This “Theology & Culture” (T&C) article I was led to do because of a response by a well-known pastor and theologian to a question regarding outward ugliness, or homeliness, and by extension, the disabilities that people suffer. There may be a little fear and trembling as I do this because this pastor that I am responding to is John Piper, and many people follow him and his teachings. I am not one of those. I think his answer to what you are about to read missed the point as we shall see.
The following is taken from the ChurchLeaders email that I get and from the Desiring God website. We are going to break down some of Piper’s response and why I think he is off on what he says, though I do agree with some of what he states, but not his basic arguments.
“In a recent podcast, pastor and theologian John Piper tackled a listener question about why God creates certain people to be attractive and not others. Piper’s response has sparked criticism, particularly with regard to the way Piper addressed individuals with disabilities in his remarks.
An anonymous listener wrote into the “Ask Pastor John” podcast expressing how they emotionally struggle with their physical appearance. The listener asked, “How can I accept the fact that God, though capable of making me beautiful or at least average looking, chose to create me in an unattractive manner?”
The person asking this question then described how tough it is being unattractive. Their voice is often ignored and the person went on to talk about how this was hurting their relationship with God. The Scriptures mention several people who are attractive (Moses, David, Esther, Absalom) but they do not fit in that category. So, how do we respond? What do we say? That is the gist of this article.
Keep in mind as we go forward that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, while this person says they are unattractive, that does not mean everyone thinks they are. Not only that, as we shall see, we need to get past our view of what we and others may think, and zero in on what God says.
In response to the question, Piper begins by saying that he can count on three fingers, maybe less, the people who have called him “ugly.” He says it is hard to speak to something he has never tasted. My thought was, “Why begin there?” Why start with talking about yourself and your not having experienced it? To me, this comes across as self-focused. Though he states the answer is found in Scripture, I would not have started with comparing myself to what someone has said about them.
Romans 8:18-23 is where Piper takes us to try to answer the question sent to him. As we read about the “sufferings” noted in vs. 18, Piper says, “I’m going to include in that every form of ugliness or disfigurement, and you’ll see why I include it in this word sufferings as we go on. So, the fundamental hope of Christianity is suffering now, glory later — suffering now, glory later. Now, what kind of suffering?”
I do not have the space to show all of Piper’s explanation. You can find it on the Desiring God website. I want to briefly note a few things from the Romans 8 passage that Piper notes. We will also look at other Scriptures but I would encourage you to turn to Romans 8 and follow along.
Believers do go through difficulties and trials. Being a Christian does not make us immune to life’s tough times. We have a God Who is with us, and knows every situation we encounter. We may not always have knowledge of why we are going through what we are, but God does. And that is a key. God is not caught off-guard nor is He against us when we endure hard times.
Let’s look at vs. 18 as we begin our response. The “sufferings” (misfortunes, calamity, evil, affliction) that we face now as believers, and Paul faced many of them, are nothing compared to the glory we will come to experience in the future.
Again, we are not told what these sufferings are. The word as used in vs. 18 seems to point to persecution and difficulties that are the result of someone’s faith in Christ.
To state what Piper said and included with vs. 18 (ugliness, disfigurement), is, I believe, to read too much into the verse. Paul is not talking about physical looks or features, he is talking about the things we face as believers in a sinful, broken world.
Yes, in suffering for Christ, that may mean less than kind words hurled at us by someone. But, again, the beginning point is off if we include ugliness and deformity and the like in vs. 18. Let’s not read into the text. And when we look in the mirror and tell ourselves we are ugly because someone said so, that is not where we stop. The issue is what God thinks about us.
To even hint that physical beauty or ugliness is somehow a marker of a fallen world and that God is putting us through trials because we are not as pretty or good-looking as someone else is wrong. You can be good-looking with no common sense. Or people say unkind things. People are brutal. The focus is wrong when we, in our attempt to explain someone’s struggle, try to explain a person’s poor self-image regarding looks as tied to man’s fallen nature.
Trials do come in many shapes and sizes. James 1 reminds us of that - mental struggles and pain (physical and otherwise), unemployment, poverty, financial, etc. The issue is that we live in a fallen world, which Piper is right about, and at times trials come our way because of it. Every trial needs to, and this is where we need to change our mindset and help others do the same, drive us to God.
At times, we need to simply listen as the person describes their struggle. Our response is to lovingly let them know that God loves them, that we live in a broken world that has affected us all, but that God’s view of us is one of complete love and acceptance. There is no ugliness with God when we become His child and He does not see us as such before we put our faith in Him. We are simply people in need of a Savior, lost and sinful. Our outward appearance does not come into play.
Now, note Rom. 8:19. Paul states that creation waits with eager longing for redemption (think new heaven and new earth, even the millennium) and when Christ returns, those of us who are His children will be “revealed” for we will share His glory.
Creation suffered because of the fall of man into sin (Gen. 3:17-18). And, yes, because of sin, mankind and creation suffer and sin’s effects can be horrible. There are, sadly, physical deformities and struggles but if we focus on that we miss the point.
I want you to think with me of the Shepherd’s Home in Wisconsin. That ministry has cared for and helped children and adults with Down syndrome for decades. We had that ministry come to our church many years ago when I was younger. The people who visited our church from Shepherd’s, despite their struggles, loved God with all their hearts.
