Culture Friday – John Piper on fear and faith

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday the 10th of April, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Culture Friday. 

Earlier this week Franklin Graham gave an interview to Fox News about the emergency field hospital Samaritan’s Purse is operating in Central Park. 

But something else he said towards the end of the segment raised some media eyebrows.

GRAHAM: I don’t think God planned for this to happen. It’s because of the sin that’s in the world, Judge. Man has turned his back on God. We have sinned against Him, and we need to ask for God’s forgiveness. And that’s what Easter is all about.

BASHAM: Several outlets including The Washington Post and reported on these and similar remarks Graham has made over the past week. The Post specifically noted Graham’s comment, and I’ll read it here, quote: “We have worshipped other gods in this country, and those gods are sports or entertainment …. The people we’ve idolized are on the shelf. I think God is trying to get our attention.” End quote.

Now, most of the outlets who wrote about Graham’s comments weren’t especially critical—certainly not by today’s standards of divisiveness.

But they did seem a bit, well, puzzled might be the right word, about why Graham would connect coronavirus to sin if he wasn’t calling the pandemic a punishment from God.

EICHER: We could think of no one better to whom we could bring this and other weighty theological questions than author, theologian, and founder of the ministry, Desiring God. 

John Piper, for the first time ever on Culture Friday.

This is an honor. Welcome!

JOHN PIPER, GUEST: Honor to me, too. Thank you!

EICHER: Well, Pastor John, I think judgment is one of those issues believers understand in the abstract

I want to mention our editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky continually stresses to us “the ladder of abstraction”—in other words, the higher up, the more abstract, the lower down, the more concrete. So we move up and down in our journalism: bring in an abstraction, but then ground it in reality.

So in that spirit, it seems we’re in a moment right now where the world is asking questions about judgment or punishment in really urgent ways. And the basic question comes down to: Is God punishing us? 

So down the ladder, straight into scripture, Pastor John: What connection do you find in the Bible between physical afflictions and God’s methods for getting our attention, as Franklin Graham put it?

PIPER: Right. And so what comes to my mind are two passages, and one is general—like you said, maybe more abstract—and the other is really, really, really specific. And it’s the way Jesus thought. 

The first one is Romans 8:19-23 and it relates especially to the connection between sin—or the moral condition of our heart—and the physical state of the world. And so you read from verses 19 following, and it talks about the creation being subjected to futility, not of its own will, but the will of him who subjected it in hope and that’s God. Satan didn’t subject it in hope. Adam and Eve didn’t subject it in hope. God—we call it the fall, we call it the curse—subjected the world to futility and to corruption. Now, that involves every manner of misery for thousands of years. And death. Everybody dies because of that moment. It’s a horrific judgment from God and it’s in everybody’s life. 

So, that’s the first thing to say. 

And my question, when I read that, is “Oh my goodness. Why did God take out the moral issue on the physical world?”

Here’s my attempt at an answer: God knows that sinful people are blind to the moral outrage of belittling God through their indifference or their sin. Nobody loses any sleep in this world over the fact that we pay more attention to the style of our hair than we do our creator. But you let God touch their body, touch their body with cancer or you got a horrible sore throat right now. Touch that and, man, are we awake? We are wide awake and we’re saying, “Where are you God?” 

Well, what is that? That’s God’s way of saying, OK, if we are blind to the moral outrage of sin, because of our own fallenness, how will I give them a thunderclap of awakening so that they can see the outrage of their failed relationship with God?  So that’s the general understanding of why the world is the way it is, I think.

So it’s not just coronavirus. When I get sick, I think it’s God’s wake up call, “Get serious, Piper. You’re going to die and your relationship with me is not all it should be.” 

Now, one more text and I’ll try to keep this one shorter. When the people came to Jesus in Luke 13 and Pilate had murdered some people in the temple and the Tower of Siloam had fallen on 18 people—evidently just bystanders—and the people wanted to know, OK, Jesus, tell me what’s up with this. What have they done? 

And you talk about moving from abstract to concrete, Jesus looked them right in the eye and said, “You’re astonished that 18 people died or that 10,000 people have died of coronavirus? You’re astonished at that? Here’s what you ought to be astonished at, that you haven’t died yet.” 

That’s exactly what he said. He said, “Unless you repent, you”—he didn’t say they. He shifted it from they to you. Really concrete. “You will perish if you don’t repent.” 

So, I would say we can draw a line from Romans 8:19-23 and Luke 13:1-5. We can draw a straight line from those two passages to the coronavirus and say, well, we know at least two things that God is doing or saying. He is saying to the world the moral outrage of the sin that pervades this world is as great as the horror you see in this coronavirus. 

And the second thing he’s saying is unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. And so I think when Franklin Graham turned from his first statement about “God didn’t plan this” to his other statement, namely “God’s doing something to get our attention,” he was on the right track the second time.

BASHAM: You know, Pastor John, I’d like to take just a second to maybe indulge in a personal question. Speaking for the Marthas of the world, I almost feel like I have multiple personalities given the many, often contradictory, things I’ve been getting upset about over the last couple of weeks. 

On the one hand, there have been moments where I’ve sort of rolled the eyes of my heart at the new restrictions. I’ve felt frustrated and resentful that I can’t just get back to life as I knew it.

But then only a couple hours later, if seasonal allergies cause a little tickle in my throat or my husband suddenly sounds congested, I go straight to fear and panic.

