When you talk about the Gospels, you emphasize the example of Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus, weeping. What might you say to somebody who isn’t a Christian, who is wrestling with the problem of suffering, and who asks: “What good is a weeping God? I can weep. Anybody can weep. What we need is action; we need something done! How does Jesus weeping help?”
There’s plenty of action in the story, and the action grows out of the tears. As is often the case, in fact, tears in the Gospels sometimes are the crucial element. What they show is that the God who made the world, who became human as Jesus of Nazareth, is not sitting upstairs somewhere, looking down and saying, “Okay, I’ll sort out your mess.” Rather, he’s the God who comes and gets his hands dirty and gets his hands pierced in order to be where we are and to rescue us from there. It’s profoundly comforting to know that when I am grieving, as Paul says in Romans 8, Jesus is grieving with me, and the Holy Spirit is grieving within me. And this is one of the things that marks out the Christian faith as distinct from pretty well any other worldview that I know.
What does the rest of New Testament — and in particular the role of the Holy Spirit — have to teach us about our response to the pandemic?
Romans 8, which I just mentioned, is one of the greatest passages in the whole Bible. When I was working as a bishop, if I was interviewing people for parish jobs, I would sometimes ask: “What’s your desert-island Bible text?” And to make it harder, I would add, “You’ve already got John 20 and Romans 8, so don’t go there. Those are too obvious.”
Romans 8 is full of glory. It’s full of salvation. It’s full of the work of the Spirit. It’s easy to get carried away, however, and imagine that once we’re through the difficult parts of Romans 7, we’re just sailing on a high all the way to Paul’s affirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God (8:38–39). But you still have to go through the dark tunnel of Romans 8:18–30, especially verses 26 and 27, which speak of the Spirit interceding for us in our weakness.
When the world is in a mess, as it is in general but particularly at times like now, it would be very easy to imagine the church standing back and saying, “What a pity the world is in such a mess. But we at least know the answers.” But no, Paul says that when the world is groaning in labour pains, then even we ourselves — who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, the stirring of God’s new creation within us — are groaning as we wait for our adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23).
You might say, okay, so the church shares the mess that the world is in, but surely God knows what he’s doing. Well, in a sense, yes, God knows what God is doing. But here we strike the mystery of the triune God, because Paul says that at that very moment, the Spirit groans within us with inarticulate groanings.
Furthermore, alluding to Psalm 44, one of the great psalms of lament, Paul says that the God who searches the heart knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people according to God’s will (Rom. 8:27). In other words, God the Father knows the mind of the Spirit. But the mind of the Spirit is the mind that has no words to say for how terrible things are right now.
This is a very strange business. But what I think what it means is this: that in order to rescue the world, God comes in the person of his Son to take the weight of sin upon himself. And God comes in the person of the Spirit to be the one who groans in the church, at the place where the world is in pain. That is how God then moves by those labour pains from the present state of horror and shame in the world to salvation — the total new creation, which is what we’re promised.
The idea of the Spirit’s grieving and groaning takes me back to something you touched on earlier, namely lament. Throughout the book you say we need to “embrace lament.” Is this something we have forgotten a bit in the modern church? If so, how do we rediscover it?
Yes, I really think some of us have forgotten it. For those in a tradition where we use the Psalms all the time, it helps that we come through lament quite frequently. When I’m praying the Psalms, day by day, I will often hit one of the psalms of lament — and often this is what I need, because these bad things are going on in my life.
At other times I might come across psalms of lament when I am personally feeling quite cheerful. So then, as a spiritual exercise, I try to think my way into the situation of people that I know about around the world: either friends of mine or people I’ve seen on television or in the news who are in a terrible situation now —people in a horrible, squalid refugee camp, or whatever the case may be. And I pray the psalms of lament trying to embrace them in the love of God.
We need to remember that lament is not just for Lent. It’s also built into Advent, as we prepare for Christmas. Those are seasons we can use to develop liturgies of lament that bring the pain of the world into the presence of God, using psalms of lament —like Psalms 22, 42, and 88 — that prefigure what Jesus prayed on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Sometimes those prayers come out the other side into the light. And sometimes, like Psalm 88, they simply don’t. They stay in the dark. And there’s a sense that God is with us in that darkness.
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