Instead of focusing in on the “why” of the situation for these people, they did not allow it to control them. It was about Jesus and what He had done in their lives. Yes, they suffered and it was hard, no doubt, for their families, but they all had found hope and strength in Christ. Even now, sin does not have to win and that includes how we think about ourselves.
Again, because we are limited by space, I would encourage everyone to read Rom. 8:18-23 in the context of that entire chapter of Romans. Before moving on, let me allow John Piper to wrap up his thoughts on what we are talking about. He writes,
“So, the point is that Romans 8 gives a global explanation for why there is such a thing in the world as ugliness and every form of physical misery. God brought the physical world, the bodily world, into sync, into correspondence, with the moral world. He made physical ugliness and misery correspond to moral ugliness and misery, even in some of the most godly people on the planet. Every bodily or material burden in the world should point us to the burden of sin. Every ugliness should point to the ugliness of sin and Satan.”
To say that God “made” physical ugliness and misery correspond to moral ugliness and misery, even when it comes to some of the most godly people on the planet is in some way, though noting the enemy as the main problem along with sin, makes God still a player in the game.
He may allow things, yes, but He does not look at someone and say, “I will make you ugly”...or “deformed.” God is Sovereign, yes, but sin is at play and though He allows things it is not because He is pointing His finger and making someone ugly, etc. Certain things happen because of the world in which we live as Rom. 8 says, but let us be careful to spend time trying to analyze every situation as if God has a theology of ugliness and decides to punish an individual in these ways.
Nothing escapes His eye, this is true, and nothing happens without His allowance. But in all things He wants us to draw near to Him. God wants us to focus on Him alone, not on our struggles, maladies, or anything else. That is the point. We need to quit trying to figure God out at every turn. That is what Piper is attempting to do. I just think his explanation is lacking Biblical guidance.
Let us continue by turning to a few other places in Scripture. I want to begin this part of our study by quoting a response someone gave to Piper’s explanation. Please read this very carefully and let it sink in. It really hit me.
A mom responded with the following, “I really wish John Piper would try and tell me that my daughter was created disabled to be a visible representation of sin on this planet. The visible representation of sin comes from the eyes of those who consider her less than because she doesn’t meet a subjective standard.”
This mom hit the nail on the head. This is why we must begin with God and His view of us. Man is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). We know that the image of God in man is marred by sin but that does not change the fact of what Scripture states. Again, we must begin with God, not man and how we look in a mirror. It is always focusing on the heart of God and His view of us.
In John 9, Jesus had to challenge the paradigm of the disciples who thought a man who was born blind was in his condition because of some sin he or a descendent of his family had committed. Jesus was clear that sin was not involved in this man’s blindness. Yes, some ailments are because of sins that we commit, but not all. And in the case of this man, his blindness would be used to bring glory to God. The point was not the blindness, but God being glorified.
Piper’s focus on the externals bothers me. A person’s relationship and identity with God is based on the fact that when we become a Christian, God did not bring us into His family based on looks, talents, giftedness, or anything else. He saves us by grace. He forgives our sins and adopts us into His family. He loves us completely just as we are. That is the point of passages such as Eph. 1.
God wants to help us in our struggles, whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual. But we must not look at these and wonder why God did not make us different, better, or (fill in the blank). We are His child, period. That has to be the focus when we are trying to help people work through these things like this person who asked the question on page one is trying to do. And Piper’s focus is wrong in my opinion.
Yes, we may have to change the way we see things, but we must not see disability or looks as somehow a curse or equate Rom. 8 with disability, ugliness, etc., etc. It is about God and Him alone. His love for all of humanity is seen in His sending His Son to bring us salvation (Jn. 3:16; Lk. 19:10).
Let us never forget that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139). This Psalm paints a great picture of how God sees us. Read vss. 13-18. That is the key. Let’s note some of the thoughts here:
** vs. 13 - God formed us in our mother’s wombs.
** vs. 14 - God’s works are wonderful. God makes no mistakes. We are His.
** vs. 15 - From the beginning of our lives, God’s hand was on us.
** vs. 16 - God knows our lives, however they play out in our dreams, disappointments, etc.
** vs. 17 - God has a deeply rooted interest in our lives.
** vs. 18 - God is with us every step of the way.
God’s view of every one of us is this. We cannot focus on the brokenness in our world that may affect us as humans. It does not change God’s heart for us and that is what we must help people to recognize, not how they look.
Note in closing, Isa. 53:2. This verse speaks about Jesus. It tells us that He was, in our language, we could say, most likely, average looking. I think part of the reason for that is that people would be drawn to His looks if He was handsome, not His message, so He came to earth and just fit in.
The word “form” in vs. 2 has the idea of “beautiful” meaning that Jesus was not someone Who would necessarily catch a person’s eye. He was not born to royalty nor did He act or dress like it. Nothing in His appearance made Him stand out. This was by design. Nothing in His looks made us praise Him. He was the Son of God Who came to earth to die for us. The mission was His message and miracles, not His looks.
It is as if Piper is saying the homelier we are, or the more physical struggles we have, it is a case for sin at its worst. He has missed the entire point of life - to look to God, not man’s way of seeing
people. We need to help people see how God views them. That is the key.