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N.T. Wright on the Christian Response When Bad Things Happen

In a recent interview, scholar and theologian N.T. Wright expounded on ideas from a TIME magazine article he wrote a few months ago that some people found controversial. While some have argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is a sign of God’s judgment, Wright believes Scripture shows that when bad things happen, we should lament, love our hurting neighbors, and not try to figure out why they are suffering. 

“If the church is looking over its shoulder to say, ‘We need to figure out why this happened,’ it may well be missing out the vocation of actually going to help right now,” said Wright. What’s more, “The danger with that is we almost want to play God.”

How Should Christian Respond When Bad Things Happen?

N.T. Wright wrote an article for TIME published on March 29 with the headline, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” According to this post from Lanier Theological Library, a sub-editor with the magazine, not Wright, wrote the headline. In an interview with Greg Musselman of Canadian television show 100 Huntley Street, Wright said, “The next thing I knew there was a sort of backlash on social media.” The piece caused quite a stir, with people accusing Wright of denying God’s sovereignty and claiming the scholar believes Christianity has nothing to say about suffering. 

Wright said he observed some people pointing to Old Testament books such as Amos and Deuteronomy to support their belief that when disasters occur, they are the result of God punishing sin. That got him thinking “about the way in which the different strands of the Old Testament jangle against each other, and they’re only resolved when you get to Jesus himself. So then it becomes part of the larger theological project to say, if you want to talk about God and what God is doing, please don’t dream of doing that until you’ve looked very carefully at God incarnate.”

The gospels, said Wright, are more than “pretty little stories about Jesus” that conclude with the good news that he died for our sins. “This is about how God takes charge of the world, and it’s not the way people normally imagine.”

The Bible shows us that most of the time, when bad things happen, we do not and cannot know why. This is true even in the Old Testament, as we see in the case of Job, a righteous man who suffered greatly. But later in Scripture, people still tend to believe that when people experience hardship, it is because they or someone else did something wrong. In John 9, Jesus’ disciples point out a man born blind and ask Jesus whose sin was responsible for the man’s condition. Jesus tells them the man’s blindness had nothing to do with sin, but “happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” 

If we consider the experience of the early church, we can see how futile it is to try to understand the causes of our suffering. For example, in Acts 12 King Herod kills James, but then Peter is miraculously released from prison. Why did God set Peter free, while allowing James to die? We do not know. Wright argues that the most appropriate response to this confusing set of circumstances begins with not attempting to find the answer to that question. Musselman agreed, saying his work with the persecuted church confirms this conclusion. He has heard stories of miraculous rescue, as well as stories of people dying tragically, and has had to come to terms with the fact it does no good to try to figure out why miracles happen in some cases but not in others.

Instead of seeking an answer why, when bad things happen, Wright recommends laying our painful situations before God and lamenting before him. Lament, said Wright, “is not a stoic resignation. It’s a committal to the God who we know to be the God of love, but whose ways remain mysterious.” Wright recommends praying psalms of lament, such as Psalm 22, Psalm 42, and Psalm 88.

We can take heart from the fact that Jesus himself wrestled with the pain of what God had called him to and also that as we groan in this broken world, the Holy Spirit groans with us, as Paul tells us in Romans 8. “In other words,” said Wright, “there is a time when even God the Holy Spirit doesn’t have words to say what one might want to say out of the pain and horror and shame of the world.” Remembering this will keep us from responding in a way that is hasty or careless when bad things happen. Said Wright, “It stops us thinking that because we’re Christians, we must have the answer, and we’ve got to have it by this evening or we’re not doing our job.”

Wright pointed out that even though early church believers suffered quite a lot, they did not try to figure out the theological reasons for their pain. To do so, in fact, would have been more in line with a pagan mindset. “They knew that the world was dark and mysterious,” he said, “but they felt welling up within them the love of God and the life of the Spirit and the presence of Jesus.”

Musselman observed that the early Christians were constantly putting their lives on the line for their faith and for their neighbors, and Wright agreed that this attitude is one we should emulate. It is a much better posture to help an elderly neighbor in need than to come up with a theory as to why God allowed that person and many others to suffer. 

“If the gospel is to make any headway through this [pandemic],” said Wright, “that’s one of the ways it’ll be done, through people seeing the church being the church.”