COVID-19 pandemic an opportunity for Christians to lament, not have all answers, NT Wright says

Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright speaks at Harvard University during a Nov. 18-20, 2008, outreach event, sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright speaks at Harvard University during a Nov. 18-20, 2008, outreach event, sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. | (Photo: InterVarsity)

Theologian N.T. Wright says that the Christian faith offers no real answers amid the coronavirus pandemic but instead offers a chance to lament and seek God during an uncertain time.

In a Sunday essay in TIME, the renowned theologian opined that the COVID-19 outbreak has made a mockery of Lenten disciplines. Whereas some give up certain foods during the season of Lent, the conditions that have been imposed have heightened what it means to go without something.

"No doubt the usual silly suspects will 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," he wrote.

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"But supposing it doesn’t?" he posited.

Some Christians want everything to have an explanation; others desire a sigh of relief, he went on to say. What is called for in this moment in time, Wright stressed, is lament.

"Lament is what happens when people ask, 'Why?' and don’t get an answer. 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," he continued.

"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?"

Throughout the Psalms, suffering and trouble are consistent themes and though hope often emerges by the end, the stanzas often start and conclude in darkness and despair, he explained.

"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," Wright said.

"God was grieved to his heart, Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures. He was devastated when his own bride, the people of Israel, turned away from him. And when God came back to his people in person — the story of Jesus is meaningless unless that’s what it’s about — he wept at the tomb of his friend. 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."

Thus, Christians cannot explain what and why everything is happening as it is, he said. Lament, however, is the Christian posture.

"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," he concluded.

Commenting on Wright's essay in The Gospel Coalition Wednesday, Andy Davis, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, offered that the Bible does indeed offer us answers amid crises like the pandemic because the hope of which it speaks is not earthly but everlasting.

"The God of the Bible is eternal, infinitely above the unfolding of time. He is the 'Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End' (Rev. 22:13). He wrote the complex story of human history before the world began. And he has revealed everything we need to know about the future," Davis opined.

Wright pitted scriptural truth and heartfelt compassion, including lament, against each other when, in fact, they go together, he argued.

"For God’s redeemed, no sickness ever ended ultimately in death. And God isn’t willing that we’ll be eternally in the dark about his intentions," Davis said.

"God isn’t going to hide his purposes from his children. And though we may never know in this world the full dimensions of God’s purposes in the coronavirus, it will be made clear one glad morning."

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