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Cancer, John Piper, and the Falleness of Creation

16th February 2006

John Piper has posted on his website an article entitled “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” (HT BlogWatch). He wrote the short reflection yesterday (15 February) before having prostate surgery (his surgery reportedly went well). I too have been thinking a lot about cancer recently. My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer two days before Christmas, a close friend was diagnosed with breast cancer early in the new year, and some of my students have family members who were recently diagnosed. In addition, this upcoming Sunday will mark the fifth anniversary of my father’s death from cancer.

In his article, Piper produces a series of ten statements that begin, “You will waste your cancer if you….” Now most of the statements are meant to encourage believers to remain positive and hopeful when struggling with cancer (e.g., “You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God”; “You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection”; etc.). I have no issues with the vast majority of his points.

That being said, I do take issue with his first two statements:

  1. You will waste your cancer if you do not believe it is designed for you by God.
    It will not do to say that God only uses our cancer but does not design it. What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design. If God foresees molecular developments becoming cancer, he can stop it or not. If he does not, he has a purpose. Since he is infinitely wise, it is right to call this purpose a design. Satan is real and causes many pleasures and pains. But he is not ultimate. So when he strikes Job with boils (Job 2:7), Job attributes it ultimately to God (2:10) and the inspired writer agrees: “They… comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). If you don’t believe your cancer is designed for you by God, you will waste it.
  2. You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.
    “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). “There is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel” (Numbers 23:23). “The Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).

Now, perhaps I am just coming from a different place theologically than Piper (actually, I know I am), but I find the notions that God “designs” people’s cancer and that cancer is a “gift from God” to be offensive. What is more, I find that Piper’s proof-texting of Scripture to be troubling. In the book of Job, God does allow “the adversary” (הַשָּׂטָ֖ן, hasatan) to inflict Job, and his so-called friends did see his suffering as from the hands of God and due to his own sin. But, in the same way it is fallaciouss to see all suffering as the result of sin, so it is not the point of the book of Job to then attribute all suffering to the direct agency of God. Similarly, his series of proof-texts for his second point are perhaps relevant to part of his point that cancer is not a “curse.” But saying that cancer is not a “curse” is not the same as saying it is a gift.

All good things are a gift from God (James 1:17) but in my books cancer is not a good thing. Cancer is an all too frequent reminder that this world is radically fallen, that things are manifestly not the way they are supposed to be — they are hebel (הֶבֶל). I do think there is a subtle, yet theologically important distinction to be made between talking about cancer (or any sickness or tragedy) as being used by God over against cancer being caused or designed by God.

Perhaps I am wrong, or at least biased by my own personal experiences. Whether or not you agree with my perspective (which I would readily admit I have not developed in any detail in this post), one thing we can all agree on is that we should pray. We should pray for John Piper and all who are struggling with cancer. I covet your prayers for my father-in-law and my friend, as well as for the others I have mentioned.

In addition, I encourage you to consider supporting one of the many agencies or foundations who work towards cures and more effective cancer treatments, such as the Canadian Cancer Society or the American Cancer Society.


4 Responses to “Cancer, John Piper, and the Falleness of Creation”

  1. Matthew Hornbrook Says:

    After our discussion in theology class, I wrote to John Piper to discuss how I agree with you that cancer is not a gift from God. I don’t have as strong arguements as yourself, but I tried my best. The John Piper Ministry, Desiring God, is open to more commentary and maybe I could use some of your stronger arguements to help bring them to a richer understanding of God. Here is their response:

    Dear Matthew,

    Thank you for your email to Desiring God. My name is Brian Tabb, and I work at Desiring God and will answer this email for John Piper. Your questions/comments come in response to “Don’t Waste Your Cancer,â€? posted by John Piper the day before his cancer surgery. Piper cited Job 2:7-10 as support for the statement “You will waste your cancer if you do not believe it is designed for you by God.â€? This passage begins, “So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his headâ€? (Job 2:7). Satan is the instrument and intends Job’s harm and ultimately his denial of God. Yet he can not so much as lay a finger on Job without asking God and God saying yes. God’s role in Job’s suffering is not minimized by the Biblical author or by the character of Job or his wife. Both knew that God was behind the boils. Job’s wife responded negatively (a common way to respond to cancer/boils/etc.) “Curse God and die.â€? This is exactly what Satan wanted out of this affliction. Job’s response is rebuke and humble submission, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”

