As I mentioned earlier, D. A. Carson’s For the Love of God has probably been the most influential Bible study tool of my life. Very often I realize that a theological idea that has become very important in my thinking probably originated when I originally read one of his meditations. (I usually discover this upon re-reading the same meditation a year or two later when I go back through his book.)
I came across one such idea when I re-read Carson’s meditation on Jeremiah 14. The whole post is worth reading, but here is the relevant portion, in part:
(3) Because our own culture tries so hard to detach from God what happens in the “natural” world, reserving for him only private or distantly “spiritual” things, we rush to give naturalistic explanations for our wars and famines and plagues instead of at least trying to learn the lessons providence may be teaching us. I am not suggesting that it is easy to read providence. We have seen that Scripture itself warns us against trying to infer too much too quickly (Luke 13:1-5). Nevertheless, not to draw any moral and spiritual lessons from disasters may be nothing more than an index of how far we have sold ourselves to the forces of secularization. We resolutely refuse to “hear” what God says when he speaks to us in the language of judgment—exactly the response of ancient Israel. Indeed, according to this chapter there was a hearty collection of religious leaders who denied any connection between disaster and divine judgment (Jer. 14:14). It is ever so.
This sentiment (published in 1999) very much informed my thoughts about the (over) reaction to John Piper’s infamous comments in 2009 about the tornado which came down from heaven ostensibly only to strike the convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, who were at that moment scheduled to begin considerations about whether homosexual practice should bar someone from ordained ministry.
One of my good friends recently argued that Piper’s comments have come back to bite him now that Piper and others have been “conspicuously silent” about explaining God’s providence in the wake of the Colorado fires that have particularly inflicted damage on the homes of prominent evangelical leaders. This is the rhetorical question raised, “If the tornado was a judgment on the sin of the ELCA, were the fires a judgment on the sin of the Navigators?”
In that post, my good friend quoted another good friend’s response to Piper, and I will repeat the quotation:
I know that Dr. Piper loves the Puritans, and there are many exemplary things I too have treasured in Puritan writings. However, one of their (several) deep failings was to presume upon knowing God’s secret will. Whether this manifested in a presumption about who was and wasn’t elect or a willingness to draw a line from particular natural disasters to particular moral evils (one thinks of the “earthquake sermons” common in 1727 and 1755, which vary a great deal in this regard but often make this link), it was always problematic.To give a counter-example: a church in the town where I used to live, faithful to Scripture and attended by several dear friends, burned down a couple years ago. Am I to assign this calamity to some specific judgment of God? Of course not.
Indeed, this is the very point of the Tower of Siloam discussion in Luke 13. Dr. Piper cites it in his argument, but Christ’s whole point here was that, while the general brokenness of the world should point us to all of our general states of sin, we cannot link any specific disaster with some specific sin.
God is the creator and sustainer of the world, and as such his ways are beyond our knowing or finding out. While his providential rule over the world certainly must extend to things like natural disasters, it is utter presumption to think from this fact that we can discover the “why” behind it. We may never know – to suppose that we can makes God a little less holy and a little more in our own images.
Having recently rediscovered Carson’s sentiments (quoted above), I want to articulate a few thoughts about “reading providence.”
I would agree that there is danger is making categorical, simplistic statements that x happened because of y (e.g., “9/11 happened because of abortions/the homosexuals/pornography/etc.”). The Bible is not a code decrypter, given to help us decipher with perfect clarity the messages of God spoken through general revelation. We must approach this with humility.
And yet, on the other side, Carson’s warning from Jeremiah 14 should haunt us: “We resolutely refuse to ‘hear’ what God says when he speaks to us in the language of judgment—exactly the response of ancient Israel. Indeed, according to this chapter there was a hearty collection of religious leaders who denied any connection between disaster and divine judgment (Jer. 14:14).” Which, I might ask, would be worse?: (1) to repent from sin because of a natural disaster that God did not *intend* (more on this in a moment) to use for our repentance, or (2) to ignore the booming voice of God in natural revelation, insisting that it’s simply impossible to read that far into God’s secret will? Wasn’t Satan’s first tactic in the garden to ask, “Did God actually say…?”
Personally, I wonder if people who reject the possibility of reading providence with any degree of certainty hear people like John Piper as saying “x happened entirely because of y,” as though God only has one simple message to declare, and so he sends a tornado to condemn the ELCA and a fire to expose the Navigators.
Would it help to say, “Part of what God is doing here with x is to say y“? I personally have no problem with saying that part of what God was doing in sending the tornado against the ELCA conference was to call them to repentance. Moreover (and Piper made this point in his clarification), should we not hear every event in general revelation as a call to me for my repentance? As a reminder of our frailty and God’s power? Isn’t this how Jesus commanded us to interpret disasters? “Repent, or you likewise will perish.” Even if God is accomplishing something far greater in scale and scope through the disaster (something we almost certainly cannot read), shouldn’t we hear that message?
Even in the case of the fires in Colorado, I think such an interpretation of Providence applies–not as though some great, grievous sin has been exposed by the fires, but that everything in our lives are fragile, frail, and transient, and that we must find security only in Christ. Piper, reflecting on the message of the “tornado” of his own cancer, writes:
I said to myself three years ago: God’s design in the tornado of this cancer is “to deepen my love for Christ…and to wean me off the breast of the world.” It aims to make my besetting sins look less attractive than they ever have.
This tornado “is designed to destroy the appetite for sin. Pride, greed, lust, hatred, unforgiveness, impatience, laziness, procrastination—all these are the adversaries that cancer is meant to attack.” In other words, the cancer-tornado was a merciful rebuke to my worldliness and a timely thrust toward holiness.
I think that he has an extremely valid point, biblically speaking. The Scriptures tell us exactly how to read general revelation:
[19:1] The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat. (Psalm 19:1-6 ESV)
And more than that, the Scriptures tell us how we ought to respond to this incessant declaration of the glory of God:
 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools,  and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23 ESV)
If we suppress the truth revealed in general revelation and do not repent, we incur the very wrath of God. Indeed, from this perspective, we should read even a sunny day as a summons to repent–how much more a tornado that falls from the sky precisely at the moment that the church of Jesus Christ officially authorizes what God has declared to be sin?
John Piper’s cancer, the Minneapolis tornado, the fires in Colorado, and even the tragic shootings a few weeks ago in Aurora, Colorado, should all echo the voice of Jesus in our ears: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).