John Piper and the Question of Meteorological Retribution

John Piper has incited a significant amount of controversy with his recent comments regarding a storm which struck Minneapolis in the midst of the annual meetings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as it considered the possibility of ordination for active homosexuals (a measure which was approved today by a wide margin).  Peter Smith and others have quoted the most incendiary portion of an online editorial from Piper’s Desiring God Ministries:

Jesus Christ controls the wind, including all tornados. [sic] … 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.

Much like the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Franklin Graham hinted that the disaster had been provoked by the heinous sins of the city of New Orleans, reactions have been mixed.  Greg Boyd responds sharply, offering six objections to Piper’s conclusions, including the following:

Finally, and most remarkably, John attempts to further justify his speculation about the damaged church steeple by alluding to Luke 13:4-5, which he summarizes by saying:

“When asked about a seemingly random calamity near Jerusalem where 18 people were killed, Jesus answered in general terms—an answer that would cover calamities in Minneapolis, Taiwan, or Baghdad. God’s message is repent, because none of us will otherwise escape God’s judgment.”

What’s amazing is that in this very passage Jesus specifically addresses the temptation of people to think God punishes people by sending disasters! In response to a tower in Siloam and fell on 18 people Jesus says, “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”

Far from supporting John’s speculation about why a tornado broke a church steeple, it seems to me this passage directly assails it! It makes me want to ask John, “do you think that the folks at Central Lutheran church are more guilty than you or any others living in the Twin Cities?” And the only answer this passage allows us to give is an unequivocal “no!” In the fallen world in which we live, towers sometimes randomly fall; bridges sometimes randomly collapse; and tornadoes sometimes randomly do property damage – even to churches. That’s all there is to be said about it.

Rather than speculating about how God is judging others through natural calamities, Jesus tells his audience they should be concerned with their own relationship with God. “Unless you repent,” Jesus said, ” you too will perish.” Jesus boldly confronts our tendency to find a speck in another’s eye and our temptation to assume God is involved in their misfortune as we overlook the two-by-four sticking out of our own eye (Mt. 7:1-3). Instead, we should follow Paul’s example and consider ourselves worse sinners than others (1 Tim. 1:15-16) and concern ourselves with the judgment we ourselves will receive if we don’t repent and throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

It’s a warning I think we all do well to adhere to.

TC Robinson offers his thoughts:

John Piper has engaged in recklessness.  Of course the practice of homosexuality is against God, but we can’t interpret this tornado as a direct judgment from God, anymore than the man who walked into a Baptist church and shot a pastor to death.  What was the evil of this Baptist church?

I can’t remember John Piper writing on that incident.

Matthew Malcolm agrees with Greg and T. C. that Piper’s interpretation was incorrect, but is unwilling to totally dismiss the impact of disastrous incidents upon an individual:

For example, a couple of ‘disasters’ that have happened to me: I got violently mugged & threatened with death, and I had a major car accident.  Is it appropriate for someone to tell me that God did those things in order to get me to change an aspect of my life?  Nope – that’s the style of Job’s friends, who thought they could pin God down in such a way.  But on the other hand, is it appropriate for someone to tell me that God cannot have wanted to provoke any response in me through those disasters?  N0 – just as it’s not your place to tell me what it did mean, it’s also not your place to tell me what it didn’t mean.  If I choose to read that event as a reminder from God that I need to humble myself (as Job eventually did) – and it actually does bear fruit in a changed life – who are you to tell me that God wasn’t at work there?

Don’t hear this in an upset tone – no one has actually told me how I can or can’t interpret those events!  I’m just thinking it through with my own example, that’s all…  I suppose I’m just reasoning that if I spent as much time seriously reflecting on the things life throws my way as I spend making the perfect coffee, perhaps I’d be a more sanctified person.

Perhaps the cleverest response, however, belongs to Suzanne McCarthy, who impishly turns Piper’s own hermeneutical strategy against him:

On the very same day that John Piper’s sermon against the NIV and TNIV was uploaded onto the internet, a tornado hit Minneapolis. Can it be a coincidence?

It’s been a very interesting discussion thus far.  In short, I would essentially agree with those who objected to Piper’s pronouncements.  Not only is such vitriolic exegesis impossible to sustain or verify, it pushes contemporary Christianity away from the transformative ideals of love, charity, and grace in favor of suspicion, judgment, and hubris.

UPDATE: Matthew Montonini adds his thoughts here.


4 Responses to “John Piper and the Question of Meteorological Retribution”

  1. August 21, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Matthew B, thanks for the mention. Another problem is that Piper has such a national influence.

  2. 3 irishanglican
    August 22, 2009 at 11:53 am

    But, we still stand or sit in our Christian high blog towers, as the postmodern culture plunders the Western Church! Oh Lord give us hearts and minds that read and believe the words of your Gospels…Matt. 24 / Mk. 13, etc. You said, would you find faith when you returned? A faith that “abides” and lives in You! Oh Lord renew your faithful Church!

    Fr. Robert (Anglican)

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