An article has been circulating online this past week written by renowned biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, in response to the recent COVID-19 crisis that has suddenly taken the world by storm. True to character, the article is provacatively titled “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus.” In it, Wright invites his readers to rediscover the biblical tradition of lament, which can be found in places such as the Psalms and, most importantly, in the person of Jesus Christ himself.
The article came at a confusing time when many people needed it, and I didn’t think it fit to comment on it at that moment. But enough time has passed that I feel comfortable now in responding to (and critiqing) the article.
As something of a Wright afficionado myself, I feel confident in saying that, like many things that Wright writes (pun intended), there is both good and bad (never ugly, though, with Wright). What’s good and laudable is that Wright correctly contends that the Bible and the Christian faith do not offer “pat answers” or platitudes in response to the pain and suffering of this world. It acknowledges life’s complexity and does not gloss over it. Just look at the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Rather, it is OK to grieve and to mourn, as well as wrestle with the mystery of pain and suffering.
What’s not-so-good is the sweeping, generalized statements that Wright characteristically makes. Wright gives a lot of truth that is mixed in with the need for clarification and qualification.
“Simple Answers” Are Not the Same as “No Answers”
Take the title, for example. While it is true that Christianity does not offer simple answers or “pat answers” to the question of pain and suffering, it is not the same as saying that Christianity offers NO answers to the question of pain and suffering. A central part of the Bible’s narrative is in explaining why we live in such a broken, fallen world. While Buddhism seeks to address suffering as if to triage and attend to a mortal wound, Christianity treats suffering as a disease and condition: there must be a proper diagnosis in order for there to be a cure. In Christianity’s case, the diagnosis is a broken relationship with a perfect God who is good, and who has life in himself. The cure is found in Jesus Christ.
John Stott writes:
“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. …I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! …He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering.”“The Cross of Christ”, John Stott
In other words, Jesus is the answer.
That is the gospel, or “the good news”: that Christ took on the curse of sin and death himself for us, so that one day we may be free of it. That’s why we can say, along with Isaiah, that “he took on our pain and bore our suffering” on his shoulders (53:4). And yet, our hope is in the fact that he was victorious over death, and that we can say along with Job, “I know my redeemer lives” (19:25).
It’s true that Christianity does not give one-dimensional, simplistic answers. But to say that Christianity offers “no” answers does not instill people with the hope that they need.
The Doctrine of Impassibility
A second issue comes when Wright writes (ha) things like, “God was grieved to his heart…He was devastated…” [emphases added]. He contrasts this with “some Christians” that “like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world.” As Derek Rishmawy puts it, the problem is not necessarily with what Wright affirms, but what he *seems to deny.
The problem is that, taken altogether, these statements could be seen as contradicting the doctrine of “divine impassibility,” which states that, strictly speaking, God does not have “passions” like we do.
“Impassibility” does not mean that God has no emotional life whatsoever, but that his emotions (or “affections”) are not like ours. After all, we are made in God’s image, not the other way around. Whereas we can be overcome by our emotions, God cannot be. His emotions are perfect. He is never surprised or taken aback at humanity’s actions. When God is angry or wrathful, he is never out of control (he is always in control). Though God does grieve and is saddened by the world, he is never overwhelmed or despairing. God does not experience the same turmoil in his inner life that we do. This is because God transcends time and space. He is self-sufficient. He is complete in himself and does not need anything else. Far from making God distant and unapproachable, this profound truth is actually a source of solace and comfort for us, because it reminds us that God is our Rock and the mighty fortress to which we can run in times of trouble.
Derek Rishmawy, in response to Wright, puts it in a way much better than I can:
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.
The doctrine of impassibility has fallen on hard times in recent years, mostly because grassroots, pop-Christianity has a caricaturized understanding of it as making God to be a cold, distant, aloof Being, indifferent to the affairs of the world, like a robot or an automoton. But correctly understood, the doctrine of impassibility is one of the central foundations for our hope in Christ.
As postmoderns, this goes against our instincts because we often want to “anthropomorphize” God. As philosophers since Voltaire (at least) have suggested tongue-in-cheek: if God has made us in his image, then human beings have been trying to return the favor ever since. But God chides through the psalmist, “You thought I was just like you…” (Psalms 50:21). God is not like us. We are like God, albeit imperfectly and in a broken manner. We were created in God’s image, not the other way around. Any anthropomorphism is always, by definition, analogical. God’s “emotions” are not like our emotions. His affections and inner life comports with his perfections. The doctrine of impassibility tells us that God is dependable, that he is a constant, and that his affections are not those that ebb and flow like the fickle emotions of humanity. Impassibility forms the basis and foundation for God’s dependable love.
The fourth-century saint and early church father, John Chrysostom, understood the connection between God’s impassibility and his constant love for humanity: “For He does not simply watch over us…[but] he ardently loves us with an inexplicable love, with an impassible yet fervent, vigorous, genuine, indissoluble love, a love that is impossible to extinguish.”*
It is precisely because the impassible God united himself to humanity in Jesus Christ that he was able to conquer death by his undying, unfailing love.
“Rejoicing in Lament”
So what does this means for us, if we are to lament at the world’s condition during this time of COVID-19? As Derek Rishmawy (above) puts it, God’s impassibility enables us to lament properly–to lament while turning to him and giving everything up to him. Or, as St. Paul might put it, we do not grieve like those who do not have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13); and yet we do grieve. Wright was right in pointing us to the laments of the Psalms; and yet, without the doctrine of impassibility, biblical lament loses its backbone.
A better response to suffering and tragedy can be found in this profound article by theologian J. Todd Billings, who wrote the book “Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ.” Billings rediscovered the biblical tradition of lament while suffering from chronic, recurring cancer that requires a lifetime of continual chemotherapy and has effectively debilitated him for life.
And yet, he did this all the while also discovering the glorious truth of God’s impassibility. Billings writes, “As strange as it may sound, I found myself clinging to a different sense of God’s saving solidarity with us: the doctrine of divine impassibility. As I felt my life drained by the cancer, I took profound comfort in this doctrine that God’s power of life suffers no limits. “
I encourage you to read the entire article that Billings (and also Rishmawy) wrote. But in the meantime, I’ll go ahead and end on this quote by him:
The doctrine of divine impassibility is the belief that God has no “passions”—that is, no disordered affections that could make his love ebb and flow. He delights in the goodness of creation and in obedience, has compassion for the suffering and hears their cry, grieves over the creation’s self-destructive sin, and is angry at evil, injustice, and wickedness. But the Lord who freely enters into covenantal relationships with creatures is never blindsided or manipulated by them. Instead, God loves in fullness. In this way, the doctrine of impassibility holds together two truths at once: While it is true and right to say that God loves, delights, grieves, and is jealous, there is also a fundamental difference and distinction between God’s affections and our own creaturely ones. Unlike our own emotional lives, God’s affections are never distorted through sinful, disordered passions, nor are they controlled by greater powers.
…While our emotional responses are often manipulated by others, or caused by circumstances that make us act “not like ourselves,” God is never less than true to himself. Thus, the fundamental difference between God’s affections and our own is rooted in the reality that God is God and we are not….His response is not like a human expression of jealousy, because God is not wounded or at a loss. In his delight, grief, wrath, and jealousy, God acts in and is perfect, untainted love.”
…In the hospital, I didn’t need just solidarity in my suffering. I needed to know that God’s covenant love is so steady and powerful that, in Christ, suffering and death lose their dominion over my life.“Undying Love,” by J. Todd Billings