Pastoral theology is tested in a time of crisis. War, famine, natural disasters, and plagues are winds that sift chaff from wheat, or purifying fires revealing so much dross mixed with the precious gold of the gospel.
What do you do when you can’t meet? When you can’t take the Lord’s Supper together as a body? When you want to counsel the sick and the needy, but you’re unable to reach them? How should Christians respond? With repentance, fasting, and prayer? Jeremiads of judgment? Long-winded theodicies?
N.T. Wright has weighed in with a widely-shared bit of pastoral counsel over at TIME. Against rationalists who want either easy explanation for everything (it’s God’s judgment, it’s a trial, it’s for the greater good), and Romanticists looking for a “sigh of relief”, he wisely reminds us that the Christian Scriptures offer the tradition of lament. In lament, Christians follow the Psalmist in crying out to God, giving full vent to our frustration, horror, and pain. We bring before him our confusion, our loneliness, our misery, our sins and our accusations We grieve before God’s face.
Of course, that raises the ultimate question: who is God in the middle of all this? What kind of God are we lamenting to?
According to Wright, the mystery of the Biblical story is that he is one who, “also laments.”
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.
And so, because God is a God who laments with us, we are invited to put down our easy explanations, lament, and embody the love of God.
Now, as with most of what Wright says, the issue comes not so much when we look at what he affirms, but what he seems to deny. Against the God who laments and cares, he poses the God of, “Some Christians” who “like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world.”
Two problems emerge.
First, and largest, is that this seems to be a description of the Biblical God. According to the Psalmist, God is above all that—unlike fickle, finite, pagan gods who are just like us, he sits enthroned in the heavens and does what he wants (Ps. 22:3; 115:3). God sees all and knows all—even the mischief of evildoers (Ps. 10:13-14). God is immovable, a Rock, a fortress, a deliverer and high tower (Ps. 18:2). It is to God the Rock that David calls out in distress and commits his spirit into his hands (Ps. 31:2-5, 15). It is to God the Rock is the one to whom David cries “why have you forgotten me?” (Ps. 42:9). God the almighty, who rules the raging seas, calming them with a word (Ps. 89:8-9). God the everlasting, God the one who brings our days to an end by his anger (Ps. 90:7-8), is the one who can “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love” (90:14). That is the God before whom Psalmists lament.
Second, that description fits the view of most Christians throughout church history. Reading those verses, they’ve affirmed God’s transcendence, his omniscience, his immutable sovereignty, and his impassibility. As the 39 Articles have it, he is “without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness,” since as “the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible” he is incapable of being overwhelmed or changed by them.
Furthermore, they affirmed all these things even while reading Biblical language about God repenting and lamenting. Knowing that immutability didn’t mean immobility and that a lack of passions did not mean a lack of concern, they saw these as expressions of God’s grace. As a humble and kind Lord, in order to convey his divine care, he takes up human language and conceptualities and accommodates himself to our capacity to understand even if they did not apply to him as proper expressions of his divine being.
Now, in the 20th Century it’s been common trade in something like this “classical” package for a more relational God, a fellow-sufferer who feels our pains by scrapping immutability, impassibility, and modifying our understanding of his sovereignty and wisdom. This is a special temptation for scholars with a bad case of biblical studies prejudice. This is bad, for many reasons.
Perhaps Wright isn’t trying to do something that drastic in a brief, TIME article even if it reads that way on the surface. Folks do get touchy with Wright, over-reacting and over-interpreting. What’s more, this could be an instance of his trademark “let me inadvertently caricature others while critiquing a caricature” move.
All the same, in reviewing the Biblical material, we see the problem with Wright’s intended corrective is that he ends up neglecting to set all the language of God’s passion in their broader theological and Biblical context. And for that reason, we lack the proper context for lament.
In the Psalms, we can bring our laments before the Lord precisely because he is “above all that.” When a child runs hurting to Dad, yes, there is something comforting about sympathy, about Dad saying, “Yes, there, there, I know it hurts. I understand.” But ultimately, you run to Dad because he is not overwhelmed just like you. Because he is a shelter. Because he can hold you when you cry. Because he’s strong enough to absorb the shaking and trembling without trembling himself. Because he can do something about it. And if he doesn’t yet, he’s big enough that you can trust him because he’s wiser than you.
In other words, yes, God grieves human sin and then he sends a flood and a man with boat. God is dismayed at Israel’s infidelity and so he exiles them and brings them home. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus and then he told him to get back up.
Indeed, that is the heart of the gospel—the God who cannot suffer and die in himself, the one who is high and exalted, humbles himself, becomes lowly, taking on human flesh so that he can suffer, die, and be raised again for our salvation. It is precisely because God is “above all that” in himself that he can enter in to do something about all that. It is only because God is blessed in himself—the sovereign fullness of life, peace, and joy—regardless of all the vicissitudes and pains of history, that he can communicate a blessedness that overcomes and restores that history.
It is not, then, God the grand co-commiserator who gives us the freedom to cry out, but God the Rock. This is the God we can trust with our pain, our confusion, and grief even when he gives no answers, precisely because he is big enough to be the only answer we need.