In a timely article last month, professor N. T. Wright addressed our collective anxiety as Christians living during the coronavirus pandemic by assuring us our faith offers no answers. At least not the answers we want. He asserts that our quest for reasons results from Christianity’s faulty reliance on rationalism. “Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief.” But what do we do when God gives us neither explanations nor relief? Wright says we lament.
Citing T. S. Eliot (in “East Coker,” the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets), Wright speaks about “hoping for the wrong thing.”
I asked Wright how might we better think about hope.
Wright: The point is that we all too quickly hope for “our heart’s desire” without thinking that perhaps we need to let God do quite a job of reordering our hearts. In my tradition we have an old prayer which asks that God would so enable us “to love what you command, and desire what you promise.” Far too much of modernity, including would-be Christian modernity, is wanting God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. Eliot, (echoing St. John of the Cross) is challenging that and suggesting we might have to wait on God’s fresh leading before we know what we should really be hoping for.
I’ve experienced deep personal sorrow myself this past year, and I’ve seen lament and grief as gateways to a deeper, though more ambiguous and even mysterious, faith. Is this a kind of “unknowing”, as some Christian traditions would teach?
Wright: Lament and grief open all sorts of doorways into parts of our personalities, and I dare say aspects of God’s mystery, which we gain by perhaps no other means. But I would not let this “unknowing” spill over into a kind of mind-emptying philosophy; any emptying which takes place would then be the prelude to a different kind of filling. Again, Romans 8 would be important here.
I agree with Professor Wright. The eighth chapter of Romans is majestic. It leads off with “no condemnation for those are in Christ Jesus” (v.1), and proceeds to untangle myriad tensions: sin and law, flesh and spirit, life and death. The Holy Spirit assures our true identity as God’s children, and yet childlike faith still isn’t easy. Resurrection demands crucifixion, for Jesus and all who follow him (Mark 8:34). Our souls are forged most intensely and meaningfully by suffering. It’s just how it works.
Though redeemed children of God, we’re not yet who we are. Saved by grace, we still need grace. Resurrection has started, it’s just not yet completed. Creation groans in the meantime, waiting with eager longing like a mother in labor eager for her child to be born (Rom. 8:22). Her new baby takes a breath and finds life and brings life and joy—even more so if the delivery was difficult. The hope for all creation, subjected to futility and pandemics, is set to be freed from bondage and decay, born again, so to speak, “into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (v. 21). No matter how bad it gets, it’s nothing compared to the good that will be. This is our Easter hope and joy.
How this all comes about in the end, God only knows. The Bible speaks to a new heaven and earth (Rev. 21:1), freed from death and decay, and a universe lit up by God’s glory (Rev. 22:5). We’re promised new kinds of bodies too (1 Cor. 15:44). Our faith aspires to realities beyond comprehension, larger than the temporal concerns over security and reputation and success and failure and even health that otherwise dominate our thoughts. From birth, we’ve been wired with a capacity to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves to greater purposes. In the midst of ordinary day-to-day living, we’re beset by the realization that this cannot be all there is to life. Jesus said only by losing your self can you find your real self (Mark 8:35).
Losing your self happens when you take up your cross. Resurrection demands crucifixion. This itself is cause for lament. Paul indicts human sin as the deadly cause and effect of so much evil, physically and metaphysically. Every relational break and breach of faith, every lie and infidelity and murder and theft and hurt and act of oppression and violence against others. Wright describes God as being “grieved to his heart.”
I asked, how does divine lament find resolution?
Wright: I was thinking of God lamenting that he had made humans, in Genesis 6.6; and then – granted a strong Trinitarian theology of course – the grief of Jesus both at his friend’s grave and in Gethsemane, and the ‘groaning’ of the Spirit in Romans 8:22. The New Testament seems to be saying, at quite a deep level, that these all lead up to, and then flow away from, the cross and resurrection. Only at that point does the healing come into view.
Indeed, as, the New Testament teaches, anyone who is crucified in Christ is a new creation already in Christ, “the old has gone, the new is here” (2 Cor. 5:17). We live out our true identity in those moments when we do love our neighbors, when we do forgive those who wrong us, when we do care for the earth and the poor and the refugee and the widow and orphan, when we speak truth and make peace and do right and worship the Lord as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1). And when we fail because of our weakness, we can repent and bear witness to a true transformation of heart, to the deep breath of the Spirit and the resurrection of our bodies and all things made new in Christ, born again yet again until that day when we are fully revealed as we hope, made new andalive in a creation finally set free.
N. T. Wright is the professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, a Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, and the author of over 80 books, including The New Testament in Its World.
Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.