The Failure of Christless Tenderness

The Failure of Christless Tenderness

The grotesque is part of what this fallen age is. Seeing it and seeing God with clear, uncompromising eyes of faith keeps us from making gulags or gas chambers.

When sentimentalism separates the grotesque from the sovereign goodness of God, we are on our way to Auschwitz. It is a great irony that in rejecting God, in defense of a less grotesque humanity, we become hideous as we cleanse the world of imperfections.

The tender-hearted souls who cannot bear to look on the deformed, and thus impute their distaste to God, so as to discredit him, sever the only sure root that can keep them from the “final solution” of mercifully ridding the world of the grotesque.

The Burden Over Posed Compassion

Flannery O’Connor wrote about the grotesque. And she believed in God — a God who was good and had not lost control of his world. Part of what governed her obsession with the grotesque was this conviction: There is a false tenderness in the world — a tenderness cut off from Christ — that poses as compassion and leads to concentration camps.

Mary Ann was a girl with a grotesque, cancerous tumor on her face. She died from it at the age of twelve. By all accounts, she was a radiantly cheerful girl, whose short life was worth living. Flannery O’Connor wrote “Introduction to a Memoir of Mary Ann” (in Mystery and Manners, 1957). In it she revealed her burden.

One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him. . . . Busy cutting down human imperfection, they are making headway also on the raw material of good.

Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents.

In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness.

It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber. (226–227)

These words are explosive with wisdom.

  • If you try to cut down the grotesque, you may sacrifice the trees on which much good grows.

  • A gain in sensibility may be a loss of vision, and without that vision, the gain may be ghastly.

  • The “unsentimental eye” of faith in God’s goodness in the face of horrors is paradoxically the tenderest eye.

  • Tenderness, cut off from Christ, can justify the camps, or we would say today, cutting children in pieces.

Dwell in the Whole Counsel of God

Who can discern his errors? (Psalm 19:12). “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). One generation’s tenderness is another’s terror. They grow from the same root of Christlessness — Truthlessness.

Amid such unexpected turns in history as we have seen, the safest place on earth for us to dwell is the whole counsel of God — all of the Bible, with all its shocking parts, humbly grasped, shaping a kind of people who are inexplicable in the fierceness of their tender defense of the helpless and grotesque.


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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.