Interview with John Piper
Desiring God 2005 National Conference
Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
The following transcript is of an interview with John Piper conducted by Justin Taylor on October 7, 2005.
Pastor John, you’ve become known as a champion of and a celebrator of God’s control of all things. But I wonder if you always thought that way. Is it something you grew up thinking? Maybe you could tell us a little bit of your theological journey to get to this place — if you didn’t start your journey believing in God’s absolute sovereignty.
No, I didn’t start believing that way. The paradox is that my dad, Dr. Bill Piper — an evangelist all my life and still doing a little bit of evangelizing in the Shepherd Care Center where he lives with memory loss in Greenville, South Carolina — lived the sovereignty of God. I can remember his prayers always aimed at the glory of God, depending on the sovereignty of God. And he would use those words, and I remember them as a child. The other side of the paradox is that he would never, ever call himself a Calvinist, and to this day he thinks that’s a very bad word to use.
The sticking point for my dad is the fact that in the Reformed tradition and understanding of Scripture the act of regeneration by the Holy Spirit precedes and enables faith, which I believe with all my heart is what the Bible teaches. But my dad doesn’t. And we still get along well because I think he’s totally inconsistent! He thinks it wrecks evangelism. So I grew up not knowing this was a tension, and, therefore, hearing and absorbing a lifestyle of radical dependence upon the sovereignty of God, and hearing, without knowing it, an articulation of theology not in sync with the life. (That’s my assessment of what was happening.)
So when I went to college and began to hear people give a framework to this, I revolted against the sovereignty of God. That’s not where I was theoretically in my head — though emotionally I think that’s the way I would have responded to a tragedy even then. So from 1964 till about halfway through the 1968–69 school year at Fuller Seminary, I would have argued with anybody who believed what I believe today. I would have said, “No way. That cannot be the case with the Bible, and it cannot be the case philosophically.”
When I arrived at Fuller Seminary, I took a class on systematic theology with Jaymes Morgan, who died of stomach cancer while I was there, and another with Dan Fuller on hermeneutics. And coming from both sides — theology and exegesis — I was feeling myself absolutely cornered by all the evidences of God’s sovereignty in the Bible. And I can remember. . . maybe two little anecdotes.
I can remember standing outside the classroom one day, and I got in front of Jaymes Morgan. He was a very big man until he got cancer. He was just huge and a really great teacher, about thirty-six years old. And I can remember he had a big black armband, and he’d march in protest to the Vietnam war (this was 1968–69). He said, “I love Jesus, John Piper.” He was teaching me all this stuff about the sovereignty of God. And I got in his face one day. I said, “Watch this, Morgan.” And I dropped a pencil right in front of his face, and declared: “I dropped it!” That was my defense of free will.
The other anecdote occurred at the end of Dan Fuller’s class after he had patiently pointed to the Bible and the Holy Spirit. I can remember going home after class. (This was before I was married. Noël and I were married in December 1968, and I took Dan Fuller’s class that fall.) I would put my face in my hands in my room, and I would just cry because my world was coming apart. I just couldn’t figure anything out. So I’m really patient and tender with people who struggle with this — I hope I am anyway. I give them a lot of space to move gradually to where God is taking them.
But at the end of Jaymes Morgan’s theology class, I wrote in a blue book (this was back when we used blue books for final exams): “Romans 9 is like a tiger going around devouring freewillers like me.” And it did. Romans 9 just held me until 1982 when I wrote The Justification of God; I had to come to terms for myself and for my students when I was teaching at Bethel College. What does Romans 9 really mean? I had heard all the efforts to escape what seemed to be its plain meaning, and they never commended themselves. Even in scholarly ways they never commended themselves. So I would date my transition from a kind of unsophisticated believer — in terms of my autonomy and my self-determination — to a biblical vision of God’s sovereignty over my life in his grace in the fall of ’68 and on into ’69.
One more personal question before we get to some more theological questions. You and I were chatting on the phone earlier, and you mentioned that today is a very special day in your life. It’s your mother’s birthday today [October 7]. And if my math is right, she would have been eighty-seven?