    You want to emphasize that suffering exists only because ours is a sinful, fallen world, and I agree. That does not exclude Piper’s position but talks past it. You argue, “In a sinless and unfallen world, cancer would not be a gift from God so how can this be in our sin-filled world?� However, this is arguing for a hypothetical world in which cancer is not a gift rather than arguing from the world we live in. God did not ordain cancer in Genesis 2 and there will be no more in Revelation 21. But we live in between, and while the kingdom of God has been inaugurated in the ministry of Jesus (Lk 11:20), it will not be consummated until Christ’s return (Rev. 12:10). Jesus did come to heal, yet in God’s wisdom he also died a criminal’s death as the crowds jeered “Save yourself� (Lk 23:37). Why did Jesus not go immediately to heal Lazarus, his beloved friend, in Jn 11? For the display of the glory of God. Why was Paul not healed of his thorn in 2 Cor. 12? He said “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me� (12:9).

    You are correct to point out that we must deal with the sinfulness that is real and pervasive in our present world, and Piper and I certainly agree with you. But it is too simplistic to say that such and such happens because of sin. Job’s friends did that and were heartily rebuked at the end of the book because they had no clue about God’s wisdom and design. The disciples in John 9 said “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer blows their retribution theology out of the water, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.â€? Sin is a very real cause of suffering, but it is not ultimate. What we want to stress is that God is ultimate as this seems the clear witness of the above passages and more. I hope this helps to clarify the article and I welcome any further feedback.

    For the Supremacy of Christ in All Things,

    Brian Tabb

    Desiring God

    2601 East Franklin Avenue

    Minneapolis, MN 55406

    888.346.4700 (toll free)

    612.338.4372 (fax)

    http://www.desiringGod.org

  2. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Here are the comments from the original post on my blogger site before moving to WordPress:

    I agree with you Tyler. It bugs me too. Sometimes people get caught up in needing their suffering to have a meaning, any meaning, and they forget that sometimes, terrible things just happen. They get so busy trying to make all the little puzzle pieces fit into the puzzle that they’re making, they forget that sometimes puzzle-making requires stepping back and putting pieces back into the unknown/not yet pile.
    An | 02.16.06 – 3:58 pm


    God be with you, Tyler. My own father died from cancer nearly 20 years ago. I would find a God who “ordained” that sort of thing impossible to believe in. As Paul Ricoeur said, meaning in suffering is always meaning in spite of, never because of.

    Steve.
    Steve Martin | 02.16.06 – 5:53 pm


    I agree with you, Tyler. To say that God “designs” cancer or that it is a “gift” is offensive both to God and to the very real experience of human suffering.

    In contrast to Piper, here’s what Karl Barth had to say: “[Sickness] is opposed to [God's] good will as Creator and has existence and power only under his mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with the will of God, what man ought to will in face of this whole realm … and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final resistance.” Church Dogmatics III/4, pp. 367-8
    Ben Myers | 02.16.06 – 7:51 pm


    Mr. Williams:

    Thank you for your perspective in this post. I could do without John Piper’s proof texts, but I believe his points in the essay at issue are spot on. God works his purposes through pain as much as joy, and even though cancer is a reflection of the brokenness of the world, God works through it as much as anything else in the created order.

    It may be difficult and at times impossible to see the purposes of God through suffering, but they are indeed there. When I had cancer three years ago, God quickly showed me his reasons for and the lessons I should take from my illness, so much so that today I rejoice in my experience.

    Recently, with Hurricane Katrina, I cannot see God’s purpose in the disaster. In my confusion, I rely upon God’s message to Habakkuk: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” Hopefully I will someday see his purposes in grand scale, but for now I simply trust in him.

    I am sorry to hear of how cancer has touched you and your family. I will add you and yours to my prayers, and I will pray that knowledge of God’s purposes will be a comfort to you as it has been for me.

