We Can Lament and Explain

April 2nd, 2020 / 29 Comments

I disagree with NT Wright. And I don’t often do that.

In a recent Time article titled, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To,” Wright makes some statements with which I can agree.

But I don’t agree with his main point.

I disagree with NT Wright. And I don’t often do that. Click To Tweet

I Agree…

Wright begins his little essay by referring to the Christian practices of Lent. He rightly calls some explanations for God’s relation to the Coronavirus “silly.” He rejects the idea God is punishing us, warning us, or giving a sign by sending this pandemic.

I agree with Wright that God is not causing the pandemic for some higher purpose. We should not “explain” suffering as God orchestrated. The Coronavirus isn’t part of some divine blueprint.

I also agree when Wright says our suffering grieves God. God is “in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit,” as he puts it. “God also laments,” says Wright.

Perhaps my favorite line is this: “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.”

I couldn’t agree more!

Lament

Instead of searching for answers to God’s will and the Coronavirus (as I have offered in this essay), Wright says our response should be to lament. The essay’s final paragraph provides his central argument:

“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. 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.”

Do we have to choose between lament and explanation? Click To Tweet

I agree lament can be a place “where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.” And from this place, I think new possibilities, acts of kindness, scientific understanding, and new hope can emerge. God can squeeze some good from lament.

But do we have to choose between lament and explanation?

I Disagree…

“Always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within you,” says the Apostle Peter (1 Pt. 3:15). I take this verse to mean we should seek explanations for what God might be doing during this pandemic. I find numerous biblical passages offering explanations of God’s action in response to suffering.

Most of the explanations I’m encountering today for what God is doing are “silly.” I don’t think God sends the Coronavirus to punish or teach us a lesson. God has not caused and is not allowing the virus to kill, harm, and cause havoc.

God is not in the evil business.

We should lament suffering in our world. But we can simultaneously seek answers to why God doesn't prevent suffering in the first place! Click To Tweet

But it is part of the Christian tradition to offer a plausible explanation to what’s happening. It’s part of being Christian to seek believable answers to the “why” questions. It’s part of being a Christian to give an account of the hope we have.

We should lament the suffering in our world. But we can simultaneously seek answers to why God doesn’t prevent suffering in the first place!

God’s Uncontrolling Love

The explanation I find most helpful to God’s relation to the pandemic says God is not in control. In fact, God can’t control. God is not to blame, because God is neither causing nor permitting the pandemic, as if God could stop it singlehandedly.

The pandemic solidifies in my mind our need to rethink God’s power in light of God’s love.

My reasoning rests on the logic of love. I think God loves everyone and everything. And God’s love is always uncontrolling. Consequently, God can’t control anyone or anything.

Not even God can stop the Coronavirus singlehandedly.

Instead of appeals to mystery or only lamenting the suffering we endure, Christians can say God suffers with us and cares for us. And God cannot singlehandedly prevent the Coronavirus as it wreaks havoc.

The God I am describing is not watching from a distance, eating popcorn. Instead, God actively fights against evil. But God needs cooperation from creatures and creation for love to win.

Not even God can stop the Coronavirus singlehandedly. Click To Tweet

God empowers and inspires us to love during this crisis. Our decisions matter as we care for the hurting, maintain spatial distance, share with the needy, and help in whatever way necessary. We cannot win without God’s empowering love. But God needs our cooperation to overcome this evil.

More Questions?

I realize saying, “God can’t singlehandedly stop the Coronavirus” will raise questions. Many readers will be unfamiliar with the uncontrolling love of God view I’ve mentioned. I explain these ideas in greater detail elsewhere. I encourage those with questions to dive deeper.

Let me conclude with a summary.

I agree with Tom Wright on some things. The usual answers for why God doesn’t stop the Coronavirus are silly. Christians ought to embrace lament as we suffer the effects of the virus. And God suffers with us.

But unlike Wright, I think we should seek explanations for what God’s will is and what God’s doing. We ought to ask what God’s power must be like in light of God’s love.

We should admit God cannot prevent evil singlehandedly. But God is working against the Coronavirus. And God calls you, me, and all creation to overcome evil with love.

God is working against the Coronavirus. And God calls you, me, and all creation to overcome evil with love. Click To Tweet
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Comments

John Culp

Tom,

I appreciate and agree with your call for explanation as well as lamentation. But, is it possible to give an explanation for why lament?

