On social media, why does John Piper mostly avoid talking about politics and breaking news and hot trends? It’s a great question today from an alert podcast listener named Blake. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the podcast and for all the many answers you have provided over the years. As I look back through all those episodes, they seem to be primarily life application and theology and clarity on Bible passages. For the most part you seem to avoid addressing current events and political hot-button issues here on the podcast, and I think this is true of most of your ministry in general. Just curious — why not? Why do you avoid saying much about current events and politics?”
Where Is Piper?
Yeah, I’ve given a lot of thought to that. Not just when I heard this question — other people have made that observation. I make that observation and wonder why as well. Why am I the way I am?
“The spiritual condition of a person’s soul is infinitely more important than any political transaction on the face of the earth.”
It is a generalization — let’s be clear. It’s a generalization because I wrote a whole book on racism, and it has political ramifications everywhere. I have lots of sermons and articles on abortion, marriage, homosexuality. I’ve looked Obama right in the face and spoken stuff on YouTube.
But Blake is right. In general, that is the impression you would get of my life’s work — my sermons and messages and articles and APJs and Look at the Book episodes. Piper doesn’t come at current events very often.
In other words, when Twitter is ablaze with some new controversy, where is Piper? Where is Piper? “He’s over there quoting Bible verses, like he doesn’t even know what’s going on. Don’t you know we’re about to lose the Supreme Court nominee? Come on! Do something.”
Okay. Here are my six observations about why this is the case.
Politics and the Soul
I was raised in an atmosphere where the spiritual condition of a person’s soul is infinitely — get this — infinitely more important than any political transaction on the face of the earth — like C.S. Lewis saying, “The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world” (Christian Reflections, 10).
That is an amazing and true sentence. It’s not clear what the implications of it are for people who make their lives writing and studying the masterpieces — like Lewis himself. But it’s true. I still live in that atmosphere. That’s who I am. I believe that is the atmosphere of the New Testament.
I feel today that most of the macro and international, political, economic issues are too complicated for me to figure out. Therefore, I don’t have anything authoritative to say from the Bible about particular strategies for how to solve various political or economic issues.
I just can’t get to the level of expertise that makes me feel warranted to get up and say, “Listen to me, folks.” I feel that way about the Bible. I want people to listen to me. I want them to hear my perspective on the Bible. But seldom do I come to the point where I feel like, with some complex issue out there, I’ve risen to the level of knowledge that would warrant my voice to be authoritative.
Besides that, I have a deep skepticism in our day about whether we can know the facts of most situations well enough to make pronouncements about them, especially from a distance.
Silence on Socialism
Here’s an immediate example of the kind of thing I feel. The night before last, I watched an interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district. She is to the left of Bernie Sanders on socialism. She’s a democratic socialist — explicitly so.
“My main calling is not to help America be anything, but to help the church be the church.”
You might say that this is a kind of test case of the sort of thing should I write an article about, preach about, or answer on an Ask Pastor John episode: “What about the rising tide of socialism in America?”
But will I write and speak about this? Probably not, though I will be very, very glad that some do, and I’ll probably read some of what they say. But here are the reasons.
1. A Different Life
First, the time and focus it would take for me to do the research would take me into a wholly different life than the one I am presently called to live.
It would take a ton of time learning about Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders, and the socialistic experiment in Venezuela or Sweden, and the historical examples of its failures or successes, and the reasons the minimum-wage law works or doesn’t work, or the pros and cons of rent control and whether they work or don’t work to accomplish anything good long term for the poor, or the probabilities of corruption in a socialist government versus a capitalist government, etc.
It would lead me into a wholly different life than the one I am presently called to. I am called to the enormous task of understanding the Scriptures, and preaching what they mean in their original context, and then, so far as I’m able, to apply them to people’s real lives. In other words, I deal with the Bible pretty far upstream from the flow down into the nitty-gritties of political realization.
2. A Certain Kind of Christian
Second, I probably will not make myself a teacher about socialism or capitalism because I am one hundred times — that’s a generalization; it might be two hundred or one hundred ninety — more passionate about creating the kind of Christians and the kind of churches that stand with unshaken, faithful, biblical, countercultural spiritual-mindedness in a socialist America than I am in preventing a socialist America.
I’m one hundred times more passionate about creating Christians and churches that will be faithful, biblical, countercultural, and spiritually minded in a socialist America, in a Muslim America, in a communist America, than I am in preventing a Muslim America or a communist America. That puts me in a very different ballpark than many public voices.
My main calling is not to help America be anything, but to help the church be the church. I want to help the church be the radical outpost of the kingdom of Christ, no matter what kind of America it happens to be in or any other people group or country in the world.
I will say again that I am glad — glad, glad, glad — that there are Christians who are politically more active than I am in trying to shape laws that are just and wise.
Limitations and Wiring
Here’s a third observation for why I am oriented this way. I’ve already hinted at it: simple limitations. Not just that many issues are too complicated for me to be a teacher about them, but that my capacities for doing the necessary investigation and reflection are limited by how slowly I read and what my emotional and relational bandwidth is given the other commitments in my life.
“The greatest issues are not temporal, but eternal. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
I operate with very significant limitations. Anybody who knows me knows what they are, and I have to steward that little strength inside these massive limitations so as to be as useful as I can be.
We’re all wired differently by God, and that includes the kind of things we’re naturally inclined to think about and find interesting and provocative. My own bent is not towards social, cultural, political macro issues. My bent, for whatever reason — this is just a personal bent — is toward the way the individual soul works in relation to God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, faith, holiness, and human relationships.
Why do individual people love or not? Why are they afraid or have confidence? Why are they lazy or active? Why are they foolish? Why are they craving security or making sacrifices and taking risks? Why do they have joy? Why do some people have joy in pain and others get angry at God?
These are the kinds of questions that stir my emotional engagement way more than whether rent controls are effective or not in helping people.
Keep Your Heart
I do feel that the greater, long-term impact for the glory of Christ and for the good of the nations and for the purity and strengthening of the church will come not through the politicizing of my voice, but through a more penetrating, personal, eternal focus on the human soul and how it can be most effectively conformed to Christ.
Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Everything flows downstream from this spring. My bent is to focus there, on the spring, up in the mountain. I focus on the heart and then trust God that there will be this ongoing, widening, spreading, leveling effect for good in churches and families and cities.
The stream that flows from the spring — a biblical faith — will inevitably touch all the issues of life, including social and political issues. The people that live close to those issues — social and political realities — and who are Christian, should speak and act in relation to those issues in ways that are distinctly Christian.
But what those Christians, those public and more engaged Christians than I am, need from their pastors, week in and week out, is probably not that those pastors become experts on every issue that faces the local, state, and national legislature, but rather that these public Christians be fed steadily on a stream of exposition of what biblical texts actually mean with whatever measure of application the pastors can bring.
If a pastor is faithful to do consistent, rich, careful, unflinching expositions of the whole counsel of God in Scripture, his messages will certainly touch on the ethical dimensions of social and political realities, of the world where people live. He will see where a biblical, moral issue in Scripture has a clear and unavoidable connection to a current issue or promise seen in the culture, and he’ll draw that out and call for courage and righteousness and holiness in his people.
But — last comment — he will never lose sight that the greatest issues are not temporal, but eternal. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (see Luke 9:25)?