John Piper’s “Proud Canvas” – a misunderstanding of the artistry of God

Your life in Christ is not a life of rags that God uses to get some dirty work done, and then later he’ll clean you up a bit. No, your life in Christ is as a new creation made perfect now (Hebrews 10:14) because the Spirit of Christ lives in you now (Romans 8:9-11) and you have been seated with Jesus in heaven now. (Ephesians 2:6.)

Simply put, you are right now the craft and artistry of God:

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Ephesians 2:10.)

This good news is fundamental to understanding your life in Christ. It looks like John Piper recently forgot it, or at least that he didn’t have it at the forefront of his mind when he wrote a poem and tweeted about it: “Christ Will Not Paint on a Proud Canvas” A poem of thankfulness that God uses rags.

Mr. Piper bases the poem on the Apostle Paul’s experience with his own weakness and Christ’s strength.

[Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10.)

Mr. Piper wrote that he heard a sermon on that passage, and the preacher asked:

“Why should I admit my moral malignancy and helplessness and hopelessness? Because Christ will not paint on a proud canvas.”

It was this point in the sermon that Mr. Piper said he wanted to hold on to, and he eventually wrote a poem about. The poem itself is an interesting look at the grace of the infallible God who uses all-too-fallible people to fulfill his holy purposes. If he had given it a different title, it would be unremarkable for any doctrinal problems. But his emphasis on the sermon and his choice to use the preacher’s poorly stated comment on 2 Corinthians 12 as the poem’s title are problematic.

Think of it: “Christ will not paint on a proud canvas.” What does this tell you about sin and the power of God? It suggests that God’s power cannot overcome sin.

The good news, though, is that the preacher and Mr. Piper are wrong.

  1. You’re not a faulty canvas.
  2. God works through people, even proud ones.

For the first point, look at the verses I mentioned at the start of this post. For the second point, look at what Jesus did. Or rather, look at what he didn’t do.

  • Nowhere does Jesus tell anyone they are too prideful and therefore God won’t use them.
  • Nowhere does he tell anyone to humble themselves first before God can welcome them into the kingdom of Christ.
  • Nowhere does he say that pride is the one sin that keeps God from using his people to build his kingdom.

In fact, there’s one point where two of Jesus’ closest friends are rather prideful and he neglects to tell them to knock it off.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” (Mark 10:35-40.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this vignette is that when they say – perhaps pridefully – that they can handle the same things Jesus will have to deal with, Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re nuts. To the contrary, he tells them they’re right.

The lesson on pride of place didn’t come until later, and it was directed at the ones who did not ask for it.

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:41-45.)

So is there ever a problem with pride? Sure. It’s listed as a sin more than once in the Bible, and humility is mentioned as a virtue. For example:

Pride goes before destruction,
    a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18.)

and,

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:10.)

Notice that these verses do not say that “Christ will not paint on proud canvasses.”

Where do we get true humility, Godly humility, then? From the Son of God himself who described himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and who has given you the Holy Spirit who lives the life of Christ in and through you. (Romans 8:9-11.) And this is true even though you may still commit sins – including the sin of pride – because God never condemns those who are in Christ. (Romans 8:1.) Rather, the Bible says  Jesus conquered sin once for all and made you holy in the process. (Hebrews 10:10.)

Jesus Christ indeed paints upon your canvas even now. You are God’s masterpiece.

***

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19 Responses to John Piper’s “Proud Canvas” – a misunderstanding of the artistry of God

  1. Thank you for your insight, Tim! I must admit that pride is one of the sins I detest the most, and therefore, I was quite ready to like the sentence about Christ not painting on the proud canvas. But you are right: pride will not keep us from God, no more than any other sin, if we confess it and try to let us guide by the Holy Spirit. As for God not using rags: I personally like the Picture (as you know I guess) that God uses everything in my life, even the “rags”, the broken things, my mistakes and so on, to create something truly wonderful and beautiful. For me, this Picture and the Picture of myself as a new creation doesn’t create a conflict; it helps me to accept my past, good and bad, and trust God who can make Gold out of everything – and use my weaknesses and wounds to help others.

