AUGUST 25, 2019
Christians Care About All Suffering and Injustice
Sing! Conference | Edinburgh, Scotland
Resource by John Piper Topic: Suffering
This message, which John Piper delivered after a concert in Edinburgh, is a fresh expression of an address he originally gave at the 2019 Bethlehem College & Seminary Commencement.
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I wonder if you feel any tension between what’s happening in this room and the vision for reaching the hardest neighborhoods in Scotland that you heard about just before our intermission: the gritty, on-the-ground, in-your-face, tough, hard, real problems of the world, and a magnificent room and healthy bodies — people who seem to have it together, and songs lifted with delightful music. Do those worlds go together?
Let me read you something from 2 Chronicles. A great army from the peoples of Moab, Ammon, and Mount Seir had come up against Jehoshaphat. What does Jehoshaphat do? How does he go to war? Here’s what he does:
And they rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa. And when they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.” And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say,
“Give thanks to the Lord,
for his steadfast love endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 20:20–21)
Now, get the picture. This is a vulnerable place to be for the choir. They went out before the army to say, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.” They’re shouting this truth about God, singing this truth as a choir over Ammon, over the peoples of Mount Seir.
And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. (2 Chronicles 20:22)
There is a connection. The routing of the enemies of God and the singing of the people of God go together.
Strike with Song
I got a phone call one time from a bunch of college students, who, at ten o’clock at night, had a demon-possessed young woman trapped in a room. They wouldn’t let her out. They wanted me to come and deliver her. I had never done anything like that in my life. I called a friend who lived upstairs, and we went together. When we walked in there, she had a low voice, and she was growling and angry. They just said, “That’s not her.” She knocked the Bible out of my hand when I tried to read it.
“The routing of the enemies of God and the singing of the people of God go together.” Tweet Share on Facebook
After about two hours, we began to sing. We didn’t know what to do. I’d never done anything like this. We just began to sing. And then we just continued to sing and sing. She went absolutely crazy, flopped on the floor, screaming for Satan not to leave her. Eventually, she went unconscious, as far as we could tell.
She stayed that way for a few minutes, and woke up totally different — she looked totally different and sounded totally different. I handed her my Bible and had her read all of Romans 8. I’ve seen the power of song. I’ve seen it in my church, and I’ve seen it in the neighborhoods. I’ve seen it in families. For me, there is no big tension between 20schemes and singing magnificent, life-changing truth to God.
What Christians Care About
What I want to do for just a few minutes is try to give you a feel — at least, this is my take — on the kind of Christianity represented by Keith and Kristyn Getty and Mez McConnell and all the folks who work to plant churches in the schemes of Scotland. I have two sentences that I want to give you and unpack. These two sentences come close to getting at what 20schemes especially is trying to do. Here are the two sentences:
Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.
Christians care about all injustice, especially injustice against God.
Let me unpack each of those sentences. If you’re an unbeliever here tonight, I hope that what you get from what I’m saying is a picture of what you’re confronted with, not any tradition you’ve seen, because the church has made many mistakes. I’m drawing these things out of the Bible as I’ve seen them worked out in real Christians’ lives. This is what you have to choose or not.
Suffering in the Present
Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.
Take the first half: Christians care about all suffering. That half of the sentence is designed to prick the conscience of Christians who are hesitant to mobilize themselves or others to care about all suffering like disease, malnutrition, disability, mental illness, injury, abuse, assault, loneliness, rejection, calamity.
This caring has to be restricted, they feel, because if we give ourselves to caring for all suffering, we will surely then diminish the real concern of the Christian life, which is caring about eternal suffering. I want to say no: No, it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to trade one off against the other. Jesus is our model here over and over again in the Gospels.
The Bible says that he had compassion; he cared. He had compassion on the crowds (Matthew 9:36); on the sick (Matthew 14:14); on the hungry (Matthew 15:32); on the blind (Matthew 20:34); on the leper (Mark 1:41); on the demon-possessed (Mark 9:22); on the bereaved (Luke 7:13).
When he told a parable to try to explain what “love your neighbor as yourself” means (Mark 12:31), he told about the Good Samaritan. He ended by saying he had compassion on the man on the side of the road (Luke 10:33). Embedded in “love your neighbor” is “care about the suffering of your neighbor.”
Suffering in Eternity
Here’s the second half of that sentence: Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. Now, that half of the sentence is intended to call out the unbelief of professing Christians who don’t believe there is such a thing as eternal suffering. They’re too modern for that. “Hell doesn’t exist. It’s an old-fashioned concept that we should be done with. All this talk about eternal suffering is passé, and it’s not real.” I’m calling you out and saying that Christians don’t talk that way, because they believe Jesus.
“Embedded in ‘love your neighbor’ is ‘care about the suffering of your neighbor.’” Tweet Share on Facebook
Jesus said “Then he [the King] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ . . . And these [on his left] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46).
The apostle Paul followed Jesus and said, “Those who do not know God and . . . do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus . . . will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8–9).
There’s an atheist entertainer in America named Penn Jillette. He’s part of the Penn & Teller magic duo. He said, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them or to believe that everlasting punishment is coming on unbelievers and not warn them? How much do you have to hate somebody?”
I just read an article a few weeks ago about missionaries who had gone into the Amazon jungle to reach a totally unreached people group with the gospel. The article begins by extolling the good human effects of missionary labor like education, medicine, prosperity, and literacy. Yes, it’s remarkable how those things happened. Then, the article ended with a great emphasis on human flourishing, but with only one passing mention of Jesus in the middle of the article — no God, no wrath, no cross, no salvation, no forgiveness of sins, no faith, no hell, no heaven, no eternal joy in God — and it was held up as a model of Christian missions.