I wonder if you could tell us the significance of your mother and her birthday for this topic of suffering and the sovereignty of God.
The question is relevant because my mother was killed thirtyone years ago, when I was twenty-eight years old, in a bus accident in Israel. I chose not to build it into the message of this book — because I feel like I beat the drum too much sometimes. But it shows you how little I’ve suffered really. I’ve really not suffered very much, because this is the biggest loss I’ve ever had. I was twenty-eight years old and I lost my mother, and it was huge. To this day, if I choose, I can cry. I can choose to cry. I just think about a certain thing and I can cry. And I cried every day for six months when my mother died.
But here’s the relevance for this context. I was twenty-eight years old. I was six years into my confidence in the total sovereignty of God. And as that phone call happened — many of you have gotten these phone calls too — it’s a brother-in-law this time. And he said, “Johnny, I’ve got bad news. Are you ready?” “Yes.” “Your mother was just killed in a bus wreck in Israel, and your dad may not make it.” And I said, “Do you know any more?” He gave me what details he had. And as I hung up, my little two-year-old Karsten is pulling on my pant leg. “Daddy, sad? Daddy, sad?”
And I say to my wife, “Mother’s dead, and Daddy may not make it. Just let me be alone for a while.” I walked back to the bedroom and kneeled down by the bed and cried for two hours. I just heaved for two hours. And never once did I have any emotional anger at God. Never once did it occur to me I should somehow get upset about God. I simply thought, “If God cannot control the flight of a four-by-four flying through the front of a bus after a van hits it, I can’t worship him.” How can you worship a God who just fumbles the ball? He can’t control a piece of lumber? That’s not a God I’m going to worship. It is far easier to me to worship a God who is totally in control and offers me the mysterious hope this is going to be good for you, for her, for your dad, for the cause of evangelism. And I could tell you stories if we had time. I could tell you stories from my father of what that did for his ministry. He remarried a year later. I did the wedding. Now he’s lost his second wife after twenty-five years. But what God did in his ministry . . .
I can remember riding with my daddy in the ambulance, with my mother in the hearse behind us. We were coming from Atlanta, Georgia to Greenville, South Carolina, and Daddy was crying on and off and saying, “Why was I spared? God must have something for me. God must have something for me.” And I just sat and listened, and, oh, did God have something for him!
So I can see little teeny glimpses of what God was up to. I still would love to have my mother know my grandchildren. Believe me. I would love to have this woman influencing my children, her great-grandchildren — but that was not to be. I submit under that sovereign hand, and I believe in a God who was in total control and did what was best for her, best for me, best for my dad, even best for my sister, who, when looking into my mother’s coffin upon its arrival from Israel ten days later, fainted onto the floor because the embalming situation wasn’t so good.
I think when a lot of us think about suffering — if we’re not thinking about our personal lives — we’re thinking about the persecuted church around the world. I recently read an article that quoted an unnamed underground Chinese church leader. And here’s what he said, and I’d like to get your reaction to it. This was his word to us Americans: “Stop praying for persecution in China to end, for it is through persecution that the church has grown. We, in fact, are praying that the American church might taste the same persecution so revival would come to the American church like we have seen in China” (Dan Wooding, “Chinese Christians Are Praying That Persecution Comes to the American Church” [accessed March 9, 2006]). So when I read that quote, two questions emerged: (1) Should we start praying for persecution here? (2) And should we stop praying for persecution to end over there?
When I think of Hebrews 13:3 — “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them . . . since you also are in the body” — it seems like what the author is trying to say there is that you can imagine what it’s like to have your hands tied down or to be tortured or beaten. And the Golden Rule would be do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Therefore, certainly go visit them, don’t leave them without help, and imagine what you would want. And so I can’t help but think that a good heart would long for anyone who is being hurt not to be hurt anymore. In fact, I think our churches should labor to relieve suffering in the world, especially eternal suffering.