What would you say to a Christian like me who may be feeling tossed by some pretty wild swings of emotion right now?

PIPER: Tossed by wild swings is almost a paraphrase of Ephesians 4. Christ doesn’t want his people to be like leaves blowing around or waves tossed by the sea. So the fact that he would even go there with that kind of imagery says he knows what you’re talking about. 

So, I’ll just give you my own personal testimony. When I have to deal with my emotions going up and down and sideways, I have to fly to the word of God. I have to fly to promises. When the doctor told me—so you talk about an emotional swing here—I walked into my urologist office 12 years ago, feeling great, and he does his usual exam and then he looks me in the eye and says, “I want to do a biopsy.” And at that moment, you talk about an emotional swing. I said, “When?” He said, “Now.” So he goes to get the machine, I’m left alone for about 10 minutes. I’m alone with my emotions doing what your emotions do, right? 

And God—because I’ve spent 65 years reading my Bible and had some things stored up here—brought to my mind something from, I can’t remember if it was the same morning or just recently, and it was as though God said to me, “You are not appointed for wrath, but you are appointed for salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ who died for you so that whether you wake or sleep, you might live with him.” 

I’ll tell you, that was so perfect at that moment. That’s all I needed. 

And so my answer is we fly to the word and we lay hold on promises. Promises about frustration and anxiety. Promises about the sickness of our loved ones and maybe I’ll just mention one because it’s for me been prevalent right now. When we talk about the sovereignty of God in this, nobody spoke more sweetly and firmly about the sovereignty of God than Jesus. He said, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from your father.” Now, that’s first century language for, “There are no rogue viruses.” None.

The next thing out of his mouth is, “The hairs of your head are all numbered. You are of more value than many sparrows.” Now, that’s what makes Jesus so unparalleled in his way of talking. 

And so on the one hand Jesus is saying to you in your emotional swings and me in mine, I’ve got this world in my hands and not one sparrow is going to fall out of a tree apart from my design, my purpose, my plan. And, by the way, “even though Piper doesn’t have as many hairs on his head as he used to, I know exactly how many there are.” Which is surely, I mean, surely the point of that is he’s close and attentive.

So I think when you get words like that in your head and heart and then you pray down the Holy Spirit, he applies the words to our lives and there is a peace that is produced in a way that goes beyond what reason can produce.

EICHER: Last question, maybe the thorniest question. And that’s the economic costs. Some we know, some we don’t, some we can’t, at least not now.

So along with stories of suffering from illness, we’re reading about GDP loss, massive unemployment. We’re hearing stories of people, often people the least able to afford suddenly being out of work. 

Now, those of us in the so-called knowledge economy, we can work from home. We keep earning paychecks.

But what about those who can’t?

And I should preface, we don’t want to worship mammon. But I think we’re in danger of ignoring the economists, or, worse, looking down our noses at them as indifferent to life, and this, it’s just what’s really bugging me right now, honestly.

PIPER: Well, I certainly don’t know the answer to when more harm is going to be done by pulling workers off the job than keeping them on the job. And I am very slow at—what surprises me in our day is how quick people are to judge our leaders for the decisions they are making, as though they were God. I don’t have a clue how to weigh the horrific costs in life for job loss over against the possible health loss of getting out and going to work. I don’t know. I mean, who knows? Who can know what this virus is going to do? 

I mean, if we sent everybody back to work and then 5 million people died in the next three weeks, we’d probably say, “Well, that wasn’t the right idea.” But who knows? I mean, who can be a judge in these matters? 

And so, wow, what a good question to ask and what a crucial question to ask in our day. And so health and economic well being are not easily distinguished. 

That’s what you’re drawing attention to. The economic costs are more difficult to immediately assess than getting sick and dying. That’s easy to assess. And so I’m praying earnestly for our leaders—many of whom I don’t like and think their attitudes stink—ah, help the rest of us know how to make these calls because I surely don’t. I wish I did, but, you know, we used to say as an eldership, when we don’t know what to do, we know what to do when we don’t know what to do. We pray. And God was so merciful to us many times when we had absolutely no idea what the solution to an issue facing us was. And we’d call these extra prayer and fasting mornings and say, ‘God, we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what the solution to this is.’ And I never failed to see him answer when we did that. And so I think that ambiguity and inscrutability is another summons to the people of God: get on your faces and repent and pray.

EICHER: Well, before we go, let me say thanks on behalf of WORLD for offering your Coronavirus and Christ book that you just wrote—and for making it available free to our readers and listeners. It’s a thoughtful and brief, 100-page, book aimed at exactly this time in history: Desiring God contacted us and said we could offer it for free. So generous!

Coronavirus and Christ is available to you in hard copy, but also in a digital copy you can have today, right away, as well in an audiobook format, where you can hear Pastor John read it. Takes about two hours.

As I say, free to you. No reason you should not head over to and give your contact info, so we can send it to you in any form you like.

BASHAM: I’ve read and listened already, and I’ll just call your attention to the prayer at the very end. So totally on point. It’s a prayer I personally borrowed just last night, so good!

And when you hear the audiobook version, you hear the urgency and passion. It’ll bring you to tears.

Pastor John, thank you so much for being with us today.

PIPER: Well, what a privilege. Thank you so much.

(Photo/Desiring God)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on Culture Friday – John Piper on fear and faith

  1. Wanted to get Piper book especailly the recording of him reading it.

  2. Hi Pastor Brown!

    You can sign up to get Piper’s book here:

    Thanks for listening!

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