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
Finding God’s Peace in Times of Afflictive Providence (Covid-19 Crisis)
10 thoughts on “God Has Answered our Coronavirus Lament. Contra. N.T. Wright”
Would like to add an important criticism of NTW’s usage of lament as the platform to highlight our God as one who grieves and sympathizes with us: It has been pointed out by some OT scholars that the biblical laments go beyond outpouring of emotions. They are essentially appeals to God to “hear” and “save” the psalmist and his people. The focus of these psalms is not on asking God to share our pain but to intervene and deliver his people from danger and distress. As such, it would be better to call these “petition psalms” rather than “lament psalms”.
“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.”
Amen, Dr Ng!
Indeed, in such a situation were we to find ourselves in, we would be left to fend for ourselves so to speak …
In other words, NTW does not go far enough … the role and function of the church, in particular the preacher/ pastor/ minister, is precisely to offer and proclaims words or the word of comfort as the antidote to our lament …
To apply the divine promise to the one who lament – as grounded in the divine omnipotence hidden and also revealed on the Cross by faith …
Indeed, the divine promise is intensely eschatological … And also soteriological since its certainty is guaranteed despite experience and evidence …
Practically then, lament is not meant to lead us into despair but hope and perseverance on the basis of the divine promise alone …
Rather than pointing to the “softer side” of the divine “being” and on that basis, i.e. of the attributes which remains an abstraction and aloof from us, lament leads to us to the proclamation or preaching of the Word – gives us the divine promise itself and with it, the real God Whose is Love and Who gave His Only-Begotten Son to die for us and was raised again for our justification …
Hi Kam Weng,
Just had the opportunity to read both the piece and the responses and critique from some quarters. I wish to share an experience from grass root engagement during this season of the MCO.
Few days ago, relief workers in poorer B40 areas were on their rounds. one in particular highlighted a moving experience. A chicken rice seller operating there had to work from 7am to 10pm just to make ends meet. He lamented during this period it was very tough to earn a decent living. He had to work this many hours just to make more than RM100 a day, both for income and cover his cost. As he was serving chicken rice in his usual manner, what struck those who were buying from him was this; he beg his customers packing lunch to come back in the evening and buy from him. As if that was not enough, he added extra chicken meat to customers so as to “incentivise” them to come back. He is illiterate and didn’t know how to apply for the aid, the Bantuan Prihatin. And now with the extended MCO, his opening hours are going to be cut down further. He could only “lament” and did what he only knew he could do – beg customer to come back!
No one, all of us dignified creatures should beg and I’m sure there are many more such stories to tell. I therefore wonder if this was a Christian chicken rice seller in the same predicament, what would be his story? It could very well be the “lament” of anxiety, hopelessness and one of desperation. But in desperation, would a lament with no answers in sight or calling upon sympathy from the divine or a lament anchored in the hope of a new heaven and new earth brought by redemption be the more enlightening?
Off course, the desperate chicken rice seller will abhor simplistic explanation as to cause and effect, and i might add, presumptuous solution to pound on heavens door for deliverance. The fact is sin in society, the unequal treatment, suffering and death is real and no one in the right mind would care to deny it, although some may not want to speak about it and reiterate its ugly side ….. In the end, i would venture to say, what makes a desperate chicken rice seller, a decent but down human being hang on in life and business apart from the bottom line could well be a lament that sees a silver lining, as they say, rather than a lament of sympathy or a lament of no answer to the coronavirus…..
Trust you and family are well during this trying times ……
Re: my next post, “From Lament, to Hope and Action,” on what seeing a silver lining means – https://krisispraxis.com/archives/2020/04/from-lament-to-hope-and-action/.
Family is getting on fine and with hope, by the mercies and grace of God. Thanks. Blessings in Christ.
Dear Bro Kam Weng,
As I shared about NTW’s Christmas Op Ed which also came under your critique, I am feeling the same thing here (sorry!) I was encouraged by NTW’s Christmas piece and now feel the same about this Coronavirus. In short, NTW’s short sharing has given me a spiritual insight which brings me closer to Jesus.
I was struggling for answers like everyone else – why is this happening to us? As a Christian wasn’t I supposed to be able to answer “God is doing this because ….” or “God allowed this to happen so that ….”? Learning from NTW’s sharing I realise I don’t have the answers to those questions (maybe someday I will whether in this life or after) and God does not expect me to. I see this in the discourses of Job and the Lament or Petition Psalms (as you put it).
I believe in the gospel dearly (and it gives me great hope and joy in the Lord) but those kinds of existential questions are not meant for eschatological answers such as “If I die tonight I know where I will go” or “When Christ comes back all will be well”. I don’t make those statements frivolously and I treasure that blessed hope in my heart. But when we go through suffering of this kind, it is a “lament hope” or a “latent hope” in God that sees us through which is what NTW brings across to my heart.
I don’t think NTW in any way sold the gospel short, even if he didn’t expound the standard gospel themes – this wasn’t the intent of his Op Ed (again it is a question of literary genre isn’t it?). NTW’s gift (and I believe spiritual gift) is to bring freshness and “realness” to what we believe in our hearts – I felt it, his words being used by the Lord to tell me “have hope because I am with you”. As NTW says at the end,
“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. ” Amen to that. May the Lord be with us all …
I have no doubt that NTW will argue that we should not take his view simplistically. I am sure he is more than able to give a much more nuanced perspective, given his outstanding expertise and erudition. However, readers have to read his article as it stands. I am sad to say that I wrote a quick response precisely because several people came to me, telling me that they felt helpless and became depressed after reading NTW’s article – their response is unsurprising in the light of the disturbing headline and the conclusion that it *is* part of the Christian vocation *not to be able* to explain in the final paragraph.