It feels a little bit like presumption to me to dictate to God in my prayer the strategy of purification for the church, unless I am praying for a particular command in the Bible. God no doubt uses persecution to purify the church, and he may do that for us here. Here’s the way I do it for myself — just for me, not the church: When I get on my knees and think about my struggles with pride or fear or greed or complacency or lack of love, what I say to God is, “Lord” (this is a really dangerous prayer, I think), “whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to break me of pride, of the fear of man, of greed, of cancer . . . if it takes loss of family, ministry — do it. I want to be holy. I want to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Do whatever it takes.” That feels biblical to me, whereas to tell him, “today what I need is a car wreck” or “today what I need is more pain” — that seems presumptuous.
Nobody ever says, “I made my greatest advances in holiness on the happiest days of my life.” Nobody says that. Everybody says, “I made my greatest advances in holiness on the hardest days of my life.” Everybody talks that way. But once you’ve talked that way long enough and you want to be holy badly enough, then I can see why people would gravitate towards: “Give me some bad days. Give me more bad days.” But I don’t find it in the Bible, and I do find empathy in the Bible, and the Golden Rule in the Bible, and the danger of presumption in the Bible. And so I’m inclined not to encourage us to pray that way.
So when I think about China, I want to pray, “Cause the Word of God to run and triumph by whatever means you choose. Make the church grow. Same thing here. Whatever you have to do to purify the church, to make the church less oriented on things that are light and frivolous and fun, and more oriented on things that are weighty and glorious and beautiful and powerful, do whatever you have to do to raise up a powerful evangelical church.” That feels more “let God be God” than the other.
It seems like we could endure a lot of suffering if we just have the presence of God. But there’s a form of suffering, as you know, that entails the seeming absence of God. And I think that’s oftentimes the most painful — whether it’s a health issue, or a child having cancer, or being stuck in a habitual sin and begging God with tears for repentance and crying day after day after day. What do you do when it seems like God is not near, and no matter what you do, he does not seem to answer? C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, described it like this:
A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once… (Lewis, A Grief Observed [Bantam, 1961], 4–5)
How do you counsel people in that sort of situation where it seems so dark and silent?
That’s a good way to ask the question, I think, because counsel is what’s needed there among other things. And when you ask, “How do you counsel them?” I take that to mean “What demeanor should you have and what words should you speak?”
And I think the first demeanor you should have is to come alongside and to be honest about your own struggles and get your arm around them and be a partner and a helper. “I’m with you.” “I’m alongside you.” “I’m not above pushing you or squashing.” “I’m around.” That would be a how-to-counsel first, so that they have a sense that they’re not alone in that kind of struggle.
Secondly, I would remind them of psalmists who seem to speak out of that kind of How long, O Lord? How long? I have retreated to Psalm 40 for myself and for people that I’ve counseled for years.
I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. (verses 1-3)
But it starts with “I waited,” and thankfully it doesn’t say a week, a month, a year. It’s just open: “I waited patiently for the LORD.” So I would draw the person’s attention to the fact that people that we know who are saints of God have walked through dark nights of the soul where they waited for God, meaning they must feel distant here. But instead of throwing in the towel on God, they’re waiting. They’re waiting.
Thirdly, depending on whether they’re emotionally able to take this, I would begin to interpret for them their situation so that they can draw some conclusions other than the absence of God. That’s their interpretation of what’s going on. It’s probably wrong. And therefore they are not in an emotional framework, or maybe a theological framework, to get it right. They’re seeing a few circumstances — this went bad; this went bad; this went bad; I tried this and it didn’t work — and now the conclusion must be that God is gone. That’s not necessarily the only conclusion. So you analyze their situation, and then you show them from the Scripture that God wasn’t gone in numerous times where people thought he was gone or it looked like he was gone.
One of the most helpful sequences in the Bible for me — and you all know this story and have used it the same way I have because you’ve walked through things — is Joseph in the Old Testament. I love to graph. One time I graphed the life of Joseph on paper. He’s a star, and he’s having dreams that he’s going to be the king and be bowed down to someday. And he’s above his brothers and he’s not handling that very well, making enemies among his brothers.
