A 140 char response to tragedy is always bad pastoral care

It doesn’t matter whether Rachel Held Evans took John Piper’s tweet about the Oklahoma tornadoes “out of context.” It doesn’t matter whether she used the incident as a springboard to talk about other problematic things that Piper has said in the past and polemicize against the underlying theology that she considers to be the source of such statements. The fact remains that tweeting Bible verses about houses falling down on children and killing them after that happens to someone in real life is bad pastoral care. Always. Period. No matter what you write before or after. I’m not trying to be a jerk; I know he took the tweets down and apologized. But I still feel like the zealous self-assurance of his disciples who tore into Rachel so ferociously requires a reality check. I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said about this, except to relate some comments from Chaplain Mike at InternetMonk and Stephen Smith at Liberty for Captives.

From InternetMonk’s John Piper, Miserable Comforter:

Once [Job’s friends] opened their mouths, it was all downhill. They became “miserable comforters.” It is not simply a matter of timing. The friends’ words came after the accepted period of silent mourning. Their words were wrong. And so it is with John Piper. It is not as though Piper’s words, inappropriate in the tender moment, would be appropriate once wounds have healed somewhat, once things have calmed down and we have time to gain perspective on the tragedy. No, his understanding and application of the book of Job is wrong. He has taken his place with Job’s friends, not with the argument of the text.

From the point when Job’s friends open their mouths, the Book of Job becomes a protest against their “miserable comfort,” particularly by challenging all theologies of explanation.

I really feel like the need to weigh in on every public tragedy that comes along is disrespectful to the victims. We can and should pray. Perhaps it’s appropriate to tell others publicly that we’re praying. I suppose we can reference a tragedy in our preaching for the benefit of our own congregations. But to theologize in the public square especially in such an impersonal forum as twitter?!!! Not okay. When Job’s friends’ come across him, their first response is silence: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). Likewise our compassion for those suffering and our fear of the Lord should compel us not to “darken [His] counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2).

From Liberty for Captives’ 6 Reasons Why Christian Leaders Respond Inappropriately to Tragedy:

Some Christian leaders subscribe to particular theological systems which simplify the raw complexity of God’s working in the world. These systems offer a comfortable human framework constructed by the minds of men and women who wish to shield themselves from the full blazing mystery and complexity of God. While these systems offer some helpful interpretations and explanations of God’s working, they are finite and thus inadequate. In the case of a disaster, such leaders lean heavily on their interpretive framework to provide prefabricated solutions to a truly monumental problem… If you can say “God is sovereign and we should worship him no matter what happens,” then perhaps you can avoid the smoke and blood on the ground. But we should remember that even Job—after affirming God’s sovereignty—spent 30+ chapters weeping, doubting, and expressing anger.

It’s not that John Piper is an evil person or even that he has nothing constructive to offer theologically. His book Desiring God has been an instrumental part of my development. I will even concede that the Calvinist God is not necessarily a sadistic monster; I am with the Calvinists in their insistence on the ubiquitousness of God’s sovereign grace. No good ever has its source in us; it is always God working through us. What is problematic is what Chaplain Mike calls “a theology of explanation.” When you have to show that you have a 140 character theological answer for every event that happens, you’re no longer talking about God’s sovereignty; you’re exalting your own sovereignty as an explainer. That is where Calvinism goes foul, when it falls in love with its systems of explanation and its pantheon of explainers (Spurgeon, Sproul, Packer, Grudem, etc). rather than fearing the One whose mysteries are inscrutable.

This is precisely what the book of Job is polemicizing against, as Chaplain Mike relates:

[Piper] simply cannot admit to what the book of Job actually teaches — that all explanations are inadequate. The point of Yahweh’s overwhelming theophany at the end of the book is that we cannot hope to analyze the hidden counsels of God or translate the mysteries of life into systematic terms. To attempt to do so is to become “miserable comforters.”

God’s ways are a mystery. And we shouldn’t say even that much to people who are hurt by events that cannot be blamed on anyone. We can keep in mind for ourselves that “God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28). But rather than just tweeting this verse which is the cyber-equivalent of saying, “Go; be warm and well fed” (James 2:16) to people who are hurting, we should seek to embody this truth and be the vessels that God uses to work all things together for the good. That’s a much better witness.

