Guns, Christian Hedonism, and the Sovereignty of God

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The Patient Job by Gerard Seghers

Perhaps John Piper intended to set off a firestorm of discussion with his essay “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?”  If so, he appears to have succeeded. The response to his article (at least among those who are aware of Piper) was spirited, to say the least.  Piper’s post was, in fact, a response to remarks made by Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University. Falwell told students at Liberty “I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your [concealed handgun] permit. We offer a free course. And let’s teach them [i.e., terrorists] a lesson if they ever show up here.” Piper responded to that statement in his lengthy post, but he puts the meat of his argument up front:

My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get guns and teach them a lesson if they come here. The concern is the forging of a disposition in Christians to use lethal force, not as policemen or soldiers, but as ordinary Christians in relation to harmful adversaries.

The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question. The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life. Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No.

Piper then laid out nine points in favor of his position. Like most of the responses to Piper (examples of which are here, here, and here)  I find some points of agreement and some points of disagreement.

The response that I found most intriguing, however, was “How to Carry a Gun Like a Christian Hedonist: A Response to John Piper” at The Christian Egoist (one of the blogs in the sidebar). For those who have not read Piper, the term “Christian hedonist” is likely jarring. It is a term, however, that he carefully defines and ably defends in his book Desiring God (for as condensed an explanation of the concept as you’re likely to find, look here). The Christian Egoist’s blog post points out that Piper’s own concept of Christian hedonism seems to undercut Piper’s argument when it comes to this latest post about guns. He acknowledges that Piper’s “concerns have very strong roots in the New Testament . . . and as such, should not be hastily written off by modern gun-toting Christian conservatives.” He goes on to say that he wants to help “make sense of these passages in a way that embraces Piper’s Biblical concern for a general Christian heart-attitude and the concerns of many others when it comes to self-defense. That paradigm is rooted in Piper’s own Christian Hedonism.”

Having read Desiring God within the last year or so, I was intrigued to see how Piper’s own philosophy might apply here in ways that he himself might have overlooked. Piper, after all, spends an entire chapter of Desiring God on the topic of suffering. The Christian Egoist points out (correctly, I think) that:

according to Christian Hedonism, all Christian suffering is meant to be value-oriented. Every Christian loss is meant to be a net gain. There is no value in suffering, as such. Only in suffering for the sake of the gospel––only in sharing in the fellowship of His suffering (Phil. 3:10). What does this mean? It means we don’t seek out suffering. We follow Christ, avoiding unnecessary suffering, and joyfully embracing any necessary suffering. Necessary to what? To following Him.

We rejoice in our suffering, therefore, not because of the suffering itself, but rather because we want to follow the example of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Carrying that line of reasoning forward, The Christian Egoist continues as follows:

What about when you’re “persecuted”, but not “for the sake of righteousness”? What about a random assailant, who has no clue you’re a Christian––and who couldn’t care less? Where, specifically, is the value in patiently enduring his violence? How, specifically, is Christ magnified? I don’t think He is. I don’t think there is any value to be sought in passively enduring random assaults which are not primarily related to one’s faith in Christ. No one will magnify Christ because you refused to defend yourself against a drunken thug. This, it seems, would be a bit like doing kart-wheels on ice, and then saying “to God be the glory” for the suffering incurred as a result.

Perhaps one of the reasons we may be tempted toward a more pacifistic position in regard to random (non-faith related) assault, is that we do not have a category for the eternal value of our own individual lives (or of those around us). Here’s a thought experiment: Do you think Jesus would have passively allowed himself to be killed by a random thief before His time came to go to the cross? God aims to be glorified in our life and in our death (Phil. 1:20). Piper is known for saying “don’t waste your life”. I would add: don’t waste your death. Each Christian is called to glorify Christ to the max in this life. Some will be called to give up that future glory for the sake of a greater glory brought on by being killed for the faith. But what glory is there to be found in giving up the future glory of one’s life by being killed, not for the sake of the faith, but for the sake of… nothing?

It’s here, however, that I think something is left out. It’s true, of course, that no Christian should claim that he is being “persecuted” if he is injured due to his own carelessness (although God can still be glorified in the Christian’s response to his self-inflicted suffering). I also agree that God is to be glorified both in the life and death of His followers.

Where I cannot find full agreement, however, is with the suggestion that God is not glorified in the “random assailant” or “senseless tragedy” scenarios. If God cannot get glory from what seems to human minds to be a “random act of violence,” then what does that mean for the sovereignty of God? R.C. Sproul wrote the following about “senseless tragedy” in Surprised by Suffering:

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, I noticed that a number of different words were used to describe those events, words such as catastrophe and calamity. But the word I heard perhaps more than any other was tragedy. Usually, however, there was an adjective attached to this word to describe the attack. It was called a senseless tragedy.

If I had the time to go into a technical, comprehensive analysis of these two words in conjunction with each other, I could demonstrate that the phrase “senseless tragedy” is an oxymoron. For something to be defined in the final analysis as being “tragic,” there has to be some standard of good.

