Pastor John, as someone who enjoys writing, I am interested to hear your thoughts about a writers’ influence — how he or she engages a reader with the written word. And you rather strongly encouraged writers to better appreciate the influence that they can have on those readers. Explain this for us. Explain the importance of a writer’s influence.
I tweeted recently that if you are not praying that what you write would influence people, is it because you do not believe in what you say and think it does not matter, or is it because you think that people do not matter?
“It is wrong not to want to influence people when you write.”
This means that I think it is wrong not to want to influence people when you write. Paul said, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14), and he said, “Do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). So, when we are writing, either we are loving people or we are not — we should be seeking to love people. And we are either seeking to glorify God or we are not — we should be seeking to glorify God.
And I think the way you love people is by influencing them, persuading them, winning them, awakening them to delight in God above all things. This means that whenever you write, you should be writing in such a way as to make God look better than anything else in the world, to make the path of sin look worse than anything else in the world, and to make the path of righteousness look beautiful in spite of all the difficulties that the path of obedience might bring.
So whether you are writing fiction or whether you are writing a blog or a poem or a book, or a theological treatise, it seems to me that love and the glory of God dictate that you cannot be indifferent to whether you want people to be affected by your writing. You want them to think true thoughts about God and life, and you want them to feel appropriate affections for God and about sin and life. And therefore, writing is simply an extension of living, and all of life is to be lived in love for people and for the glory of God.
And when you start there, then you think backwards into other questions: “What does that mean for the kinds of words I use? The kinds of sentences I use? The paragraphs I use? The lengths of things I write? The cultural illustrations I employ?” And you begin to think through all the implications of writing. And all of this starts with the assumption that I am on the planet to influence people.
Writing with Readers in Mind
Pastor John, as you write — as you look at the screen of your computer — are you conscious of your readers in that moment, of how you are trying to influence them?
That’s a really good question. I once heard somebody who, when asked, “Who do you write for?” said, “I write for people like me.” I am not a very good example of one who can crawl inside the skin of a particular age group or cultural segment. What I feel like God has gifted me in is being able to crawl inside the skin of a human. And the way I have gotten to know humans mainly is by knowing John Piper — my sins, my worries, my longings. I am so introspectively driven on these things and so second-guessing about everything I do that I think I have gotten to know this human pretty well. And then I try to read and watch, being aware of the effects of what I write.
“Writing is a devotional exercise by which I am ever seeking to see and feel.”
So I am generally not saying “This segment of people — say, from 18 to 25 — think this way. Therefore, I will say this.” My mind just does not work like that. But as I am writing, I do feel like, “If I say it this way, it is going to be off-putting. If I say it this other way, it will be acceptable, and yet it will not have any impact.” I have got to find a way between off-putting and insipid that penetrates the heart.
At this point, I am thinking very hard about how my writing will be heard. It is just that I do not tend to categorize audiences. I am probably doing it intuitively: if I were writing explicitly for people who had never heard of Jesus — well, I would clearly write differently than if I were writing for somebody who had. So, I do have a generic audience with some presuppositions in my mind, but I am not very good at focusing on particular groups.
Writing to See and Writing to Feel
So, how much of your writing really results in personal edification, then?
All of it. For me, writing is a devotional or intellectual exercise by which I am ever seeking to see what I am saying and feel what I am writing. This is why I would write quite apart from any publishing. If the Lord said, “No more publishing,” goodness, I would not stop writing! If he said, “I am not going to let anyone read anything you write for the rest of your life,” I would not stop writing. I would just write, put it in a notebook, and throw it in a basket somewhere. Because writing, for me, has become a way of seeing and a way of feeling.
“Writing is simply an extension of living, and all of life is to be lived in love of people and for the glory of God.”
And so my answer is, “I am always writing for my own edification, my own growth in knowledge, and my own awakening to the types of affections that I think one ought to have for God.” And it is just stunning to me — I have had people come to me, saying “I am stuck in my devotions.” And I have recommended, “Well, just write the text. Start there. Just write the text, and as you are writing, if you get an idea, write that too. But just write the text.” Because for some people, putting things on paper — whether with a pen or with a computer — actually causes thoughts to happen that would not happen any other way.
I generally do not even “have it” until I write it. My head is generally in such a muddle until I start writing. A few days ago, when I was thinking about the pastoral implications of the historical Adam for someone who had written to me, everything was a muddle in my head. I had no idea what I would say. And as soon as I started writing, eight ideas came to my mind. Because as I wrote one, I saw an implication, and that could be another one. And then I saw two other implications and other questions and I had to answer those and that gave me more. And all that was not happening until I put pen to paper.