Cancer and John Piper Follow-Up

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.

First, I would like to thank everyone who commented on my original post (I have moved all of the comments to WordPress) as well as those who have offered reflections on their own blogs (e.g., see the divergent perspectives offered at Christ and Culture and As an armchair Barthian, I especially appreciated Ben Myer’s quotation from Karl Barth, which is so good I must reproduce it in full:

“[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

I encourage you to read Ben’s own reflections (as well as the interesting discussion in the comments to his post) at Faith and Theology.

In my post, I was not espousing open theism, nor was I offering a critique of John Piper’s reformed theology as a whole; I was just offering personal reflections on two points of his post “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” As such, I didn’t think I needed to engage everything Piper has written on suffering and the sovereignty of God! In regards to Piper’s “proof-texting” my point was simply that when offering scriptural support to a particular argument, it is important to understand the verse(s) in their larger context — as well as the larger context of the canon of Scripture. I did not feel that Piper did that in the post I was responding to (his second point was especially problematic IMHO).

At any rate, the primary reason I wanted to follow-up my original post was due to the fact that a student in my Biblical Theology course I am teaching this semester (the topic of his post came up in class discussion) contacted John Piper with some questions about the appropriateness of thinking of cancer as a “gift from God.” The John Piper Ministry, Desiring God, responded with the following (note that the reply is not responding to my blog post, but to an email my student sent):

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,� 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.� 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 head� (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.� 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.� 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)

I have a couple reactions to this response. First, I would agree that God is presented as absolutely sovereign in the book of Job. The adversary (hasatan) only does what God permits. That being said, the point of the book is to undermine traditional retribution theology that sees all suffering as the result of sin. I don’t think its point is to argue that all suffering is caused by God (nor is that the point of John 9). The prose prologue to the book of Job gives us a metaphorical glimpse into God’s council chambers in order to provide an incontrovertible example an individual whose suffering is not the result of his own sin (and let’s face it, Job is presented as the poster-boy for traditional retribution theology). It’s point is not that all suffering should be seen as a gift from God anymore than it should be understood as the result of a wager between God and a celestial adversary!

Second, I would agree that it is “too simplistic” to say that suffering is the result of sinful actions (I don’t think my post would have given this impression; I imagine that it is more in response to my student’s email). I would also say that it is “too simplistic” (or reductionistic) to attribute all suffering/sickness to direct divine agency. The question of suffering is complex and I believe ultimately mysterious. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (and in parts of the New Testament as well), the dominant theological view saw a direct connection between action and consequence (for more on retribution theology, see my reflections on hurricane Katrina here). The book of Job dismantles this reductionistic view and ultimately argues that only God knows the solution to the question of suffering (hence, passages like the mediation on who is truly wise in Job 28 is not extraneous to the message of the book as a whole). The biology lesson that God gives Job in the final chapters of the book forcefully makes the point that if we as humans can’t understand the world that God has put us in, how do we think we could understand the divine economy? Suffering has many sources. If we take into consideration the entire biblical witness, then suffering may be understood as the result of human, demonic, or divine agency, or its origins may be the result of the fallen state of the world. To reduce it to any one of these is saying more than Scripture allows.

Finally, back to the topic of cancer. In my humble opinion, cancer is not a gift from God. Perhaps the difference between Piper’s views and my own are semantic, though I don’t think so. What is a gift, however, is the grace, hope, and healing that God may give to those who are struggling with cancer.

In terms of an update, I am happy to report that my father-in-law and good friend have both had their first round of chemotherapy and are doing remarkably well, all things considering. I have not heard anything more on John Piper’s condition (I couldn’t find anything on his website, so I assume no news is good news). Please continue to pray for these individuals as you see fit.

Once again, 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.

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One Response to Cancer and John Piper Follow-Up

  1. Ken says:

    Suffering has many sources. If we take into consideration the entire biblical witness, then suffering may be understood as the result of human, demonic, or divine agency, or its origins may be the result of the fallen state of the world. To reduce it to any one of these is saying more than Scripture allows.

    I’m in complete agreement. Well put.

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