Saturday, September 13, 2008

N. T. Wright Is a Genius

For some reason, I regularly return to the theological question of the problem of suffering. I myself have led a largely suffering-free life, and I live in the suburbs, where the world's suffering is largely kept from view, only occasionally trotted out on the news as a reminder that we're better off never leaving--even for a little bit.

So you'd think that I, and with me all the millions of folks like me who suffer lightly, wouldn't waste a lot of mental energy worrying about such things. But I do, and many others do as well. And the bad news, I keep discovering and rediscovering, is that there's no answer immediately apparent that will fully satisfy our occasional bouts of curiosity, that will adequately answer the question "Why do people suffer?"

The problem then becomes to answer it for ourselves. And often such solutions do more harm than good. This morning I read from N. T. Wright's biblical commentary John for Everyone, specifically his engagement with the story of a man born blind, then healed by Jesus. This is two stories, to tell the truth: a story of Jesus doing something miraculous, to be sure, but also a story of all kinds of people proving their ignorance, their arrogance. I quote Wright at length:

If something in the world seems'unfair', but if you believe in a God who is both all-powerful, all-loving and all-fair, one way of getting around the problem is to say that it only seems 'unfair', but actually isn't. There was after all some secret sin being punished. This is a comfortable sort of thing to believe if you happen to be well-off, well fed and healthy in body and mind. (In other words, if nobody can accuse you of some secret previous sin.)

Jesus firmly resists any such analysis of how the world is ordered. The world is stranger than that, and darker than that, and the light of God's powerful, loving justice shines more brightly than that. . . .

Good things often happen as a result of good actions (kindness produces gratitude), and bad things often happen through bad actions (drunkenness causes car accidents). But this isn't inevitable. Kindness is sometimes scorned. Some drunkards always get away with it. . . .

At the start of the book of Genesis, God was faced with chaos. He didn't waste time describing the chaos, analysing it or discussing whose fault it was. Instead, he created light; and, following the light, a whole new world. . . .

New creation does happen. Healing does happen. Lives can be transformed. And the question then is the one they asked the man [born blind then healed by Jesus]: how did it happen? How does it happen?

The answer given throughout the gospel is, of course, 'through Jesus'.


That answer isn't really an answer, of course, for the formerly blind man or his skeptical audience or all of us who still occasionally can't sleep through the question of suffering. But it does turn the question on its head: Why do we want to know why? Why do we think we can figure out why? Will it ever be enough to simply trust God to take the chaos we're confronted with and make a transformed world out of it?

Looking back on that last paragraph, I recognize that even the attempt to agree with God by a well-intended, largely suffering-free suburban Christian such as myself comes off as trite, even insufferable. I think the best we can do in the face of suffering is to suffer alongside, to sit in silence with the suffering, and in the words of the patriarch Jacob, to wait for the Lord's deliverance.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

4 comments:

Matt said...

Excellent, Dave. Thank you for that.

heather said...

This is a little off subject, but I thought of it when you said something about our only contact with suffering the occasional news story (and it's something that's been on my mind a lot). I've been reading through a series of essays on beauty. One of them is about sentimentality (by Jeremy Begbie). He says that if sentimentality is indulging in emotions without doing anything about it (so what we normally think of as Precious Moments type emotions), then also included in sentimentality is to cry for the mother in Sudan who lost her family to war and not doing anything about it.
That hit me.
In other words, sentimentality is something emotional without transformation (which also brings it back to your point with N.T. Wright--and I agree, the man's a genius). And how we participate in God's transformational kingdom.

David A. Zimmerman said...

You're on a roll, Heather. Great article at Higher Calling, by the way. I'm wondering whether there's any space within Christianity for abstraction, given that we worship the Word Made Flesh, that we read from a Scripture that is living and active, that our many parts form one body. Hmmmmm.

Winn said...

I sure hope there is place for abstraction, or my whole life is in far more trouble than I already know it to be : )

This was beautiful, David. And yes, N.T. is most certainly a genius.