    • Tim says:

      The conflict of how we act (in the flesh, as Paul said) and who we are in Christ (new creations) seems incompatible. And it is in that we are told to walk in and by the Spirit. The good news is that the Spirit is in us always and helps us even when we are prideful or dealing with any other sin. The gold God creates in us is wonderful,

  2. Pastor Bob says:

    Most creative.
    PRIDE: short term, being humble enough to admit the need for a Savior may not be sufficient for the Lordship concept to really grow. Makes me wonder if the “proud canvas” is a bit more difficult to work with? (There are variations within the same medium that may make a certain project a bit more difficult.)

    • Tim says:

      Sin always gets in the way of our relationship with God as far as us enjoying him as fully as he wants us to. On the other hand, God in his grace overcomes all sin, pride included. It’s a conundrum that I don’t understand but am extremely thankful for.

  3. Dee Parsons says:

    Thank you, Tim. I was irritated by Piper’s Proud Canvas poem. Piper is part of a crowd that are terribly prideful. Yet they seem to take joy in telling us how prideful we are.

    I am of the opinion that each one of us struggles with pride and other failures. Yet, in spite of this, Christ is with us. As St Patrick said way back in the 300s:
    I arise today
    Through God’s strength to pilot me;
    God’s might to uphold me,
    God’s wisdom to guide me,
    God’s eye to look before me,
    God’s ear to hear me,
    God’s word to speak for me,
    God’s hand to guard me,
    God’s way to lie before me,
    God’s shield to protect me,
    God’s hosts to save me
    From snares of the devil,
    From temptations of vices,
    From every one who desires me ill,
    Afar and anear,
    Alone or in a mulitude.

    Have a great day, Tim.

  4. Jeannie says:

    I don’t mind the poem so much — I think it shows one of many ways a writer can use images and metaphors to make a point, and poetry needs some artistic license — but I agree that the “proud canvas” quote and title are problematic. The idea seems to be “If pridefully refuse to admit my weaknesses, then I won’t amount to anything because God will fold His arms and refuse to ‘use’ me. So that’s the reason I should confess my faults and weaknesses — and then He’ll say, ‘Well THAT’s better, now I can make something out of you.”

    • Tim says:

      I thought the poem was OK too, Jeannie. It’s the title and his sermon quote that he highlights that are the problem. Your summary of where this leads is exactly what’s wrong with it.

  5. What is more prideful? Thinking that God can use us even when we may have pride or some other sin or that we can somehow remove all the traces of pride from our lives in order for God to be able to use us? Personally I think the second is more prideful than the first, since ultimately the first is relying on the grace and power of God more than our own merit.

    As you and others have said, the poem itself isn’t bad. It’s just the backstory that is problematic.

    • Tim says:

      That’s is exactly, Jeremy. The back story – which he uses to instruct on doctrine – is truly problematic. And yes, I’d much rather rely on God’s gracious cleansing than my own efforts to clean myself up for him

  6. Kevin Mason says:

    I was a student of Pastor Piper and a member of the church where he preached for many years. I have heard many of Pastor Piper’s poems; his annual advent poems were ways he would provide greater depth to events and biblical characters via creative story telling. He never claimed or implied his poems were theological or doctrinally rock solid. He did stay true to those parts that were clearly mentioned in the bible. There was some creative aspects and details that were included to provide depth and color to the story.

    Your post today seems more of an attempt to build a straw-man. I have heard Pastor Piper address pride and humility and heard speak of his own struggles with pride. A level of pride that would be considered very low compared to most pastors of large churches yet he could see it in himself and strives to be free of it

    Sometimes a story or poem is just that… a story or poem.

