A note of correction before we go further: This post was initially written based on incomplete information, having seen multiple reports that John Piper tweeted Job 1:19, in isolation. That was incorrect. He immediately followed that tweet with another, posting Job 1:20. Does that extra verse soften the effect of the first tweet? A little bit, maybe. And I recognize and appreciate Piper’s willingness to delete the tweets when it became clear that people found them offensive, rather than helpful. But I think the idea I’m mulling over in this post still makes sense. And Piper also needs to recognize that what he has said after past tragedies is providing a larger context to his tweets. With all that in mind, I’ve decided to post this piece, but please keep this correction in mind as you read.
John Piper and I have our differences. I am aware of those differences, although I suspect he is not, given the relative distance between our internet fame. Piper spends an awful lot of time pinning down “biblical manhood and womanhood” – and believe me, if I followed his teachings I would feel mighty pinned down. But Piper has also earned a reputation for theologizing in the wake of tragedy, and this has included some very controversial statements. You may read them if you like.
In the immediate aftermath of the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, Piper didn’t write another essay on tragedy as a call to repentance. He simply sent out a tweet. But to many that Tweet (now deleted) seemed to speak volumes, and I suppose I’m one of them.
I immediately became indignant over what I thought he was saying, or how I thought it would sound to someone who suffered the loss of a child in that tornado. I’m aware, however, that I can’t think straight when it comes to Piper. He drives me a little crazy, and I may be judging him too harshly on a completely decontextualized Bible verse.
I’ve done something similar, you see. The day of the Newtown shootings I posted this verse to Facebook:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
In Matthew that verse describes the devastating grief that accompanied the Slaughter of the Innocents. I wasn’t posting the verse to teach a theological lesson or explain evil. It was one of those moments when scripture seemed to perfectly tap into what I was feeling as I thought of those little children, dying in their school. Part of the beauty of the Bible is how deeply it seems to know us, expressing our human experiences in truer words that I could possible come up with on my own. And that day in December, there was no comfort. There was only weeping and great mourning.
Did Piper find something in Job that spoke to him in the same way? If so, I can’t hear it. But not only is my reading of Piper too fraught with tension, but so is my reading of Job. Long, long ago, in a discussion group for a college class, we talked about Job. I can still remember one of my religion major friends saying, “There’s no way that Job can be a literal, historical account. It is a nasty little story.” I get where he was coming from. Job is also story of great wisdom, but the nastiness and the wisdom are difficult to disentangle.
Without sharing my own thoughts, I asked my Facebook friends what they thought of Piper’s Tweet. As usual, they indulged my weird request and several of them answered. Some were bothered by the Piper’s posting, as I was:
“I think the tweet is in bad taste. I think it’s a case of bad timing/not enough tact. Not sure what he is trying to accomplish here since I don’t know his motivation and he only tweeted that one verse. If it is to get people to read Job, I think it backfired. Just my two cents.”
“There are many more comforting and compassionate passages from the Bible that would encourage at a first glance…rather than expecting one to know Job’s story and his trial and it’s outcome. To me, this is like a slap in the face of someone that is hurting. There are no “good” words in these situations. But this lacks the compassion of Christ. The love he has for us in suffering. In many ways, hours after a catastrophic event is not the time to be teaching a “lesson”….it is time to comfort and console. This passage did not do that.”
“You’d think that someone in his position would have an ounce of sensitivity. Yes, the sound-bite nature of our culture fosters misinterpretation, but in my view, that’s exactly the reason not to say things that a second’s forethought would reveal as obviously hurtful.”
Most of my friend, however, were willing to give Piper the benefit of the doubt, even if the resulting tweet seemed clumsy.
“I don’t think his intention was to be insensitive but without explanation it came across that way, not a good time to be intellectual, would have been much better to be compassionate.”
“Piper had a brain fart. We all do. What he meant was only known to him. Just reading the scripture it comes across as insensitive. Knowing the Book of Job, I get it. But seriously, why not just tweet ‘Praying for everyone in Moore right now’ instead of trying to have a teachable moment?”
A couple even felt that Piper was making a significant point.
“Obviously, this is very capable of misinterpretation, but clearly, Rev. Piper meant to identify the OK survivors with Job–who suffered in this way not because he sinned, or his children sinned (both ideas explicitly rejected) but for the glory of God. And if the idea of the innocent suffering for God’s glory strikes us as hard, it’s nice to recall that Job is perhaps the only OT book with a straight-up affirmation of a Heaven after death–which surely takes the sting out of the death of Job’s children.”
I don’t know how the tweet strikes you, but something that one of m y friends said stood out to me. Maybe this wasn’t a “teachable moment”. Maybe our mistake, as church leaders, is to see every major event as an opportunity to get a point across, and what sometimes results seems clumsy (at best), arrogant or cold.
Have I been guilty of this? Yes, indeed. I’m sure of it. It’s a fine line between saying nothing, ever, under the “too soon” rule and exploiting other peoples’ pain as our soap box. Somewhere in the middle I believe there’s a time and place for compassionate, gracious, honest conversation, but I haven’t always found that place.
It’s possible that this post is a violation of the principle I’m aiming for, in fact. I hope not. I’ve spent my entire life trying to reach a better theology of suffering, but when it comes I’m still completely unprepared to explain it.
It’s worth noting that Job’s friends, coming to him in his time of grief, sat with him and said nothing for seven days. They got a lot of things wrong after that, but perhaps that silence is the one things Job’s friends got right. And whether we express it through silence and presence or carefully chosen words, maybe the appropriate response when people mourn is simply to mourn with them. At least for a while. Maybe this is not the time to teach a lesson about why they are suffering.