While lamenting may not be based on the impossibility of giving an explanation, an explanation of the value of lamenting is also needed. Explanation helps us know what to do. Poor explanations of corona virus certainly do seek to explain and help in knowing what to do even if what to do is to accept without question because God causes it.

Lamenting could simply be a way of accepting what cannot be changed. But why is that any better than denying the evil and moving on?

Or, lamenting might be a way of recognizing the evil and asking for God’s help in knowing how to respond to the evil. Thus, lamenting facilitates overcoming evil by acknowledging the presence of the evil, recognizing the depth of the evil and the impossibility of overcoming it on our own, and God’s desire to involve us in overcoming the evil even by encouraging us to lament.

Just to throw in some Process conceptuality, God responds to our lament by involving us in overcoming evil through presenting possibilities for action that we would not think of on our own.

John


jonathan foster

Thank you, and yes I think so. If we enter into lament honestly and with humility, I think there’s room to ask questions, seek answers, and develop healthier, more expansive theological viewpoints.


John Nielson

Tom, I agree that we need to be able to explain as well as lament, however, I do think that it is important to see that part of what N.T Wright is pointing to is that we have so often failed to provide a place to lament. Additionally, this faithful practice of lament is really what needs to come first. I would say that it is true that we can lament and explain, but it might be more accurate to say that we need to lament so that we can explain. If we have not taken the time to lament, to grieve, we will not be in a position for anyone to hear or receive that explanation. So, yes, we can do both, but I do not think that we do them at the same time. One proceeds the other.


thomasjayoord

I agree with you, John N. It’s both/and. And lament often comes first.


thomasjayoord

I agree, Jonathan!


thomasjayoord

Thanks, John C. Explaining the purpose of lament is part of the task, I think. And I think Tom Wright would agree with you (and me) that God responds by offering possibilities for action.


David C Edgren

A shot across NT Wright’s bow is just silly. Especially when you’re both using the same wind and heading to the same destination. He says lament and… you say …and help. Um… Yep.
Luckily Tom rarely acts like a warship. He’s more of a a tug boat. He helps people come around!
You used the NT Tugboat in a different way – to get a bigger audience. 🙂
Yeah, I see what you did there!
Although, I wonder at the benefit of firing on the tug boat…
Why not stick with “I like what NT says and I’d like to write the next chapter?”


Tim Wiggins

Tom,

For God to need our cooperation for his love to win, wouldn’t that inherently cause that love not to be God’s love? If God’s love requires our help to be successful it certainly cannot be a love of God. God did not need our help to forgive sins. God did not need our help to create the universe. God did not need our help to become incarnate. To place God in a position of needing help from his creatures is to make God dependent, wherein he is not really God.

God’s love does not require our cooperation to succeed. God’s love will bring to Himself whomever it pleases, as it always has.


thomasjayoord

Thanks for posting, Tim. We apparently don’t agree on this. I think God always acts and always loves, but the results God wants to see in the world require creaturely contribution. And even includes God’s creating occurs through noncontrolling love.

Tom


thomasjayoord

I’m sorry you see things this way, David. Tom W and I are friends. I sent him my essay, and he responded with a kind and mostly approving note.

I was trying to say in my essay that we can affirm lament and also seek explanations. I don’t think Tom W expressed this well in his essay. So I wanted people to know there is another way to think.

For what it’s worth, here’s Tom Wright’s email response not long after I posted my essay:

“Of course, the headline was written by some TIME Magazine staffer. It wouldn’t have been my choice. I was basically expounding Romans 8.26-27. If Paul didn’t expect Christians to know what to pray for when the whole world is in pain, I don’t think we should be too quick to rush in. Of course, I agree with most of what you then say. This is a tiring and challenging time. NTW”

Tom


garry vath

Why must pure love be uncontrolling? If we, as parents, control our children for their own safety, why would God’s love not be extended to us in the same way? Humans are weak and ignorant of much.. I, for one, find the idea of God’s loving “guidance” through some controls to be very acceptable.
Also, in watching one of your videos, you say that the miracles of Jesus were conditional upon the actions/beliefs of humans. That puts the onus back on us weak humans … not enough faith, not knowing we should “go to the river and wash our eyes” etc. In the end, God then is able to heal. To put the condition of our action into it, as if the prayers/actions of millions interceding for loved ones isn’t action enough, is equally not rational or acceptable.