    Now if Pastor Piper preached using his poem as if was equal to God’s word, you would have a legitimate concern. But I have heard many of his sermons and many of his poems to easily recognize the difference between the two and do not consider his poems to be the same as his sermons.

    • Tim says:

      It’s not an issue of mistaking a poem for a sermon. In fact, I don’t have a problem with the poem, as I made clear in the post. It’s a matter of his blog post, which is definitely him taking the opportunity to teach the unbiblical notion that Jesus doesn’t “paint on proud canvasses”. This is where the doctrinal problem is found. If you agree with his doctrine and not mine, that’s fine. But I am definitely not setting up a straw man, since I’m merely addressing his own words – and the words that are the heart of his blog post at that.

  7. Kevin Mason says:

    If “Jesus doesn’t “paint on proud canvasses” is the statement of concern. I will grant pastor Piper some poetic license when using the term since the term itself is not found in the bible. It is a metaphor to paint an abstract picture (pun not intended) and not photo-realism. I agree with you that God can use anyone no matter where they rate on the pride/humility scale. God has used the proud to play the part of fools and he has used the humble to show his strength and compassion.

    You stated, “What does this tell you about sin and the power of God? It suggests that God’s power cannot overcome sin.” I do not see that being suggested and I doubt Pastor Piper would say that is what he is suggesting. I believe you may have made a stretch to find the conclusion/implication that you derived from pastor Piper’s statement.

    You also made a stretch when you wrote, “You’re not a faulty canvas.” pastor Piper did not use the word “faulty” or implied that proud people were “faulty”. That was an interpretation made on your part.

    I think we both agree that Jesus prefers we are to be humble and not proud. And, those who are humble are better suited to be effective servants in Jesus’ church. Yet… sometimes Jesus will use people who are proud, but if biblical history is a good indicator of the future, the way the proud are used is not desirable.

  8. M. Joy says:

    The first thing I thought of when I read that, was how Piper stated one of the reasons for his leave of absence several years ago was pride.
    http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/john-pipers-upcoming-leave

    • Kevin Mason says:

      M. Joy – I too read that. It takes a great deal of humility to recognized one’s pride and then confess publicly to having pride, and then wanting to do something to eliminate it. Unchecked pride seems to be a common among pastors of growing churches. It is as though pastoral pride grows proportionally to the numerical growth of the church. I have worked with pastors who started with small congregations become prideful as more people attended the church. The difference between pastor Piper and the others is that Pastor Piper recognized his pride and did something about to keep it from growing further. Some pastors have succumb to their pride and started doing things that are born from their pride: believing rules for the sheep were not rules for the shepherd, bragging and claiming the glory for what God did, etc. I am glad Pastor Piper took action when he saw the problem. I wish all pastors were humble enough to recognize their pride.

  9. Bev Murrill says:

    One of the biggest issues of pride is that it’s incredibly common not to know we are proud. Piper has so many issues with so many other people and the stances they make. He consistently finds ways to put everyone else right. Pride could be a problem to him, but how would he know? His words indicate that he feels he is used of God … and that the proud are not used of God – therefore, by definition, he is not proud.

    Ummm…. what’s wrong with this picture/poem?

    • Tim says:

      “His words indicate that he feels he is used of God … and that the proud are not used of God – therefore, by definition, he is not proud.”

      Precisely, Bev. The real answer is that God uses proud people and greedy people and hurt people and depressed people and all sorts of other people to further his kingdom.

  10. Ruth says:

    I’m not really reconciling Piper with ‘humble’, given his very proud attitude as a patriarchal person who doesn’t even seem to consider God knew what He was doing when He created woman as an equal to man.
    Rather more the Uriah Heep version of hand-wringing ‘umble’, a cover for an unbalanced, self-serving individual. Harsh words perhaps, but how many women have been forced into terrible humiliation by the false pride of Pipers teaching as he preaches the oppression and subservience of women?

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