The headline of N.T. Wright’s piece published in Time Magazine (29/03/2020) is both shocking and provocative: “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.”
We may summarize NTW’s piece accordingly – There is no explanation, whether rationalist or romantic. We should not rationalize away or spiritualize our suffering especially in times when “the only advice is to wait without hope.” It is better just to grieve or lament. This is because lament reminds us that God himself is the one who grieved and lamented when his people betrayed him. NTW concludes, “It is 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.”
Lament without an explanation for suffering without rhyme or reason? Doesn’t this sound like Greek catharsis in the face of cruel and capricious fate? Isn’t this a strange amalgamation of sentimentalism with Roman stoicism? In which case, why lament? Why not just accept our fate? In this regard, maybe the Muslims got it right – just throw up your hands and exclaim “takdir”, and get on with life.
Unfortunately, without a coherent scheme which explains the why and the wherefore of our dire predicament, our lament is likely to end up as expression of hopelessness. We will sink into despair as we desperately grapple with meaningless and pointless suffering. NTW is right that the laments recorded in the psalms and prophetic literature offer an assurance that our God understands & sympathizes with our sufferings. But surely the God of the Bible also assures his people that he is not a capricious God who brings good out of evil as his ways higher than our ways and his thoughts than our thoughts. Indeed, the fuller teaching of the Bible assures us that God has gone beyond merely sympathizing with us – he has done what it takes to put an end to suffering. God in Christ has addressed the underlying cause of suffering and sets in motion his work of salvation to end all suffering…eventually.
Put theologically, we are able to make sense of present suffering and experience hope if we view it in the context of Christian eschatology and soteriology. That is to say, the grief caused by suffering is tempered if we acknowledge its cause (human sin and the fall of creation) and its cure (Christ has taken up our sin and suffering on the cross). It is precisely our faith in the risen Christ which allows us to experience real hope (not the desperate ‘hope’ of NTW) and the resurrection assures us that God has decisively dealt with the power of sin and its consequences, and enables us to experience provisionally God’s new creation as we are renewed by the Holy Spirit. After all, NTW himself wrote elsewhere about the theme of Christus Victor on the cross, and with it, the Christian anticipation of the eventual restoration of creation.
Admittedly, Christians continue to experience suffering that defies simplistic answers. There are times when the righteous suffer along with the unrighteous as God not only brings sunshine to both the godly and the ungodly; he allows cancer and coronavirus to strike down both princes and paupers, believers and unbelievers. Woe betides those miserable comforters who offer trite answers when what really matters in such dark hours is to stand beside their suffering friends – offering sympathy and solidarity, practical assistance etc. Nevertheless, our existential despair along with sympathy and solidarity must still be undergirded (or shall I say transcended) by an informed theological conviction or spiritual assurance based on our hope that is anchored in the God of good providence.
To be sure, we should caution those Christians who seem only too ready to offer glib answers the people who are experiencing existential despair caused by suffering. There are times when the righteous simply are unable to find answer to what seems to be undeserved suffering in their case. It is granted that the lament which NTW refers provides no rational explanation to the problem of suffering. But to say lament provides no answer is not to say there is no answer. God has provided insights into suffering in the book of Job and the book of Ecclesiastes and offered the ultimate resolution to suffering in the New Testament.
More significantly, the answer to suffering is not found in lament but in the God to whom we bring our laments to. Lament in the Bible is an invitation to believers to bring their woes and bewilderment into the presence of God where they may even complain and question God’s justice. As such, lament is not an occasion to express our frustrations to God or to doubt him; it is an occasion where we wrestle with our doubts and despair in God’s presence. Saints who have gone through these dark valleys will testify that with God’s presence:
In the darkest of darkness,
the smallest light is brightness.
Perhaps, NTW eschews this kind of Christian theological discourse (“silly suspects” and “dodgy speculations,” are his words) because he is writing for the general media. I suspect though, that this is how NTW delights in stirring controversy. Remember, how he delights in demolishing Christian traditions like the traditional teaching of heaven and hell and therefore the climax of Christian hope in the name of new insights from his version of biblical theology? However, NTW ends up with a truncated eschatology which fails to make sense of suffering and offers the fullness of Christian hope.
Perhaps, NTW is trying to reach out to the unbelievers who read the Times. They may well be impressed by his elegant rhetoric. Unfortunately for all his valiant attempt, I think many will just scoff at what they consider to be a feeble response to suffering. Some unbelievers may grudgingly tip a bit of their hats to acknowledge the brave Christian souls who in their lament somehow hope without answer and somehow manage to assure themselves that God sympathizes them. However, in the absence of rational explanation, they are more likely to perceive these Christians to be desperately clutching at straws.
NTW’s attempt to rest his ‘hope’ on lament rather on a robust Christian eschatology with God’s great story of sin and salvation may offer temporary psychological relief, but such relief will only be eventually crushed by the brute reality of what still continues to be pointless suffering. In the process, Christian may find themselves short-changed in their hope. As Paul writes, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1Cor.15:19)
From Lament, to Hope and Action