Escaping the Fog of Triviality
Interview with John Piper
The doctrine of God’s providence is the theme of Pastor John’s new book by that title, Providence. The glorious truth that God governs over everything in this universe has always been true. But for us to see and savor God’s providence, we must learn this glorious truth ourselves from what God has revealed to us in his word. And when we see it and embrace it as true and glorious, this doctrine makes a very definite impact in our lives. There are a total of ten real-life implications he wants to address. God’s design for all things in providence brings meaning to all of life. In God’s design of all things, no part of life is made meaningless. Here now with one of the ten implications is Pastor John.
The fourth effect, real-life effect, of seeing and savoring, grasping and cherishing the reality of God’s all-pervading, all-embracing providence is that it goes a long way to protecting us from the trivializing effects of contemporary culture and from the widespread habit of trifling with great things, even divine things.
Shrunk in Heart
I don’t know how many people who are listening right now will resonate like I do with this precious effect of feeling the weight and the wonder of the providence of God. One of the reasons this is so significant for me is that I have felt over the years that the greatest threat to my soul is not committing adultery against my wife, or embezzling money from some ministry, or even a sudden throwing away of my faith and becoming an advocate for atheism, or being overtaken by some terrible fit of rage and killing somebody.
None of those things has seemed to me to be nearly as threatening to my soul as the creeping effect of pettiness, the loss of all capacity to feel greatness, and beauty, and magnificence, and depth, and wonder, and awe, and reverence, and weightiness. My fear has not been that I will make shipwreck of my life through some dramatic, egregious sin, but through the steady drip from the faucet of silliness.
Lest I be misunderstood, this is not some appeal for high-level, intellectual, educated perceptions of philosophical complexity, blah, blah, blah. No, I’m talking about capacities that the simplest, most uneducated person in the world can feel if he is in touch with the greatest realities in the universe, which come not primarily through education, but through the awakening of heart capacities to soar with beauties, and the mysteries of creation and redemption, and with the revelation of God’s nature and God’s ways in Scripture.
This capacity of heart is not given primarily through education; it’s given through the miracle of the Holy Spirit opening the eyes of the heart to be stunned by what is stunning, and to be shocked by what is shocking, and to stand in awe of what is awesome, and to be amazed at what is amazing, and to feel the crushing weight of what is crushing, and to see the glory of what is glorious, and to have affections that are — somehow, in some measure — proportionate to the nature of the reality that God reveals to us in the world and in his word.
I’m not on a quest for some kind of philosophical height. I don’t dread being unphilosophical. I dread, from my heart, being shrunk down in heart to the level where my heart’s capacities for happiness consist only in silly TV jingles and empty-headed slapstick. That’s what I fear. And in my life — this is why I’m commending it — it is seeing and savoring the all-pervasive providence of God that has protected me from the shrinking of my soul.
Loss of Awe
One of the curses of our culture, and it has permeated the church and most Christian communication, is banality, triviality, silliness, superficiality, and an eerie addiction to flippancy and levity. This is accompanied by what to me seems a baffling allergy to seriousness, dignity, articulate precision, brokenhearted joy in public speech. Carelessness in speech and casualness in demeanor turn up in places and times where you would least expect them — where you hope for clarity and earnestness and gravity.
My impression is that at the root of this culture of inarticulate, casual trifling is a loss of a sense of the weight of the greatness and awe-fullness of God. Isn’t that an interesting word, awe-full? Everything is light and funny because God is lightweight. The boats of our communication bounce around with a chipper bearing on the waves of cultural trifling because the heavy ballast of the great, sovereign, holy God of all-pervading providence has been off-loaded at the docks, the docks of man-centered theology and endless screen time.
This is a tragedy, and not only because it is the fruit of trivializing God, but because it hinders us from seeing him and experiencing him as he really is in the majesty of his all-embracing providence.
My guess is that some who listen to me right now will have no categories for hearing what I’m saying, except as hearing it as a summons to grim, dour somberness and boredom. That’s what Piper’s advocating right now. That’s what it sounds like because we live in a culture that can scarcely imagine something like glad gravity, joyful sorrow, humor — and yes, I am defending humor. Humor has been so identified with silliness, and levity, and slapstick of verbal antics, that the robust, reality-rooted, natural explosiveness of humor is, for many, inconceivable.
Charles Spurgeon was a very funny man, a great preacher from two centuries ago in the 1800s. But he was not a man of levity. He did not trifle with sacred things or think that worship was a place for casual clowning. He was not allergic to seriousness or dignity. Three years after Spurgeon’s death, Robertson Nicoll expressed my concerns and used Spurgeon as a counterexample. He said this:
Evangelism of the humorous type may attract multitudes, but it lays the soul in ashes and destroys the very germs of religion. Mr. Spurgeon is often thought, by those who do not know his sermons, to have been a humorous preacher. As a matter of fact, there was no preacher whose tone was more uniformly earnest, reverent, and solemn. (The Forgotten Spurgeon, 38)
Clear the Fog
Of course, every mature and healthy person knows that unbroken seriousness of a melodramatic or somber kind will inevitably communicate a sickness of soul. But that’s not our danger here in the first half of the twenty-first century. Our danger is drowning in an ocean of banality and silliness, emptiness — the losing of our capacities for feeling anything like the depth and height of what we ought to feel in the presence of God. That’s our danger.
And my point here is that seeing and savoring the all-embracing, all-pervasive providence of God has a wonderful effect. It certainly has in my life. It has a wonderful effect in helping us recover and preserve and grow in those capacities. It protects us from the trivializing effects of contemporary culture, and from the widespread habit of trifling with everything, even the great things of God.
I thank God for that season in my life when he awakened me, and shocked me, and frightened me, and comforted me, and rescued me from the shrinking and the deadening effects of losing the greatness and beauty and joy of God in a fog of trifles.
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 Providence.