So one day they throw him into a pit. And that’s the first little downward spin on the graph. And after a while Reuben comes and pulls him up, and Joseph thinks, “Oh good, it’s going to go better.” The graph line of his life comes up a little bit, and then they sell him into slavery and there the graph goes down again. And in slavery he gets a job at Potiphar’s house and that seems to go well; his boss has confidence, so there’s a little upward jog in the graph. And then this woman tries to seduce him and he runs away from her, did what was right, and he goes into prison for it. There he goes down again. And a little while later he gets the confidence of the jailer and that seems hopeful; the graph goes up a bit. But these two people are there to say, “Tell us our dreams.” And Joseph tells them their dreams and then he says, “Remember me when you come back to Pharaoh, Mr. Cupbearer.” But the cupbearer forgets Joseph for two more years. And that’s the bottom of the graph. That’s thirteen years.
And you know what happens next. He gets made the vicepresident of Egypt and it all turns out for good: “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). And I ask people, where are you on your thirteen-year fall? You have been fighting this for thirteen years. Have you been abandoned for thirteen years? And they might have been, but not if they are Christians. Most people can locate themselves one year, two years, three years, four years, five years down this graph. I say, look, even though God had a plan for Joseph in his apparent abandonment, it looked like everything was going wrong. When Joseph tried to do his very best, it went wrong. But God was never against him. Never.
As a Christian you’re interpreting your situation wrongly if you think that. If you cast yourself on the Lord, if you trust him, if you love him, he’s going to work everything together for your good, if it takes thirteen years or twenty-seven years. There are so many stories about how he has done this. And then you tell stories from your own life or people you know, or church history, and you try to help people interpret their life differently.
And the last thing I would say is — and this is true in virtually every counseling situation — ultimately we want to orient people on the cross. We want to get them to Calvary because in the end you can always look at Jesus hanging on the cross and ask, is that infinite worth not sufficient to cover my sin? Is it not sufficient to cover my problem? Is it not sufficient to give evidence that he will help me? Just fall there.
Justin, I know what you would ask me if you were a real skeptic and questioner. You would ask, “What if they say, ‘I don’t think I’m included’?” — which you should ask.
What if they don’t think they’re included?
If you’re a Calvinist you might ask, am I elect? If you’re not a Calvinist you just might ask, is my faith authentic? It’s the same kind of problem experienced at the same level. And the bottomline answer to that is not a simple little “here it says, ‘If you believe, you have the Holy Spirit.’” Have you believed? Yes. Where’s the Holy Spirit? He’s in my heart. That does not work. That simply does not work. That is so superficial, because the issue is, am I really believing? Because the Bible says there are going to be some people in the last day who are stunned when he says, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matthew 7:23). They’re going to think they were believing all the time, but they were not believing. So how do I know if I am believing? That’s the kind of terror that will keep you awake at night and make life really hard.
The bottom-line answer is: Look to Christ. Look to Christ. Look to Christ. Only in looking to Christ and the cross does Romans 8:16 powerfully happen. “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” I can’t give anybody assurance that they’re truly saved. I can’t give anybody assurance that they’re elect. But God can. And it’s a miracle. You pray for it and you wait for it, and you don’t stand in front of the mirror looking endlessly into your soul with introspection. That comes periodically, but mainly you stand in front of the cross and you keep looking and looking and looking. And in looking you are saved.
Just to add my own anecdote: Last year a farmer gave me an analogy. He told me that when a farmer is plowing his field and wants to make a straight line, he focuses his eyes upon a spot in the distance. The result is that the line is straight. But if he looks down and tries to see where he’s going, he’ll go off course. To put the cross at the center of our attention is exactly right.
For this next question, I’ll tell you what the question is first and then I’ll set it up. The question is: where is God? Everybody asks, where is God? Tsunamis come, 9/11 comes, Hurricane Katrina, etc. Personally — and perhaps it’s because those are more abstract — I struggle less with the “where is God” question in some big natural catastrophe than I do with the issues like abuse, especially sexual abuse of children. And so I want to ask the “where is God” question, but I want to frame it by reading a quote from The Brothers Karamazov, which one person at least has said contains the greatest argument against God’s existence and the problem of evil. So if you’ll allow me here, I just want to read this quote and then ask you: where is God in this situation? This is from chapter 4, where Ivan is talking to Alyosha about Russian children. He says:
There was a little girl of five who was hated by her mother and father. . . .