The word tragedy presupposes some kind of order of purpose in the world. If things can happen in a way that is senseless, there can be no such thing as a tragedy—or a blessing. Everything is simply a meaningless event.

The idea of a “senseless tragedy” represents a worldview that is completely incompatible with Christian thought, because it assumes that something happens without a purpose or a meaning. But if God is God and if God is a God of providence and if God is sovereign, then nothing ever happens that is senseless in the final analysis.

The excerpt quoted above can be found here.

With that in mind, I think it’s more difficult to say “No one will magnify Christ because you refused to defend yourself against a drunken thug.” If Sproul is right that “nothing ever happens that is senseless in the final analysis,” then that would seem to include the “senseless tragedy” of being killed by a “random assailant.” In many (perhaps even most) cases it’s probably true that a burglar who breaks into a stranger’s home and murders the occupants will not be driven to magnify Christ by a Christian’s refusal to use deadly force against his assailant. I don’t think we can make that a categorical rule, however. Piper alluded to an example that I think is useful:

If we teach our students that they should carry guns, and then challenge them, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here,” do we really think that when the opportunity to lay down their lives comes, they will do what Jim Elliott and his friends did in Ecuador, and refuse to fire their pistols at their killers, while the spears plunged through their chests?

There is relatively little evidence of which I’m aware that would suggest that at the time that Jim Elliott, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian were killed that the Huaorani people they were trying to reach knew that they were Christians. Their contact with them up until that point had been extremely limited. If we didn’t know the rest of the story, we might be tempted to conclude that Jim Elliott and the others wasted their deaths. The rest of the story, I think, shows that God, in his ultimate sovereignty, did not allow their deaths to be wasted. Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Eliot returned to Ecuador and continued the work of Operation Auca, eventually seeing several of the Huaorani men who participated in the attack come to be Christians.

No doubt it’s easier in the case of men who dedicated their lives to mission work to see how God is glorified even in the seemingly senseless death of a Christian. However, the same God whose ultimate purpose to reach the Huaorani people was not thwarted by an unprovoked attack in the jungles of Ecuador is the same God whose ultimate purpose cannot be thwarted by the unprovoked attack of a random burglar in suburban America.

Again, I don’t find myself in complete agreement with Piper on this issue (and I think the suggestion that his post masks an unstated preference for pacifism is likely correct). I think something that has been missing from the ensuing discussion, however, is attention to God’s sovereignty. Christians will likely never come to complete agreement on this issue, but whatever side we come down on I think it is imperative that any position is built on the foundation of God’s sovereignty. Whether a Christian chooses to use or refrain from using lethal force against an assailant is, after all, a product of providence, not fate.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Guns, Christian Hedonism, and the Sovereignty of God

  1. I suspected that such an objection might be raised, and I should have elaborated further on my thinking in regard to the sovereignty of God on this issue. Of course, God will sovereignly work all things for His glory and for the good of those who love Him––even random violent attacks. But in our actions and decisions, we are called to intentionally seek glory. And it is on the realm of our actions and choices which I was focusing.

    Think of a random attack in the same way you would a random disease. You could refuse any medication, in the name of “trusting God”, and slowly (or quickly) die as a result. And, in the long run, God would be sure to make Himself glorious through that situation. But, you would have unnecessarily thrown away your life, and your specific decision to forgo medicine would have been one which was not aimed at any appropriate or specific value. On this reasoning, why should man do anything to promote his life? Why should he not commit suicide, or passively decay into death by refusing to eat? That God is sovereign and that He will be glorified in all things does not negate the importance or the value of our actions in this life.

    Regarding Jim Elliot and his crew, I cannot get inside their heads, but there are a number of very value-oriented ways of thinking which could have (and hopefully did) cross their minds. For example, they might have been thinking, “We came here as missionaries. The sole reason we came here was to show Christ to these people. The sole value we are seeking is that Christ would be magnified to them in such a way that they would glorify Christ in their lives. If we were to kill them in self-defense as our first encounter with them, it would destroy the very value we came here to seek. We do not know if that value will be achieved after we are dead, but we do know that it will not be achieved if we kill them.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by! I somewhat suspected that you would have had more to say about the sovereignty of God as it relates to this specific issue (perhaps with more time and space). I think the same could probably be said for the rest of the blogosphere. Yours was definitely one of the most though-provoking response to Piper that I’ve read, so please don’t take anything here as anything other than my attempt to add to the discussion amongst brothers and sisters.

      I see your point with the example of refusing medication and I agree that even knowing that God will be glorified in the final analysis, we still ought to _choose_ to glorify God in our actions (the kind of “conscious and joyous choice to hold on to those eternal values which death can’t ever take away” that you mentioned in your post). That, I think, IS what Elliott and the others had in mind based on what I know of their story. Granted, their situation was one with which the overwhelming majority of Christians in first-world countries will never be faced. In that respect, I don’t think they necessarily serve as a model for every Christian to exactly reproduce and my gut tells me that Piper would grant a similar concession as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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