Lon Marshall

Tom, this is what I like so much about your perspective. It makes sense and affirms the classical beliefs of Christianity. Thank you for articulating what I have had a hard time putting into words until I read your work.


thomasjayoord

You’re welcome, Lon. And thanks for your encouragement!


thomasjayoord

Garry – Excellent questions! I address each in my books, including God Can’t. But briefly here: the parenting examples build upon our using our bodies; but God is incorporeal. On the miracles, I address your good comments in chapter three of God Can’t. But here’s a little summary of the main ideas: http://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/archives/15-myths-realities-healing


Kate

An interesting read thank you. I will get your book and read it. My thoughts on your explanation of God’s non control of us and His actions being based on ours, is new to me. I am interested as to how that sits with biblical prophecy …. if He ordains that something will happen in scripture, then it must happen … as we know it has, or will. How does your posit on this sit with Revelation, where God has laid out the blueprint for our future? Thank you!


Holly

This pandemic is challenging Christian beliefs in America in so many ways.
Some of what I hear is so frighteningly uncharitable that it shakes the core of Christianity. I see faith being replaced with certainty and a certainty that is reserved only for Christians. I believe some long suspected this all along, and are not surprised by it. I can rely only on my faith and understanding that my love for God and my neighbor are inextricably bound. I am called to serve both, and I leave certainty for those who need it.


Max Johnson

Nicely said. Keep up the good work during these trying times.


howard wideman

thank for your theology with Jason last nite. I would to comment on Mark’s gospel where Jesus grills the disciples over location of the miraculous feedings and number of left overs. Willard Swartley says Jesus is feeding the 7 nations that Joshua thru Moses understood God ordering genocide. N.T. revelation of Jesus says we r to feed and love our enemies. Progressive understanding of God and the message for living in the realm of God


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Max!


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Howard!


thomasjayoord

I like the way you think, Holly!


Susanna

Hi Tom, how then should we pray in these troubled times, especially in view of the Covid19 pandemic?


Torben Ebbesen

I have read you book, “God Can’t”, and are intrigued by your arguments, that God only works with his love in the world in cooperation with humans. And I agree, that the corona pandemic has nothing to do with Gods will. It just happened and calls on us to lament, pray, help and encourage people that suffers during the sufferings. But how do you explain obvious historical facts from the bible, for instance where God asks Josua to kill all enemies, when entering Canaan. Or when God sent the plagues over Egypt with Moses as the messenger to Pharao? Isn’t that God acting – using evil as a mean to achieve his goals in Canaan? Or using natural disasters as a mean to convince Pharao to let Israel go?

Regards Torben Ebbesen, (Pastor in the Lutheran Church, Denmark).


thomasjayoord

Dear Torben,

Thanks for reading God Can’t, and thanks for these questions! I’ve just completed a followup book to God Can’t called, “Questions and Answers for God Can’t.” Look for it this summer.

Briefly here, I’ll say that I don’t think God ever does evil. But I do think God works with creation. Insofar as the events you describe are evil, I don’t think God wanted or did them. Insofar as they are good, I think God worked with creation. I specifically address the Pharoah incident and Canaan in my new book using these assumptions.

Thanks!


thomasjayoord

Great question, Susanna. I’ve been answering it on several podcasts recently. May I direct you to those instead of typing a long answer here? Sign up for my newsletter, and you’ll see links to those episodes.

Thanks for your good question!


David Petrak

Hi Tom,

What about passages like Psalm 88 where the psalmist confronts us with an unexplainable lament? Explanation can be conveyed through experience just as well, perhaps better for some, than in propositional forms. For example, when someone close to you passes away, can an explanation comfort them? What about praying with “wordless groans?” It seems God wants to draw us into His trinitarian life and the way He does so is through His Word (Jesus) but also His Spirit (i.e., propositional truth and experiential truth). Anyways, I purchased your book “The Uncontrolling Love of God,” to better understand your framework of thought. I wish to write a paper where I compare it to N.T. Wright’s, particularly as he presents it in his latest book “History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology.”

In Christ,
David


thomasjayoord

David,

Thanks for your good response and for getting the book. I affirm lament and the idea that words can’t capture our deepest truths fully. But I also think we need explanations that make sense. I hope you find the book helpful!

Tom


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