18 thoughts on “A 140 char response to tragedy is always bad pastoral care

  1. Excellent post. Yes, I thought the original tweets were crass. People who are suffering don’t really need theology at first; maybe later.

    The other stuff about meticulous providence and so on, is fascinating, but it can wait.

  2. Ack, I had no idea this had happened. Unfortunately, this only shows what I already suspect: that a lot of people are more interested in their own ego and their perfect understanding of what a tragedy means, than actually being sensitive to the victims’ pain and suffering.

    • True. I think I was feeling a need to say more after the pounding that Rachel took. Perhaps it’s immature of me. I’m done now.

      • Sorry Bro, but when a little critique of RHE is translated as a “pounding” it only confirms what I wrote on my facebook wall. That for some people RHE is simply “off limits.” Sheesh. Seriously. What about the “poundings” she routinely gives out?

        I’m not disagreeing with her critique of John Piper’s theology nor am I suggesting that John Piper’s tweets were wise (he’d agree btw, which is why he removed them). She was critiqued for misinterpreting his tweet and using her assumptions as an opportunity to pound him. She had to be called to account for that. She does the same thing all the time. She critiques what others say (especially in the neo-reformed camp). In the midst of some things they might say that is correct, they’ll say something that is not and she’ll jump on them. That’s how this works. It’s holding one another accountable for what we say.

        But with RHE, somehow in the minds of many, she is just off limits! So when RHE steps out of line it is dismissed by those in her tribe as “it doesn’t matter”? Well ain’t that convenient? Maybe that should become the standing dialogue response..

        Sorry, but RHE’s get out of jail free card by her undying-tribe burns my breeches.

        • I can see where you’re coming from. She’s not off-limits. I think you were pretty fair in what you wrote but some of the comments on her blog were downright nasty. I get very uncomfortable when I see a bunch of guys who don’t think women should be talking theology at all puffing out their chests and taking advantage of an opportunity to get some licks in. I also think it’s problem when conversation gets reduced into a binary “you overreached so ‘my side’ wins.” Nobody wins when conversation turns into a binary. I think Internet Monk had a very measured but forceful critique that was appropriate. I don’t think Rachel should have jumped into Sovereign Grace and all that as a response to the particular issue at hand, but anytime anybody sends out a provocative tweet, particularly one making tragedy into a “teachable moment,” they should expect to get a visceral response.

      • Please,never quantify discernment of the Spirit. I get the PC thing ( like Jeff says, “let it go” because he is tried of talking about it, perhaps) but you were obviously moved to defend a friend because she was correct. That is not immature, or a lack of grace. That was the right thing to do. You have a responsibility as a pastor and prophet to do what you did, just as Rachel must speak out. 1 Cor. 12.9 If you are truly done, so be it, but not because someone is tired of listening.

        • Moses’ arms got tired so he needed his people to hold them up. My arms get tired a lot and I second guess myself so I need people to hold me accountable to my vocation. I just hope that I’m not letting my emotions compromise me.

  3. Maybe I’m off my rocker here, but my inclination is that Piper was trying to be sympathetic and compassionate in this particular situation–because the victims were “his people,” good Bible believing, and maybe even a some solid Calvinists. Piper’s tweets of lament and worship are connected with his understanding that God was being tested and refined. Piper was encouraging the victims. Aside from the notion that God plans or allows evil for the spiritual growth of the elect, I’m personally wondering if the bigger issue at stake is that Piper has turned his theology of God punishing the wicked with disaster into an even greater insult. Have faith–God’s inflictions will help you. Don’t have faith–God’s inflictions are because you’re scum. On a separate note, I believe John Wesley articulates that the moment humanity hits total depravity, Christ’s prevenient grace kicks in.

    • I don’t know. It was just so raw to quote a Bible verse where the same thing happened. I know he took the tweets down and said he was sorry. I was just mad at the way that Rachel Held Evans got pounded by his followers. And I didn’t want that to be the last word. Also I want to genuinely wrestle through the question of what’s appropriate and what isn’t in terms of public theologizing since I often tweet provocative things and I’m trying to figure out the boundaries for doing so.

  4. Why don’t we stop getting angry about someone’s tweet and just do what we can for Oklahoma? Pray for them. Donate if you feel led.

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