God’s Providence in Our Distress
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Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, Piper served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church. He has authored more than 50 books, and more than 30 years of his preaching and writing are available free of charge at desiringGod.org. Piper resides in the Minneapolis area with his wife of 51 years, and has five children and 14 grandchil...more
What do we do when life’s circumstances seem hopeless? Dave and Ann Wilson talk with John Piper about crying out to God in our distress, knowing His providence ensures NOTHING is impossible!
God’s Providence in Our Distress
Bob: Something very unusual/something supernatural happened in John Piper’s life when he learned of his mother’s death.
Dr. Piper: I get the phone call. My brother-in-law says, “Your mom was in a bus accident. She didn’t make it; your dad may not make it.” While I am weeping like I had never wept before, I was happy [emotion in voice]: “Thank You. Thank You that I had such a mom for 28 years. Thank You that she didn’t suffer from what they said.” I thought to myself, “To be simultaneously heartbroken, and content, and joyful—that really is possible!”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, January 27th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. To be able to simultaneously have heartbreak and joy, that requires an understanding of the providence of God. We’ll talk more about that today with John Piper. Stay with us.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’ve been spending some time this week just acknowledging the fact that life is hard and, at the same time, that God is good. I think there was a song years ago—that was the chorus: “Life is hard, but God is good,”—those are both true. The more we can understand: “Yes, life is hard; and we shouldn’t pretend like it isn’t,” and “Yes, God is good; and we should never forget His goodness,” the better off we’ll be.
Dave: The difficulty comes when it’s hard to remember God’s goodness in the middle of life’s hardness.
Bob: Yes, that’s right.
Dave: It’s simultaneously true; but sometimes, when you’re in the dark cave, you forget; and you have to be reminded. That’s why it’s a great program to talk about that today.
Dr. Piper: I think—
Dave: Who’s this man over here talking? We haven’t introduced him yet. [Laughter]
Bob: This is our friend, Dr. John Piper, who wants to sneak into the conversation. Welcome back to FamilyLife Today. What is it that you wanted to add there?
Dr. Piper: Seeing the goodness of God in some horrific calamity—globally, or nationally, or personally—demands that Christians be taught what the Bible teaches about suffering before they’re in it. You can’t take a person, weeping their eyes out, and give them five verses that state purposes for their suffering. That has to come at a moment when the mind is eager, and ready, and reflective on text.
But we won’t see the goodness of God in the horror of an event unless we’ve been taught, say, four or five places in the Bible. Let me just give one as an example that I think has helped me so many times. When Paul said at the end of 2 Corinthians 1, “We were so unbearably crushed, we despaired of life itself.” Then he adds a purpose clause, “…that was to make us rely upon God, who raises the dead.”
You say, “Whose purpose was that?” It wasn’t Satan’s purpose to make him rely on God.
Bob: Yes, you have just completed this book on providence we’ve been talking about this week, where you dive into and apply the understanding of God’s good, kind sovereign control over humanity to the hard issues that we face; things like, I’m thinking of a young woman, who desperately wants to be a mom, and every month gets the news, “Not this month.” She goes to the doctor and the doctor says, “You’re not going to be a mom, biologically.” She’s going, “I know this is to cause me to rely on God, but the grief I’m experiencing is so overwhelming that it’s hard to see the goodness of God in the midst of this kind of infertility.”
Dr. Piper: Yes, that it’s hard is an understatement. The Bible is unmistakably clear that God opens and closes the womb; so the remedy—the answer, the solution, the approach—to her agony is not to lie to her—she knows better than that—and say, “Well, God didn’t will this; this is Satan closing your womb,” or “God didn’t will this; this is fate,” or something like that. You don’t lie to people to help them.
If I were dealing with that woman in my church, I would take her hand and say, “I don’t know what God has for you, but I know it’s good.” I might go to this text that I jotted down here a few days ago [Isaiah 56:4]:
To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please Me
and hold fast My covenant,
I will give in My house, within My walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall never be cut off.
A single woman in her 50s brought me this text; she found this text to be life. Probably, it wasn’t automatic; it wasn’t without struggle. It wasn’t without months and years of hoping, and grief, and wondering: “Do you keep praying?” or “Do you not keep praying?”—but [she says]—“This is a name for me better than sons and daughters. I don’t know quite what that is, but it’s better; God says it’s better. I’m going to believe it’s better”; so she picks up and moves on.
