I’m not a John Piper fanboy. The guy’s a passionate Christian, a deep-thinking theologian, and highly respected by a lot of people I respect. But his hard-line Calvinism, belief in double predestination, occasional dumb statements, and seeming need to fit everything into his glory of God theology tend to rub me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because he’s so very certain about things, and I’m not. And maybe it’s also due to the fact that any blogger who says anything negative about Piper can expect to get flamed by his legion of followers.
Piper is a serious pastor and theologian, and sometimes he gets things exactly right. This is one of those times. He announced this weekend that he was going to take an eight-month leave of absence from his pulpit — in fact, from his entire public ministry, it seems — in order to deal with some personal issues.
His words: “I asked the elders to consider this leave because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit…I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. How do I apologize to you, not for a specific deed, but for ongoing character flaws, and their effects on everybody? I’ll say it now, and no doubt will say it again, I’m sorry.”
Wow. Read his whole explanation and apology. I’m impressed. Here’s why:
1. It’s proactive rather than reactive. From what I can tell, this isn’t in reaction to any brewing scandal. How often do we hear words of apology from preachers, and contrite admissions of guilt…but only after some big controversy gets exposed? Here’s a guy nipping it in the bud on his own terms. He’s the one bringing his sin out in the open, first, rather than in response to someone else.
2. The big sin? Pride. When public religious figures have to resign or take a leave because of some brewing controversy, it’s always because of something like sex or power or greed. Big public sins. But pride? Piper’s leaving the pulpit for eight months because he has an “ongoing character flaw” of pride? Man, who doesn’t have that ongoing character flaw? (My hand: not raised.) If every pastor in the nation who dealt with unhealthy amounts of pride were to suddenly leave the pulpit, we’d be dealing with a nationwide shortage of preachers. There are public sins and private sins. Pride is one of those sins that you can indulge in and hardly anyone knows. In fact, most people expect it of powerful figures. For him to confess to it openly and let it impact his ministry shows that Piper takes sin very seriously.
3. It’s a true sabbatical. He’s not taking time off so he can write another book or prepare another sermon series or teach a seminary course. He’s taking time off to work on his marriage and these personal issues. Period. “In this leave, I intend to let go of all of it. No book-writing. No sermon preparation or preaching. No blogging. No Twitter. No articles. No reports. No papers. And no speaking engagements.” Piper is the kind of guy who is insanely productive as a blogger, writer, Twitterer, preacher — you name it. If he really does need to deal with these things, this cold-turkey ceasing of these aspects of his ministry shows how big a deal it is.
4. He knows it’s a luxury. Not only did he offer to take his leave without pay (it seems his church has refused this), but he recognizes that deciding to take 8 months off work isn’t something just any employee can do. “Most working men and women do not have the freedom to step back like this.” Understatement of the year. He’s blessed to be able to do this at all, and approaches the topic with the necessary humility and compassion for those who will have to work harder in his absence. That’s the right approach.
Any pastors and public religious figures who are struggling with any aspect of their ministry — whether sins public or private, professional burnout, spiritual emptiness, or marriage problems — should take a page from John Piper on this one. He’s not always right, in my opinion, but the way he’s handled this situation is dead-on.
My best to him as he deals with whatever issues are plaguing him and his marriage.