In this new age of coronavirus, I thought I would toddle over to Time.com and do the bold, terrible thing of gently disagreeing with NT Wright, who, we must all acknowledge, is much much smarter than me, and who has reams and reams of published work to prove it. Whatever you think about his new perspective on Paul, and his scholarship about justification, I think we can all agree that he should be writing all the theological works and not me. That being said, and given that the piece in Time is a popular sort of thing (which puts it right at my level), I thought it might be super helpful to make just a few distinctions, and clarifications, about the call to the Christian at such a time as this.
First of all, though, this is beautifully expressed, and the line, “poised, anxious sorrow” is haunting:
There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.
Honestly, thinking about Easter makes me absolutely weep. Holy Week and Easter are the pinnacle of my year. I can trace our lives back, Easter by Easter, I have stored up the rich worship of Holy Week, of children tottering around with candles, of the altar being stripped, of Matt stooping to wash feet, of the pizza bagel bites I served up many years when we staggered home exhausted. This feast is so central to the imagination of the Christian life, I can’t even think about it without coming just a little bit unglued.
Which brings Wright to his point. He makes a sharp dichotomy, a very bold line between two things that I don’t think are in opposition to each other. First he castigates those whom he calls “silly suspects” who
tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation.
Let me just pause and say that the desire for an explanation is not just the product of rationalism. When the Tower of Siloam fell, Jesus’ very own disciples wanted to know why. When the blind man in John 9 was sitting there, the disciples looked at him and wondered—aloud—whose fault it was. That the western “rational” mind has transferred the question of why away from God and onto science doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have an answer. In the case of the tower, Jesus said it was so “you”—you—may repent. In the case of the blind man it was so that he, Jesus, could “display the works of God.”
Or go all the way back to Job. “Why, God,” he cries, and God doesn’t say, ‘There’s No Reason for this,’ he says, essentially, ‘how can you possibly know. You are too small to know the reason.’ Strangely, and upsettingly, I think, the reader does get to know, though Job doesn’t. The reader knows that the reason, the causal reason at least, though not the cosmic reason, is because Satan, of all people, took it upon himself to falsely accuse Job, and God gave him leave to substantiate his accusation. Which brings us to a point made over and over through the scriptures—God is happy to take the blame for the bad things that happen in the world.
“…a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” Amos 3:6
Personally, I find this embarrassing. I would rather God be weak and helpless rather than deal with the verity that he, though he is not the author of evil, allows it for all kinds of reasons, reasons he makes plain in the scriptures, though you have to watch for them.
Anyway, I interrupted, Wright continues:
But supposing it doesn’t? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” What if, after all, there are moments such as T. S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing? Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief.
Actually, everybody wants an explanation. Go anywhere else in the world outside of England or America or any other covid-addled European country and you will find lots and lots of people looking for explanations for bad things. And many of those people, in one way or another, look to the spiritual universe for those explanations. This is far too dismissive, too Eurocentric a claim. You can castigate it as “romantic” and maybe it is, but it is a deep human need. If you ever get to go to a library again, check out the beautiful little book, The Primal Vision.
Anyway, having swept away the whole sea of humanity who wants to know why bad things happen to them, Wright divulges the remedy—which is a good remedy, and is not actually in opposition to the desire to know, but is peculiarly suited to it, as Wright points out:
But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer.
Hmm, I don’t love that definition. I think biblical lament is what happens when you see the dark bitterness of death, when you stand on the wall of a ruined city and know that “God has done it,” when you stand over the coffin of your child, when you are forced, against your will, to acknowledge how far you are from the place you wanted to be. Lament isn’t some human contrivance. It is being in the ash heap. Therefore, I do not entirely agree with this:
It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?
I think Dr. Wright would be so helped by two little, terrible words. The first is helpless. We are helpless before the suffering of the world, and before our own. And this helplessness like an avalanche right now. I do watch the French news every morning, and the pictures yesterday of the desperation and suffering in India and Africa, as people expect to starve to death, basically, in isolation, because if they cannot go out and sell what they have, and buy what they need day by day, they will not make it many days, never mind coronavirus, is absolutely appalling. And I, I sitting here in my warm house, I am helpless. That’s the first word.
The second, and this is so central to lamentation but usually left out, is repentance. Suffering always should invite repentance. No matter what bad thing has happened, you can always know, without wondering about it at all, that it is the result of human sin, and that you are a sinner, and so that even though you are not the direct cause of the earthquake, the virus, the tsunami, the war, the fallen tower, the blindness, your own sin brings about death in all kinds of tiny and yet epic ways. You can always repent. In your helplessness, you can turn to God and fling yourself on his mercy, ask him for forgiveness for what you have done wrong, ask him to rescue you out of all your troubles, and everybody else out of theirs.
Wright is correct, the psalms are an excellent place to begin:
At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).
And here is where Dr. Wright missed the most perfect opportunity to articulate for a suffering and anxious world the very reason why we suffer and why God allows it. Suffering undoes our pride, it belies our attempts at self-sufficiency, it draws us beyond ourselves to seek help. And it is because God, seeing our sore and wretched condition, knowing that we brought it upon ourselves, knowing that he allowed it on purpose so that we would turn back to him, came and took our suffering into himself and went to the cross. And observe how he did it. He employed all the evil and wickedness of every person surrounding him—Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Herod, Judas, his own disciples, Mary with her perfume, the women with their spices, Nicodemus, the whole city of Jerusalem—everyone’s heart was a stream in his hand that he poured into the river that produced his own death. So, when Dr. Wright observes that:
The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.
he says a half truth. God did not only lament, he took all our lamentations, all our sorrows, and took them to the cross where he put to death our greatest enemy. God wasn’t just:
grieved to his heart, Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures.
He wasn’t just:
devastated when his own bride, the people of Israel, turned away from him. And when God came back to his people in person
He didn’t just weep
at the tomb of his friend.
He endured all of that in order that we might be saved. So when, as he points out:
St. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit “groaning” within us, as we ourselves groan within the pain of the whole creation. The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit.
he ought to go on explain, in detail, that there is a purpose to the groaning, a purpose to the suffering, an end to the lamentation. And it is not at all true that:
no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.
I almost couldn’t disagree more even if I tried very hard. It is the very job of the Christian to give the answer about suffering—all suffering. Lamentation, without the cross, and even more so, without the resurrection, is a paltry, dusty, foolish, absurd thing. The Christian alone has the deepest most satisfying reason for why, a why that gathers up all the anxiety, all the hopelessness into an eternal hope. Because not only does God promise that we will suffer, not only does he take the credit when we do, he promises that he will restore everything that we have lost, he will wipe away every tear, he will rebuild every tower that was broken down—he himself will do it.
This message is desperately needed in a world where people are having to drive their loved ones to hospitals, kiss them good-bye, and sometimes never see them again. This message is the only message that reaches past the loneliness, past the desperation, past the hopelessness and helplessness. And it can be said boldly, because it is true, because Jesus, though he lamented and suffered himself, rose from the dead in his own body. Turn to him and live.