There have been single women in our church over the years. I was there for 33 years, and I watched some of these women who dreamed. Then the dream faded, and God met them with such life-giving hope that they were flourishing, rich in ministry and relationships; that’s what this kind of sovereignty can do.
The sovereignty that closed the womb or stopped the relationship from happening, that sovereignty is the very sovereignty that enables her to count on: “A God, who’s going to give me something better than sons and daughters.”
Bob: You just mentioned this earlier—the issue of providence and prodigals—something you’ve lived through. You shared with us, openly, before about having a prodigal as you were raising your kids. How were you thinking about the kind providence of God while one of your kids was away, and not communicating with you, and didn’t want anything to do with you?
Dr. Piper: Yes, I think I want to say two things in public. Number one: I have five children, and I believe I would die for all of them in a minute. I would die, in less than a minute, for their salvation. That’s the first thing I want to say: “I love my children, even those who are not walking the way I think they should with Jesus.”
The second thing I’d say is the providence that has brought us to this point is not finished. I’d want to say that to every parent, who says, “How can God blank?” I would say, “You don’t know what He’s going to do tomorrow. [Laughter]
Bob: Yes; “The story’s not over.”
Dr. Piper: “You do not know what this providence, that you are about to criticize, might do miraculously tomorrow. You need providence!”
That’s the third thing I’d say now is that: “If there is hope for any of us—we were all prodigals once—that providence is our only hope for salvation.” When the rich young man turned away, and Jesus said, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go into the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples threw up their hands and said, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, I guess I overstated it.” He said: “Nobody,”—“With man, it is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.”
I’m going to take other parents by the hand and say, “Let’s get on our faces and lay hold on God for the miracle.” All/I mean, we were singing the other day in worship this song: [singing] “Power, power, power in Jesus’ name.” My hands are in the air, tears on my face, and I’m saying, “God, You’ve got all the power in the universe for my family. Just say the word!” Remember the guy, who comes to Jesus, and says, “My child, my child…just say the word!”?
Dr. Piper: Because he knew He had the power.
Dr. Piper: It’s not an issue of power. It’s just if—I don’t know why—just talk about perplexities—I don’t know why/why this delay: “Just say the word to the dead bones, ‘Live!’” The bones began to rattle, and they were clothed with flesh, and the heart of stone comes out; the heart of flesh goes in; a new creature’s born—that’s God! There is no hope for salvation without the doctrine of sovereign providence.
Bob: You keep hoping in that; your child keeps wandering farther. In some cases, parents get the news that a child has died, apparently, unrepentant.
Dr. Piper: Yes; here’s, emotionally, how I get help in that eventuality, which hasn’t happened yet, but could. Paul in Romans 9:2—it says he wrote, “I am in unceasing anguish.” And Paul said, “Rejoice always; and again, I say, ‘Rejoice…always!’” and “I’m in unceasing anguish.” You’ve got joy; “so I’ve got unceasing anguish, because of my kinsmen, because they’ve rejected Christ!”
One chapter later, Chapter 10, verse 1, it says, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved,” even though he says one chapter later, “a hardening has come upon Israel until the full number of the Gentiles comes in.” He knows that those who are not saved are not saved because of a decreed hardness of heart. Paul’s got all this theology in his head; and you watch the man live, day and night—he goes to bed at night, weeping over Jews; he gets up, weeping over Jews—and yet, he’s the happiest man there is—go figure! He says in 2 Corinthians 6:10, “…sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
Dr. Piper: The mystery of the Christian life is: “Is that really possible?”
Dr. Piper: I mean, in real life, can you be sad and joyful simultaneously? My answer is: “Yes.” Number one, because the Bible says so; and number two, because I’ve tasted it. I mean, I’ve tasted it. When my—I’ll give you a little picture—my mother was killed in a bus accident when I was 28 years old. Never had any suffering in my life of any substantial. I get the phone call. My brother-in-law says, “Your mom was in a bus accident. She didn’t make it; your dad may not make it. I don’t know anything else right now. I’ll call you back.” I hang it up.