This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty — shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy [outhouse], and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans!
Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark in the cold and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolic good and evil when it costs so much? Why the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God! (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazo)
So where is God in a situation of that kind of terrible torture of children and rape of children? Can one maintain idea that God is absolutely sovereign over all things with that kind of evil?
Yes. The question where is metaphorical and hardly has an answer. “On the throne of the universe preparing a place for the little girl in heaven that will recompense her ten-thousand-fold for everything she is experiencing.” “Preparing hell for her parents so that justice will be done perfectly.” And those who look upon both the heaven recompense and the hell recompense will bow in sovereign wonder at the justice of God. Those are possible answers to where he is.
But I think the nub of the issue is whether anything sufficiently good could come from a world in which that is ordained. I don’t know whether this man is speaking for Dostoevsky or not. I don’t remember it well enough. Does the speaker have a vision of God as the supreme value of the universe? It seems that when he says, “the whole world of knowledge is not worth that,” he does not put the knowledge of God where the Bible puts the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God and his glory is the highest experience of man. And my own conviction — whether this will be a relief or whether it would be presumptuous to you — my own conviction is that because of the argument of Romans 1:19-22 and John 9 and a few others, all children who are born and die the way that little girl did, or in less horrible ways, are elect and will go to heaven.
You don’t have to go to Dostoevsky. All you need to do is read about the dashing of the infants in the Old Testament ordained by God explicitly. I can draw some pictures of what that looks like for some of you, and it would be worse than that. Therefore, this is not an external problem. This is a biblical problem. We have our God ordaining the dashing of infants against the stone. And the solution to that in my mind, to the degree that there is one for finite minds, is that those infants will be repaid ten-thousand-fold for the pain that they endured. The perpetrators will be punished appropriately. And this is likely the one that most of us don’t think through enough; namely, the reason that such horrors exist in the physical realm and the moral realm is to display the outrage of sin. The outrage of sin against the holy God.
Let me see if I can help you feel what I’m saying here. When Adam and Eve fell by rebelling against God, God subjected the entire universe to corruption. You might say that’s an overreaction. Well, if you bring your brain to the Bible and shape the Bible by your brain, that’s what you’re going to say. But if you let the Bible describe what’s happening and shape your brain by the Bible, the conclusion you should draw is that sin is unfathomably outrageous. To turn your back on the living Creator God and prefer an apple to him is the ultimate outrage. It is infinitely outrageous. It deserves infinite punishment. And what God does in bringing the whole universe into subjection to futility — Romans 8:20 — is to create a horrid parable of the outrage of moral evil. So that everywhere I look when I see outrageous physical evil — suffering — I want my response to be, “Oh how infinitely outrageous and repugnant is sin against the holy God.” So I understand all the physical horrors of the world as symbolic of the horrors of the moral reality of sin against God.
Let me go a little step further. When Jesus died on the cross, you can come at that in one of two ways. You can say that not only was there Adam and Eve’s sin, which was so evil it brought down the entire universe, but there have been in every one of us ten thousand of those sins. And multiply that by the number of people who have lived on the earth, or just take the church and multiply our sins — each one of which is no less grievous than choosing an apple over God — and therefore every sin that is committed should bring down the whole universe on our heads with physical horrors like this. And Jesus Christ hung on the cross and displayed the infinite value of God’s worthiness to be treasured, not traded away. And now, stand and wonder at the value of the Son of God, that his suffering could match all of those universe-crushing sins for which he died. Or you could come at it from the side of Christ and see how gloriously supreme he is and how infinitely valuable he is, and then draw the conclusion about how terrible sin is.
