Amongst the ‘silly’ reactions he included arguing that the coronavirus was a sign or a punishment. He told us that rationalists look for an explanation; romantics look for relief; but that the biblical position is to lament. As with all N.T. Wright’s writings it is well written, thought provoking and stimulating.
He set me thinking about the knee jerk responses – including his own. There will be those like the worst of the American televangelists who seek to monetise every disaster by claiming that they have power over it (and please send them the money to use that power). The press can always find a pastor somewhere in the tens of thousands of churches who will solemnly pronounce that Covid-19 is because of abortion/same-sex marriage/Disney. The wackier you are, the more likely you are to get on the telly. Many evangelicals seek to avoid being cast in the same mould and inadvertently end up giving our own stock-in-trade knee jerk responses. These tend to fall into three groups.
Firstly, those who just reiterate what the government, good citizenship and common sense require. ‘Wash your hands, care for your neighbour, obey the government and be nice to everybody – and don’t forget to clap for the NHS (but don’t be political and say too much about the lack of proper protective clothing for front-line medical staff!).
Secondly, there are the apologists – ‘Where is God in all of this?’ Again there is nothing wrong in giving apologetic answers, but I wonder if it is a question of timing. Maybe there is a time to be silent. Or at least not to offer the stock-in-trade theodicies that one hears after every major disaster. Sometimes it is better to observe grief rather than explain the problem of pain. To be honest, when books are rushed out – even the most excellent with the most genuine of motives – it does look a little bit like war profiteering!
Thirdly, there is the knee jerk response that N.T. Wright exemplifies in his own article. Don’t blame God – we can’t have any of that judgement and signs stuff. Just lament and remember that God is with us in our pain – but He has nothing to do with it. Wright argues that it is the Christian vocation ‘not to be able to explain’, but to lament and then new acts of kindness, new hope will come. This is a hopeless and ultimately meaningless position for any Christian to hold.
Because there is an explanation – although we may see it only partially. And above all there is hope. And the hope is not just that God weeps with us until we get it right.
Wright talks about how in the story of Noah God was grieved that He had made humanity. But he misses out the fact that we are told that this is an explanation. An explanation as to why the earth was flooded. God was so grieved at humanity that He judged it by destroying people.
Does this mean that every natural disaster is to be seen as a judgement of God? Not at all. But does it mean what Wright seems to imply – that God stands helplessly by as His creation is destroyed by natural events?
When Jesus was asked about the 18 people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, did He say ‘I feel your pain – all we can do is lament’? No, He was emphatic, answering both those who believe only in an impotent weeping God and those who believe in a judgemental, unforgiving God. ‘I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’
In this recent Covid-19 crisis it has struck me how the knee jerk reactions of many Christian leaders have managed to leave out the whole question of repentance. It is clear that when the economies of the world can be stopped and the idols of our culture be torn down by a tiny virus, the response of humanity and our rulers should not be ‘we are great, we can fix this’, but rather humility and repentance. The response of our Christian leaders should be more in line with Christ – and with Solomon who prayed at the dedication of the temple:
When famine or plague comes to the land … whatever disaster or disease may come, and when a prayer or plea is made by anyone among your people Israel – being aware of the afflictions of their own hearts, and spreading out their hands towards this temple – then hear from heaven your dwelling place. Forgive and act (1 Kings 8:37).
Humility, repentance, prayer and compassion should be the responses of those who seek to follow Christ.
As C. S. Lewis famously pointed out: ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts to us in our pains.’
But it appears we still prefer to stick our mammon-fattened fingers into our cloth ears, denying even the possibility that God might be saying something to us. We prefer to be told there is no explanation and no hope (outwith ourselves), rather than admit we are helpless and cry out to the God who offers both help and hope (as well as explanation).
We do not need a knee jerk reaction seeking to justify the ways of God to men, but rather a knee fall reaction – kneeling in prayer and crying out the to Lord to save us in His mercy. And let it begin with us – the church and especially those of us who are church leaders. Of all people we are the ones who most need to repent.