My little two-year-old is holding onto my leg: “Daddy’s sad,” “Daddy’s sad.” My wife could hear. I walked back to my room, kneeled down, cried for two hours. Now, while I’m crying—I just remember/this is such a gift from God—while I am weeping like I had never wept before, because my mom was the most special person in my life, besides my wife, I was happy for various reasons. [Emotion in voice] I’d had her for 28 years—I said that—“Thank You; thank You that I had such a mom for 28 years. Thank You that she didn’t suffer from what they said.” I had other reasons—I was deeply, joyfully thankful for lots of reasons—while I’m just pouring out my grief. I thought to myself, “That really is possible!”
Dave: I think that’s a picture of marriage in some ways. You have both: there’s grief; there’s anguish; there’s desperation; hopefully, there’s joy/there’s hopefulness. Yet, I think we live in a culture that says, “If you feel any of the grief and sorrow, you shouldn’t feel that; you’re done. This marriage isn’t going to be worth….” But you’re saying, “No, both of those can be true in a marriage as well”; right?
Ann: —and probably in a family. We could even go as far as to say, “…in a family.”
Dr. Piper: Yes, anybody who says you should get out of a marriage, where you find some discomfort, is crazy. Marriage is the best school of sanctification ever designed by God. When you say, “I do for better or for worse,” you better mean both of those; because they’re both coming. I’m just appalled/I’m appalled at how many Christian pastors don’t take that seriously in their counseling.
Bob: What about the single person, who is wondering, “Is there one person picked out for me—
Dr. Piper: Oh, that’s a good question.
Bob: —in God’s providence?
Dave: She’s sitting right there. [Laughter] There she is.
Dr. Piper: That’s true.
Dave: That’s my one.
Dr. Piper: That’s true; the answer’s, “Yes and no.” I mean, “Is there one?” The answer’s, “Yes and no.” Yes, in the sense that God is sovereign and decides right now who you’re going to marry, and you’ll marry her; it’s going to happen. “Did I marry the one that God had appointed?”—“Yes, you did.”
Some people ask me, “How will I know if I’m married to the right person?” I say, “Look at that name on the wedding certificate. [Laughter] That is how you know. I know who you should be married to—the one you’re married to.”
Ann: —which is good to hear; because we’ve had people come up to us at conferences and say, “We got drunk in Vegas, and we got married.
Dr. Piper: Yes.
Ann: “Obviously, that was not God’s will.”
Dr. Piper: Getting married that way is not God’s will. That they are married, you learn from the Bible what to do with that.
But let’s get more specific about, “Is there one?” What people are really wrestling with, when they say that is, “Of all the people I might meet, know, date, get serious about, might I miss him?” In that sense, “God has one picked out I might miss.” Providence would say, “No; you won’t miss God’s one.” God’s providence means you are appointed to marry this person.
Now, which gets me back to the point, Dave, that providence does not dictate duty. Duty is: “Don’t marry an unbeliever,”—that’s in the Bible—so it’s sin to just go off, get drunk, get married. But it’s compounded sin to throw that wife away!
Again, I would say to a single person, who’s wondering—I’d say, “Let the Bible guide whom you admire; but don’t burden yourself with being God, trying to discern whether there some ideal person out there: ‘She happens to be a missionary in Northern India, and I goofed it up and married a woman in London.’ That’s not going to happen.”
Bob: My friend, who married someone—who was in Bible college at the time, and was passionate for the Lord; and who, three years later, said, “I don’t believe this anymore,”—
Dr. Piper: Right.
Bob: —she’s wondering about the providence of God as she raises her three children with a persistently unbelieving spouse. Prodigal kids are painful. A prodigal spouse—
Dr. Piper: Yes; I keep coming back to this principle that the providence that creates what we perceive as a problem is the same providence that gives you the grace and the power to sustain it. In this case, as she looks back, it’s a bitter providence that her husband has, for now, thrown away the faith. That’s a bitter, bitter providence.
I use that phrase, because that’s the way Ruth/the Book of Ruth is written—there’s a bitter providence—Naomi had a bitter providence. But if she were to say, “Okay; I’m done with God. I’m done with that sovereignty stuff; I’m done with that providence stuff, because look at the hand I’ve been dealt,”—if she did that—what becomes of her children?—what becomes of hope?
I would say the very power that let her [Bob’s friend’s] husband go—but might, in fact, bring him back, because only providence can—is the providence that will enable her to raise godly sons. I would just say to this woman: “You feel right now, ‘How will these boys ever turn out?—because their dad’s a skeptic; he sows seeds of unbelief all that time.’” My answer is: “God is God, and He has a grace: ‘My God is able to supply all grace towards you so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times you may abound in every good work.’ [Paraphrase] You’re a mom that’s called to do heroic things right not that you never signed up for. God’s going to help you! He can bring your sons. Guess what, ma’am?—you can have a perfect family, where they all go wrong.”