What I’m saying in addition to those preliminary things is that every time we see something horrific, some horrible accident, our thoughts should be about the outrage of sin, not the injustice of God. These stories I’ve heard about people backing over their own children with their car. What would that mean? How would that feel — that bump, and you get out, and everything in you would scream. I knelt beside a man and put my arm around him about three weeks ago whose little girl was in the middle of Eleventh Avenue with a blue tarp over her. She had just walked across the road behind her dad. Hit. Got killed instantly right down the street from our house. And he just sat there staring at her. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to,” he said. So we’ve all tasted this. And when we see the horrific things that happen in the world, what should we feel?
I think instead of calling God into question, we should see them as evidences in our lives of the outrage of our sin and the horrific evil and repugnance of sin to a holy God. And God is displaying to us the outrage of our sin in the only way that we can see it, because we don’t get upset about our sinning. We only get upset about the hurt. How many of you lose sleep — well, some of you are good saints and you do — over your own fallenness? Most of us get bent out of shape about things that hurt our bodies, but it’s our sins that are the ultimate outrage. So I think the kind of repugnance Dostoevsky is talking about is a display of how horrifically terrible our own sin is. And then Christ arrives, bears all that outrage, and by his own suffering undoes suffering. I want to summon people to Christ as the final solution to that problem.
You just ended there talking about sin and our hearts as Christians. And probably the most famous sentence you have written is “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” So God gets the glory through our happiness, our satisfaction in him. If that’s the case — if God is so passionate about his glory and everything he does is about getting glory for his own name — then why do Christians sin so much? It would seem from a human point of view that at this point in my life, if I was this much holy God would be getting this much glory. I’m only this holy or this holy. So what’s the correlation there? And what’s the reason, do you think?
You are so right. My sin is my greatest burden. Why? Why? Why is the process of sanctification so slow? And the first answer is because I am so evil. But the comeback is: but God, your God, is sovereign. He can do whatever he wants. And if he’s most glorified in us when we’re most satisfied in him and he cares about his glory infinitely, why doesn’t he advance your satisfaction in him, cut the roots of more sins, and therefore get more glory for himself more quickly? And that is an absolutely crucial question. And I have dealt with more people — I’m not sure if this is true but close — who are ready to give up their Christian faith precisely because of the slowness of their sanctification, rather than because of physical harm that’s been brought to them or hurt that’s come into their life. They’re just tired. “I just can’t fight it anymore. I can’t succeed. I’m not making any progress. It just can’t be real.” So that is a horribly real and dangerous situation to be in.
Free will is a zero answer here, because at the last day in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet when Christ descends, he will with the snap of his finger make us holy. You will never sin again after the Second Coming, unless you’re in hell. You will never sin again after your death, if you’re a believer. So God at a point in time can sanctify you instantaneously — the spirits of just men made whole (Hebrews 12:23). Therefore, if he wanted to, he could do it now without ruining this so-called free will. If he can do it at the end of your life so that you’re perfect for eternity, he can do it now. And he doesn’t do it.
This means I have more to learn. I try not to come to this Book, the Bible, now dictating, “That can’t be. That’s a stupid way to run the world.” I try to go under this Book, and my mind just gets blown every day of my life almost. This is a mind-blowing book. You try to get your mind not around but just into this Book. Remember, Chesterton said something like: mad men try to get heaven into their head, and poets try to get their head into the heavens. I try to get my head into the heaven of this Book instead of trying to dictate to this Book how God should sanctify us.
Therefore, I draw this conclusion: “God, if you love your glory infinitely and you are more glorified in me when I am more satisfied in you, and my sin is being manifest by the slowness of my being satisfied in you totally, then it must be that the struggle that I’m having with my own sin will somehow in some way cause me to be more satisfied in you.” Someday. And one way to conceive of it is this: I’ll look back on my sin when I’m in heaven and say, “How could such grace have carried on with me?” and I’ll love his grace more than I ever would have, had I made progress more quickly.