    Evan Sparks | 02.16.06 – 10:33 pm


    I would have to say that I am sitting somewhere in-between on this debate. My father died of cancer when I was 16, and I have this deep-seated fear that cancer is ‘coming for me next’. As you said it does sound offensive to make cancer a gift- but I would place it in a wider frame of context- death. Everyone will die, though the circumstances and timing will be different for all. That is what is part of life. But every death seems like a violation- and it is. We as human beings, created of God, were not meant to die. Death, by whatever means it is, alerts us that something isn’t right and sparks in us the awareness that there ought to be something better. Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “Death provides the fundamental datum that something isn’t working the way it was intended, accompanied by the feeling that we have every right to expect something other and better” (Christ Plays in 10,000 places, 137). The harder the death for the individual and that person’s family, the more forceful that reminder is. Cancer is a violation-death is a violation- of what God intends for human beings. If we can speak of cancer at all in the terms of ‘gift’, it is only in the sense that it reminds us that there is something more, and spurns our hope for His Kingdom Come.

    Danny Zacharias | 02.17.06 – 6:59 am |


    Tyler,

    You are spot on in your contentions. My grandmother and grandfather (both sides) died of cancer. It is a horrible specter that I pray neither my wife, childeren or myself ever gets. Thanks for the timeleness of your post.

    With Warm Regards
    Joe
    Joe Cathey | 02.17.06 – 7:41 am

    I have to disagree with at least some of what you say. I don’t agree with saying cancer is not a curse, because it’s obviously part of the curse of the fall, but aside from that I’m not as troubled by what he says as you are. Part of the reason is that I think you’re misreading Piper a little. If he’s guilty of something here, I think it’s speaking unclearly.

    I don’t think he’s saying that cancer is from the direct agency of God, as you put it. He seems to deny that right upfront by distinguishing between God’s causing something directly and God’s allowing something. Then he says that if God allows it there must be some reason he allows it. That means he isn’t thinking of it as the direct agency of God but simply God’s purpose for allowing it to happen.

    I think the first part of #2 governs how we should interpret the second part, because he sounds as if he’s first speaking more carefully and officially. What he goes on to say should then be viewed as subordinated to that. That means the design he’s talking about is simply God’s reasons for allowing evil to work itself out in certain ways in a fallen world rather than allowing it to work out in other ways.

    There are plenty of places where I disagree with Piper, but I’m pretty sure what he’s saying here isn’t really all that different from the view you’re presenting as a contrary view.

    Jeremy Pierce | 02.17.06 – 9:17 pm


    I am in agreement with you, Tyler. Piper’s ultra-reformed understanding of theodicy makes me a little nervous. I wonder if his tune would be a little different if he was diagnosed with a form of cancer that was not curable (like, let’s say Multiple Myeloma, a form of cancer of the bone marrow, which my father-in-law suffers from).

    Bob Derrenbacker | 02.19.06 – 5:11 pm


    Tyler, you are “right on”.

    When Jesus came on the scene, bring about the reign of God, He didn’t afflict people with cancer. He healed the sick, cleansed the leper, cast out demons, and brought good new to the afflicted.

    Greg Boyd wrote an interesting book “Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy” IVP, 2001. I don’t agree with all of his free will theology. But Boyd does an good job in tackling the issues.

    William | 02.20.06 – 3:16 pm


    Tyler,

    This is the best post I have seen yet. I quite did not handle it as well last week when I posted several posts on Piper at my blog, http://www.rhettsmith.com , which ended drawing out all the Piper followers.

    I too am coming from a different theological position than Piper.

    I believe we live in a fallen world, and it is not God who designs sickness, suffering and death, but rather, only God who can bring us resurrected life out of those experiences.

    Rhett Smith | 02.24.06 – 2:00 am |

  3. Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Cancer and John Piper Follow-Up Says:

    [...] I wanted to post a follow-up to my previous post on “Cancer, John Piper, and the Falleness of Creation” in order to tie up some loose ends and offer a bit more reflection. [...]

  4. Fred Meyer Says:

    Cancer is designed by and a gift from God…as I go to the hospital to have a surgeon remove this wonderful gift. LOL. Pure nonsense.

    You see, there is this thing in the world called evil. Sin, sickness, murder, death, rape, etc. They are all evil. They do not originate from God. They are the enemies of God. None of the above exist in heaven.