Dave: I’m sitting here, thinking, “I am that son in some ways.” The providence of God, as my dad walked out with women and alcohol, my single mom, in the ‘60s, held onto God; and here I am. I’m not sitting here, saying, “I’m the most amazing man you’ve ever seen.”
Dr. Piper: No, no, no; that’s glorious.
Dave: But God’s providence raised a man of God from a situation you would think, “It doesn’t happen.” God did that.
Dr. Piper: Absolutely.
Dave: He’ll do it, and He can do it for you.
Ann: I’m curious. We all listen to you, and we all admire so many things; but one of the things I’ve always loved is your passion for God. How have you developed that great love and dependency?
Dr. Piper: I can talk about the kinds of things that I do to fight the fight of faith but I think I have very little control over who I am in terms of what comes out of me spontaneously. I think the Lord has enabled me to fight battles to protect myself from crazy life-, and marriage-, and ministry-destroying sins. I think the answer is: “God just does what He does as far as shaping the depths of a person’s soul.” Now my job, I think now, is to keep myself: “Keep yourself in the love of God,” Jude says; why do you do that?
This morning—actually, I use an iPad—I’ve got a Bible in my hand here, a paper Bible—I read four or five chapters of the Bible every day—I take an hour—I turn it all into prayer: I cry out for my wife; I cry out for my sons; I cry out for Desiring God; Bethlehem Baptist Church; Bethlehem College and Seminary. I pray in these concentric circles.
The biggest sinner I know is John Piper. My—the one that’s most vulnerable to falling away, and becoming discouraged and hopeless is me; so I’m praying a lot about me. That’s my warfare strategy.
Then I have two guys that I meet with, and they know everything I know. I share everything with them. Yesterday morning we were on Zoom; we still do it by Zoom. We used to do it in person. We pour out our hearts to each other and pray earnestly for each other. We’ve seen God do wonders in each other’s lives. I have some strategies; but I don’t think those strategies make us who we are, but they protect us from being deceived into unbelief.
Bob: That investment of your time—we are the beneficiaries of it—because books like this about providence can’t come out of a life that is not set apart the way you have chosen to set apart your life. We are grateful—
Dr. Piper: Thank you.
Bob: —as the beneficiaries, grateful for the time you spent with us this week and for what we have here.
I hope our listeners will take advantage of this resource that you have provided—this gift you’re giving to the body of Christ—this new book, Providence. It’s a book we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it from us today, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-358-6329 is the number—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, if you have not checked your calendar recently, you might want to check it. Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. We don’t want you to be caught empty- handed when Valentine’s Day gets here. David Robbins is the president of FamilyLife®. He’s here with us today. David, our team has been working hard on a resource that is—it’s a date box called Dates to Remember—it’s designed to help couples have some purposeful and intentional conversations about their marriage.
Valentine’s Day can be a launch point for a series of dates you can do together. But the purpose of this date box is about more than a fun, romantic evening together. There is something bigger at work here.
David: Yes, throughout the decades of FamilyLife, one of the things we have been known for, as a trademark of this ministry, is creating intentional moments for couples and for families to process the next layer together.
I think one of the best things about this date box is—you have a lot of fun with it; there’s some fun great moments—but it takes you into that next layer. It takes you beyond what you would talk about when you’re just going on a date night, out to dinner—which is a beautiful thing; please keep those rhythms; go for that; keep it going—but sometimes, we just need that little kick-starter to get to the next level/to get to the next layer to grow an emotional and spiritual intimacy that increases our physical intimacy as a result. I think this date box is a great tool to get past a few layers of the onion, of where we get stuck, and to grow into deeper intimacy in a really intentional moment.
Bob: That’s what the date box is all about. I hope listeners will check it out; go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order it from us online, or you can call to order. If you have any questions about it, call 1-800-FL-TODAY. This is a great resource for you to have, whether Valentine’s Day was coming or not, to be spending time building into your marriage. Again, check it out; go to FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about the kind of regular marriage maintenance all of us ought to be doing: “What are some habits or disciplines we need to integrate into the schedule of our lives?” We’ll talk more about that with Ron Deal. Of course, we’ll be here as well. I hope you can join us.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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