Now, that’s a terribly dangerous thing to say because you’re all going to go out and sin to beat the band now. You’re all going to give up on your quest for holiness. You’re all going to give up on trying to be satisfied in God. Don’t do that. In other words, that would be again making your brain supreme and trying to tell this Book what to do. You don’t bring your brain and say, Okay, I drew that logical inference and now I should live a life of sin that grace may abound. Let us sin that our satisfaction in you would abound in your grace. Paul said of people who think that way, “their condemnation is just” (Romans 3:8). Therefore, do what the Bible says. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. And every day that you fail, be on your face giving thanks to the cross of Christ.
So if God is sovereign over everything — from the rising and falling of nations, on the one hand, to the particles of dust in a sunbeam, on the other — then what is the motivation for us to effect change? In other words, if God is sovereign — if his purposes will be accomplished with or without us — then is there any necessity to our involvement?
This is a crucial question for me because I have heard Christians say recently that believing in the sovereignty of God hinders Christians from working hard to eradicate diseases like malaria and tuberculosis and cancer and AIDS. They think the logic goes like this: If God sovereignly wills all things, including malaria, then we would be striving against God to invest millions of dollars to find a way to wipe it out.
That is not the logic the Bible teaches. And it is not what Calvinists have historically believed. In fact, lovers of God’s sovereignty have been among the most aggressive scientists who have helped subdue creation and bring it under the dominion of man for his good — just like Psalm 8:6 says: “You have given him [man] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.”
The logic of the Bible says: Act according to God’s “will of command,” not according to his “will of decree.” God’s “will of decree” is whatever comes to pass. “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15). God’s “will of decree” ordained that his Son be betrayed, ridiculed, mocked, beaten, forsaken, pierced, and killed. But the Bible teaches us plainly that we should not betray, ridicule, mock, beat, forsake, pierce, or kill innocent people. That is God’s “will of command.” We do not look at the death of Jesus, clearly willed by God, and conclude that killing Jesus is good and that we should join the mockers. No.
In the same way, we do not look at the devastation of malaria or AIDS and conclude that we should join the ranks of the indifferent. No. “Love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:39) is God’s will of command. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12) is God’s will of command. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him” (Romans 12:20) is God’s will of command. The disasters that God ordains are not aimed at paralyzing his people with indifference, but mobilizing them with compassion.
When Paul taught that the creation was subjected to futility (Romans 8:20), he also taught that this subjection was “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (verse 21). There is no reason that Christians should not embrace this futility-lifting calling now. God will complete it in the age to come. But it is a good thing to conquer as much disease and suffering now in the name of Christ as we can.
In fact, I would wave the banner right now and call some of you to enter vocations of research that may be the means of undoing some of the great diseases of the world. This is not fighting against God. God is as much in charge of the research as he is of the disease. You can be an instrument in his hand. This may be the time appointed for the triumph that he wills to bring over the disease that he ordained. Don’t try to read the mind of God from his mysterious decrees of calamity. Do what he says. And what he says is: “Do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10).
I think this will be the final question: What are you doing in your own life to prepare for suffering and death? And how do you counsel all of us here to prepare for suffering and death — whether we’re in the final chapters of life or young people not knowing when the Lord will take us or what he will give us? How do you prepare for suffering and death?
I have a funny habit that I’ve mentioned before, and I’ve done it for the last three nights so I know the habit is still there: I can only sleep on my left side. I have no idea why. I wish it weren’t the case because it gets achy. But if I try to sleep on my right side I just lie awake. So I’m always on the left side. So Noël is behind me, and I face the door. It seems like the manly thing to do! And as I’m lying there with my head on my pillow, I take my wrist and I catch my pulse. I can just see the alarm clock with its big, yellow numbers. And it doesn’t have a second hand, so I have to count for a whole minute. And as soon as the six goes to seven — like 10:36 going to 10:37 — I start counting: one, two, three, four. I count just to see what my sleeping pulse rate is. And when I’m done before I go to sleep I remind myself: Anyone of those beats *[finger snap] *stop, and it’s finished. There’s no reason this heart should keep beating, absolutely none, except God. If he wanted to, he could say to any one of those beats, “last beat,” and I’m done. Will I wake up in heaven or in hell? I ask myself that.
