God. And if it did, if it does, is that not sin?

    Wouldn’t a title something like “John Piper’s views” have been a better choice?

    And as I mentioned earlier what of the particulars with regard to homosexuality. Should we not first come to a better understanding of this behavior, relative to sin? Like any behavior, if we were, through the Holy Spirit, to deem it sinful then in love are we not called to say so and to minister to our brothers and sisters so afflicted?

    Respectfully Ryan, the statements found in point 1 of your critique aren’t helpful. To my mind they mock the seriousness of sin. Sin is sin, my brother and sarcastic observations directed at Mr. Piper that require the ridicule of sin, aren’t worthy of such a gifted and capable voice for God, such as yours.

    I could point to other concerns with this post but to do so I think would be unkind and unloving.

    You are an amazing talent, Ryan. Your work on your blog has been an invaluable help to my personal journey towards holiness. May God continue to bless you with insight and wisdom. And may you continue to share it with a grateful audience.

    Yours in Christ,

    Paul.

    August 23, 2009
    • First let me say thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to articulate your concerns. I will try to address them in what follows.

      Does our heavenly Father desire that we conjecture among ourselves as to what are signs and what are not? Or would He rather we dialogue among ourselves as to what love means; (to look upon ourselves and others as the Lord our God looks upon us), what holiness is; (the application of this true understanding of love) and how we are able to assist one another, through His only begotten son, Jesus Christ, in living out this Gospel?

      I think our heavenly Father desires that we speak with care and moral sensitivity (not to mention humility) about what he is doing in and through the world. Do you think that every statement about what God was “doing” or “saying” in this or that event should just go unchallenged? Ought every statement on these matters be left alone because God would rather us “dialogue among ourselves as to what love means?” I fail to see how challenging positions like Piper’s is incompatible with the things you’ve identified.

      I don’t doubt that you are right about some of your concerns with regard to the claims of Mr. Piper, I just firmly believe that such concerns are the lesser priority.

      Fine. But again, saying that these are not as high a priority (for God or for Christians) does not take away from the fact that Piper published the statements and by doing so invited critique/dialogue. Christians who are perhaps not inclined to accept everything that comes from the pulpit (Piper’s or any other one) as pure, undiluted truth will have questions (i.e., “Is he right about that?”) that I feel deserve honest and thoughtful treatment. To say that x is more important than y does not mean that y ought not to be discussed.

      With regard to my concerns regarding sin, let me say this. On reflection, Ryan how do you feel about the title of this post, particularly given the post’s content. Do you not think that it could be interpreted in a way that is dismissive of God and His authority. Could it not lead to comments that make fun of and denigrate the person of God. And if it did, if it does, is that not sin?

      I don’t feel troubled at all about the title of the post. I obviously can’t control how people interpret what I write; but I’m not going to stop writing in ways that I think are interesting and provocative because of this. I think that the issues Piper is talking about are incredibly interesting and existentially important (even if I think he is wrong) and I will continue to bring them up in ways that I feel are engaging. I think that most people who read this post would catch the irony of the title and (quite rightly) conclude that it says much more about a certain theological persuasion than it does about the person of God.

      The wrath of God figures fairly prominently in Piper’s theology, and I feel that the title starts people on the path to think about one of my central claims. He simply is not consistent. If this tornado is an expression of the wrath of God against, what prevents us from claiming that all tornadoes are responses to God’s anger at something? If tornadoes and other natural disasters always represent expressions of God’s wrath, then God must be very angry indeed (hence the title of the post). If tornadoes only selectively represent God’s wrath, Piper owes us an explanation of the criteria he uses to decide upon these matters. I have yet to see one.

      And as I mentioned earlier what of the particulars with regard to homosexuality. Should we not first come to a better understanding of this behavior, relative to sin? Like any behavior, if we were, through the Holy Spirit, to deem it sinful then in love are we not called to say so and to minister to our brothers and sisters so afflicted?

      This has nothing to do with the post. I was not discussing sin or homosexuality. This might be your interest, but it was not mine in writing the piece. I do not feel obligated to make it so simply because you feel it is a more worthy or appropriate topic for our consideration.

      Respectfully Ryan, the statements found in point 1 of your critique aren’t helpful. To my mind they mock the seriousness of sin. Sin is sin, my brother and sarcastic observations directed at Mr. Piper that require the ridicule of sin, aren’t worthy of such a gifted and capable voice for God, such as yours.

      With respect to what end are the statements I made unhelpful? My intention was to discuss the theological consistency and coherence of views that I consider damaging to the credibility and witness of the church. I think I was at least reasonably helpful toward that end. I remain absolutely mystified as to how you interpret this as “mocking the seriousness of sin.” Does someone only take sin “seriously” if they are willing to believe (or at least not challenge the idea) that God sent a specific tornado to judge homosexuals? Is it unreasonable (on Piper’s assumption that God sends tornadoes to judge sin) to inquire as to why we never hear any claims that God is judging us for the other sins I mentioned (a few of which get a lot more biblical “air time” than sexuality)? I feel these are perfectly legitimate questions to ask of someone who has publicly claimed to understand the “meaning” of a tornado and to widely broadcast this interpretation.

      August 23, 2009
  9. Hey Ryan, this is off topic but I thought you’d be interested, given the subject of your thesis. In the Scottish Journal of Theology Timothy Jenkins from Cambridge published Closer to Dan Brown than to Gregor Mendel: on Dawkins’ the God Delusion. From the abstract:

    “Dawkins’ work comes within a spectrum that includes in its modern forms both science fiction and fantasy literature, a spectrum that uses the products of science to think with, in order to explore human dilemmas. In a word, this is a modern theodicy.”

    August 23, 2009
    • Thanks for this Ken. It looks very interesting indeed.

      August 23, 2009
  10. Paul Johnston #

    ….”Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform”….

    If I present back to you the quote you use as a starting point for this post, minus the less important (my contention) reference to God’s wrath, does that help you better understand my argument? Does that help you see Mr. Piper in a more complimentary light?

    August 24, 2009
  11. No, it doesn’t, because of what your ellipsis omits:

    The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us.

    As long as this is part of his statement, I will continue to have the questions I have articulated above.

    August 24, 2009

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