Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime author and pastor, John Piper. Pastor John, here’s the next question on the list, and it’s a heavy one, an email from an anonymous man: “Pastor John, did God cause, or would God cause, my wife to miscarry our child because I have a struggle with lust and pornography? I have a lot of guilt right now, and I don’t know how to think about God’s discipline and punishment for my sin. I’m very confused, please help.”
Wow. I see four issues at least in this question.
- What does it mean to struggle with pornography?
- Does God discipline his children for their sin?
- May that discipline come in the form of harm, or even death to others that you love?
- What should you do if you believe God has dealt you such a blow?
Let’s take those one at a time.
1. What does it mean to struggle with pornography?
I don’t know what our friend, unnamed, means by “struggle.” He struggles with pornography. It might mean daily bondage of joining sinners on the screen in their wickedness by supporting them with our interest and our attention and our pleasure and then feeling guilty about it when we are done every day. I don’t think that is much of a struggle. Calling it a struggle is a little less damning than what it really is; namely, capitulation and participation.
Or, he might mean that he conquers the temptation 99 times out of 100 and in a moment of weakness gives in, but quickly turns away and repents. That may be what struggle means. That would be a little more meaningful to call the world struggle. Whatever he means, I am glad he calls it sin, which he does, because Jesus takes this sin so seriously, he uses a horrible picture to describe the warfare against it — and the worst possible warning against failure in the war.
“I doubt that any of us has ever overestimated the danger of failing to fight lust.”
Here is what he says: “If your right eye causes you to sin” — so he is talking about lust — “tear it out and throw it away.” What? With a screwdriver? This is gross. This is horrible. What? Your fingernails? “For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). So, tearing out the eyeball is the most horrible description of the nature of the warfare, and hell is the most horrible warning of failure in the warfare. So, I doubt that any of us has ever overestimated the danger of failing to fight lust. And I am glad that our anonymous questioner has called it sin and is feeling bad about it.
2. Does God discipline his children for their sin?
Does God discipline his children for their sin? Yes, he does. This is described, perhaps, most fully in Hebrews 12. He even speaks of bloodshed if necessary as the price we might pay for our sin. “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:5–6). It never feels that way. But we need to believe that because the Bible says so. God says so.
It is very important to remember that this book of Hebrews 12 is the same book that in 10:14 says, “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” — that means in the warfare.” Perfected. In other words, God can view his children both as perfected by Christ and still in need of perfecting in this life. And we should take tremendous heart from his painful perfecting work as evidence that we are perfected.
Or, we can add with trembling: He may see us in need of such protection from temptation that he takes our life. That is what it says in 1 Corinthians 11:29–30, “Anyone who eats and drinks [the Lord’s Supper] without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Fallen asleep means died. “But when we are judged by the Lord” — that is, put to death — “we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). That is breathtaking. In other words, death, the death of a saint, the death of one who is perfected, the death of one whom he loves, the death is the discipline of deliverance from condemnation. God takes him out so that he will not be taken out by the devil and by sin and go to hell. So yes, the Lord disciplines, and his ways are not to be trifled with or made little of.
3. May that discipline come in the form of harm, or even death to others that you love?
May that discipline come in the form of harm, even death, to others that we love, as well as ourselves? And the answer is yes, it may. This was certainly the case with David’s sin of adultery and murder with Bathsheba and her husband. Nathan the prophet said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin” (2 Samuel 12:13). And then the next thing, “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord” — and surely that is what pornography is — “the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Samuel 12:14).
So, I would certainly say in my own life — now hear this carefully — I would certainly say in my own life the most painful and humbling disciplining from the Lord has regularly been though the pain and suffering and sometimes death of those I love, rather than through any blows against my own body. Oh, that we only suffered in our own body. This has been the way the deepest Christians have always thought about the losses through the death of those they love. Jonathan Edwards preached numerous sermons about the way the Lord disciplines a church by taking away a godly pastor in death. Edwards’s godly wife Sarah spoke about kissing the rod of God in the death of her 54-year-old husband — a rod of discipline that she felt more than anyone. She called it a rod of God on her back. And she kissed it.
“The death of Christ is sufficient to forgive the worst sin in spite of the worst suffering.”
Every loss that we endure as sinful children of God have two designs: one from Satan, one from God. Satan designs our unbelief and rebellion and renunciation and guilt and paralysis and loss of faith. God designs our purification and that we would hope less in this world and more in God who raises the dead.
I don’t know whether our friend who wrote this question lost his child in miscarriage as a direct discipline from God because of his pornography. I do not know. He does not know. I do know that in the loss of the child, God wills a new humility and a new submission and a new faith and new purity through the pain of this loss.
4. What should you do if you believe God has dealt you such a blow?
Here is the fourth and final thing: What should you do? What should this person, this man, do if he believes that God has dealt him such a painful blow? And the answer is not in doubt. Many things are in doubt. Many things are uncertain in this situation. But the path of gospel obedience is not uncertain. The glorious truth of the gospel is that we never need to be sure whether a specific suffering is owing to a specific disobedience. You don’t need to know this. You don’t need to figure this out. I have dealt with so many people over the years who come into my office longing to know whether there is some connection between some pain and some sin. And I always start and end with the fact: You don’t need to know that.
And the reason we don’t need to be sure about that is that the gospel forgiveness and gospel righteousness imputed through faith in Christ does not depend on that certainty of understanding. It depends on Christ and on faith in him. We don’t need to be sure about the connection between our particular sufferings and our particular sins in this life, because the death of Christ is sufficient to forgive the worst sin in spite of the worst suffering. That is the glory of the gospel.
So, what our friend must do in this confusion — he says, “I am confused.” Okay, so I am saying, what he must do in his confusion is stop fretting about whether his pornography was the direct cause of his miscarriage. He should stop fretting about that. He will never know for sure the answer to that question, short of some direct revelation. Whether he knew it was or wasn’t, the lesson remains the same. The Lord gives and the Lord has taken away. And God’s merciful design for our friend is that he worship. Blessed be the Lord (Job 1:21). Worship more deeply the way Job did.
God also designs that he renounce sin more fully the way Job did and that he lay afresh on the power of the Holy Spirit to flee all temptation and that he renounce in the presence of his wife for her joy that he is done with this sin.