And I walk myself through the gospel and I look at Jesus and I look at the cross, and I try to get as absolutely personal as I can. Nothing formal. Nothing mechanical. No forms. No sermons. Just picturing Jesus if this heart stopped — there I am face to face, either as Judge or Savior. And I say: Jesus, as much as it lies within me, you are my God. You are my Savior. You are my Lord. I renounce all reliance upon myself. I dedicate myself to you. I trust your blood wholly for my salvation. And I now commit myself to you for this night. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I would commend that as something to wake you up seriously to your mortality. But strategically the answer to your question is: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you” (John Owen). So set your sights to destroy any known sin in your life, lest you fall. “Let him who thinks that he stand take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Secondly, be in the Word of God every day seeking to see Christ as your treasure. I’m very intentional about the way I use this Book. I’m reading through the Bible with my typical Bible reading plan that most people have at the church. But I’m on the lookout for God and for Christ, not just moral precepts; I’m on the lookout for God. Show me your glory that I might be transformed from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is seeing the glories of Christ in the gospel. That’s why I almost never stop my reading unless I catch a little bit of the Gospels, just to see Jesus functioning on planet Earth. So I look at him and I love him. I come away with something almost every day that is just stunning about Jesus that enables me to commune with him in an admiring, personal way because I just saw the way he was in the Bible.
And third, pray that God would preserve you and keep you in all suffering and in your dying hour. I frankly sometimes worry about dying. I’ve watched a lot of people die over twenty-five years in the pastorate. For some it’s been so sweet, and for others it has been horrific. And some of the greatest saints experience the hardest dying. And therefore, I don’t know what I’ll do. And I assure myself, you get the ticket when you get on the train.
That’s the way Corrie ten Boom described how the grace to die well arrives — on time, not before. She wondered, will I be able to endure the torture? And her dad said, “When you take the train do I give you the ticket three weeks ahead or do I give you the ticket when you get on the train?” And she said, “When I get on the train.” “Well, God has a grace for you for your torture. He’ll give it to you when the torture comes.”
And I think that’s very biblical because there’s a correlation of Matthew 6:34 and Lamentations 3:23. “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” “His mercies are new every morning.” So every day has its appointed trouble, including the day of your death; and every day has its appointed mercies for those troubles, no more. If you reach forward and bring tomorrow’s troubles into today and say, Lord, give me the grace for tomorrow’s troubles, he’ll say, I will give you the grace for that tomorrow. But you have to have a mighty deep confidence that God’s going to come through for you, and that’s what faith is, I believe. And that’s why we go to the Word.
I could list off a lot more means of grace that God has appointed. I think fasting and elements of voluntary self-denial are wise for American wimpy Christians who never endure any hardship at all and calculate their whole lives to avoid hardship. I think we ought to build into our lives some artificial hardships called fasting, self-denial. Take up your cross daily and follow me; he who denies himself will be my disciple (Luke 9:23). So that’s just another means of grace.
The list of ways to prepare ourselves to suffer well goes on and on. Worship corporately with God’s people. Be in a small group where you are exhorted regularly to stay close to Jesus. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13). We are all vulnerable to drifting away from the living Christ if we don’t have people in our lives getting in our face to tell us the truth about God when we can’t see the truth, especially the truth that’s uncomfortable to us. So stay in this Book mainly, because it will give you guidance in all of the preparations for your death and for your suffering that you need.
Thank you very much for taking this hour. And I wonder if you would close in a word of prayer.
Incline our heart, O God, to your testimonies and not to getting gain (Psalm 119:36). And then open our eyes over the page that we may see wonderful things out of your law (Psalm 119:18). And then unite our heart to fear your name (Psalm 86:11). And then satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad in you all our days (Psalm 90:14). And then send us, O God, so satisfied in Christ that we count everything as rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing him (Philippians 3:8). And would you sever, O God, the roots of sin in our lives so that we are sold utterly to righteousness and love. And so make this people gathered here, I pray, the most radical risk-taking kinds of Christians in the cause of justice, in the cause of love, in the cause of missions, in the cause of evangelism that they can possibly be. I ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.