It is only right one must respond to the article as it stands. Even then, note the subjunctive in my penultimate sentence – “In the process, Christian *may* find themselves short-changed in their hope.” More than that, I decided to give a fuller and hopefully, more encouraging framework to readers who are disturbed by NTW’s article, that is, on how one may respond and go beyond lament (which is more than seeking God’s sympathy, but asking him to act according to his promise).
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) is not a trite or simplistic answer, but is God’s definitive answer to our bewilderment in the midst of predicament.
I have also posted a new response – https://krisispraxis.com/archives/2020/04/from-lament-to-hope-and-action/
Glad that our conversation continues.
Blessings in Christ
Yes lament is the prosper response when one is suffering. And there are different kinds and degrees of lament. If the suffering is the consequence of sin, there is a need for confession/repentance (Psalm 51) and the model for lament is the Book of Lamentations. But the concern here is not this kind of lament.
Biblical lament is powerful. Consider laments that go so far as to express impatience/disappointment/anger toward God (e.g. Psalm 44, which accuses God of sleeping on the job, and teaches us how to lament). Such laments assume that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. For to feel that way toward God means we believe He is all-power and thus is in control. He could have prevented the suffering but has chosen not to! We need to express exactly how we feel toward God because He is all-knowing (we cannot hide it from Him) and it is hindering our fellowship with Him and thus cannot pray. We can express exactly how we feel to Him because He is all-loving (cf. Psalm 103:13-14). Note that Psalm 44 also explicitly confesses that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving.
In other words, when we ALREADY feel impatient/disappointed/angry toward God, not expressing it through a lament amounts to denying that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving at a time when we really need to believe these truths about Him. Expressing it amounts to affirming these beliefs emotionally and thus equip us to face the suffering better.
God did not explain to Job why he suffered. But Job was satisfied with God’s non-answer and got what he really wanted–“see” God. Just as we do not use Romans 8:28 on a believer who is already suffering, answers to why God allows suffering is not appropriate. The “answer” during times of suffering is indeed lament. The logical answer can wait. Thus the laments do not provide a logical answer to the suffering. They are not supposed to. But this does not mean the Bible has no logical answer to suffering not the conssequence of sin. The Book of Ecclesisates together with the prologue of the Book of Job provide the answer, which points ultimately to Christ.
The basic problem with NTW’s piece on the coronavirus is that he declares explicitly in no uncertain terms that Christianity (and thus the Bible) has no answer and in fact is not supposed to have an answer. He ignors the rest of the Bible on the question of suffering. This outright error requires a response even now because not every believer has come to the point where lament is the “answer” he needs. Some do need a logical answer at this time. So they may find NTW’s declaration disturbing.
Thank you Bro Kam Weng and others who have come into the conversation. If the response was to help those who “felt disturbed” by NTW’s prose, perhaps the reason for the “felt disturbance” needs to be addressed as well.
I think there is a subtle difference between “not saying enough” and “saying something wrong” (and I am not sure which of these the critiques so far seem fall into) but I think NTW did neither. I don’t think he suggested there is no Christian hope and I agree with him that in the midst of our suffering certain questions are “rhetorical’ (in the sense of them being not supposed to have answers and if one tries to answer them with pat answers they sound lame). What is the answer to “Eloi Eloi lama sabachtani?” ?. Indeed this reminder from NTW will certainly help carry me through this difficult coming Passion Week as it tells me Jesus suffered and lamented with me and not just for me.
May God be with you this coming weekend and special holy week ahead.
NKW has given a good response “It is Pointless to Lament before the God of Open Theism or to Trust in His Deliverance” to NT Wright piece. I happened to hear John MacArthur comment on this video ( almost at the end ) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izr7uySLwPc. In essence MacArthur said that Wright had no faith in the sovereignty of God over His world and that we have to be careful with him !
Recently I had a new insight on the confession of Christ in Rev 1 , ” I am the Alpha and the Omega ” with regards to our seen ( and unseen ) world we are living in. In Gen 1 & 2 we see the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and the earth ( the alpha ) and we have yet to see the end (the omega ) of God’s creation that begun in Gen 1. God’s project of creating a garden city takes a very very long time from our perspective . He has all the blueprints in place and there will be no amendments in the plans or additional blueprints ! ( in contrast as a former engineer my projects usually lasted the most 3 years to complete and in the process there were numerous amendments to the blueprints and sometimes additional plans to enhance the projects. And so many circumstances to ‘endanger’ my projects !) Our problems will show when we impose our finiteness on God who is infinite, whatever it means , if ever we can fathom it.
Consider the Apostle Paul who was a player in God’s blueprint. When we see and know of his life prior to his journey to Damascus, we fear that the plan of God will be hindered ! Little did we know that God’s ways are so perfect even before the foundation was laid !
So you see why our faith in the absolute sovereignty of God in his omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence brings us absolute peace in the momentary turbulence in our world.
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