What a time to be alive. I am simultaneously over and under-reacting to too much and too little information, all while in isolation, but also with everyone else everywhere at the same time.
Somehow, that jumbled mess of a sentence captures my life over the last few weeks. Moments stretched into what feels like a lifetime that are unable to make lasting sense of what is happening. These agonizing paradoxes are punctuated by a geo-political landscape that is pomp for the sake of circumstance and where no one knows who to trust; but don’t worry its just the health of you and everyone you know on the line.
In the midst of that chaos I find solace in the secure truth of the Christian faith and its steady sense-making message of the gospel . . . which made N.T. Wright’s article titled, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To” fairly surprising. The article surfaced a week ago and spread through my feeds rather quickly, as Wright suggests that the proper Christian disposition towards global tragedy is lament.
He writes, “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.”
The title of the article employs a turn of phrase that I don’t think is very helpful or accurate but is understandable in terms of grabbing readers’ attention. He is not saying the Bible does not speak to tragedy and therefore Christianity is directionless in the face of tragedy. On the contrary, he suggests that instead of offering prosaic notions like “everything will be fine in the end” the Christian answer is to sit in the heartache and weep with those who weep.
It is a fairly pastoral response and one that I think has a lot of merit even if the title is not very helpful. Wright is correct that the Church, particularly in the West, struggles to embrace lament.
That being said . . .
Lament is not the only applicable biblical counsel on responding to widespread heartbreak. Many Christians took exception to Wright’s article and the bleak outlook on Scripture’s limited guidance. In Andy Davis’ pointed response to Wright he suggests that the proper Christian response to the tragedy at hand is to focus on Christ’s power over disease, sickness, and death and be reminded of our coming glory in Christ.
Davis’ whole article is a chastisement of Wright, which is immediately evident from the title, “Surprised by Hopelessness: A Response to N.T. Wright.”
Sadly, in the shocking language and in the opposition to the shocking language both approaches seem to have lost elements of a faithful biblical response to tragedy. Wright accurately highlights the need for lament and the struggle for Christians to embrace that emotional space. He highlights several Psalms and the bleak tone which is frequently found in the Psalter.
However, his biblical justifications for lament fall flat. In his reference of Psalm 13 he points to the struggle of asking “How long, O Lord” while neglecting the conclusion, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love.” He makes the same rhetorical omission in Psalm 22 while highlighting the Psalmist’s feeling of being forsaken but conveniently forgetting that, “the afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord!”
Davis makes similar omissions by skating past Christ’s lament in John 11 with a sentence while lingering for paragraphs on future hope. The problem is that both visions of the Christian message are incomplete without the other. To claim that Christianity has no answers for the coronavirus is too shortsighted. While the best approach in the moment may be lament (it also may not be the best answer), that is an answer in and of itself and does not negate the hope of Christ for the future or in the present. Conversely, any approach to tragedy that puts on a plastic smile and says everything will be great while speeding past the hurt of the moment is synthetic and unbiblical.
Yes, Christianity has answers to the problem of the coronavirus. Those answers include the glorious truth of a world without sickness in our future and a lament for the world in which we live now. Leaning too far in either direction distorts the gospel. The Christian life is one that is sorrowful yet always rejoicing. Or in other words, living for Christ in this world is a paradoxical existence of lament and hope.
In short, future glory and present grief are not mutually exclusive.
There are times when we should weep and there are times when we should dry our cheeks and praise God that our hope transcends the brokenness of the world. There are even times when both lament and hope occupy the same space—A couple poignant examples can be found in I Samuel 1 where Hannah prays to the Lord while weeping bitterly or in the last few verses of the book of Habakkuk that combine the lament of national and economic tragedy and rejoicing in the Lord. This balance of emotion is on full display throughout the Psalms, the writings of Paul, and the life of Christ.
In these times Christians can faithfully respond to the public panic, rising death tolls, and the general sense of the unknown with lament and they can faithfully respond by being reminded of hope. We would all do well to find space for both.
In the midst of the many perplexing paradoxes of the moment (see the opening paragraph) the ongoing Christians paradox of lament and hope is right at home.