That’s unbelief. That’s what’s become of many Christians today. They’re out in the name of Jesus telling nobody about the fact that there is eternal suffering. They don’t believe the sentence that I’m commending to you. 20schemes does. Keith and Kristyn Getty do.
We care about all suffering — because Jesus did — especially eternal suffering.
Injustice Against Humanity
Christians care about all injustice, especially injustice against God.
This is very much alive for me in America right now. There’s so much fevered attention to injustices that exist. Here’s the first half of the sentence: Christians care about all injustice.
That is intended to prick the conscience of Christians, who, either because of self-indulgence or fear, have dulled the capacity of their hearts to care about the injustices of the world — all the ways that people treat people worse than they deserve. There are hundreds of different ways around the world that human beings have found to treat each other worse than they deserve.
The reason I say that it might come from self-indulgence is because, as I look at my church and evangelicalism in America, I don’t think most professing Christians hold back from advocacy of justice or indignation at injustice out of principled opposition. I think they hold back because of the moral stupor that comes over us when we are satiated with the comforts of the world. We’re just sitting at home comfortable. The thought of breaking out of it in order to engage and speak or act against some injustice is simply too intrusive in our lives.
The reason I say that indifference to injustice might come from fear is because I know so many who are so concerned about their label, a Christian label. That is, if they get engaged with this cause or that cause, if they just speak, if they tweet, if they blog, if they Instagram, if they do anything that would advocate something just, the label is compromised. “Oh, you’re one of those.” “No, I’m not one of those.” That’s a risk that many will not take. It just isn’t worth it.
Injustice Against God
Here’s the second half of the sentence: We care about all injustice, especially injustice against God. Now, this half of the sentence is intended to call out the practical unbelief of Christians for whom injustices against humans ignite more indignation, more passion in their hearts and in their mouths than the global tragedy of injustice against God — people who are fired up in the name of Jesus for injustices against people, but feel almost nothing and say almost nothing about injustice against God. They are anesthetized to it for one reason or another.
What is injustice? What in the world do you mean by injustice against God? What are you talking about? What is injustice? My definition of injustice is to treat people worse than they deserve. You can’t say it is to treat people different than they deserve because if you treat somebody better than they deserve, we don’t call it injustice. We call it grace. If you treat people worse than they deserve, you call it injustice.
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The more a person deserves and the less we render what they deserve, the greater the injustice. God alone deserves the highest honor, highest praise, highest love, highest fear, highest devotion, highest allegiance, highest admiration, highest obedience. God alone deserves the absolute maximum of all those things. Every single human being has fallen short of that (Romans 3:23). All of us have exchanged the glory of God for the glory of human beings, and thus insulted him as high as possible (Romans 1:23). There is great injustice against God being done all day, all over the world, until Jesus breaks in.
Every human is guilty of an injustice that is infinitely worse than all the injustices against man put together. If that sentence sounds like an overstatement to you, my suggestion is that your God is too small. Every human is guilty of an injustice, namely against God, that is infinitely worse than all the injustices against man put together.
God is infinitely deserving of human worship and trust and obedience — infinitely deserving. Therefore, treating God as unworthy of our total allegiance makes every person guilty of an infinite injustice against God. That’s the problem with the world. We owe a debt we could never afford. Do you know what that debt is? Blackballing God — an infinite injustice. You can’t even begin to come close to paying that debt. There’s only one way that debt could be handled. There’s only one way there could be hope for human beings who have so committed treason against God and injustice against God.
‘Justice Denied Him’
Here’s the irony. The injustice against God among us, among humans, came to a climax in the very moment when God himself, in mercy — not justice merely, but mercy — came into the world in his Son Jesus. He came after us — all these rebels, all these enemies, all this injustice being slung at him. He comes as a servant in the person of Jesus. He comes into the world to pay the debt so that he could be just in not holding us accountable for our injustice. That’s the meaning of the cross.
His Son bears the payment and the penalty, a just sentence so that all the injustice of all those who would believe on him would not be held against them. At the very moment when he came to do that, our injustice against God reached its climax.
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him. (Acts 8:32–33)
“Because of Jesus, I care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.” Tweet Share on Facebook
The miracle of the cross, the miracle of the death of Jesus, the miracle of the gospel, the miracle that can change hundreds of schemes, the miracle that fills songs, the miracle is that in the very moment when we withheld justice from the Son of God, justice was satisfied, so that those withholding justice could be justified.
This is glorious news. How could we not go anywhere, schemes or the richest part of town, with that news? As God, in the death of Christ, absorbed the penalty of the injustice we had committed, he purchased a people.
I’m closing by inviting you into that people, because you come into that people by faith. He purchased a people. Anybody who would believe may be part of this purchased people. He purchases a people, and the mark of this people is that they prize — above all things — Christ crucified as the vindication of God’s justice in forgiving their injustice. That’s what they prize above everything.
I want that Jesus for me, because I know my attitude and my actions have been so offensive to the God who made me that there’s no hope for me unless that’s true. I praise that Christ.
And this purchased people also bear this mark: they speak and they believe two sentences. They now say, “Because of Jesus, I care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.” And they say, “Because of Jesus, I care about all injustices, especially injustice against God.”
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.